July 4th or July 14th? Today’s Upheaval Isn’t George Washington’s Revolution

America is experiencing a revolution. But it is a far different revolution than the one we celebrate every Fourth of July. In fact, it has much more in common with the French Revolution of 1789 than the Spirit of 1776.

The American Revolution is often called a lawyers’ revolution. This is based on the arguments employed as well as the conduct of the revolutionaries themselves.

The colonists in British North America disputed with Parliament about proper interpretation of the British constitution and the scope of their “rights as Englishmen.” At base, the Americans argued that the king was the chief executive of the Empire and that each colonial legislature was, in the words of John Adams, “the only supreme authorities in our colonies.” Hence, the British Parliament, where the Americans had no actual representation, could not make laws binding on the colonies. Great Britain waged war for the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and lost.

As for conduct, the American Revolution was, for the most part, bereft of the senseless violence and destruction of property that has characterized many modern revolutions. Yes, we had our Boston Tea Party and a few tax collectors for the Crown were tarred and feathered, but on the whole domestic order was maintained.

To appreciate the American Revolution, one need only contrast it with the French Revolution. Rather than constitutionalism, the heart of the French Revolution was found in untested theories of philosophes such as Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that men should rule themselves in one legislative corps inasmuch as civil society formed an artificial person with a “general will.” The general will, according to Rousseau, “considers only the common interest” and is always “good.” The state implementing the general will would exercise “universal compulsory force” to promote the good. Hence, a citizen who finds a law to be distasteful and oppressive has no real argument against the measure because the individual will can never challenge the wisdom of the general will.

The French radicals did not seek a reformation of the ancien regime, but its wholesale destruction and replacement. The debate was not merely about the power of the monarchy and privileges of French citizens, but how to create a new society from scratch. This process of creation ex nihilio was ugly.

The French revolutionaries created surveillance committees in all cities to monitor people for purity to revolutionary principles. They established a special criminal court known as the “revolutionary tribunal” for the trial of political offenders, i.e., those who disagreed with the course the revolution was taking. Over 40,000 people were executed at the guillotine for being “enemies of the revolution.”

De-Christianization was pursued with cathedrals turned into “temples of reason.” Public worship was forbidden and symbols of Christianity were removed from sight and often destroyed. Clergy who attempted to minister to the people faced arrest and deportation.

Today, a Rousseauian general will is sweeping through the streets of America. Those who do not do obeisance to Black Lives Matter or Antifa are considered collaborators with white supremacy or institutional racism. For example, Grant Napear, who was the TV voice of the Sacramento Kings for over 30 years, was fired because he declared that “All Lives Matter, Every Single One!” Stan Wischnowski , Executive Editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran a headline “Buildings Matter, Too” for a column from an architecture critic who lamented the wanton destruction of property by rioters allegedly protesting the death of George Floyd. Wischnowski was forced to apologize and step down from his position for being insensitive to the values of the revolution.

In Seattle, protesters occupied six city blocks and created the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (“CHAZ”) where the police could not venture to enforce the laws of society. Police response times to 911 calls in the surrounding areas tripled because of a loss of a precinct building to protesters. Businesses near the zone face many troubles. A Trader Joe’s grocery store in Capitol Hill, for example, announced it was closing because of “safety and security concerns.” Multiple shootings in CHAZ eventually caused Seattle officials to dismantle the autonomous zone.

Across the country revolutionaries have removed or vandalized statues of historical figures who do not share 21st century views on race and other issues. The victims include George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant, and Andrew Jackson.

France celebrates the French Revolution on July 14th, the day the mob rushed a fortress known as the Bastille, seized weapons, and beheaded the fortresses’ governor and his officers. While Americans will gather on July 4th for cookouts and fireworks, the spirit of the age is lurching decidedly toward July 14th. That is not a good sign for the future of our country.

William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books, Crossroads for Liberty, Reclaiming the American Revolution, and Patent Trolls.
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