From 1775 through 1949, four revolutions remade the modern world. How is the American Revolution different from that of the French, Chinese and Russian Revolutions? Download and find out.
"Terror is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country."
- Maximilien Robespierre. Leader of the French Revolution and Mass Murderer, mostly French people
“A revolution is not a dinner party or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
- Mao Zedong, Former Leader of China and Mass Murderer of 40 million people, primarily Chinese
“America is like a healthy body and its resistance is threefold: its patriotism, morality, and spiritual life. If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within.”
- Joseph Stalin – Former Soviet Union Leader and Mass Murderer of 30 million people, most within the borders of the Soviet Union
“I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”
- George Washington, leader of the American Revolution, 1st president, upon his relinquishment of power in 1796.
“You say you want a revolution, Well, you know, We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution, Well, you know, We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction, Don't you know that you can count me out (in).”
- John Lennon and Paul McCartney
The writer and man of letters, Christopher Hitchens, stated that the American Revolution was the “only revolution that still resonates.” As much as Hitchens was in many ways a towering figure in a political commentary, I would disagree. Well, at least in concept. The Russian Revolution begat Lenin, Stalin, and in a way, Putin. The Chinese Revolution begat Mao and indirectly President Xi Xingping. And the French? There are no would-be Napoleons today, and France has ceased to threaten European peace since the Franco-Prussian war. But the specter of Rousseau and his primary adherent, Robespierre, still fuels the fires of Socialism in today’s Sanders, Warren, Ocasio Cortez, and, perhaps, even Joe Biden.
But these are all indirect results. The Russians had a chance for democracy but, after the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, turned to the type of traditional authoritarianism that was not dissimilar to the Tsarist regime, especially that of Alexander III, and most definitely the kind of strong man rule exemplified by Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev.
Part of Xi’s success certainly comes down to his ruthless purges of internal foes, but a hint of nationalism in his regime resonates with not a few Chinese. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2020, written by Chao Deng and Liza Lin, “Mr. Xi, China’s strongest leader in decades, is one of its most nationalistic. Vowing to achieve a “China Dream” of national rejuvenation, he has appealed to patriotic pride in all aspects of life to bolster support for the Party as it confronts slowing economic growth and widening conflict with the U.S. This is the China Mr. Xi is building: a new type of great power that combines autocratic government and high-tech social control with a pervasive hyper-nationalism to drown out dissent.” The original Chinese Revolution of 1911 did not create the liberal democracy Americans, and Western Europeans enjoy. Instead, it was set aside in 1949 for something horrific, whatever its goals.
In a piece by Myron Magnet in City Journal, the author noted, “The French Revolution, by contrast, illuminated by America’s example and Enlightenment thought, began in blissful optimism but collapsed into a blood-soaked tyranny much worse than the monarchy it deposed. It spawned a military dictatorship that convulsed Europe and roiled half the globe for over a decade with wars of grandiose imperial aggression that slew at least 3 million. And the result of 25 years of turmoil? Minus the Enlightenment of its earlier incarnation, the Bourbon monarchy settled comfortably back down on its throne.
The Russian Revolution switched one despotism for another, and a century later, after the millions of deaths from its purges, slave camps, and intentionally inflicted famines, Russia remains a despotism, without rights or justice. We all get only one life: imagine someone born under the billowing flags of the new Soviet Union in 1917, who had to live that whole single life without the freedom so much as to speak the truth of the squalid, oppressive reality he saw in front of his own eyes. One single life—and what you can make of the one you have depended so much on what others have done to mold the time and place in which you live.”
At this point, let me take a brief historical clarification. The association of figures such as Robespierre with the French, Lenin with the Russian, and George Washington with the American revolutions is different from Mao’s relationship with the Chinese. The first three were acknowledged leaders of their respective Revolutions (or at least the October version of the Russian in 1917), but I am designating two Revolutions with China. The first occurred in 1911 with the overthrow of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing. In that case, Mao, though a soldier in the revolutionary army, was a minor figure.
But in what historians term the Chinese Civil War, which was fought from 1940 to 1949, I would posit that the overthrow and exile of the nationalist Chinese constituted a revolution in and of itself with the establishment of the Communist regime, led by Mao, in 1949 (this period of Chinese history, with the Japanese invasion a critical factor in the weakening of Chaing, could fill up several podcasts, but I digress).
So of these three revolutions and hundreds of further upheavals ranging from the South American variety in the early 19th century to Europe in 1848 and African and Asian countries in the late 20th century, why does the American Revolution stand out. And by stand out, exceptional economic success and liberal values including freedoms enjoyed in this nation unheard of with the previous revolutions in France, China, and Russia. To clarify the term success, the American nation has been number in economic output since the 1860s, was instrumental to the winning side in two world wars, and won the Cold War. On the domestic front, The United States performs very well in many measures of well-being relative to most other countries in the Better Life Index. The United States ranks at the top in housing. And ranks above the average in income and wealth, health status, jobs and earnings, education and skills, personal security, subjective well-being, environmental quality, social connections, and civic engagement. An argument could be provided that other nations, such as the Netherlands or Monaco, enjoy a higher quality of life surveys. But if not for the United States, countries such as Denmark or the Netherlands might be under the conquest of a larger power. It was the American-led NATO that enabled those lifestyles.
On the counter to that, between the Cossack and Ukrainian massacres and Stalin-led purges, the Soviets murdered over 30 million from the 1920s through the 30s. The Chinese have had it even worse. Mao’s Great Leap Forward led to the death of 40 million Chinese in the late 1950s. And ask the people of Hong Kong or the Uighurs in Northwest China how they feel about Mao and Xi today.
One theory on American differentiation proposed by John C Miller of Stanford University, “It occurred in the empire distinguished above all others in the eighteenth century by the large measure of political, religious, and economic freedom it allowed its colonies overseas" Thus, Americans, unlike other revolutionary people, had already experienced some forms of freedom.” As well shall see, this is a critical aspect of differentiation. Between the Tsars and COmmisars, authoritarianism was the norm of the Russian people. The Chinese understood imperial rule by living under imperial dynasties, including the foreign Qings. But much of this conditioning goes against the nature of a desire for freedom.
Whether it be the Spartacus revolt in Republic era Rome, the Jewish revolts of the 70s C.E., or the disintegration of Aztec and Incan hegemony over conquered peoples, the desire for liberty is a natural inclination. The nature of the government and its leaders can often make a difference.
This brings us to the great person thesis, and in this, the character of a single individual George Washington stands out. In a piece written in 2019, George Will cites historian Rick Atkinson who wrote The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, “One lesson of “The British Are Coming” is the history-shaping power of individuals exercising their agency together: the volition of those who shouldered muskets in opposition to an empire. Another lesson is that the democratic, sentimental idea that cobblers and seamstresses are as much history-makers as generals and politicians is false. A few individuals matter much more than most. Atkinson is clear: No George Washington, no United States.”
I would agree that Washington’s role cannot be understated. His pose as a reluctant patriot was a little forced. In the mini-series John Adams, Benjamin Franklin wryly notes that Washington, and Washington alone, showed up at the Continental Congress wearing a military uniform. But this is not to belittle what Washington was actually doing. He was a very wealthy landowner (through an opportune marriage to Martha Custis) and a competent business person, nearly alone among his Virginian planter contemporaries.
In contrast to the Russian and Chinese, the American Revolution was not perpetuated by exiles and desperate men but rather by existing leaders within the system. The American Revolution was more the barons in 1215 demanding Magna Carta rather than the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. And by signing the Constitution, all of the founders, from Adams, to Franklin, another successful business person, to Jefferson and Washington, were essentially signing their death warrants, were they to be captured by the British. And no American founder spent as much time in proximity to the British military as did George Washington.
About ten years ago, I toured Mount Vernon. I have also toured Montpelier and Monticello, the slave-run plantations of Madison and Jefferson, respectively. Two things stood out. The first was the view from Mount Vernon of the Potomac. Of all these plantations, I would designate Mt Vernon as the most beautiful. The second was the focus on enterprise. Washington had lumber yards and mills, whisky production in addition to the core planting.
All of this is to say that as much as Washington wished to be a part, actually lead the Revolution; he had an incredible amount to lose. He may not have represented the Roman ideal of Cincinnatiticus and his plow, a story Washington knew, but he neither possessed the raw thirst for power nor the desperation fueling that desire than other revolutionary leaders.
Lenin spent time in Tsarist prisons and was in exile when the Russian Revolution broke out. Mao was born to a wealthy but by no means large landowner. Initially, Mao’s father had been an impoverished peasant. During the initial Chinese Revolution of 1911, the Xinhai Revolution, Mao was a soldier in the Revolutionary army. In 1935, Mao’s total followers numbered less than 10,000, and it appeared that this great rival, nationalist Chaing Kai Shek, had won. Robespierre was a lawyer and prominent politician, but again, they could not claim the prominence of Washington in America.
But what created Washington? There were other leaders of these Revolutions. Mao had Zhou Enlai, Lenin had Trotsky, and of course, Stalin. Robespierre was not even the initial leader with others, most notably Danton, later murdered by Robespierre at its forefront in the early days. Where the Russian and Chinese revolutions were different was the clear leader. By the end of the 1930s, Mao was the undisputed leader of the Communist Party in China.
Lenin was never seriously challenged during his time as Soviet Leader. Though Washington was the paramount figure of the American Revolution, he was never its only leader, which is why we speak of the Founders very much in the plural. Jefferson wrote the defining document of American Independence with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin. John Adams was tireless in the advocacy of the Revolution. And when many of the decisive battles of this period are recounted, such as Saratoga, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse, Washington was not even present. And the Constitution, the powerful post document of Independence, was conceived by James Madison and successfully enacted with the help of Alexander Hamilton. Washington was the paramount leader but not the only one.
Then we get to the learnings; the primary intellectual drivers of the American Revolution were enlightenment philosophers, including John Locke and Charles Montesquieu.
“The great question which, in all ages, has disturbed mankind, and brought on them the greatest part of their mischiefs ... has been, not whether be power in the world, nor whence it came, but who should have it.”
― John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
The enlightenment philosophers and the manifestation of their beliefs in the American Revolution was a fundamental distrust of government and the use of the concept of religious morality in its place. In both cases, the decisions necessary from the pursuit of happiness, and the curbing of desires to act with malevolence against their fellow man, emanated not from the state but the individual.
In Locke's landmark, Two Treatises of Government put forth his revolutionary ideas concerning the natural rights of man and the social contract. Both concepts stirred waves in England and impacted the intellectual underpinnings that formed the later American and French revolutions. Locke said that these fundamental natural rights are "life, liberty, and property." Locke believed that the most basic human law of nature is the preservation of humanity. To serve that purpose, he reasoned, individuals have both a right and a duty to preserve their own lives. If these seem familiar, they are direct ancestors of Jefferson’s writing in the Declaration of Independence. The second of Locke’s beliefs was the social contract. This theory says: the government was created through the consent of the people to be ruled by the majority, “(unless they explicitly agree on some number greater than the majority),”
“So that, in effect, religion, which should most distinguish us from beasts, and ought most peculiarly to elevate us, as rational creatures, above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational, and more senseless than beasts themselves.”
― John Locke
Contrast this with Jean Jacques Rosseau, the father of communist thinking. “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”
And then there is Marx and Engels, the progenitors of Socialism and communism. As George F Will notes, “Socialism is the Big Lie of the Twentieth century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only because everyone was equal in their misery. In the same way that a Ponzi scheme or chain letter initially succeeds but eventually collapses, Socialism may show early signs of success. But any accomplishments quickly fade as the fundamental deficiencies of central planning emerge. An initial illusion of success gives government intervention its pernicious, seductive appeal. In the long run, Socialism has always proven to be a formula for tyranny and misery.”
And note the inclusion of religion in the American Revolution, not as a determined practice by the government as was seen in Europe, the 1st Amendment forbids explicitly, but rather to impart a sense of morality as practiced on an individual basis. To declare freedom of religion certainly means that a person could practice none, but the founder's intent was that religion exists, just in the ways the individual desired. Contrast this with Marx’s definition. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
People will seek spirituality in a vacuum. Communist states imposed this, similar to the Romans, by deifying their leaders. Is Mao’s little red book, or the procession past Lenin’s corpse in Moscow, any less religious than listening to a priest sermonize on Sunday? Is not Wokeism a religion? Michael Vlahos, writing for the Center for the Study of Statesmanship, notes, “What does it mean to be woke? First and foremost, “woke” is a religious signal that you have heard the Good News and Seen the Light. Awakening means both are witnessing revealed truth and experiencing spiritual transformation. Today this has taken the form of a collective enunciation: A new national church, reformed and transformed, to replace the original American sect, which is wicked and corrupted. In simple, practical terms, the Church of Woke is pledged to the destruction of Racism, Patriarchy, and Heteronormativity. The original national religion—often called American Exceptionalism—and the Church of Woke are locked in a victory-or-death struggle.”
The difference is that where Catholicism or Methodism are prevented from coercion by the 1st Amendment, Wokesim is meant to be deployed by a host institution and by the government itself. When Chief of Staff Mark Milley extolls its virtues to the 4 million soldiers under his command, it is less freedom of choice and more do it or else. It was the same among the French, Chines, and Russian Revolutions pseudo religions. The replacement of typically organized religions with state-sanctioned versions. After all, Robespierre and Lenin both understand that a belief can be a formidable opponent for power, so best to eliminate and substitute where ever one can. This could be the trend in the U.S. as the organized religion loses adherents.
Much is made of the slave ownership of figures such as Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and James Monroe. What is lacking in these critiques is historical context. As noted in many other podcasts, progressive historians contrive to impose president day values on historical times. In the 18th century, slavery was the norm in places ranging from India, the Ottoman Empire to China, the East and West Indies, and America. What the Revolution wrought was not hypocrisy but rather a vision or ideal that represented a break with the previous 4,000 years of history in which nearly every society contained featured slavery as a societal norm. It was not that Jefferson owned slaves; he put forth the concept, originated from Locke, of a world without it.
Another unique concept of the American Revolution is that given the newness of the nation, it was divorced from the overweening nationalism prevalent in the other three. As Montesquieu notes, “If I knew of something that could serve my nation but would ruin another, I would not propose it to my prince, for I am first a man and only then a Frenchman...because I am necessarily a man, and only accidentally am I, French.”
This is not to say that the founders did not love their nation, nor should we forbear that sentiment, but rather that the idea of the American ideal comes first. It is missing from the nationalist sentiments we see in many political corners today. It is more important to love the ideals that makeup America, such as individual liberty, free enterprise, and moral decency, than to love our nation where these ideals are lacking blindly.