I had an odd thought yesterday morning, apropos of what I’m about to write about in this post, but I thought it was funny enough in the weird connection it makes to lead off with it.
The musicals Hamilton and Rent don’t have very much in common besides being huge Broadway hits and featuring generally attractive, youthful casts. But they do both focus on ensembles of people who fancy themselves revolutionaries: in the first case, the ardent young men who become the United States’ founding fathers; in the second, a ragtag group of bohemian would-be artists who rebel against the suffocating strictures of mainstream culture. The title song of Rent signals their first act of resistance upon receiving an eviction notice. The song agonizes over how they’re “gonna pay last year’s rent,” but by the end resolves:
When they act tough—you call their bluff
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
Last year’s rent
This year’s rent
Next year’s rent
Rent rent rent rent rent
We’re not gonna pay rent
Whenever I think of Rent or hear its music, it always puts me in mind of the late great David Rakoff’s eviscerating critique of the musical (which you can listen to here), in which he points out that none of the play’s would-be artists seem ever to want to do the work of being artists. But his key bone of contention is: “Well … why won’t you pay your rent?” At the very end of his essay, he recounts, of his agonistic 20s:
There were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here’s something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.
It occurs to me, perhaps uncharitably, that the Revolutionary War part of Hamilton is basically the founding fathers chanting “We’re not gonna pay rent!—albeit with better songs and a somewhat more nuanced rationale for why they’re not gonna pay rent than their bohemian counterparts.
I had this weird thought after reading a column by Bret Stephens, one of the New York Times representative conservatives, titled “Robespierre’s America.” Happily, the TL;DR is in the subtitle: “We need to reclaim the spirit of 1776, not the certitudes of 1789.”
If you’re at all familiar with Stephens’ columns, you probably know what’s coming: an invective against the woke sanctimony of the politically correct left, compared unfavourably with the reason and rationality of the Enlightenment principles on which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were based. He enumerates a series of excesses—starting with his own victimization at the hands of a Twitter mob for calling Reza Aslan stupid—mostly recounted in the abstract, referring to professors afraid to offend students and publishers dropping books at the first whiff of controversy, comparing the ideological rigidity of the woke left to that of the Jacobins:
“Armed with the ‘truth,’ Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,” historian Susan Dunn wrote of the French Revolution. “Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people’s ‘enemies’ was obliterated.”
Leaving aside the egregious comparison of Twitter warriors with people who literally decapitated thousands, let’s address the implicit comparison Stephens makes between the American Revolution and the French—implicit, because he never explains what he means by the “spirit of 1776.” One assumes he’s citing the tacit understanding of America’s founding as rooted in and emerging from Enlightenment principles of reason, rationality, and spirited public debate—the very understanding, indeed, that made it possible for Lin-Manuel Miranda to write compelling rap battles about the creation of a national bank and the wisdom of carrying a national debt. Certainly, that’s the implied contrast with the ideological fanaticism of Robespierre and his murderous Jacobin thugs.
Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me overmuch—I find Bret Stephens’ columns annoying, but predictable and forgettable—but given that yesterday was the Fourth of July, I found myself in a headspace to think about 1776 and the American Revolution, so to me the most glaring aspect of “Robespierre’s America” is the way it so perfectly recapitulates—albeit implicitly—certain fallacies not just about the American Revolution, but revolutions generally.
I tend to be leery of revolutions, given that history teaches us that, the more extreme they are, the more they tend to turn into versions of their own worst selves. Hence, the French Revolution devolves into the Terror; the Russian Revolution turns into Stalinism. The fact that the American Revolution did not transform into something equally pernicious has been cited as evidence of American Exceptionalism, which is at least partially true; but I would argue that the principal reason the American Revolution had a relatively placid aftermath (yes, a lot of Loyalists were persecuted, often egregiously, but that hardly compares to 1790s Paris) is that nothing really changed. The radicalism of 1776 wasn’t that of material effect, but of promise—not what actually changed on the ground, but what could possibly change in the future.
For all intents and purposes, there were no upheavals in American life after the Declaration of Independence (well, aside from the war itself), by which I mean that the people in charge stayed in charge, and the power structures of the new United States were not appreciably different from the power structures of the Colonies. The King was not beheaded; the King was not even dethroned. George III basically had his status as absentee landlord revoked.
Hence my thought about Hamilton and Rent: the Boston Tea Party was basically a defiant gesture saying “We’re not gonna pay rent! Rent rent rent rent rent!”, as was the conflict that followed, and that defiant gesture is celebrated today as it was then. But after turfing the Brits, you bloody well better believe you’re paying your rent to the new owners.
By contrast, the French Revolution was about the radical overthrow of extant power, power so rooted in history, religion, and tradition that it went by the name of the ancien regime. And because of the weight of that history, it took decades to stabilize, something exacerbated by the fact that the rest of Europe was undergoing similar political upheavals. Is it any wonder that, mere years after guillotining the king, France had an Emperor?
(All of this is very broad strokes and probably has my historian friends pulling their hair out.)
As I said above, the true radicalism of 1776 wasn’t about the founding fathers’ present moment, but about the future—about what the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights could and can do when they become uncomfortably unavoidable. I’d argue that the true American Revolution—which is to say, the truly revolutionary moment in American history—wasn’t 1776 and the aftermath, but the Civil War. The confederates might have been the rebels, but Lincoln was the revolutionary, insofar as that the abolition of slavery overturned a foundational basis of American society. No such upending occurred in 1776, and the principle of revolutions turning into their worst selves has been painfully present in the U.S. since Andrew Johnson reversed all of the provisions made for newly freed slaves during Reconstruction, and white people in the South embarked on a sustained campaign of terror against them.
(To say nothing of everything that has happened since then, which I can’t do justice to here. If you haven’t already, read Ta-Nehisi Coates landmark essay “The Case for Reparations”).
Stephens’ opposition of “the spirit of 1776” to “the certitudes of 1789” completely glosses the material circumstances of both. The Revolutionary era of America comprises one of the most astounding argumentative ferments of history, with the debates over democracy, individual rights, proper governance, the best ways to defy and prevent tyranny, and myriad other considerations, taking place in taverns, drawing-rooms, the streets, and, most importantly, in print, with pamphlets and newspapers flying back and forth in paper fusillades. It was a period that evinced precisely the kind of civic engagement to which we should aspire, but always with one crucial caveat in mind: it was the provenance of what we today call privilege, and it has largely remained so ever since. The irony of Stephens’ longing for the “spirit of 1776” as inspired by having been savaged on Twitter, is that had the spirit of that era been as inclusive in practice as it was in principle, we might not be experiencing quite the same polarization today. Stephens’ Twitter Jacobins aren’t analogous to Robespierre, but to the citizens who stormed the Bastille: people finding a voice, voice which had previously been denied to them, through newly available means.
Speaking of revolutions that turn into their worst selves: the tech and digital revolution, specifically the rise of the internet, was heralded by many in the early-mid 1990s as a utopian shift in human connection and collective knowledge; quarter of a century later, we can see clearly how, even where some aspects of that dream have been realized, the benefits are ambivalent at best. But one key element of digital culture is that it has eroded the prominence of traditional gatekeepers of public discourse in print and visual media, allowing for a host of other platforms online or in social media. These platforms give voice to people who long went unheard, and it should not come as a huge shock that a lot of these voices are angry. It is difficult to try and make the case for “the spirit of 1776” to groups of people for whom, historically, that place within spirited public debate was never an option.
I have to believe, however, that that particular spirit isn’t dead, and if the Bret Stephens of the world would pay closer attention to the nuanced and thoughtful arguments unfolding both in “legacy” media and the new, insurgent spaces (and less attention to Twitter), they might be less convinced that there’s a tumbrel waiting for them. Of course, that’s likely a futile suggestion: more likely, it is precisely the growing presence of previously marginalized voices that threatens them and gives rise to the spectre of a guillotine with their name on it.