Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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INSURRECTION. Of all the trials to which political societies are unfortunately submitted before attaining their final constitution, the armed revolts attempted by minorities, either to obtain concessions from the ruling power, or to deprive it of its very authority, are not the least. When parties engage in strife with one another, insurrection is, so to speak, the last resource of the vanquished, and by its means force and audacity frequently triumph over right and reason. But if, on the one hand, history recalls instances of disastrous disorder, caused by popular revolt, it tells us also that, at periods of social transformation, the most certain elements of political progress have been produced many a time by insurrections. When despotism, thanks to the reaction which always occurs in a single day of these violent shocks, has not been able to strengthen itself, the bold attempts of minorities, who are forced to act against the laws, have the happy effect of robbing absolutism of all its prestige, and of hastening the realization of the conquests which public opinion had demanded in vain.


—We repeat, it is only in transformation periods that these phenomena can prove beneficial. As much as we applaud them then, just so much must we mistrust or resist them when progress, guaranteed by the institutions themselves, can follow its normal course. Nothing, therefore, can justify insurrection in principle, neither recollections of the past, nor any laws the parties may invoke. Robespierre has pompously styled it "the holiest of duties"; it is in reality neither a right nor a duty, but at most, under given circumstances, a sad necessity. And these circumstances must be carefully studied, in order that the responsibility for the results may always rest upon the authority which provokes them, and not upon the men whom they let loose upon a society already threatened. We here anticipate a sort of displacement of rights, or inversion of their order, that is, the case in which the government, being assailed, itself sets the example of rebellion, by the arbitrary suppression of constitutional rights, and the promoters of an insurrection find themselves the natural defenders of the laws and institutions—It is true, perhaps, that by this doctrine we still leave a wide door open to popular excesses. What party will not be ever ready to invoke, for the benefit of its passions, the exceptional circumstances which place on its side the merit of a grand initiative? What facilities do not bold agitators possess to lure the excited crowd on to their path, and urge them to a resistance so much the more energetic and violent as the means used consist entirely in working upon popular credulity and ignorance? It is natural for low minds to seek the realization of their hopes in the most brutal exercise of their rights.


—But these fears will gradually disappear, for the favorable opportunities formerly left to turbulent or audacious minorities are made fewer every day by the concessions made to democracy, and especially by the introduction into all political constitutions of guarantees for the free expression of the popular will and of respect for the same. One might say that the masses can henceforth, in the struggles which may arise between themselves and the authorities, seek shelter under a more worthy rampart than the barricades of the highways, we mean the rights, every day more extended, whose peaceful and steady use has made of them an arm ever raised against arbitrary power and despotism. When embodied in constitutions, these rights paralyze revolutionary efforts and destroy beforehand the ambitious calculations of those who foment insurrections.


—France is perhaps the country in which popular insurrections have occurred most frequently. After France comes Spain. But in Spain, as all know, these uprisings have generally been of a military character, stirred up by pretenders or by chiefs of parties, the prime movers being officers of the army, opposing flag to flag, or waving the national flag at the very foot of the throne. Italy also has had her bloody pages, the saddest of which is one which dates from the epoch of her political reconstruction, and bears inscribed upon it the name of one of the most popular heroes of Italian independence. Insurrections are not unknown in Germany, nor even in Switzerland; Belgium is itself the fruit of a popular uprising. In Spanish America, examples are even of more frequent occurrence than in Europe. The South American republics, not firmly established or badly governed, found from the beginning that they had borrowed from European civilization the most lamentable excesses of political agglomerations.


—So much for what we call internal insurrections. There are others of which we will speak here. The reader will readily divine that we refer to those insurrections that are fomented by a whole people, and have for their object either to break a federal compact, or to abolish treaties which weigh down a vanquished nation. These occupy in history a place apart. They very frequently involve all political and social equilibrium, by calling into question again an organization which had been established at the cost of great labor and care. On the continent of Europe they have often led to the alteration of ideas of diplomacy and given rise to important questions of principle. The first of these questions is that of the enfranchisement of nationalities, which immediately provokes inquiry as to the right of intervention or nonintervention.


—The principle of nationality can not be made the subject of particular observations in this article. (See NATIONALITY.) Let us merely state that it is in this principle that these national insurrections, which are to internal insurrections what riots are to revolutions, find their source. In like manner, we shall not dwell upon the principle of intervention, whose application may exercise a direct influence upon the results of an insurrectional movement. (See INTERVENTION.) In general, we think that all interference on the part of foreign governments in the affairs of a country where questions of partial enfranchisement or of restoration are being agitated, is blameworthy. If there be diplomatic action in favor of any cause, it is proper in certain cases, and the law of nations enjoins it whenever the rights of humanity and civilization are involved in the political interests of the debate. But, beyond this moral intervention, it is apt to lead to a breach of international pledges, respect for which forms the basis of political societies.


—To sum up, the insurrectionary movements that have occurred in the past seem to have been, not unfrequently, explosions which a careful authority would have easily prevented, by making honorable concessions, or by allowing greater liberty to political life. When nations have been compared to the impatient and restive children of a family, over whom paternal severity is called upon to exert itself, it should have been added that none of these régimes in which no account is taken either of age or temperament, should have been applied to either one or the other. Nature which has its wants, has also its revolts. Thus it was that insurrections were nearly always the consequence of restrictions too long imposed upon the satisfaction of the wants of nations, and thus it is also that we see them nearly always preceded by the same phenomena. Let us hope, therefore, that the progressive extension of public liberties will entirely prevent the return of those catastrophes, formerly of periodical occurrence in certain countries; for liberty is ever the best preservative against excesses of every kind. The evils attendant upon liberty, carry with them their own remedy, and nations can be really educated only under a system which facilitates the combined action of all minds and forces.


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