Wall Street Journal: “The Real Revolution”
By William Anthony Hay
A Review of Revolutionary: George Washington’s War, by Robert L. O’Connell
Washington could have been a military dictator, the American Napoleon. Instead he led the new nation down ‘a narrow path of moderation,’ careful to avoid internal divisions.
Revolutions often follow a pattern: Noble aspirations give way to conflict. Ambitious men push aside idealists and, in turn, fall prey to rivals even more ruthless than they, eager to exploit the power vacuum created when institutions collapse. The original aims lost, a despot may emerge to re-impose order, which itself may possess only a brittle fragility.
What made the American Revolution different? The historian Robert O’Connell credits George Washington with serving as “the chief brake on its potential for excess.” Washington, he argues, “draped himself over the Revolution, tamped down its fires.” By doing so, he guided it on “a narrow path of moderation” that has had a lasting effect on America’s character and civic life.
Early in the rebellion’s first stirrings, well before war broke out in 1775, John Adams had seen a “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people”—an angry, urgent turn away from Britain to demand self-rule. Such a change might have signaled the emergence of something akin to the passions that would drive Revolutionary France toward the Terror or Spanish America toward its blood-soaked “wars of liberation.” But those paths the United States avoided…
William Anthony Hay is an Associate Professor of History at Mississippi State University and the James Madison Visiting Fellow at Princeton University for the 2019-2020 academic year. He specializes in British History, International Relations, and the Atlantic World over the long eighteenth century. Elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2009, Professor Hay is a past-president of the Southern Conference on British Studies. Before coming to Mississippi State, he directed a program on European politics and U.S. foreign policy at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Professor Hay also writes regularly for publications including the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, and Modern Age. His latest book, Lord Liverpool: A Political Life (The Boydell Press, 2018) takes the career and outlook of Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, one of Britain’s longest serving prime ministers as a way to explore the crucial transition from the Georgian to the Victorian era.
Professor Hay is a Jack Miller Center fellow.
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