Diluting the King

The Mainstream Media, then and now, obfuscate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s true message and his complete legacy. In America, we have an ingrained habit of grinding down the sharp edges of our history, making it far more palatable and “mainstream.” Thus, the Founding Fathers have been recast from Revolutionaries to, somehow, conservatives, in spite of their actual radicalism in overthrowing the fundamental basis of government (the Divine Right of Kings) for the preceding 1,000 years. The Civil War was for decades, and to a lesser extent even today, stripped of any racial context, to the extent that many still claim that the war had “nothing to do with slavery,” which is akin to saying WWII had nothing to do with fascism. So it is with MLK, Jr. Now that he has been brought into the “mainstream” with a National Holiday, his radicalism and his message of economic freedom is muffled by the same media that taunted and ignored him while he lived.

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Published in: on April 7, 2008 at 5:08 am  Comments (13)  

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  1. If your sole criterion for their radicalism is that the Founding Fathers rejected the Divine Right of Kings, then I would agree. However, the word “radical” as it applies to politics tends to be considerably broader and includes support for “fundamental, drastic, revolutionary changes in society, literally meaning “changes at the roots” ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_radicalism).

    By this definition, the French Revolution and the Communist revolutions of the 20th century were far more radical than the American Revolution. None of the Founding Fathers I’ve read of wanted to remake American society in any fundamental way; their concern was purely political (i.e. to assert their “rights as Englishmen”), not to radically reform the social, cultural or religious fabric of the country.

    Some like Jefferson were certainly more radical in their thinking than fellow revolutionary leaders like Adams, Hamilton or Washington. Whether or not the latter three and others like them deserve to be called “conservative” is another matter. Compared to the Jeffersons and the Paines of the day they were pretty conservative, but I’m not sure they would have applied that label to themselves. I’m not even sure that Edmund Burke, who many call the “grandfather of modern conservatism,” would have called himself a conservative. That’s more of a modern label we use, and like the word “liberal” it can be very imprecise.

    Also, don’t take my quibbling over the word “radical” to mean that I think the American Revolution was unimportant. It was an epochal turning point in history that can never be understated, and that still reverberates today. For me, “radical” usually implies sweeping changes beyond just the political sphere, and has almost always entailed massive social upheaval.

    Actually, I suppose one could make the argument that the American Revolution was radical more in its long-term effects over a greater period of time than in the short term. I could buy that. But I still think there are a number of Founding Fathers who would not have been comfortable with the label “radical,” and had no immediate intention of fundamentally reshaping society as a whole.

  2. ‘None of the Founding Fathers I’ve read of wanted to remake American society in any fundamental way; their concern was purely political (i.e. to assert their “rights as Englishmen”), not to radically reform the social, cultural or religious fabric of the country.’

    I could not disagree more and I refer you to Gordon Wood’s “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” on the topic. The Founding Fathers, ESPECIALLY Jefferson, explictly set out to remake the social, cultural AND religious fabric of America. And in large part, they suceeded. They created a new country that was a complete break from nearly all the basic societal foundations of Western Civilization. To me, that is pretty damned revolutionary.

  3. And I would refer you to every major biography of Washington, Adams and Hamilton ever written, among others. McCullough’s “John Adams” is a good start. Any historian who suggests that all of the Founding Fathers shared some common vision that encompassed sweeping radical social, cultural and religious change is deluded. There were lots of philosophical differences among the Founders. A few like Jefferson did feel as Wood suggests, but by no means all of them. Almost all of these men continued to live exactly as they had before, worshipping at the same churches, etc. None of the slaveowners among them was radical enough to get rid of their slaves.

    To put it more starkly, explain to me how radically different the social, cultural and religious fabric of America was after the Revolution than it was before, aside from the fact that it was ruled by a new form of government. Again, we’re not talking political change. I want to hear about this dramatically new “social, cultural and religious fabric” and what men like Washington and Adams had to say about it.

    Or I could just read the damn book myself…

  4. In fact, I would argue further that the French and Russian Revolutions were wholly derivative of the American Revolution and would never even have been attempted, much less succeeded, without the American example. The only real differences between the three lie in tactics (and ideology in the Russian example) rather than scope and much of those differences are a function of geography. Imagine the American Revolution if the King had been in Boston rather than London and well-armed powers had ringed the country, rather than it being isolated across the ocean. In fact, compare the American Revolution to The ’45 and you’ll see what I mean.

  5. “explain to me how radically different the social, cultural and religious fabric of America was after the Revolution than it was before, aside from the fact that it was ruled by a new form of government”

    Wow, seriously? Okay, how about hereditary aristocracy, feudal land ownership, an established church, a hierarchical caste system, social mobility, proto-capitalism, religious freedom (absolutely UNHEARD of anywhere else in the Western World at the time), civillian control of the military, the rule of law, changing “democracy” from an epithet to a desired outcome. The list could go on and on and on and on. True, many of these changes were already in motion BEFORE the Revolution, and some directly led TO the Revolution, but the idea that the only change in America after the Revolution was the government is ludicrous.

  6. < < the idea that the only change in America after the Revolution was the government is ludicrous. >>

    But that’s never been my point. America changed a great deal in the two centuries after the Revolution, but those changes were mostly gradual; they did not materialize overnight or purely out of the brains of wild-eyed radical revolutionaries (in comparison to the other revolutions I cited, which mostly started among the intelligentsia, not the people, and ended in tyranny and oppression).

    Which stands in stark contrast to America’s experience. Some of the first chapters in Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” explain how so many of America’s more unique qualities (including most of those you cited) were present at the very beginning, with the exodus of mostly middle class British citizens to North America. They came largely for one of two reasons, either for religious freedom or to make money, and they could achieve both in North America much easier than they could in Great Britain. Tocqueville, Burke and many others have argued persuasivly over the years that independence was virtually invitable when you consider the motives and mores of the first settlers and those who followed. They were not people who generally liked to be told what they could or couldn’t do.

    None of which should take away from the unique contributions of the Founders. They were a brave and talented group of men who deserve immense credit for the political and judicial system they created. Whether independence was inevitable is one thing; whether men like Jefferson were inevitable was entirely another. The main point of disagreement here is that I don’t think ALL of them were as radical as you seem to suggest. The cumulative effect of their mutual efforts may have had a radical effect on the course of history over the past couple of centuries, but that’s a little different than saying they were ALL radicals or that they ALL shared some radical agenda. The one thing they ALL clearly agreed on was independence from Britain, and beyond that there was a pretty wide range of different beliefs and attitudes, and some were far more “radical” in their thinking than others.

  7. “< < the idea that the only change in America after the Revolution was the government is ludicrous. >>

    But that’s never been my point.”

    Really? Because your exact words were:

    “To put it more starkly, explain to me how radically different the social, cultural and religious fabric of America was after the Revolution than it was before, aside from the fact that it was ruled by a new form of government.”

    Again, I don’t see how overthrowing the fundamental basis of all Western Governments since the fall of the Western Roman Empire can be seen as anything less than “radical.” All the Founding Fathers were, in that sense, radical, though of course some were more radical (and in different ways) than others. Did America change instaneously overnight? No, and neither did France and certainly not Russia. In fact, other than a change in slogans, Russia did little more than swap elitists, as far as the average kulak was concerned. And yes, as I conceded, some of the changes were underway before the Revolution, but American society AFTER was completely, fundamentally, unalterably different than before (perhaps due at least in part to the mass exodus of the United Empire Loyalists, thus removing a potentially counter-revolutionary element). I don’t think there is any other way to view the evidence of history.

  8. < < Really? Because your exact words were: "To put it more starkly, explain to me how radically different the social, cultural and religious fabric of America was after the Revolution than it was before, aside from the fact that it was ruled by a new form of government." >>

    Perhaps to clarify I should have said, “IMMEDIATELY after the Revolution” in my question, because as you can see from the paragraph that followed, I don’t disagree that America changed GRADUALLY in the two centuries that followed. In other words, my point has never been that there was NO change other than in our form of goverment after the Revolution; only that there was no IMMEDIATE and obviously radical change to American culture or society in the way that there was after the French and Communist revolutions.

    To quote the 1967 Pulitzer-winning book “The Idealogical Origins of the American Revolution” by Bernard Bailyn (which is one of the few books I’ve kept from my dad’s old library):

    “For the primary goal of the American Revolution, which transformed American life and introduced a new era in human history, was not the overthrow or even the alteration of the existing social order but the preservation of political liberty… The great social shocks that in the French and Russian Revolutions sent the foundations of thousands of individual lives crashing into ruins had taken place in America in the course of the previous century, slowly, silently, almost imperceptibly, not as a sudden avalanche but as myriads of individual changes and adjustments which had gradually transformed the order of society” (19).

    That, at any rate, is what I’ve always been taught and have read in the various biographies and accounts of the era. Does Wood suggest that the radical changes were much more deliberate, sudden and obvious? I presume so, because most people don’t think of gradual and almost imperceptible changes as being “radical.” Though, as I’ve conceded, I don’t have a problem describing the 230-some years of cumulative change since 1776 as being pretty radical in hindsight.

    < < Again, I don't see how overthrowing the fundamental basis of all Western Governments since the fall of the Western Roman Empire can be seen as anything less than "radical." >>

    Radical in its effect, certainly, and very brave as well, but even then there’s a certain irony that the Founders were reaching BACK to antiquity for inspiration, rather than concocting some new social and political order from scratch as the Communists sought to do. “Radical” usually implies a complete break from history and tradition, whereas the American founders LOOKED BACK to history for inspiration and guidance. THAT is one of the main reasons, right or wrong, why some scholars choose to apply the label “conservative” to the Founders and the American Revolution. From your perspective they were radical for rejecting Divine Right and creating a new form of government; from another perspective they were conservative for restoring democracy to Western Civilization and asserting their rights as Englishmen against infringements on their liberty. I’m not sure either perspective is completely wrong. I think the real problem at the root of our discussion is that words like “radical” and “conservative” can mean very different things to different people, and you and I are operating with clearly different meanings of the word “radical” in mind.

  9. “Perhaps to clarify I should have said, “IMMEDIATELY after the Revolution” in my question”

    Ah, well, then, as often happens, our bitter debate turns out to be basically over semantics.

    ” only that there was no IMMEDIATE and obviously radical change to American culture or society in the way that there was after the French and Communist revolutions”

    I disagree on both those points. What IMMEDIATELY changed after the French and (especially) the Russian Revolutions? How was the life of the average peasant, for example, IMMEDIATELY changed in either of those situations?

    “To quote the 1967 Pulitzer-winning book “The Idealogical Origins of the American Revolution” by Bernard Bailyn”

    Haven’t read that book, but the whole point of my reference was that American education has essentially dumbed down and minimized the radicalism of the American Revolution.

    “Does Wood suggest that the radical changes were much more deliberate, sudden and obvious?”

    Yes, though of course not “sudden” in the sense of July 5, 1776. “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” is a great book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    “but even then there’s a certain irony that the Founders were reaching BACK to antiquity for inspiration”

    Not really. The main things the Founders took from Antiquity was the Greek concept of liberty and a rough approximation of the Roman structure of government, plus terminology.

    “rather than concocting some new social and political order from scratch as the Communists sought to do.”

    What “new social and political order”? The czar and the aristocrats were replaced by Stalin and the Politburo. And if you believe Marxist historical drivel, communism was inspired by, and was indeed the “inevitable” product of, history.

    “”Radical” usually implies a complete break from history and tradition”

    I don’t see that at all. Radicals can innovative or conservative. To me, “Radical” implies “major change to the extant structure.”

    “from another perspective they were conservative for restoring democracy to Western Civilization and asserting their rights as Englishmen against infringements on their liberty.”

    I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call reviving ideas that had been dead and buried for 2,000 years “conservative.” By that definition, Galileo and Copernicus were “conservative” for reviving ancient ideas on the nature of the universe. And to quote Benjamin Franklin, calling an American an Englishman is like calling an ox a bull; he’s grateful for the compliment but he would sooner have his property restored.

    “I think the real problem at the root of our discussion is that words like “radical” and “conservative” can mean very different things to different people, and you and I are operating with clearly different meanings of the word “radical” in mind.”

    I demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!

  10. < < What IMMEDIATELY changed after the French and (especially) the Russian Revolutions? >>

    Well, let’s see: in France there was the infamous Reign of Terror for one, in which more than 16,500 people were executed, and in Russia a horrific civil war that claimed more than 15 million lives. For a more detailed description of the misery wrought by the Russian Civil War, read about the aftermath here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Civil_War.

    < < How was the life of the average peasant, for example, IMMEDIATELY changed in either of those situations? >>

    See previous answer as it regards Russia. For France, I think the change was probably much less severe, other than that they too would eventually see their countryside trampled by armies. And when one considers the later Communist revolutions, each one entailed untold miseries for the people, from the move to forced collectives in Russia to Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” to outright pogroms and genocide in other places. True, the peasants in such places may have been poor before their revolutions and poor afterwards, but in most cases those same revolutions unleashed years or decades of bloodshed that didn’t exist before.

    < < Haven't read that book, but the whole point of my reference was that American education has essentially dumbed down and minimized the radicalism of the American Revolution. >>

    Maybe, but I still think the “radicalism” in question is only obvious when the whole subsequent course of American and world history is taken into account, and cannot fairly describe either the immediate results of the Revolution (in the all-encompassing sense that radicalism usually implies) or the intent of every Founding Father.

    By a happy coincidence, last night’s episode of HBO’s “John Adams,” based on the McCoullough biography, delved into the period when Adams was VP and he, Washington and Hamilton bitterly opposed any support for the French Revolution, which they regarded as lawless mob anarchy, while Jefferson enthusiastically supported it (and eventually resigned, as a result).

    < < What "new social and political order"? The czar and the aristocrats were replaced by Stalin and the Politburo. >>

    See previous comments. I think it was a great deal more complicated than just a change of leadership. The “Great Purge” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Purge) inaugurated by Stalin was, I’m fairly certain, worse than anything ever done by the Tsars. Well, unless you go as far back as Ivan the Terrible, and even then I don’t think the numbers compare.

    < < And if you believe Marxist historical drivel, communism was inspired by, and was indeed the "inevitable" product of, history. >>

    I think Marxism was the biggest crock of shit ever propagated. The only thing inevitable about it was the fact that it ultimately failed.

    < < Radicals can innovative or conservative. To me, "Radical" implies "major change to the extant structure." >>

    Fair enough. I think this again is a matter of perspective. To the British, all Americans probably seemed radical at the time of the Revolution, while some Revolutionary leaders like Adams clearly didn’t think of themselves as radical at all. And for me, when I compare the American Revolution to the French, Russian or numerous Communist Revolutions, ours doesn’t seem nearly as radical, except perhaps as judged in the fullness of time, as I’ve allowed. And I consider that to be an entirely GOOD thing.

    < < I think it's a bit of a stretch to call reviving ideas that had been dead and buried for 2,000 years "conservative." >>

    Well, except that they weren’t completely dead and buried. BUT, I will cheerfully concede that calling them “conservative” IS problematic. One of the more interesting conundrums I see in the way people define conservatism is that it begs the twofold question, “WHAT exactly are you conserving and from how far back?” By most measures, the truly conservative thing to have done would have been to preserve the medieval feudal system.

    So again, discussions like this bump up against the limitation of some words. I wish I had more time to delve even deeper, but it’s off to the airport with me!

  11. “Well, let’s see: in France there was the infamous Reign of Terror for one, in which more than 16,500 people were executed, and in Russia a horrific civil war that claimed more than 15 million lives.”

    Okay, first, those are changes in tactics, not philosophical changes, which is what I was talking about. Second, the Czar and the King of France both committed atrocities (though smaller in scope) against the peasants.

    “True, the peasants in such places may have been poor before their revolutions and poor afterwards, but in most cases those same revolutions unleashed years or decades of bloodshed that didn’t exist before.”

    Again, both monarchies committed atrocities, but you’re arguing tactics (appallingly brutal tactics, of course) not philosophical change. No doubt driving off the Loyalists affected change in America, but that is not and never was my point.

    “I think Marxism was the biggest crock of shit ever propagated. The only thing inevitable about it was the fact that it ultimately failed.”

    To quote Winston Churchill, Capitalism in the unequal distribution of wealth; communism is the equal distribution of poverty.

    “Well, except that they weren’t completely dead and buried.”

    Really? Care to name another country on Earth in 1776 that wasn’t either a divine right monarchy or some other authoritarian regime?

    “One of the more interesting conundrums I see in the way people define conservatism is that it begs the twofold question, “WHAT exactly are you conserving and from how far back?” By most measures, the truly conservative thing to have done would have been to preserve the medieval feudal system.”

    This is true. It gets even weirder when the old-line communists in Russia or other former Eastern Bloc countries are described as “conservative.”

    “I wish I had more time to delve even deeper, but it’s off to the airport with me!”

    Oh no you don’t! I’m not done with you yet, just as I have you in the iron grip of reason! You’ll rue the day! Go on, rue it!

  12. Argh… I wrote a longer response to this to wrap up my argument, but then lost it when I hit “Publish.” Stupid hotel server. Anyway, here’s a much briefer recap:

    – I don’t believe either the Dutch Republic or the Swiss Federation were Divine Right Monarchies or unusually authoritarian in 1776.
    – I read the introduction to Wood’s “Radicalism” earlier this evening at a nearby Borders. My impression was that a) he uses a much longer stretch of history by which to judge the radical changes, and b) he doesn’t believe even the Founders all appreciated just how much their actions would change the country and the world.
    – This basically agrees with my own assessment, after taking into account the various clarifications we’ve made along the way. The twofold objection I had to your original post is that a) I inferred you meant much more sudden and obvious radical change across the material whole of society, and b) your belief in the “actual radicalism” of the Founders is misplaced if by that you mean they were self-consciously radical and were ALL ambitiously setting out to remake the whole of American society. The men who came to be known as Federalists (Washington, Adams, Hamilton, etc.) all loathed the French Revolution and were even ridiculed by their more radical colleagues for being monarchists. They would never have agreed that they were “radicals,” though Wood is undoubtedly right that the events set into motion by the collective actions of the Founders would have radical EFFECTS in the further course of American and world history.

  13. The Dutch Republic was an aristocracy of feudal provinces, though they generally practiced religious tolerance. It was a “Republic” only for the aristocrats, not the population in general. At the time of American Revolution, the nobility of the Swiss Confederation were very nearly absolute rulers, leading to several abortive uprisings against them. So, neither of those examples come close to the level of republican democracy created by the American Revolution, though I concede they were neither divine right monarchies nor any more authoritarian than the rest of the Europe at the time, or indeed the rest of the world.

    “My impression was that a) he uses a much longer stretch of history by which to judge the radical changes, and b) he doesn’t believe even the Founders all appreciated just how much their actions would change the country and the world.”

    I agree completely.

    “I inferred you meant much more sudden and obvious radical change across the material whole of society”

    I never inferred; you may have implied…

    “if by that you mean they were self-consciously radical and were ALL ambitiously setting out to remake the whole of American society”

    I don’t. You do raise an interesting point about the effects of the French Revolution on America and the American Revolution on France. It’s not hard to imagine the American Revolution collapsing into anarchy like the French, maybe over the 1800 election. In reality, America was fortunate to have leaders both shrewd (Franklin), idealistic (Jefferson) and incorruptible (Washington).


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