That view changed in the eighteenth century. Grotius came under much criticism. Locke recognized a right of revolution, as did, of course, the American Founders. Even those who located sovereignty in the people, however, cabined the right of revolution by restricting it to situations in which rebellion amounted to a sort of absolute necessity, which is how the American revolutionaries of 1776 portrayed their own struggle. They sought not to overthrow the existing order but to preserve their ancient liberties. Once independence was declared, they sought membership within the society of states, not defiance of its strictures. The American appeal to “thirteen solemn and sacred Compacts” and to a liberty founded “upon immutable statutes and tutelary laws” made their revolution fundamentally different from that of France. The French Revolution smashed the icons of legitimacy and blew away the past. The subsequent spiral of hostility between revolution and counterrevolution sparked a twenty-five-year war.
IN THE AFTERMATH of the French Revolution, the revolutionary idea fell into disrepute. The thinking world did not relish the demons that revolutionary change had unleashed in France. One American, Edward Everett, summarized in 1834 the attitude of the generation that survived the frenzied wars of the revolution:
The atrocious, the unexampled, the ungodly abuses of the reign of terror have made the very name of the French Revolution hateful to mankind. The blood chills, the flesh creeps, the hair stands on end, at the recital of its horrors; and no slight degree of the odium they occasion is unavoidably reflected on all who had any agency in bringing it on. The subsequent events in Europe have also involved the French Revolution in a deep political unpopularity. It is unpopular in Great Britain, in the rest of Europe, in America, in France itself.
Everett, the quintessential voice of New England Whiggery, went on to declare that the French Revolution was inevitable given the iniquities of the old regime. Still, in this era of disenchantment, observers looked askance at violent revolution as any sort of model of reform and enlightenment, even in republican America.
Europe’s “springtime of nations” in 1848 elicited a tremendous gush of approval in the United States—President James K. Polk commended Germany for seeking to emulate America’s experiment in federal union. When spring turned to fall and reaction set in, Americans were horrified. What to do? The vast majority displayed no inclination to intervene with force, but even those who scorned an entirely isolationist policy were careful, as in the days of old, to consider the right of revolution together with the question of foreign involvement. In a paper prepared with some like-minded fellows, Abraham Lincoln took a fairly advanced view of the matter, affirming in ringing tones the rights of the subject nationalities of Europe to overthrow their rulers but also insisting that “it is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.” Toward the actions of the Russian government in Hungary, in their brutal suppression of that nation’s bid for independence from Austria, Lincoln took the view later adopted by John Stuart Mill: Russian actions were illegitimate and gave rise to a right (but not really a duty) of counterintervention.
Lincoln declined to depart from America’s own “cherished principles of non-intervention” in this case, but he pointed to the logic that would subsequently be adopted when the noninterventionist disposition was ultimately overturned in the twentieth century. In essence, that was to see aggression as a fundamental threat to the legal order and to posit the necessity of counterintervention if the legal order was to be salvaged from certain ruin. But Lincoln’s thinking on this question also displayed a conservative bias toward order. He conceded to the Southern states, for example, the natural right of revolution under unbearable oppression, but also denied that secession from the government could be a legal remedy under the Constitution.
Like the older writers on the law of nations, Lincoln was aware of the potentially incendiary character of revolution. He laid down a strict duty of nonintervention on the part of outside powers. He was emphatic that outsiders were not to foment revolutions elsewhere. In this respect, Lincoln followed Jefferson and the widespread American consensus on these points. That consensus differed radically from the liberationist doctrines that France proclaimed in 1792 in a universal war to sweep despotism from Europe.
THE CONCEPTION that Lincoln held in the mid-nineteenth century is not the one the United States holds now. On the contrary, today the United States has fomented and assisted—indeed, often played a starring role in—a fair number of such revolutions. It has learned that to make omelets, you must break eggs. From a self-consciously conservative power in the early years of the Cold War, dedicated to containment as a middle path between rollback and surrender, the United States has fully emerged as a revolutionary power in the twenty-first century. No sooner were Iraq and Afghanistan put on the back burner than Libya, Syria and Ukraine flared up, and in each case the United States supported the side that wanted to overturn an existing government by violent means.
One feature of this giddy revolutionary fever is especially remarkable. A large part of the identity of the West in the twentieth century consisted of its justified aversion to the consequences of revolution, as they played out in Russia (1917), China (1949) and Iran (1979). All these venues featured plenty of hair-raising episodes that made the prospect of revolution as big a downer for the Cold War generation as it had been for Everett. During most of the Cold War, America was concerned with shoring up despotic allies, not throwing them out, and in its own mind it was often seeking balance with, rather than domination of, the Soviet adversary. Partly due to the memory of revolution’s rocky road, it supported order without a guilty conscience.
The experience of 1989 had the effect of pushing these traditional images of revolution into the shade, awakening the idea that what was coming to be called “peaceful revolution” would make further inroads just about everywhere. What had formerly connoted the seizure of power in anarchic conditions, producing totalitarianism, was now suddenly symbolized by enormous but peaceful crowds collectively discovering the sheer force of “people power” against autocrats. Because the Russians surrendered their empire in the West with hardly a shot, because Ferdinand Marcos fell to a jubilant crowd, because F. W. de Klerk relented, it came to be the expectation that revolution would be peaceful. 1989 ensured that we would make it our mission to support it.
Certainly, violent methods have sometimes brought about good results in human affairs. In the abstract, it would be difficult to completely disavow a right of revolution, but we also need to be aware that, concretely, revolution can mean a human disaster so immense that nothing good can possibly come out of it. The breakages of the state in Iraq, Libya and Syria are all testaments to that danger. They have loosed anarchy upon the world.
Even with a reluctant public mood, the United States remains a genuine revolutionary force, preaching a commitment to “democratic revolution” that in theory celebrates peace but in practice consists of lighting fires that it doesn’t know how to put out. The conjunction of its two legitimating doctrines—nearly unprecedented in international history and repudiated by the most eminent jurists in the Western tradition—has had an incendiary effect on the international system.
Such hyperactivity, under such a revolutionary spell, is dangerous to American security, because it keeps us in blood rivalry with nations and terrorists across the globe. It is also hypocritical, because it endorses methods of political change—by huge mobs or armed rebels—that we would never sanction at home. The Wall Street Journal will cheer a million-man march in Ukraine but would have you arrested for littering if you dropped a gum wrapper in Zuccotti Park. The U.S. and Western preference for unruly crowds overturning constitutional procedures is strictly for export, not for home consumption.
There are precedents for a reconsideration of the doctrines examined here. Notes historian Richard Tuck, summarizing the sober outlook of the writers who came after the religious wars: “Scared by what their continent had done to itself in the name of humanitarian intervention—for we must remember that this was how the Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War appeared to their participants,” they became yet more restrictive in the latitude they gave to external intervention. Tuck calls that new outlook isolationism, but it might as well be known as prudence. Contemplating the mangled bodies and deranged minds produced by war, especially civil war, many thinkers continued to affirm that the maintenance of civil order was a paramount dictate of reason. It is by no means obvious that they were wrong.
David C. Hendrickson is a professor of political science at Colorado College. He is the author of Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations, 1789–1941 (University Press of Kansas, 2009).