Revolutions are Messy


There are many sayings about revolutions, but my favorite is simply, “Revolutions are messy.” This seems to sum up the majority of the world’s revolutions, despite who wins or loses. The problem for Americans is that our Revolution was easy compared to most, so we tend to think all revolutions are as easy. If you lined up all the world’s revolutions in order from most radical to least, America would be pretty close to the least radical side. How much did we really change? We replaced the British aristocracy with American aristocracy. The Constitution allowed for representation, but only for white men with property who voted only for the House of Representatives. The British had the same right with the House of Commons.

Now the French and the Russians, they know how to throw a revolution. Whereas our Revolution was really top down, the French and Russian revolutions were bottom up. They turned everything on its head, getting rid of every type of institution imaginable, even religion. The masses took to the streets in what became more mob actions than political movements. It is telling that the symbol of the French Revolution became the guillotine, which was actually invented during the revolt to speed up the process of decapitating the rich and noble. Basically everyone associated with the crown was rounded up and separated from their heads. The royal families in both the French and the Russian revolutions were all assassinated quite violently. There is no such example in the American Revolution.

The other problem with most revolutions is they do not end with just one revolution, but instead spin off counter-revolutions or even more revolutionary movements. The Russians had a revolution in February 1917 which overthrew the Czar but was followed up with a second revolution in October of the same year that brought the Bolsheviks to power. They then fought a bloody civil war between the Whites and the Reds until 1923. As for the French, their first government of the Revolution was the National Assembly, created in 1789 and followed by the Legislative Assembly in 1791. The First Republic took power in 1793 and instituted the Reign of Terror only to be ousted by The Directory in 1795. Finally, Napoleon took over in 1799, bringing some stability. With both the Russians and the French, each regime change brought a great deal of bloodshed.

Finally, revolutions eat their young. They have a tendency to turn on their creators and their ideas. Once a revolution is started, it can easily spin out of control. Revolutions go well as long as the mobs are for you, but what happens when they turn on what you believe? In order to protect a revolution, leaders must either contain it or be prepared for leaders and goals to be attacked. We see this with key leaders of both the French and Russian revolutions. Leon Trotsky was a vital figure in the Russian Revolution and number two behind Lenin. He helped start the October Revolution and led the Red Army to victory over the Whites. Yet when Lenin died, Joseph Stalin took control of the country, forcing Trotsky to flee to Mexico where he is later assassinated. The name and image of Trotsky was erased from Russian history books and memorials. For the French, the great figure was Maximilien Robespierre. Not only did he help start the agitation that led to the Revolution, he also became the leader of the government and key player in the Reign of Terror. However, when the tide shifted, he found his head on the chopping block to which he had sent so many before him.

As we are in the midst of a cultural revolution in America, it seems inevitable that this revolution will get messy. As with the French Revolution, the people only tend to tolerate so much before either the revolution is contained or it turns on its own. I have two examples. A few weeks back, activist Shaun King in support of Black Lives Matter tweeted that all images of a white Jesus and the Virgin Mary should be removed. Initially it made a big splash, but then faded away. I can only speculate that leaders of the movement recognized that he had gone too far. There are many liberal Christians who support this movement who may find the removal of Jesus in any color too radical. Not to mention a large Hispanic community that puts a great value on the Virgin Mary. The movement may have pulled back, but I suspect the Republicans will try to remind everyone come November.

The second example I wrote about in one of my daily Class Notes and received some interesting reaction. Over the 4th of July weekend, I was struck by the oddity of names and monuments of historical slave holders being removed while at the same time the nation celebrated the story of another slaveholder. The cultural phenomenon that is “Hamilton” is a celebration of diversity as the all-white characters are played by people of color. However, just because the play claims Hamilton and his friends were anti-slavery did not make it so. According to Harvard Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, Hamilton at best only bought and sold slaves for his family and at worse owned them himself. Every principle character in the play owned slaves except for John Laurens, who did oppose slavery but used his father’s slaves for his valets during the war.

So as I started this piece, revolutions are messy. I love “Hamilton.” I have enjoyed the play since the first time I saw it live. But is it okay to celebrate and honor his life? Hamilton betrayed his country, fought to establish a slave nation, and participated in the slave trade. How can we justify forgiving the sins of some historical figures, if they sing catchy songs, and yet condemn others for the same sins. Historically speaking, it seems like it has to be one or the other. Will this revolution have to be reined in or will Hamilton become our Robespierre, sacrificed on the altar of the revolution?

Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. For daily history posts Follow Historically Speaking at or on Facebook.

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