July 4, 2016


A Revolution Not Made But Prevented (Russell Kirk, Imaginative Conservative)

The most learned editor of Burke's works, E.J. Payne, summarizes Burke's account of the events of 1688-89 as "a revolution not made but prevented." Let us see how that theory may be applicable to North American events nine decades later.

We need first to examine definitions of that ambiguous word "revolution." The signification of the word was altered greatly by the catastrophic events of the French Revolution, commencing only two years after the Constitutional Convention of the United States. Before the French explosion of 1789-99, "revolution" commonly was employed to describe a round of periodic or recurrent changes or events--that is, the process of coming full cycle; or the act of rolling back or moving back, a return to a point previously occupied.

Not until the French radicals utterly overturned the old political and social order in their country did the word "revolution" acquire its present general meaning of a truly radical change in social and governmental institutions, a tremendous convulsion in society, producing huge alterations that might never be undone. Thus, when the eighteenth-century Whigs praised the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which established their party's domination, they did not mean that William and Mary, the Act of Settlement, and the Declaration of Rights had produced a radically new English political and social order. On the contrary, they argued that the English Revolution had restored tried and true constitutional practices, preservative of immemorial ways. It was James II, they contended, who had been perverting the English constitution; his overthrow had been a return, a rolling-back, to old constitutional order; the Revolution of 1688, in short, had been a healthy reaction, not a bold innovation.

The Whigs, Burke among them, here were employing that word "revolution" in its older sense. This shift in usage tends to confuse discussion today. If we employ the word "revolution" in its common signification near the end of the twentieth century, what occurred in 1688-89 was no true revolution. In the Whig interpretation of history, at least, the overturn of James II was a revolution not made, but prevented (according to the later definition of "revolution").

But what of the events in North America from 1775 to 1781? Was the War of Independence no revolution?

That war, with the events immediately preceding and following it, constituted a series of movements which produced separation from Britain and the establishment of a different political order in most of British North America. Yet the Republic of the United States was an order new only in some aspects, founded upon a century and a half of colonial experience and upon institutions, customs, and beliefs mainly of British origin. The American Revolution did not result promptly in the creation of a new social order, nor did the leaders in that series of movements intend that the new nation should break with the conventions, the moral convictions, and the major institutions (except monarchy) out of which America had arisen.

Of course, we made the institution of the presidency more powerful than the monarchy and we, unfortunately, lack that final depoliticized check on government that one can provide.
Posted by at July 4, 2016 7:21 PM