Commentators on the left may be exasperated whenever they hear Tea Partiers and the likes of Sarah Palin reiterate Thomas Jefferson who once professed that the country shouldn’t have to do without a revolution every twenty years or so, but are their calls to “Second Amendment remedies” as Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle once put it, really that novel?
Jefferson, in a letter dated November 13, 1787, expressed his desire for America to fall subject to armed revolt every other decade. “What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion?” he wondered.
And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
Modern day conservatives may take a rather different attitude but calls to “revolution” are familiar to them perhaps even more so than appeals to “family values” and American exceptionalism. They hardly demand that blood be shed in celebration of Jefferson’s “tree of liberty,” but roughly every twenty years, the opposition has so squandered the ideals of the original revolution that Republicans think it high time for another.
Barry Goldwater, when he accepted his party’s nomination for president in 1964, was first to point out how Democrats had corrupted the Founders’ dream. “Their mistaken course,” he said, “stems from false notions of equality.” Wrongly understood, equality leads not to liberty and “the emancipation of creative differences,” but “first to conformity and then to despotism.” The “cause of Republicanism,” according to Goldwater, was to ensure that power not be centered in Washington but remain “in the hands of the people.”
Goldwater lost the election to Lyndon B. Johnson whose Great Society and Vietnam War did much to enrage the “silent majority” of Americans whom Richard Nixon called upon four years later. When he accepted the Republican nomination in 1968, Nixon stated bluntly, “we live in an age of revolution in America and in the world.” To find the right answers to America’s problems, it had to turn to “a revolution that will never grow old.” Nixon said, “America is a great nation today, not because of what government did for people, but because of what people did for themselves over 190 years in this country.”
Nixon hinted at America becoming again “a beacon of hope for all those in the world who seek freedom and opportunity;” at a similar occasion sixteen years later Ronald Reagan was to perfect the narrative when he warned of Democrats and “their government of pessimism, fear, and limits,” and offered an alternative of hope and confidence at the same time; an alternative of America as “a shining city on a hill,” unique in history and the world, “on the move again and expanding toward new eras of opportunity for everyone.”
The aforementioned Republican stalwarts found their country either in crisis or recession — or both. They each correctly identified the misguided philosophies of their opposite numbers as its cause and rallied against them, much like Republicans do today. But instead of becoming a Party of No and channeling anger but not solutions, Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan gave Americans a sound and admirable alternative: a nation true to the promises of limited government and individual rights.
Americans’ sense of mission and exceptionalism is nothing new, nor is their frustration with “big government” run amok and lawmakers trying to micromanage their lives — all in their, or the public’s best interest, of course. It seems that every postwar generation must rediscover the meaning of the Revolution to truly appreciate its principles anew.
In our own era, with the Democrats in full control of the federal government and set on an agenda more interventionist than it has been in decades, it may well be time for Republicans to start cheering revolutionary rhetoric again, if that’s what it takes to swing voters to the right.