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Revolutionary Lessons: Parallels Between America’s Independence And The Arab Spring

Mar 5, 2015

Beginning in 2010, a wave of revolutions swept the Middle East, removing rulers and establishing new regimes. Although the Arab Spring took place more than two centuries after the American Revolution, they occurred in similar social and political contexts.

“Before [the Arab Spring] there was an Atlantic Spring that began actually in 1776,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood.

Although Wood says he sees parallels between the Arab Spring and a decades-long series of revolutions that culminated with uprisings across Europe in 1848, the outcomes of each were notably different. Strong, centralized military rules continue to lead many Arab Spring countries, notably Egypt, but the American Revolution took a different path.

“[Authoritarianism] was a choice that Americans talked about: should General Washington become a dictator?” Wood says. “[But] [James] Madison said, ‘We’re not going to go down that route, we’re going to find a republican remedy for republican ills.’ And the Constitution becomes that.”

Although the final results of the Arab Spring remain to be seen, the lead-up to it reflects the political context of the centuries prior to the American Revolution.

“[Prior to the American Revolution], we had religious wars in the West that are fully as violent and as disruptive as the fights that are going on with Islam. That’s what the Middle East is going through: real religious wars,” Wood says.

Wood argues the century of religious violence preceding the American Revolution resulted in a Western sense of religious tolerance due to multiple sects and religious denominations. No one group could be sure of its ability to dominate the state, so each was willing to maintain state neutrality toward religion.

“The Muslims are eons away from that kind of conception,” Wood says. “I think it’s very difficult for Muslims to conceive of religious liberty in our [Western] sense.”

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On The “Atlantic Spring”

We've talked about an Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East – but before that there was an Atlantic Spring that began, actually, in 1776 and went on for at least 50 years. And if you include the revolutions of 1848, which were part of that revolutionary turmoil, that's 75 years of revolutions, all of which, except for one, failed. So that when Abraham Lincoln comes to the presidency and he says, "we are the last best hope" – the revolutions of 1848 were all attempts to become republics, overthrowing monarchies and becoming republics. And they all failed. They lasted two years. And so when he says, "we're the last best hope for democracy," it was true. But our revolution started the whole ball rolling: 1776, followed by the French Revolution, which is something the French have never forgiven us for. And many people thought it was a copy of ours. When Lafayette sends George Washington the key to the Bastille, which was the symbol of the Ancien Régime, the prison that was destroyed at the outset of their revolution, he sends it to Washington as a tribute to recognition that "the Americans had inspired us". And that key hangs in Mount Vernon today. So a sense of revolution was in the air and it continued for, well, 75 years. And all of them failing.

On Why The American Revolution Was Successful

To put it bluntly, we had experience with self-government. We forget, but the colonists had been more or less running their own colonies. The empire was loosely run by the British through150 years. And so we had experience with self-government. We'd been electing our legislatures, colonial legislatures. We had English rights: habeas corpus, trial by jury. We had all these things behind us, and the French did not. They had not had a meeting of their legislature, the States-General, since 1614 or something like that. Where as we had continual representations – not democracy by modern standards, but certainly the most democratic colonies or states in the world at the time. Two-thirds of white adult males could vote. There was nothing like that, even in England. So we had this tremendous experience going back decades, a century – in some cases a century or more. So we were prepared in a way that the other places were not.

On The United States In The Post-Revolution Period

We forget that the distance between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is a decade, and it was a very tumultuous decade. Not just because of the war, but because the constitutions that were created in 1776 were state constitutions. No one even conceived of a strong federal government, which was created 10 years later, it didn't even enter their imaginations. So something awful had to happen in that period to get people to think in terms of creating this strong national government. And that thing that happened was an excess of democracy. Democracy was running wild in the states. James Madison wrote a paper called "Vices of the Political System of the United States", the most important document between the Declaration and the actual Constitution. Although it was never published, it was his working paper. He would outline what's wrong with our system and what can we do about it. And what he said was the state legislatures were running amok; majorities were pressing minorities. There was a multiplicity of legislation, a mutability of legislation, meaning the changeability of legislation, and the injustice of this legislation. And so the Constitution becomes his solution.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Well today we're joined by Gordon Wood, who is one of the premier scholars of the American Revolution. We're very thrilled to have you. Welcome to World Views.

GORDON WOOD: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

CRUISE: Well as I said, you have done a great deal, several decades in fact, of research on the American Revolution. You know, I would guess, almost everything about it. So today we're going to talk a little bit about what are the lessons we can learn from that revolution, and how we can think about them in our modern context and looking around the world at additional revolutions, and what maybe we can take from our American Revolution. So just starting perhaps from the beginning, our founders and later the framers were part of an age of enlightenment. And so I'm curious as to how that era of kind of challenging the traditional roles, thinking about science in a new way, how that influenced our revolutionaries and what role that played? And then if you think that this is necessary for revolutionary era to have kind of this new enlightenment?

WOOD: Well, yes. I think you do need a sense that changes are in the air and things are going to be different. That certainly was true end of the 18th century. But I think it's important to realize that before – we've talked about an Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East – but before that there was an Atlantic Spring that began, actually, in 1776 and went on for at least 50 years. And if you include the revolutions of 1848, which were part of that revolutionary turmoil, that's 75 years of revolutions, all of which, except for one, failed. So that when Abraham Lincoln comes to the presidency and he says, "we are the last best hope" – the revolutions of 1848 were all attempts to become republics, overthrowing monarchies and becoming republics. And they all failed. They lasted two years. And so when he says, "we're the last best hope for democracy," it was true. But our revolution started the whole ball rolling: 1776, followed by the French Revolution, which is something the French have never forgiven us for. And many people thought it was a copy of ours. When Lafayette sends George Washington the key to the Bastille, which was the symbol of the Ancien Régime, the prison that was destroyed at the outset of their revolution, he sends it to Washington as a tribute to recognition that "the Americans had inspired us". And that key hangs in Mount Vernon today. So a sense of revolution was in the air and it continued for, well, 75 years. And all of them failing.

CRUISE: Why did the United States’ revolution, why was it successful?

WOOD: Well I think, to put it bluntly, we had experience with self-government. We forget, but the colonists had been more or less running their own colonies. The empire was loosely run by the British through150 years. And so we had experience with self-government. We'd been electing our legislatures, colonial legislatures. We had English rights: habeas corpus, trial by jury. We had all these things behind us, and the French did not. They had not had a meeting of their legislature, the States-General, since 1614 or something like that. Where as we had continual representations – not democracy by modern standards, but certainly the most democratic colonies or states in the world at the time. Two-thirds of white adult males could vote. There was nothing like that, even in England. So we had this tremendous experience going back decades, a century – in some cases a century or more. So we were prepared in a way that the other places were not.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Now, one of the main thrusts of your work on the American Revolution has been that this was a "revolution of the minds". There really was a radical departure, and then a consolidation of the Enlightenment thought. When you look at Egypt, the Arab spring, the winning parties are all religious parties. In a sense they're reacting against imposed nationalist regimes that are really the post-colonial regimes. And there's this tussle going on in the Middle East between a radical religious agenda and a more pro-Western agenda. How do you see that? Do you need Enlightenment thought? How does that fit in?

WOOD: We have to realize that the previous century, the 17th century, and the 16th century before that, we had religious wars in the West that are fully as violent and as disruptive as the fights that are going on with Islam, within Islam, between Sunnis and Shia. Catholics and Protestants were killing each other by the tens of thousands. And if they'd had modern technology, modern bombs and so on, the death rate would have been even higher. So in that sense, that's what the Middle East is going through: real religious wars. Ours went on for, well, for a century. The Thirty Years War, which was a 17th century war, was really brutal and bloody. And it took that, the experience of that, out of that comes the sense of religious toleration and the sense that we can't keep killing each other because of religious beliefs. But that took a long time.

LANDIS: So you would really see the analogy between what the Middle East is going through today and what the West went though as this lead-up to the American Revolution, the Age of Reason, the wars of religion, and in a sense leading up to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, where you have finally the Catholics say "we can't kill all the Protestants" and they have to come to some kind of a...

WOOD: Accommodation, that's right. And it took a while; it took a lot of bloodshed. And I think things will get telescoped now, but I think it's very difficult for Muslims to conceive of religious liberty in our sense. Certainly in the sense of neutralizing religion as we did in the Revolution, where we said the state should have no role – or at least Virginia said this, and Jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom was quite extraordinary for the time. And it came because of the multiplicity of sects, of religious denominations, and only because of that. Although Jefferson tended to believe that it was because people became more reasonable and more humanist, James Madison knew better. And Madison saw that the success of that bill depended on the fact that the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Methodists, were so jealous and so frightened of the Episcopalians getting control of the state, that they were willing to neutralize the state in religious matters. If the Presbyterians could have been assured that they would be the dominant denomination in control of the state apparatus, they would not have agreed to religious freedom. But because no one could be sure, they were willing to neutralize the state. Now, the Muslims are eons away from that kind of conception. In fact I was at a conference where Muslim scholars discussing Jefferson's bill couldn't comprehend the idea of separation of church and state. They said, "If religion is important, then the state must be involved in it." Well, we made a break from that and it was one of the major breaks. And really we were way ahead of any place in the world at the time in conceiving of the state being neutralized in religious matters without religion being hurt. Religion thrived in the aftermath of religious freedom that occurred in the Revolutionary time. We were more religious and remain more religious than most states in the Western world – maybe with the possible exception of Poland and Ireland. But religion thrives in the United States in a way that it doesn't in England or France or Italy.

CRUISE: Well if we think about some of these issues that you've discussed, in the lead up to our Revolutionary War there's kind of an old saying that the revolution is the easy part; it's the transition to democracy or away from authoritarianism that's the difficult part. And we certainly have seen that in Egypt and other place throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. And we often think in our own history that this was a relatively smooth period – we fought a revolution, we put together a constitution, and everything has been fantastic. This obviously isn't the case. But can you share with us what that transition period was like?

WOOD: Well we forget that the distance between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is a decade, and it was a very tumultuous decade. Not just because of the war, but because the constitutions that were created in 1776 were state constitutions. No one even conceived of a strong federal government, which was created 10 years later, it didn't even enter their imaginations. So something awful had to happen in that period to get people to think in terms of creating this strong national government. And that thing that happened was an excess of democracy. Democracy was running wild in the states. James Madison wrote a paper called "Vices of the Political System of the United States", the most important document between the Declaration and the actual Constitution. Although it was never published, it was his working paper. He would outline what's wrong with our system and what can we do about it. And what he said was the state legislatures were running amok; majorities were pressing minorities. There was a multiplicity of legislation, a mutability of legislation, meaning the chageablitly of legislation, and the injustice of this legislation. And so the Constitution becomes his solution. He does not want to go towards an authoritarian solution, which is of course what the Egyptians finally arrived at. Last year, in the spring of 2013, President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president, was still in control, but the society was going chaotic. It was crime in the streets. And we know what happened: in July, General Sisi moves in and there's a military coup. And now he's been elected president and we're back to a Mubarak kind of authoritarian rule. Well that was a choice that Americans talked about: should General Washington become a dictator? Some people wanted him to become king. And Madison said, "we're not going to go down that route, we're going to find a republican remedy for republican ills." And the constitution becomes that. He wants to stay within what we would call the "democratic framework". Democracy is the problem, but we're going to find a solution to it and still retain a belief in majority rule and democratic policies. And that's the Federal Constitution.

LANDIS: Can I switch a little bit away from the Middle East, and look at the education in the United States, something that you've clearly been involved with for a long time? The success of the Revolution, the American Revolution, was partly because we had small class differences, not as profound as Europe. And we have had a very educated republic. The public school system of course, which developed later, laid the foundations for a solid democracy. Today, many Americans feel that that's jeopardized. We've had the Piketty book come out telling us about growing inequality. And is that America just catching up and being competitive in a modern world? Or is that a republic going to seed? 

WOOD: Well I think historically we are at about the same spot we were in about 1890, 1900. In terms of foreign-born, we're about the same. About 14 percent of the population is foreign-born; that was true in 1900 and it's true today. The gap between wealth is very great; inequality is very high, but that was true in 1900. We took certain steps in the Progressive Era. One of them was of course immigration restriction, which was the effort to deal with the foreign-born percentage of the population. We also had intensive efforts at Americanization. People were much more frightened. We think, "oh my goodness all these foreigners coming in." It was much more greater in 1900, and of course the response was to limit Europeans. We were worried about Southern Europeans, Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans coming to the United States. So we made restrictions that came out in the 1920s in immigration restriction. We haven't panicked in that way now, and we're much more relaxed even despite all the rhetoric. It certainly is a much better situation now. But the inequality is very high and that has to do, I think, a good deal with the technology is outrunning the capacity of the educational system to keep up. There are lots of jobs available, but they require skills that we just don't have. And I think that's going to take some while to correct that. But my guess – and I'm not an expert in this area – but my guess is that part of the inequality of wealth and the problem of the so-called "middle class" is coming from the fact that their skills are not adequate to meet the needs. And there are jobs going begging, but they are in highly skilled, computer-type fields that, simply, the educational system hasn't kept up with it. We can hope that that will be remedied over the coming decades, but that's one source, I think, of our inequality.

CRUISE: Well unfortunately we are about out of time. But we want to thank you so much for joining us today. Gordon Wood, thank you for being on World Views.

WOOD: My pleasure.

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