Revolutions and Counter-Revolutions, Part I

This is a slightly revised version of an essay on  two American revolutions, emphasizing the political sanity of South Carolina and the South in general. 

The late Jean François Revel wrote a once-famous book with the title, Comment les démocraties finissent or How Democracies End Up.  Revel was not a stupid man, and I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon “we tired the sun with talking,” but as a political philosopher, he was a prisoner of the leftist ideology that treats terms like “equality” and “democracy” as substantial realities. Like Rayond Aron and Sidney Hook, he had moved just far enough away from Marx to enter the orbit of Voltaire and Robespierre, whose thoughts are utterly useless as weapons against the insanities of postmodern and postchristian life.      

I do not know what Revel thought democracy is or was, but anyone who has studied history knows full well how democracies always end up, and it is in tyranny.  The 60’s slogan, “power to the people,“ a neat encapsulation of democratic theory, was then and is now used as a weapon to destroy all the customs, institutions, and laws that protect ordinary men and women from the power-seeking predators who rise to the top in every known political structure, whether monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic. 

Politics, since even before Machiavelli, is a technique of gaining and holding power, and if the rhetoric of democracy serves the interest of a political class, then we all have to be democrats, just as we all had to be socialists and all will soon have to be trans-sexualists.  This much, at least, was understood by Abraham Lincoln, whose own rhetoric of democracy—“government of the people, for the people, and by the people”—was a mystic formula the meaning of which no one has ever convincingly deciphered.  While Lincoln, as a political leader, was probably as clueless and incompetent as his admiring apologist David Donald has made him out to be, he showed, at the very outset of his public career, that he had his eyes fixed on the prize of absolute power.  In a famous passage of his address to the Springfield Lyceum (in 1838), Lincoln, after the obligatory endorsement of the American Revolution and the virtues of lawfulness, waxed  a bit too eloquent on the glory of the superman who rises above mere convention.  While high political office might suit conventional men who aspire to nothing higher than a seat in Congress or a presidential chair, 

but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.  What!  Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?  Never!  Towering genius disdains a beaten path…. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen. 

Give the devil his due: Lincoln knew the men of his time because he knew himself.  If you want to understand  this character type, you must read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830), which offers an unforgettable depiction of the romantic revolutionary character, in all its adolescent egomania.  Nonetheless, it is as great a mistake to regard Lincoln as a monster as to revere him as a saint.  He did not initiate the political revolution that destroyed the American republic: The bandwagon was hurtling along in its course long before he leaped aboard and seized the reins.  The effect of his presidency and of the war he either brought on deliberately or blundered into was to annul the American Revolution, which might be more accurately described as a counter-revolution.  But if we are going to stick to conventional language, we can say that Mr. Lincoln’s project in national democracy served as the counter-revolution to the revolution of 1776. 

To understand why some Americans—and not just in the South—opposed the Lincolnian counter-revolution, we first have to understand why so many Americans had been  willing to go to war in the 1770s.  In Massachusetts, of course, one can find sound economic reasons.  The British government was eager to find ways to make the colonies pay for the wars that had been undertaken on their behalf, and taxation and regulation of industry and commerce seemed to be—and indeed were—a solution that was both reasonable and just.  New Englanders, feeling the pinch of mercantilist policies, were understandably annoyed, and when the insult of constitutional innovation (the suspension of charters and the so-called “Intolerable Acts”) was added to the injury inflicted on their economic life, they were ripe for revolution. 

The planters and merchants of Charleston and the South Carolina Low Country, by contrast, were making out rather well within the empire.  In the 1770’s Charleston was one of the wealthiest and by far the most civilized city in North America.  By the outbreak of the Revolution, Charleston merchants and Lowcountry planters formed an American aristocracy.  They had had their little quarrels with the imperial administration of Great Britain, but nothing so serious as to occlude the obvious fact that their present and future advantage lay in maintaining their close ties with the British Empire.  With only one major exception (Christopher Gadsden), Charleston’s future leaders of the revolutionary movement were conservatives who, even though they were critical of British imperial policy, rejected any notion of secession.  Why, then, did Henry Laurens, John Rutledge, Rawlins Lowndes, and the Pinckney brothers not only join and lead the revolution in the South but risk everything they had? 

Many Charleston merchants and “mechanics” were incensed over the Stamp Act, and they rabbled tax collectors and even invaded the home of Henry Laurens, whom they mistakenly assumed supported this invasion of property rights.  However, the Stamp Act was only one in a series of attempts made by the British to make the Empire pay for itself.  The tariffs and regulations imposed by Britain’s various Navigation Acts not only imposed tariffs but excluded foreign shipping from American waters.  These protectionist measures, when taken together, were widely resented in New England, whose economy was already based on trade and manufacturing.  However, the Navigation Acts hardly touched Carolina’s interests.  New England might not be able to sell fur hats even to other colonies, but Carolina rice and indigo went around the world.  As Edward McCrady writes, “There were twenty-nine laws which restricted and bound down colonial industry; but none of these touched in the least an abstraction, and hardly one of them, until the passage of the Stamp act, imposed a direct tax.”  McCrady was a prominent Charleston attorney, Confederate officer, and author of magisterial works on the early history of his state.

It is more than a little ironic that British mercantilism was the primary economic motive for New England’s revolt.  McCrady, writing some twenty five years after the end of the War Between the States, points out that the Navigation Acts are hardly different from the measures imposed by the American government before, and more particularly after the War.  

The principle of protection of certain classes and industries, which must necessarily inure to the detriment of all others, has been practised in their enactments and revenue measures from the establishment of the Union to the present day.

This is not to say that there were not many frictions between the Carolinians and the governors sent out from England.  Many of the conflicts involved the Carolinians’ growing sense of their own provincial identity and their resentment at the promotion of English-born officials over the heads of wealthier and more competent Carolinians.  Josiah Quincy, visiting the city in 1773, reports that several prominent Charlestonians complained: “We none of us, when we grow old, can expect he top honours of the state.  They are all given away to worthless sycophants.”  In addition to these political embarrassments, Carolinians—already a proud and arrogant race—were made to feel their inferiority as provincials, especially when they went, as most sons of the elite did, to study in England.  McCrady quite rightly saw home rule as a major issue with Carolinians:

There was no home rule. No measure, however pressing, could be passed into law until it had received the sanction of a Board sitting three thousand miles away, with out the slightest interest in the welfare of the colony.

In South Carolina, at least, states rights was a founding principle of the revolution, a principle that preceded independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina