Tocqueville, Washington, and the Moderation of the American Revolution

We often hear of the modest, orderly American Revolution vis-à-vis the French. The American one was a “revolution of sober expectations,” Martin Diamond said.  To make his case, Diamond cited Tocqueville, who explained that the “Revolution in the United States was produced by a mature and thoughtful taste for liberty, and not by a vague and undefined instinct for independence. It was not based upon passions for disorder; on the contrary, it proceeded with love of order and of legality” (I.1.5).
Even a basic acquaintance with the most elementary facts of the American Revolution in contrast to the French testifies to the truth of Tocqueville’s assessment.

Whence came that “love of order and of legality” that characterized the Spirit of ’76? One with a passing familiarity with Tocqueville’s political thought might imagine that he would suggest that it emerged solely from the mores of the American people – their religious spirit or their habits of local self-government perhaps. But he gave credit not primarily to the American people but to the revolution’s leading men, whose moderating statesmanship steered Americans’ revolutionary fervor along a more noble path than it could have gone had their guidance been absent.

Tocqueville’s references to the American Revolution in Volume 1 of Democracy in America are striking for how he seemed to go out of his way to downplay the achievements of the American people. Their efforts to free themselves from the English have been “much exaggerated,” he claimed. Their success in the American Revolution had more to do with the defensive advantage of the Atlantic Ocean than with the “merit” of American armies or with the “patriotism of their citizens” (I.1.8).  

Besides unimpressed, Tocqueville seemed hesitant to speak well of the war with England. His framing of the conflict seemed to suggest that the American Revolution was, in fact, a revolution, not merely some sort of conservative gentleman’s war to preserve English civil liberties. It was a time in which “the whole of society was shaken,” and in contrast to his earlier claim that the American Revolution was “produced by a mature and thoughtful taste for liberty, and not by a vague and undefined instinct for independence,” he later observed that “democratic instincts awoke,” and by “breaking the yoke of the home country, the people acquired a taste for all kinds of independence.” He even dared to use the word “insurrection” to describe the conflict (I.1.3).

Regardless of Tocqueville’s personal feelings toward the American Revolution, what he chose to emphasize as its source of greatness was not the American people in general but the leading Americans who emerged in that struggle, a small group of men whose genius and prudence moderated the democratic excesses that could have shipwrecked the American effort to secure liberty and self-government. In his discussion of the majority tyranny threatening Jacksonian America, he lamented that “the small number of outstanding men who appear today on the political stage must be attributed, above all, to the…despotism of the majority in the United States.”  By contrast, with the commencement of the American Revolution, “outstanding men appeared in large number,” and they “had a grandeur of their own; they shed their brilliance on the nation” (I.2.7).

It was Washington who played a leading role in moderating the democratic passion to which a people are sometimes given. There are many ways in which Washington’s greatness steered the American Revolution through on a narrow republican pathway between two ever-present dangers of the conflict – monarchy rule and military weakness. Perhaps the most conspicuous was his defusing the crisis at Newburgh.  Jefferson wrote in 1784 that “the moderation and virtue of a single character…probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”

Instead of the American Revolution, Tocqueville was most impressed by the achievement of the U.S. Constitution, which was made possible, yes, by the self-governing mores of the American people, but which could not have occurred without the statesmanship of its leading men. What was truly “new in the history of societies,” Tocqueville said, “is to see a great people, warned by its legislators that the gears of government are grinding to a halt, turn its attention to itself,…keep self-control for two whole years, in order to take time to find the remedy; and when this remedy is indicated, voluntarily submit to it…” (I.1.8).  

Later, when “the political passions that had given birth to the revolution” were “partially calmed,” all the “great men that it had created still lived,” those same great men sat in the Constitutional Convention, a group whose ranks included, Tocqueville said, the “best minds and the most noble characters that had ever appeared in the New World.”  He added, “George Washington presided over it” (I.1.8). Washington would again offer such a moderating influence during his time as President, when the French Revolution stirred the “sympathies of the people in favor of France…with such violence…that nothing less was required to prevent a declaration of war against England than the unyielding character of Washington,” who preserved America from the deluge of blood rising in Europe (I.2.6).

In a time of polarized politics and heated passion, in a time when some speak recklessly of “regime change,” in a time when some call for an American Caesar or Franco, it would be well for our statesman, and for all of us, to remember that it was the moderation and moderating influence of America’s leading figures that allowed the American Revolution terminate not in Napoleonic tyranny but in law and liberty. We need moderate statesman, and we need to remember that the scarcity of such statesmen who can moderate the excesses to which people are prone in revolutionary epochs means that discussion of revolution or regime change should be carried on only with the greatest caution, for revolutions typically terminate in something other than that for which they commenced.