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"Notes on Thompson, Arendt, and Revolutionary Violence"


[The director of John Adams] chose to remind us that violence in colonial and revolutionary America wasn’t just momentary and spectacular, but also pervasive and structural.[1]

Peter Thompson, in remarks at the recent Revolution Reborn conference written up in Common-place, characterised the revolution as “an internal civil war of extraordinary violence, justified by the rhetoric of a country in peril and folded into a formalized war for independence directed against external troops and their savage native allies, a terror erupting with particular force whenever and wherever these two wars collided.”[2] Historians generally now accept that the United States had a “violent birth,” just as violent as any European revolution. That scene in John Adams, which never appeared in McCullough’s book, perhaps marks a watershed in public acknowledgment of revolutionary violence. If so, it is only the beginning of coming to terms with it.

Before we recognised the violence of the revolution, we had Hannah Arendt, the political theorist and philosopher whose 1963 book, On Revolution, marked the high-point of triumphalist, Cold War, consensus historiography. Arendt’s American Revolution was exceptional because, unlike the French and Russian Revolutions, it did not entail a civil war of extraordinary violence. “The superior wisdom of the American founders in theory and practice is conspicuous enough,” she wrote, “and yet… it is as though the American Revolution was achieved in a kind of ivory tower into which the fearful spectacle of human misery, the haunting voices of abject poverty, never penetrated…

Since there were no sufferings around them that could have aroused their passions [!!], no overwhelmingly urgent needs that would have tempted them to submit to necessity, no pity to lead them astray from reason, the men of the American Revolution remained men of action from beginning to end, from Declaration of Independence to the framing of the Constitution.[3]

For Arendt, then, it was the “social question” that distinguished American from French Revolutions. Because in her view and the view of her times, America lacked social tensions and inequalities, lacked the “spectacle of human misery” or the “haunting voices of abject poverty,” and thus lacked the motivation to resolve the social question, to redress unequal power relations, for those reasons the American Revolution had the privilege of cold reason and “superior wisdom.” This picture now bears very little resemblance to what we know about America or its revolution; yet the idea of the founders’ superior wisdom still sells many books.

Wowsers. Arendt got this so wrong, didn't she?

And it sure is interesting to look at the academic precariant taking a hard look at violence -- in this case, in a civil war. (The meme that the American Revolution was really a civil war, and the Civil War really the American Revolution, because it swept away an entire mode of production (slavery) and the ruling class supported by it, has been in the air for awhile, and I wonder if it originated with scholars affiliated with the Junto -- the name of the group blog.

NOTE Somewhere in my travels, I discovered that Leo Strauss tried to hit on Hannah Arendt, and she administered one of a series of devastating putdowns. I thought I read that in this article, but alas, I didn't, so I can't quote the putdown. It was funny, though! And so richly deserved, that weasel.

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V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on Nathaniel Philbrick and before that The Lady Elisabeth by Alison Weir. Innocent Traitor, also by Alison Weir, is about the Lady Jane Grey.
They are extremely informative of history in England and the subsequent settling of North America by Europeans.
It is easy to see the truth of *Revolutionary Violence*. I find it remarkable the infantile version of history carried by most Americans. America, as most here already know, was founded on Genocide and violence. I knew this at the age of 15 and got severely reprimanded for saying so in a paper I wrote.
Most won't have history that goes against long held beliefs.
What continues to greatly disturb is the renewed push of propaganda extolling American exceptionalism...

Submitted by lambert on

"... that could have aroused their passions," Arendt says. OK, we'll give her the Indians.

I lived for awhile in Philly in Center City, and there is a little house where Jefferson wrote that noble document, the declaration of independence. OTOH, he was probably attended by one or more slaves. So it is interesting to think of, say, John Adams, who did not own slaves, visiting that house and interacting with slave and master, both. We don't have that possibility now, so we should never imagine that huge changes in social relations do not happen.

Submitted by lambert on

Arendt's thesis is "Since there were no sufferings around them"

But clearly the Indian suffered, since they were thrown off their lands, massacred, and so forth.

But even if I concede ("give") Arendt that point, what about slaves? Were they not suffering "around" the Founders?