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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REVOLUTION. The word revolution is, in its political signification, so peculiar to the French language, that other languages adopt it without any modification, in default of being able to find a suitable equivalent. The Latin term, which it reproduces phonetically, has never had the same meaning; and the course of things subject to an order of successive changes, as the revolution of the stars, implies a regularity and a kind of predisposition which do not appear to be a necessary condition of political revolutions. The latter, or the changes which take place in public affairs, differ considerably in importance, in extent and in duration, as in their form, their object and their result; but they have generally the characteristic of carrying a certain disturbance into the established order of things, and in our day this disturbance has become a trait sufficiently prominent and grave, for the name of revolution to be applied almost exclusively to political changes in which violence has played a part.


—We must then almost always, in speaking of revolutions, make a distinction between the times preceding and following the French revolution. Before that event, which has become, so to speak, the type with which all others called by the same name are compared, people understood indistinctively by revolutions, either accidental and partial changes in the course of affairs, which all more especially depend on the will of individuals, or the profound and general changes which are brought about by time and the inclinations of the public, and which resemble the dénouement or at least the catastrophe of a long drama, in which neither incidents nor characters have been lacking. It is in the former sense that Montesquieu speaks when he says: "Revolutions occur every ten years in France." He evidently designates by these words the capricious changes caused by individual influences and temporary embarrassment in a government in which neither institutions nor characters have any stability. These frequent changes are more particularly met with in absolute monarchies and pure democracies. Montesquieu adopted the second meaning, and expressed a different thought, when he wrote these lines: "Many centuries are sometimes necessary to pave the way for changes. Events ripen, and lo! the revolution breaks forth. Such are the revolutions of empires upon which great minds love to meditate, and which are the principal subject of the political part of Bossuet's "Discourse on Universal History." When we consider them methodically, connecting them with each other, we cause to enter into the general idea of a revolution the idea of a certain order which popular language seems to exclude from it. However contingent may be the events in which human activity plays the chief part, there are in nature and in the destiny of man general causes, unceasingly renewed, which in the long run, combine to produce general effects susceptible of being foreseen in their aggregate, or at least of being explained by the sagacity of the statesman, of the publicist and of the historian; and these real facts appear, after they have been accomplished, impressed with a stamp of a relative necessity which is nothing but the force of things, that is to say, the natural bond between causes and their effects. But among these causes it must never be forgotten that the principal one, on this earth of ours, will always be that free cause called man.


—But it is hard to give a date in history to revolutions as thus understood. For their origin is in the depths of the past, and in this sense one might say that they are always preparing and never finished, However, a distinction has been made, and rightly so, between the, so to speak, perpetual revolution which is the slow work of ages, and the distinct manifestations, the special crises which occur in the history of peoples, and which attest in a palpable manner the work of time and the condition to which the course of ages carries powers, laws and customs, or minds and things. Then, events having ripened, some incident, a personal mistake, a fortuitous fancy, a profound scheme, in short, a determination of the will of individuals or of the masses, provokes a serious change in the state which concerns either the government or society, and transforms one or the other in a lasting manner. It was outbursts of this kind which men have in mind when they speak of the Dutch, English or American revolution. These names designate various limited series of facts sufficiently connected with each other easily to form a harmony, and which can be connected with direct causes, the date of which is assignable. We can scarcely conceive of this sort of revolution without the intervention of force, acting outside the law. The news so often received in our time of a revolution accomplished at a given moment upon a point of the inhabited globe, suggests immediately the idea of a more or less rapid change, effected either in the government, or in society, and in which violence, or the threat of it, has not been wanting, The same change, lawfully effected, would be called a reform.


—It is this intervention of force, almost inevitable in a trial of this kind, this character of illegality and violence, which makes all revolution a very grave matter for both the conscience and the reason. Even when arising from serious causes, a revolution is always a formidable and extreme measure, which should be neither lightly undertaken, easily accepted, nor blindly amnestied, no matter what the object of it, were it even the restoration of order or that of liberty. These coups d'état, even when the work of a nation, are, in internal politics, what war is in international law; and the citizens or the powers who hazard a revolution without necessity or justice, incur the same responsibility as the authors of a war which is neither just nor necessary. Independently, then, of the lawfulness of the end, the first and absolute condition of every political undertaking, the use of force, constitutes the dubious point in all questions of war or of revolution. The nature, the duration, the intensity, the success of a means odious in itself and only exceptionally licit, should be well weighed before solving the problem which is imposed upon whomsoever intends to decide the fate of men by arms.


—The part played by force in all revolutions has made its name suspicious to a large number of upright and dispassionate minds, of whose scruples and weaknesses parties and powers often take advantage. It is thus that a certain school has striven to use this abstract expression of revolution in a bad sense. We often read that such or such a cause, such or such an enterprise, would succeed if revolution does not meddle with it. This designedly equivocal form of speech tends to decry with good citizens a certain aggregate of ideas and sentiments which brought about the liberal revolutions of which this age has afforded so many examples. At bottom it is intended, under the name of revolution to proscribe the so-called principles of 1789, that is to say, of the revolution of July 14th, in France. This language is a mask which must be torn away. If, on the contrary, the only object be to put people on their guard against violence in the passions and the acts which is too frequently the accompaniment and the ruin of revolutions, it is not these latter principles which are to be condemned en masse, but the revolutionary spirit. This last epithet, invented by the English and the Americans, and which is used among them in a neutral sense as the adjective of the noun revolution, has, with the French, hardly any but an odious sense. The revolutionary spirit may thus continue to be understood as a spirit which seeks revolutions without scruple, without measure and without choice. As the dictatorial spirit differs from the governmental spirit, and the soldierly spirit from the warlike, so should the liberal spirit be distinguished from the revolutionary spirit. The first dreads revolutions, labors to avoid them, and has recourse to them only in the last extremity; the second seeks them, paves the way for them; it commences with them, and offers to itself as an end what is only a last resort. These distinctions, always ignored, should be always insisted on and constantly called to mind. Thus, in political history, we must distinguish the revolution of the ages, or that long life of humanity, sown with innumerable events which conduct it, as it were, from station to station toward an unknown goal; then, the changes in the divisions of universal society, or in the civil and moral constitution of special political societies, changes which are brought about in the course of centuries, and which are called revolutions; then again we must distinguish those revolutions which are but the crises of the chronic condition which gives a new aspect to affairs, or those abrupt changes, the work of an accidental will or of a fortuitous circumstance. In short, for nearly ninety years, since the era opened by the French revolution, the word revolution designates more especially such of these reformatory changes as have for their object the progress of liberty and equality. The reactions of which they are often the cause are revolutions in an inverse sense, and are often, for this reason, called counter-revolutions. A revolution lawful in its aim, just in its principles, moderate in its acts, happy in its results, and durable in its work, is the political ideal which the nineteenth century seems to be pursuing.


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