Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Debating Revolution

As I am delving deeper into the Adams-Jefferson controversy that surrounded the French Revolution, it seems to me that the dispute came down to this, Adams perhaps overstated his case when he argued that an either aristocratic or moneyed class would always be influential in society.

In overstating his case, his opponents were able to present him as a defender of English Constitution. In France, this was important as the Revolution approached, because the Revolutionaries, to give themselves a reason to revolt, had to distance themselves from the English model.

Neither Adams nor Jefferson opposed the idea of revolution. They were in agreement as to the kind of society they wanted to see emerge. They disagreed, in the end, over how to bring about the transition.

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Blogger Tortoise(notHare) said...

Your analysis and insights are excellent.
Permit me to offer a few thoughts that might amplify what you are saying.
It might be that Adams had a stronger sense of affinity with England than Jefferson did. Jefferson clearly saw himself as a Virginian whereas Adams clearly saw himself as an American (but, hence, a child of England). Easily one-third (or more) of the Colonists were Tory or had strong leanings toward England. I think of the first Continental flag with 13 stripes but also the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew in the upper left, which showed the lineage to England (this was replaced by the "Betsy Ross" flag with which we are familiar in 1777). John Adams was vastly proud of drafting the Massachusetts Constitution, but that originally restricted the vote only to land-owners (so the people who participated in Shay's Rebellion were primarily protesting taxes and economic conditions but also that they were Revolutionary War Veterans who were not allowed to vote because they were not property owners).
John Adams clearly, clearly was one of the first members of the Continental Congress to recognize that revolution was inevitable and, so, he pushed that course of action (rather than the forelorn hope of reconciliation pursued by John Jay of NY and, famously, John Dickenson of PA). But I gather that he was quite realistic in knowing all that was involved (he served initially as the de facto Secretary of War for the Congress until he was posted overseas as an Ambassador). Jefferson reminds me of the "revolutionaries" of the 1960s who were quick to spout rhetoric but not so good at the practical details of achieving their goals.
Lastly, and this is a wild theory for which I have no support, I wonder if Adams also felt a sense of loyalty to the French monarchy? After all, one of the ironies of it all is that Louis and Marie might not have lost their heads if they refused to help the Colonists and, thereafter, England crushed the revolt. All of the military and economic support that they provided truly was the difference in winning or losing the war. Therefore it has always struck me that Jefferson (Tom Paine etc.) were horribly ungrateful in first accepting every bit of support from the French Monarchy when it was needed but then turning their backs on those same people and, instead, supporting those who would topple the monarchy.
My gut instinct is that John Adams might have comprehended the terrible hypocracy of "what have you done for me lately" and, therefore, not wished to lift a finger contrary to the French King (even though he deeply believed that a Republic of checks and balances was the best form of government). As I said, that is 20/20 hindsight speculation on my part, but it was fun to toss out my little theory anyway.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Joe Philipowicz said...

Your comments are always very insightful, and they are helping me greatly in advancing my thinking on Jefferson and Adams. I do appreciate them. Your past few comments have had some great nuggets in them.

8:56 PM  

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