In celebrating our American Revolution, we tend to see it as the simple act of a united people whose happy outcome was virtually assured by our declaration of independence in 1776. For us, it becomes an all but inevitable event rather than a messy and contingent business. This view hinders our ability to understand and relate to the revolutions swirling around us, particularly those in the Arab world.
To succeed, all popular democratic revolutions — whether in 18th-century America or the Middle East today — must have two essential stages. First, the rebels must overturn the existing undemocratic order. For the American Revolution, this meant ending British rule, which required seven harsh years of armed conflict.
To use the 2011 Libyan revolution as a modern example from the Arab world, deposing Moammar Gadhafi took nearly a year of active fighting. In both cases, foreign military assistance proved necessary for success, and the fighting caused widespread civilian dislocation. Fearing for their lives and property, thousands of British loyalists fled the advance of patriot armies in America and became permanent refugees overseas, just as thousands fled the rebels in Libya and sought refuge elsewhere.
Second, a stable, broadly representative regime must arise to replace the previous tyrannical one. For the United States, this required an additional six years that started with an unstable confederation of increasingly restive states, ran through a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and culminated in the inauguration of George Washington in 1789 as the first president under a new federal government. This second phase has so far eluded Arab revolutionaries in Libya and elsewhere.
They are not alone. Through history, some revolutions, such as the one in 1917 Russia, led to tyrannies worse than those preceding them. Others descended into prolonged chaos, as happened in France during the 1790s and now appears likely in Libya. Looking back, without Washington, either result might have happened here, the former if he had not retired following our first revolution, the latter had he not reemerged in 1787 for what some historians depict as America’s second revolution.
Washington stepped down after the Revolutionary War and left the country’s political future to others. Extolled by later historians as the signal event that set the country’s political course, this act was similarly praised at the time.
Citing examples from Julius Caesar to Oliver Cromwell, British critics during the war had scoffed at Americans for rebelling against one King George only to gain another in George Washington. Successful rebel leaders inevitably become tyrants, they said. Indeed, when expatriate American painter Benjamin West predicted that Washington would retire upon the cessation of hostilities, a skeptical George III reportedly replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” This story is widely known, so let me focus on the other half of this balancing act: Washington’s role in forming a more perfect union through a second revolutionary intervention.
When he retired after the war, Washington hoped for an energetic republic to unite the states and preserve liberty. When this did not happen, he began lobbying for constitutional reform, starting with a widely circulated letter to the states in 1783 and continuing in countless private letters. In 1787, he agreed to reenter the public stage by presiding over a convention to draft a new federal constitution. It produced a revolutionary document consolidating authority over interstate commerce, foreign affairs, national defense, and taxing and spending for the general welfare in a broadly representative central government. And unlike many of the failing state governments, this new federal one was corralled by checks and balances designed to preserve liberty, protect property, and ensure republican rule.
Washington then played a key role in securing the ratification of that Constitution and managing the ensuing election of a federalist-minded first Congress to implement it. He, of course, became president. Speaking of Washington’s role in the process, Thomas Jefferson later commented, “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
The fading Arab Spring needs its Washingtons. Nation building from without may help, but it cannot substitute for transformative domestic leaders. Think of the role that Nelson Mandela played in South Africa or Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic. Through example, they, like Washington, become models for republican rule. Leaders need to step forward in Libya and the other nations mired in unfinished popular revolutions.
With ours having taken so long and been so messy, we cannot expect other revolutions to happen overnight or be painless. But we do know that in the contingent flow of events that becomes history, a few moral leaders can make a lasting difference. Washington was one.