Revolution and Public Happiness
The purpose of the following reflections is to rehabilitate the word “revolution.” No other word, except perhaps “freedom,” will be more urgently needed in the years to come, and no other word, without exception, has been more gravely compromised by the events of the 20th century. The end of colonialism and imperialism is leading one people after another “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” And although natural law, right reason, and the inalienable rights of man no longer carry the weight of self-evident truth, yet wherever political bands of subordination and servitude are dissolved, in peace or in war, by violence or by mutual agreement, in rebellion against a foreign or a native ruler, a “revolution” has taken place.
As a political term, the word “revolution” was unknown before the modern age. It received its full meaning in the two great events of the late 18th century which have remained the classical examples of what revolutions can and cannot achieve. Historically speaking, the success of the American Revolution and the failure of the French Revolution are equal in importance. The success of the American Revolution consisted in the framing of a constitution and the founding of a republic; it was a political revolution that did not involve a social upheaval. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can say that this was made possible by the simple fact of the New World’s prosperity. Conversely, the men of the French Revolution met with failure because they had to act under conditions of general poverty, and thus were driven to deal with the “social question,” by means which they deemed to be political, but which were actually the means of violence. But the failure of the French Revolution did not prevent it from establishing a revolutionary tradition for the whole world; the sad truth is that the American Revolution has remained a local event whereas the French Revolution set the pattern for all the revolutions which followed it, even up to our own day.
Yet before all this came to pass, and even before the men of the American Revolution and the men of the French Revolution had finally been forced apart by the course of revolutionary events, there had existed a community of principle between the New World and the Old World—at least in the minds of those men who eventually were to be the chief actors in the two revolutions. These principles we may call the principles of revolution regardless of the very different historical developments which they eventually set in motion. Moreover, they had nothing to do with the social question which, in its various aspects, became so important in the 19th century; they had even less in common with the isms and ideologies that have emerged in the course of the last hundred years—that is, with nationalism and imperialism, with socialism, communism, and capitalism.
If the men who, on both sides of the Atlantic, were prepared for the revolution had anything in common prior to the events which were to determine their lives, to shape their convictions, and eventually to draw them apart, it was a passionate concern for public freedom. This concern was probably even then, in the century of mercantilism and an undoubtedly very progressive absolutism, rather old-fashioned. Moreover, these men were by no means bent upon revolution, but, as John Adams put it, “called without expectation and compelled without previous inclination”; and as Tocqueville testifies for France, “the very notion of a violent revolution had no place in [their] mind; it was not discussed because it was not conceived.” Yet, against Adams’s word stands his own testimony that “the revolution was effected before the war commenced,” not because of any specifically revolutionary or rebellious spirit but because the inhabitants of the colonies were “formed by law into corporations, or bodies politic,” and possessed “the right to assemble . . . in their town halls, there to deliberate upon the public affairs”; it was “in these assemblies of towns or districts that the sentiments of the people were formed in the first place.” And against Tocqueville’s remark stands Chateaubriand’s observation that the revolution in France “was accomplished before it occurred,” and, more importantly, Tocqueville’s own insistence on “the taste” or “the passion” for public freedom which he found widespread in France before the outbreak of the revolution, predominantly in fact in the minds of those who had no conception of revolution and no premonition of their own role in the one to come.
Even at this point, the difference between the Europeans and the Americans, whose minds were still under the influence of an almost identical tradition, was conspicuous and important. What was a passion and a “taste” in France clearly was an experience in America, and the American usage which, especially in the 18th century, spoke of “public happiness” where the French spoke of “public freedom,” suggests this difference quite appropriately. For the Americans knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in the public business, and that the activities connected with this business, far from constituting a burden, gave those who discharged them a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else. The Americans knew very well—and John Adams was bold enough to formulate this knowledge time and again—that the people went to the town assemblies (as their representatives later were to go to the famous Conventions) not altogether from duty nor to serve their own interests, but most of all because they enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions. Compared to this American experience, the preparation of the French men of letters who were to make the revolution was theoretical in the extreme; no doubt, “the play-actors” of the French Assembly also enjoyed themselves—although they would hardly have admitted it and certainly had no time to reflect upon this side of an otherwise grim business. The French revolutionists had no experiences to fall back upon, only ideas and principles untested by reality to guide and inspire them, and these had all been conceived, formulated, and discussed before the revolution took place. Even Robespierre’s theory of revolutionary dictatorship, though it was prompted by the experiences of revolution, found its legitimation in the well-known Roman republican institution; and apart from this theory there was hardly anything new added during these years to the body of 18th-century political thought. It is well known how much, notwithstanding their deep sense of the novelty of their enterprise, the American founding fathers prided themselves on having merely applied boldly and without prejudice what had been discovered long before; they considered themselves masters of political science because they dared and knew how to apply the accumulated wisdom of the past. But, that the revolution consisted chiefly in the application of certain rules and verities of the political science of the 18th century, is at best a half-truth even in America, and less in France, where unexpected events so early interfered with and ultimately defeated the constitution and the establishment of permanent institutions. Still, without the enthusiastic and sometimes slightly comical erudition of the revolutionists in political theory, no revolution would have been effected, either in America or France.
The series of revolutions following upon the two great revolutions of the 18th century confirms almost beyond doubt that the breakdown of authority in any given country is followed by revolution only where new men are prepared for and eager to assume power—eager, among other things, to apply what they have learned by study and thought. The 18th century called these men hommes de lettres, men of letters, and this still is a better name for them than our term “intellectuals,” under which we now habitually subsume a class of professional scribes and writers whose labors are needed by the ever expanding bureaucracies of modern government, business administration, and mass entertainment.
The distinction between the hommes de lettres and the class of the intellectuals by no means rests only on an obvious difference in quality; more important in our context is the fundamentally different attitude these two groups have shown, ever since the 18th century, toward that curious and somewhat hybrid realm which the modern age interjected between the older and more genuine realms of the public or political on the one side, and the private on the other. Indeed, the intellectuals are, and always have been, part and parcel of the social realm, to which as a group they even owe their existence and prominence; the men of letters, by contrast, started their careers by withdrawing from society—first from the society of the royal court and later from the society of the salon. They educated and cultivated their minds in a freely chosen seclusion, thus putting themselves at a calculated distance from the social realm as well as the political (from which they were excluded in any case) in order to look upon both in perspective. It is only from about the middle of the 18th century that we find the men of letters in open rebellion against society and its prejudices. Precedent for this pre-revolutionary defiance can be found in the considered and deliberate contempt for society which was the source of Montaigne’s wisdom, which sharpened Pascal’s thoughts, and which left its traces upon many pages of Montesquieu. This, of course, is not to deny the enormous difference in mood and style between the contemptuous disgust of the aristocrat and the resentful hatred of the plebeian; but the object of both attitudes, we must remember, was more or less the same.
Moreover, no matter to which “estate” the men of letters may have belonged, they were free from the burden of poverty; unsatisfied by whatever prominence the state or the society of the ancien régime might have granted them, they felt their leisure to be a burden rather than a blessing, a forced exile away from the realm of true freedom, rather than that freedom from politics which philosophers since antiquity have claimed for themselves in order to pursue activities they deemed to be higher than those which engage men in public business. In other words, the leisure of the hommes de lettres was the Roman otium and not the Greek skhole, an enforced inactivity, a “languishing in idle retirement” where philosophy was supposed to deliver some “cure for grief” (a doloris medicinam as Cicero called it), and they were still quite in the Roman style when they began to employ their leisure in the interest of the res publica, “la chose publique,” as the 18th century, translating literally from the Latin, named the realm of public affairs. Hence, the men of letters turned to the study of Greek and Roman authors, but not—and this is decisive—for the sake of whatever eternal wisdom or immortal beauty the books themselves might contain, but almost exclusively to learn about ancient political institutions. It was their search for political freedom—i.e. the power to participate in public affaire—not their quest for truth, that led them back to antiquity, and their reading served to give them the concrete elements with which to think and dream of such freedom. Had they known in actual experience what public freedom meant for the individual citizen, they might have agreed with their American colleagues and spoken of “public happiness,” for one needs only to recall the rather common American definition of public happiness—for instance in the words of Joseph Warren in 1772—as depending “on virtuous and unshaken attachment to a free Constitution,” to realize how closely related the actual contents of the apparently different formulae must have been. Public or political freedom, and public or political happiness, were the inspiring principles which prepared the minds of those who later did what they never had expected to do—that is, make a revolution—and who more often than not were compelled toward acts for which they had no previous inclination.
The men in France who formulated the principles of the coming revolution are known as the philosophes of the Enlightenment, although the name is rather misleading: for their significance in the history of philosophy is negligible, and their contribution to the history of political thought nowhere approaches that of their great predecessors of the 17th and early 18th centuries. However, their importance in the context of revolution is great; it lies in their having used the word freedom with a new, hitherto almost unknown emphasis on public freedom: an indication that they understood by the term something very different from that free will or free thought philosophers had known and discussed since Augustine. Freedom, as conceived by the philosophes, was not an inner realm into which men might escape at will from the pressures of the world, nor was it the liberum arbitrium which makes the will choose between alternatives. Freedom for them could exist only in public; it was a tangible, worldly reality, something created by men to be enjoyed by men—that man-made public space or market place which antiquity had known as the area in which freedom appears and becomes visible to all—rather than a gift or a capacity.
For the absence of political freedom under the rule of the enlightened absolutism of the 18th century did not consist so much in the denial of specific personal liberties (at least for the members of the upper classes) as in the fact “that the world of public affaire was not only hardly known to them but was invisible” (Tocqueville, Ancien Régime). What the hommes de lettres shared with the large masses of the poor, quite apart from any compassion with their suffering, was obscurity; that is, the public realm was invisible to them and they lacked an arena in which they themselves could become visible and be of significance. What distinguished them from the poor was that they had been offered, by virtue of birth and circumstances, the social substitute for political significance, which is consideration, and their personal distinction lay precisely in their having refused to settle in “the land of consideration” (as Henry James calls the domain of society), opting rather for the secluded obscurity of privacy where they could at least entertain and nourish their passion for significance and freedom. To be sure, this passion for freedom for its own sake, for the sole “pleasure to be able to speak, to act, to breathe” as Tocqueville put it, can arise only where men are already free in the sense that they do not have a master. The trouble is that this passion for public or political freedom can so easily be misunderstood for the perhaps far more vehement, although politically sterile, passionate hatred of masters, the longing of the oppressed for liberation. Such hatred, no doubt, is as old as recorded history and probably even older; it has, however, never yet resulted in revolution since it is incapable of even grasping, let alone realizing, the central idea of revolution, which is the founding of freedom—the foundation of a body politic that guarantees the space for freedom to appear.
Under modern conditions, the act of founding is identical with the framing of a constitution, and the calling of constitutional assemblies has quite rightly become the hallmark of revolution ever since the Declaration of Independence initiated the writing of constitutions for each of the American states and finally for the Union as a whole. (It is probable that this American precedent inspired the famous Oath of the Tennis Court in which the Third Estate swore that it would not disband before a constitution was written and duly accepted by the royal power.) Another hallmark of revolutions in our time is the tragic fate which awaited the first constitution in France: neither accepted by the king nor ever commissioned or ratified by the nation, the Constitution of 1791 remained a piece of paper, of more interest to the learned and the experts than to the people. Its authority was shattered even before it went into effect, and it was followed in quick succession by a whole series of constitutions until the very notion of constitution disintegrated beyond recognition. The deputies of the French Assembly who had declared themselves a permanent body and then, instead of taking their resolutions and deliberations back to the people, cut themselves adrift from their constituent powers, did not become founders or founding fathers, but they certainly were the ancestors of generations of experts and politicians to whom constitution-making was to become a favorite pastime because they had neither power nor a share in the shaping of events. It was in this process that the act of constitution-making lost its significance, and that the very notion of constitution came to be associated with a lack of reality and realism, with an overemphasis on legalism and formalities.
We today are still under the spell of this historical development, and so may find it difficult to understand that revolution on the one hand, and constitution and foundation on the other, are somewhat like correlative conjunctions. To the men of the 18th century, however, it was still a matter of course that they needed a constitution in order to lay down the boundaries of the new political realm and to define the rules within it; that they had to found and build a new political space within which the “passion for public freedom” or the “pursuit of public happiness” would receive free play for generations to come, so that their own “revolutionary” spirit could survive the actual end of the revolution. However, even in America where the foundation of a new body politic succeeded and where therefore, in a sense, the revolution achieved its actual end, this second task of revolution (to assure the survival of the spirit out of which the act of foundation sprang, to realize the principles which inspired it) was frustrated almost from the beginning. One of the forces, at least, that caused this failure can perhaps be found in the very use of the term “pursuit of happiness” that Jefferson himself, in the Declaration of Independence, had substituted for “property” in the old formula of “life, liberty and property,” which was used to define civil, as distinct from political, rights.
What makes Jefferson’s substitution suggestive is that he did not use the then current term “public happiness,” which was probably a significant American variation of the conventional idiom in royal proclamations where “the welfare and the happiness of our people” quite explicitly meant the private welfare of the subjects and their private happiness. The pre-revolutionary insistence on public happiness was revolutionary in essence because it insisted on the citizens’ right to a share in the public power as distinct from the subjects’ right to be protected by the government and even against the public power. Even more important in our context, the very fact that the term “happiness” was chosen in laying claim to a share in public power indicated very strongly that there existed such a thing as “public happiness,” and that men therefore could not be altogether “happy” if their happiness was located and enjoyed only in private life. The Declaration of Independence no doubt intends us to hear the term “pursuit of happiness” in its twofold meaning: private happiness as well as the right to public happiness, the pursuit of well-being as well as the right to appear in public. Jefferson himself was convinced that the happiness found in public life was the surest, perhaps the only guaranty of the new body politic. For “when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or Bonaparte.” But the rapidity with which the second meaning was forgotten and the term used and understood without its original qualifying adjective may well be the standard by which to measure, in America no less than in France, the loss of the original meaning and the oblivion of the spirit that had been manifest in the revolution.
What happened, finally, in France is now known to us in the form of a great tragedy. Those who desired liberation from their masters or from necessity (the great master of their masters) rushed to the assistance of those who desired to found a space for public freedom—with the inevitable result that priority had to be given to liberation and the men of the revolution came to pay less and less attention to what they had originally considered to be their most important business, the framing of a constitution. Tocqueville again is quite right when he remarks that “of all ideas and sentiments which prepared the Revolution, the notion and the taste of public liberty strictly speaking have been the first ones to disappear.” And yet, was Robespierre’s profound unwillingness to put an end to the revolution not due in part to his conviction that “constitutional government is chiefly concerned with civil liberty, revolutionary government with public liberty”? Must he not have feared that the end of revolutionary power and the beginning of constitutional government would spell the end of “public liberty”? That the new public space would wither away after it had suddenly burst into life and intoxicated them all with the wine of action which, as a matter of fact, is the same as the wine of freedom?
Whatever the answers to these questions may be, Robespierre’s clear-cut distinction between civil and public liberty bears an obvious resemblance to the vague, conceptually ambiguous American use of the term “happiness.” Preceding both revolutions, it had been in terms of civil liberties and public freedom, or of the people’s welfare and public happiness, that the hommes de lettres on either side of the Atlantic had tried to answer the old question: What is the end of government? That under the impact of revolution, the question now became “What is the end of revolution and revolutionary government?” was natural enough, although it happened only in France. In order to understand the answers given to this new question, it is important not to overlook the fact that the men of the revolutions, preoccupied as they had been with the phenomenon of tyranny—which deprives its subjects of both civil liberties and public freedom, of both private welfare and public happiness, and therefore tends to obliterate the distinguishing line between them—were able to discover the sharpness of the distinction between private interests and the common weal only in the course of the revolutions, during which the two principles came into conflict. This conflict, although the same in both revolutions, assumed very different expressions. For the American Revolution, it was a question of whether the new government was to constitute a realm of its own for the “public happiness” of its citizens, or whether it had been derived solely to serve and insure their pursuit of private happiness more effectively than had the old regime. For the French Revolution, it was a question of whether the end of revolutionary government lay in the establishment of a “constitutional government” which would terminate the region of public freedom through a guarantee of civil liberties and rights, or whether, for the sake of “public freedom,” the revolution should be declared in permanence. The guarantee of civil liberties and of the pursuit of private happiness had long been regarded as essential in all non-tyrannical governments where the rulers governed within the limits of the law. If nothing more was at stake, then the revolutionary change of government, the abolition of monarchy and the establishment of republics, must be regarded as accidents, provoked by no more than the wrong-headedness of the old regimes. Were this the case, reforms and not revolution, the exchange of a bad ruler for a better one rather than a change of government, should logically have followed.
As a matter of fact, the rather modest beginnings of both revolutions suggest that nothing more was originally intended than reforms in the direction of constitutional monarchies, even though the experience of the American people in the realm of “public happiness” must have been considerable prior to their conflict with England. The point, however, is that both the French and the American revolutions were very quickly driven to an insistence on the establishment of republican governments, and this insistence, together with the new violent antagonism of monarchists and republicans, grew directly out of the revolutions themselves. The men of the revolutions, at any rate, had made their acquaintance with “public happiness,” and the impact of this experience had been sufficiently profound for them to prefer under almost any circumstances—should the alternatives unhappily be put to them in such terms—public freedom to civil liberties or public happiness to private welfare. Behind Robespierre’s theories, which foreshadow the revolution declared in permanence, one can discern the uneasy, alarmed, and alarming question that was to disturb almost every revolutionary after him: if the end of revolution and the introduction of constitutional government spelled the end of public freedom, was it then even desirable to end the revolution?
Had Robespierre lived to watch the development of the new government of the United States, where the revolution had never seriously curtailed civil rights and, perhaps for this reason, succeeded precisely where the French Revolution failed, namely in the task of foundation (where, moreover and in this context most importantly, the founders had become rulers so that the end of revolution did not spell the end of their “public happiness”), his doubts might still conceivably have been confirmed. For the emphasis shifted almost at once from the contents of the Constitution—that is, the creation and partition of power, and the rise of a new realm where, in the words of Madison, “ambition would be checked by ambition” (the ambition, of course, to excel and be of “significance,” not the ambition to make a career)—to the Bill of Rights which contained the necessary constitutional restraints upon government; it shifted, in other words, from public freedom to civil liberty, or from a share in public affairs for the sake of public happiness to a guarantee that the pursuit of private happiness would be protected and furthered by public power. Jefferson’s new formula—so curiously equivocal from the beginning, recalling both the assurances of royal proclamations with their emphasis on the people’s private welfare (which implied their exclusion from public affairs) and the current pre-revolutionary phrase of “public happiness”—was almost immediately deprived of its double sense and understood as the right of citizens to pursue their personal interests and thus to act according to the rules of private self-interest. And these rules, whether they spring from dark desires of the heart or from the obscure necessities of the household, have never been notably “enlightened.”
In order to understand what happened in America one need only recall the outrage of Crèvecoeur, that great lover of American pre-revolutionary equality and prosperity, when his private happiness as a husbandman was interrupted by the outbreak of war and revolution—”demons” he considered to have been “let loose against us” by “those great personages who are so far elevated above the common rank of men” that they cared more for independence and the foundation of the republic than for the interests of husbandmen and householders. This conflict between private interests and public affairs played an enormous role in both revolutions, and generally speaking, one can say that the men of the revolutions were those who, out of their genuine love for public freedom and public happiness rather than out of any self-sacrificing idealism, consistently thought and acted in terms of public affairs. In America (whose existence as a country had originally been staked upon a contest of principle, and where rebellion had finally broken out over measures of trivial economic significance), the Constitution was ratified even by those who—in debt to British merchants to whose suits the Constitution would open the federal courts—had much to lose in terms of private interest, indicating that the founders had a majority of the people on their side at least throughout the revolution. Yet even during this period, one can clearly see how, from start to finish, Jefferson’s drive for a place of public happiness (his “elementary republics of the wards”) and John Adams’s passion for “emulation,” his spectemur agendo (“let us be seen in action,” that is, let us have a space where we are seen and can act) came into conflict with ruthless and fundamentally anti-political desires to be rid of all public cares and duties; to establish a mechanism of government administration through which men could control their rulers and still enjoy the advantages of monarchical government to be “ruled without their own agency”; to have “time not required for the supervision or choice of the public agents, or the enactment of laws,” so that “their attention may be exclusively given to their personal interests” (James Fenimore Cooper).
The outcome of the American Revolution, as distinct from the purposes which started it, has always been ambiguous and the question of whether the end of government was to be prosperity or freedom has never been settled. The question, of course, by no means presented itself as a clear-cut issue either in the minds of the American founders or the French revolutionaries, but from this it does not follow that it was not present. There has always been not only a difference but an antagonism between those who, in the words of Tocqueville, “seem to love liberty and only hate their masters,” and those who know that “Qui cherche dans la liberté autre chose qu’elle-même est fait pour servir” (“he who looks for anything in freedom but freedom itself is fit only for a servant”).
The extent to which the ambiguous character of the revolutions had derived from an equivocal attitude in the minds of the revolutionaries is perhaps best illustrated by those oddly self-contradicting formulations which Robespierre enunciated as the “Principles of Revolutionary Government.” He started by defining the aim of constitutional government as the preservation of the republic which the revolutionary government had founded for the purpose of establishing public freedom. Yet, no sooner had he defined the chief aim of constitutional government as “the preservation of public freedom” than he turned about, as it were, and corrected himself: “Under constitutional rule it is almost enough to protect the individuals against the abuses of public power.” With this second sentence, power is still public and in the hands of government, but the individual has become powerless and must be protected against the government. Freedom, on the other hand, has shifted places; it resides no longer in the public realm but rather in the private life of the citizens and so must be defended against the public and its power. Freedom and power have parted company, and the fateful equating of power with violence, of the political with government, and of government with a necessary evil—a “reflection upon human nature” in Madison’s telling phrase—has begun.
This, of course, is another way of saying that the social question interfered with the course of the American Revolution no less sharply, though far less dramatically, than it did with the course of the French Revolution. Yet the difference is still profound. Since America was never overwhelmed by poverty, it was “the fatal passion for sudden riches” rather than necessity that stood in the way of the founders of the republic. And this particular pursuit of happiness which, in the words of Judge Pendleton, has always tended “to extinguish every sentiment of political and moral duty,” could be held in abeyance at least long enough to dig the foundations and to erect the new building—though not long enough to change the minds of those who were to inhabit it. The result, in contradistinction to the European development, has been that the revolutionary notion of public happiness and political freedom has never altogether vanished from the American scene; rather, it has become part and parcel of the very structure of the political body of the republic. Whether this structure has a granite groundwork capable of withstanding the futile antics of a society bound to affluence and consumption, or whether it will yield under the pressure of wealth as the European communities have yielded under the pressure of wretchedness and misfortune, only the future can tell.
The point is that America has always been, for better or worse, an enterprise of European mankind. Not only the American Revolution but everything that happened before and after it “was an event within an Atlantic civilization as a whole,” as R. R. Palmer recently put it in his The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Thus, just as the fact that poverty was conquered in America had the deepest repercussions in Europe, so did the fact that misery remained for much longer the condition of Europe’s lower classes have a profound impact upon the course of events in America after the revolution. The foundation of freedom had been preceded by liberation from poverty, for America’s early, pre-revolutionary prosperity was, at least partly, the result of a deliberate and concentrated effort toward liberation from poverty such as had never been made in the countries of the Old World. This effort in itself, this early determination to conquer the seemingly sempiternal misery of mankind, is certainly one of the greatest achievements of Western history and of the history of mankind. The trouble was that the struggle to abolish poverty, under the impact of a continual mass immigration that yearly washed hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of Europe’s poorest classes onto American shores, fell more and more under the sway of the poor themselves, and hence under the guidance of the ideals born out of poverty rather than those principles which had inspired the foundation of freedom.
For abundance and endless consumption are the ideals of the poor, the mirage in the desert of misery. In this sense, affluence and wretchedness are only two sides of the same coin; the bonds of necessity need not be of iron, they can be made of silk. Freedom and luxury have always been considered incompatible, and the modern estimate that tends to blame the insistence of the founding fathers on frugality and, in Jefferson’s phrase, “simplicity of manners,” upon a Puritan contempt for the delights of the world suggests more an inability to understand freedom than a freedom from prejudice. For that “fatal passion for sudden riches” was never the vice of the sensuous but the dream of the poor; and this vice has been so prevalent in America, almost from the beginning of its colonization, because the country was, even in the 18th century, not only the “land of liberty, the seat of virtue, the asylum of the oppressed,” but also the promised land of those whose conditions hardly had prepared them for comprehending either liberty or virtue. It is Europe’s poverty as well that has taken its revenge in the ravages with which American prosperity and American mass society increasingly threaten the whole political realm. The hidden wish of poor men is not “To each according to his needs,” but “To each according to his desires.” And while it is true that freedom can come only to those whose needs have been fulfilled, it is equally true that it will escape those who are bent solely upon living for their desires. The American dream, as the 19th and 20th centuries under the impact of mass immigration came to understand it, was neither the dream of the American Revolution (the foundation of freedom) nor the dream of the French Revolution (the liberation of man); it was, unhappily, the dream of a “promised land” where milk and honey flow. And the fact that the development of modern technology was so soon able to realize this dream beyond anyone’s wildest expectation quite naturally had the effect of confirming for the dreamers that they really had come to live in the best of all possible worlds.
One can hardly deny that Crèvecoeur was right when he predicted that “the man will get the better of the citizen, [that] his political maxims will vanish”; that those who in all earnestness say: “The happiness of my family is the only object of my wishes,” will be applauded by nearly everybody when, in the name of democracy, they vent their rage against the “great personages who are so far elevated above the common rank of man” that their aspirations transcend their private happiness, or when, in the name of the “common man” and some confused notion of liberalism, they denounce public virtue (which certainly is not the virtue of the husbandman) as mere ambition, and those to whom they owe their freedom as “aristocrats” who (as in the case of John Adams) they believe were possessed by a “colossal vanity” (Vernon L. Parrington). The conversion of the citizen of the revolutions into the private individual of 19th-century society has often been described, usually in terms of the French Revolution which spoke of citoyens and bourgeois. On a more sophisticated level, we may consider this disappearance of the “taste for political freedom” as the withdrawal of the individual into an “inward domain of consciousness” where he finds the only “appropriate region of human liberty”; from this region, as though from a crumbling fortress, the individual, having gotten the better of the citizen, will then defend himself against a society which in its turn gets “the better of individuality” (John Stuart Mill). This process, more than the revolutions, determined the physiognomy of the 19th century as it partly does even that of the 20th.