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The Third Leg of the American Revolution: Edmund Burke vs. Thomas Paine
, December 5, 2013
This review is from: The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (Kindle Edition)
Author Yuval Levin sets out a lofty goal of explaining the right / left, conservative / liberal, Red State / Blue State political paradigm in the USA and other democracies:
Why, then, is there a left and a right in our politics? This book hopes to offer the beginning of an answer to that question. That beginning is both historical and philosophical, and so this book is, too.
The starting point of the book is the American Revolution, which had a dual nature.
It was partly a CONSERVATIVE revolution designed to strengthen property rights. The American Colonists wanted King George out of their hair so that they could settle the Trans-Appalachian West (which King George had forbidden the American Colonists to enter) and to trade with all of Europe, not just the British empire. Thus, American Conservatives may fairly claim to have inspired the American Revolution on the basis of wanting to assert their title of ownership over their land and to assert their right to trade with whoever they wanted to. George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were chief among this group.
Its other nature was as a Populist Revolt. Many of America's intellectuals saw the Revolution as a door to replacing the British Monarchy with representative, elected government. Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, and Patrick Henry took this view. Modern-day Liberals stake their claim to the Revolution on that basis.
From the time of our independence in 1783 until our first period of unification following the War of 1812, these Conservative and Liberal factions fought ferociously to assert their dominance, nearly wrecking the fledgling United States on the shoals of early civil war.
The Conservatives organized themselves as the Federalist Party, while the Liberals organized themselves first as the Anti-Federalists, which morphed into the Republican-Democratic Party. The Federalists' aim was to use the newfound power of the National Government to promote the interests of the northern commercial states. The Republican-Democrats' aim was to assert the rights of the agricultural Southern States to defy the numerically superior North. The Red State / Blue State war was on!
This was a turbulent time of Shay's Rebellion, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, The Quasi War with France, the Embargo Act, the "XYZ Affair," Jefferson's attempted purge of the Supreme Court, Marbury vs. Madison, the 1812 War with Britain, and the Hartford Convention.
The traditional protagonists in these struggles are Conservative Federalists Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington vs. Liberal Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson. Both factions eventually obtained most of what they wanted. The Conservatives got their strong national government dedicated to protecting property rights, while the Liberals got their democratic "power to the people" government that mattered to them. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson straddled enough of both sides to keep the United States from flying apart. This formative period ended in the 1820s when "The Era of Good Feeling" submerged the two original legs of our revolutionary stool into a love seat.
However, author Yuval Levin points out that there was a THIRD leg of this stool personified by Thomas Paine, who would be called a "Social Democrat" in today's politics. Paine believed that the Earth and everything on it belonged to Mankind in common, and that private property should therefore be taxed to provide relief to the landless poor. The modern-day Democratic Party follows his ideas of taxing private property to fund social welfare programs. The book ties in today's political parties with the three original factions of the American Revolution:
Federalist Party (Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton) + Democratic-Republicans (Thomas Jefferson) = Modern Republicans who are aligned with the capitalist interests of big-city industry and commerce and small-town farming.
Thomas Paine = Modern Democrats who are aligned with the interests of the less affluent laborers and farmers of marginal land.
The book brings Englishman Edmund Burke into the story as the establishment capitalist protagonist who knew Thomas Paine and debated him at length about the true nature of the American Revolution and the French Revolution that soon followed it. These are indeed the same sorts of debates that we have in the modern day Republican vs. Democratic parties.
The writing is lucid and brings Paine and Burke to life as human beings. It is laced with the immortal words of Thomas Paine:
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."
My only complaint is that perhaps the book doesn't "set the table" in giving a lay reader enough historical background to fully understand the positions of Burke and Paine. If you're a lay reader you may profit by reading about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the leaders of the Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans. It also helps to know about the French Revolution, which became the knife edge that split American Conservatives and Liberals into warring factions soon after our own revolution.
That minor criticism aside, Levin has accomplished what he said he'd do at the beginning of the book when he promised to show us the origins of the right / left divide.
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