Arthur Herman: Different revolutions — Some seek to destroy. Here's what we did in 1776 instead

The American chose to offer freedom for all, under the rule of law

On the eve of this Fourth of July, there have been two cautionary tales playing out before our eyes.

The first is the brutal crackdown by the Chinese Communist government on Hong Kong. The other has been the closing down of CHOP in Seattle.

Visuals of the police in action imposing order in both cases might look similar. But in fact, they express two very different political traditions — and two radically different revolutions.

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In Hong Kong police powers are being used to shut down freedom and to impose a totalitarian regime. It’s the ugly legacy of the French revolution in 1789, and its various communist offspring.

In Seattle, the police had to act to protect freedom under the rule of law, and even preserve life itself. That’s the legacy of the American Revolution of 1776.

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Both revolutions started in the same month, 13 years apart: one on July 14, the other on July 4. But their consequences could not be more different, even contradictory, for humanity.

The American version of revolution, for all its mistakes and shortcomings, led to a Constitution that has made us and kept us the freest and most prosperous nation on earth.

The French version led to the Reign of Terror and bloody wars of conquest that plunged Europe into chaos for more than two decades. That revolution also directly inspired the ideas of Karl Marx, Lenin, and the denizens of the Russian revolution and Chinese revolutions, which later murdered tens of millions and created the most tyrannical regimes in history.

Why so different? Because the legatees of the French revolution — which include the protesters and rioters in Seattle and New York City — were driven above all by the idea that freedom required the destruction of the existing social and political order.

What we celebrate on the Fourth of July is not just American independence. We celebrate a model for political change that celebrates individual freedoms.  

Their mentality is symbolized not only by the Reign of Terror but Lenin’s War Communism, Stalin’s Great Terror and Mao’s Great Leap Forward. It is summed up by a character in Goethe’s epic poem “Faust,” “everything that exists must be destroyed.” That character, by the way, is the devil, Mephistopheles, and the quotation became Marx’s favorite phrase.

What the world has learned since (and it seems children and their teachers in our schools and colleges still have not) is that instead of freedom, that kind of revolution leads to vicious tyranny of the worst kind.

By contrast, the men (and they were men) who signed the Declaration of Independence launched a fundamentally conservative revolution. Their goal was to extend political and individual freedom within an already existing social and political system, which they saw as the best path forward for human progress as well as their new nation.

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They saw their revolution as reinforcing, not destroying, an Anglo-Scottish tradition of the rule of law embodied in the phrase “the rights of freeborn Englishmen” — the same tradition, incidentally, that became enshrined in the laws governing Hong Kong and which made it the freest and most prosperous city on mainland Asia. That is, until the Communist leadership in Beijing decided to sweep those rights and freedoms away.

What we celebrate on the Fourth of July is not just American independence or a particular document signed by a bunch of dead white males. We celebrate a model for political change that celebrates individual freedoms instead of trying to stamp them out.

It’s a model that ultimately opened the door to freedom for all Americans under the rule of law, instead of the rule of the mob or the secret police. It’s an ideal of freedom that ultimately freed the slaves, gave votes to women, and made us a nation of immigrants instead of (what radicals like to claim) a nation of racists.

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The power of those words still lives on — and still lights the way for America and the world.

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