Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

American Political Culture

Contrasting Models of Revolutionary Leadership

American Models of Revolutionary Leadership, Chapter 1

Daniel J. Elazar

No dimension of the revolutions of the modern world has been more crucial to their outcome than leadership. Think of Cromwell, Washington, Napoleon, and Lenin; of Samuel Adams, Robespierre, and Trotsky. The mere mention of the names clarifies the question. In an age of revolutions, in which every revolution at least pretends to democratic ends, it is the leadership of each that has made the difference.

In March 1783, George Washington assembled the officers of his army at Newburgh, New York, in a manner that most clearly expressed the standard for American revolutionary leadership. At one time every American schoolchild knew the story and at least the gist of Washington's words. The Continental Army, fresh from its victory over the British and in the aftermath of the peace treaty signed between the newly recognized United States of America and Great Britain, was instructed to disband without soldiers and officers receiving the pay due them. Feeling was running high in certain circles in the army that the Confederation Congress was unable to govern and that the only way to save the country was for the army to take power and install Washington as the head of a new government -- to transform Washington into a Cromwell. Washington, rejecting all such thoughts, used his farewell to his officers to drive the point home, beginning so dramatically by pulling out his spectacles to read his farewell address with the comment, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country," thereby bringing tears to the eyes of his companions and winning the day before he read a word of his text.1 The myth alone has inspired generations of Americans to respect their democratic institutions even when they seem to be functioning less than adequately.

In every aspect of his career George Washington set a new and special example of revolutionary leadership. His leadership was assured through his commanding moral posture rather than through any particular brilliance. His principal talent was in holding together semi-voluntary coalitions, military and political. Every office he held was gained through legitimate means, either election or appointment. Although he was personally ambitious, his ambitions were all directed to achieving position within a constitutional framework. Radical in his opposition to British encroachments on American liberties and in his advocacy of American independence, he was conservative in his emphasis on maintaining constitutional processes and institutional continuity as far as possible. Perhaps the best single word to describe his leadership is "sober." In this respect he is the exemplar of Martin Diamond's definition of the American Revolution as a "revolution of sober expectations.2

Unfortunately, Washington's standard for revolutionary leadership has not been widely emulated outside the United States, just as the American Revolution has been emulated far less than the French Revolution by other modern revolutionary movements. The standard for revolutionary leadership for most of the world has been set by Robespierre and Napoleon, not by Washington and his compatriots. Robespierre reflects the impatience of the ideologist fanatically committed to his cause with any restraints that might prevent him from achieving total social and political revolution. Napoleon is the model opportunist of great ambition and talent who emerges out of the wreckage of revolution to inherit power by brilliantly combining a certain lip-service to revolutionary ideals with implementation of those aspects of the original revolutionary program that advance his popularity and legitimacy while aborting all the others. What Robespierre and Napoleon were to France, Lenin and Stalin were to Russia. And the Russian Revolution is only the most prominent example of the repetition of the French revolutionary pattern. In this contrast the American Revolution gains even greater luster.

The Problem: Revolution and Great Ambition

Political ambition, like other kinds of ambition, is a basic human appetite. John Adams went so far as to suggest that ambition was the basic human appetite, which may have reflected more upon him than upon humanity but is not entirely wide of the mark.3 Like other human appetites, ambition is not evenly distributed among the population, but enough people with substantial political ambition are naturally drawn to political careers to make the problem of controlling it a major aspect of constitutional government. Indeed, the other founders of the United States were as aware of this problem as was Adams and devoted much of their concern for constitutional design to dealing with it. The Federalist emphasizes that the American Constitution is designed so that ambition will counteract ambition, that being a basic reason for introducing checks and balances into the political system.4

Revolutions by their very nature stimulate ambition and offer new opportunities for its exercise, especially, but not exclusively, for people new to the political arena. Moreover, revolutions are particularly attractive to those very few who have extraordinary political ambition. Such people are likely to exist in every generation, and if they cannot capitalize upon a revolution not of their own creation, they seek to generate one for their own purposes. Abraham Lincoln was acutely aware of this problem and provided one of the most felicitous discussions of it in his well-known address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield:

That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now [1838], is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one. Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it: -- their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. they succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question, then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle[.] What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object; and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.5

Lincoln properly suggests that the principal leaders in revolutionary times will not be people of ordinary political ambition but are likely to be of the family of the lion and the tribe of the eagle, who are potentially very dangerous to the body politic -- certainly to republican institutions. Most civil societies that have undergone revolutions have been unable to control this product of revolution. Of the four great revolutions of the modern epoch, only one, the American, was able to do so.

The English Revolution (civil war), despite the great tradition of the liberties of Englishmen and the extensive institutionalization of that tradition over the previous 450 years or more, produced Oliver Cromwell, who seized power in the name of the revolution and become a despot bound only by his sense of God's expectations and his inclination to benevolence. Neither was sufficient to prevent public dissatisfaction with his rule and the ultimate restoration of the monarchy. However lacking in character the Stuarts were, the institution of the monarchy was preferable for Englishmen, even most of those of the Puritan persuasion, to a despotism, however benevolent, that seemed to be heading toward a new dynasty.

I have already suggested that the French and Russian revolutions failed even more miserably from this perspective. The traditions of English liberty rather quickly brought down Cromwell's regime and in relatively short order transformed the monarchy as well. The French Revolution produced its Robespierre as quickly as the English civil war produced Cromwell. But since Robespierre lacked all sense of restraint, neither bowing to God nor possessing a spirit of benevolence, his excesses were exacerbated just as quickly, and his downfall was more rapid and painful. His fate did not dampen the ambitions of his successors, since the situation was structurally oriented to encourage similar excesses. Only their lack of talent prevented them from achieving similar dominance until Napoleon, who was both more talented and less principled than Robespierre, came along. Although he captured the imagination of France and has held the affections of his countrymen to this day, any objective observer would have to rank him as an utter betrayer of the revolution, even though he capitalized on revolutionary ideals to bleed France on a hundred battlefields and to assert his own absolute power as ruler of that hapless country.

Napoleon's ambition knew no bounds and was further fed by his assessment that, as an upstart, he needed one success after another to stay in power. As a result he overreached himself and fell, not only bringing back the Bourbons, but starting a tradition of French military defeat that has persisted ever since. (Since the early days of his ascendancy, France has not won a war against an equal power, except on the backs of its allies.) Moreover, the struggle between those who desired Napoleonic leadership and those who feared it kept France in turmoil for the next 150 years until Charles De Gaulle, the first French leader to follow the Washingtonian model, albeit with a French style, brought the French Revolution to a successful conclusion by securing the involvement of the full political spectrum in the writing of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. Under his leadership a regime was inaugurated that had the consent of virtually all the French people for the first time since 1789.

The Russian Revolution brought an even worse result, since Russia had even fewer institutional and cultural restraints on the excesses of leaders than did France. When the Bolsheviks seized power in an absolutist state their leader, V.I. Lenin, simply used the existing absolutist tradition to become the Russian Revolution's Robespierre without suffering the same consequences. Lenin consolidated the power of his party and regime, leaving both intact to be inherited by Joseph Stalin after a relatively mild power struggle among possible successors.

Lenin destroyed any possibility of democratic republicanism and the introduction of civil liberties through his ruthless pursuit of revolutionary goals. Stalin reinforced the results and went beyond Lenin for reasons more personal than ideological. Between the two of them they generated quantitatively the greatest bloodbath of the twentieth century and possibly of all time, utterly aborting the ideals they presumably sought to advance and imposing upon the peoples of the Soviet Union a despotism more comprehensive and penetrating in its scope than any known before.

In each of these cases, the goals of the revolutionaries were admirable enough (if in some cases too utopian to stand a chance of success). They were perverted by the leaders spawned by the revolutions themselves. To state that is not sufficient, however, to explain why these revolutions spawned such leadership and the American Revolution did not. However important, leadership is but one factor in revolutionary situations. Two other factors of equal weight are the character of popular participation and the institutionalization of the results. Every revolution could and should be assessed in terms of the action of the public that made or joined it, in the character of its revolutionary leadership, and in the way its goals were subsequently institutionalized.

It is in the nature of revolutions that there will be popular involvement. That is what distinguishes them from rebellions or palace uprisings. So it is not the existence of popular participation, but its character and quality that constitutes the crucial question.

The characteristic manifestations of popular participation in the American Revolution were the town meetings and the committees of correspondence, the state militias and the Continental Line; in other words, self-organized means of popular expression. Contrast that with the principal image of the French Revolution, the Parisian mob storming the Bastille or cheering on the reign of terror; or the Russian Revolution with its "masses" storming the Winter Palace and other institutions of the regime. In both cases the reality matched the image. Mobs and masses were important, and the successful leaders were those demagogues who could capture them or manipulators who learned how to turn them out. Only the English civil war, with its Puritan congregations and New Model Army, presents an image similar to that of the American Revolution.

This is not to say there were no mobs in the American Revolution. There were some. The best known were relatively lighthearted, like the highly organized "mob" that dumped the tea into Boston harbor. Others -- those that attacked the Tories -- were far more vicious. But such mobs as emerged were small and local; their role was very minor in the overall scheme of things and had no real political significance. Certainly they did not influence the decisions of the governing bodies -- local, provincial or state, or continental.6

So, too, it may be added, were there occasional mobs during the English civil war, of the same relative unimportance. Cromwell seized power with an army behind him. Before that, the king was deposed, tried, and executed by Parliament.

Thus the American Revolution had a precedent for organized popular action, but the Americans carried it to new heights in scope and spread. This in turn ensured that all revolutionary leaders were, from the first, representative of organized bodies of citizens and were empowered to act through legal and orderly processes of election or appointment. Leaders did not rise to power through usurpation because they could not. There never was a stage of anarchy in the American Revolution; power was transferred in an orderly fashion; often the same bodies previously authorized to govern under the British simply disbanded within that framework and reconstituted themselves within the new one on the basis of local and statewide political compacts. Delegates to the Continental Congresses were elected by those in similar bodies, and the congresses were never rump forums.

The American revolutionaries went to great lengths to develop or sharpen a theory of popular sovereignty through political compact to ensure the legitimacy of their actions.7 But even more than theory, they maintained regular and proper procedures throughout the Revolution. Indeed, due process became a principal means of legitimization that was carried over into post-revolutionary American constitutionalism to maintain standards of right action by governments and legitimate channels for political and social change.

Stated in so few words, no doubt the picture seems prettier than it was in reality. There were, after all, Tories who were driven out of the country. Still, the American Revolution is the only one in which no one was executed for his political stance. While there might have been excesses in one locality or another, the overall picture presented here is the most accurate one.

The initial institutionalization of popular participation continued throughout the revolutionary period, from its pre-revolutionary stages beginning in 1763 through the writing and ratification of the 1787 Constitution and the organization of the new federal government in 1789. It occurred in every arena, from the most local to the national, and moved forward as the Revolution progressed and then had to be consolidated. Moreover, there were consistent and continuous relationships between the institutions of each arena that interacted with one another to empower each other to act. To an extraordinary degree what formally became the American political system after completion of the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in March 1781 was a political system from the first, from 1763 onward. Elsewhere I have discussed and documented some of the patterns of interaction leading up to the Declaration of Independence.8 Historians of the period have done the same in far greater depth with regard to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787. In the past few years there has been a spate of excellent studies on the interplay between local and state bodies with regard to the formation of the individual states and the adoption of their revolutionary era constitutions.9 In sum, American revolutionary leaders had to function not only within the context of ordered popular control, but within an institutionalized framework that protected the Revolution and did not allow counterrevolutionary leaders even to appear.

Contrast this with the other three great revolutions. The English civil war, which did quite well in popular participation and produced good leadership in the first stages of the conflict with the king and for the war itself, failed in its efforts at institutionalization almost from the first. Although the existing institutions, both governmental and religious, prevented any serious manifestations of anarchy, they were unable to work out either the additional institutional apparatus or the inter-institutional relationships necessary to create a new overarching framework. This led to the collapse of the revolutionary movement within half a generation of the outbreak of civil war and to the restoration of the old Stuart regime. Without proper institutionalization in the countrywide arena, national leadership became a matter of usurpation, however fine its motive, and ultimately a betrayal of the revolution.

The French Revolution began with a variety of efforts to institutionalize the popular uprising, but all failed until Napoleon usurped power and imposed an institutional structure on the country. In the interim, France went through a period of virtual anarchy for nearly ten years. There is a school of American historiography that is fond of referring to the middle years of the 1780s as years of anarchy in the United States, but in fact even the occasional rebellion of debtors was localized and sort and did not lead to a breakdown of the institutions of government anywhere -- a great contrast to the French situation, where successive governmental experiments had virtually no staying power during the country's period of anarchy. While institutions were formally established, the struggle for their control was so violent on every level that their existence became almost meaningless.

Napoleon, like Cromwell before him and Stalin after, usurped power from within, after being chosen for a revolutionary office in a legitimate way; but it was usurpation all the same, carried further than by either Cromwell or Stalin in the sense that Napoleon finally abolished the revolutionary regime and established an empire in its place. The Napoleonic regime also was brief; in the end the old regime was restored and the revolution substantially aborted until a lesser revolution took place half a generation later. Napoleon's great legacy to France was the internal institutional structure he imposed on the country in both the governmental and the religious spheres. Apparently the French were so shaken by anarchy that they preferred to preserve Napoleon's hierarchical structure rather than try any further efforts to diffuse power broadly among the citizenry.

The Russian Revolution was even more substantially dominated by a period of anarchy than was the French Revolution, albeit for a shorter time. The Russian revolutionaries had no state or local institutions to build upon or that they could even capture and turn to their own ends. In effect, they had to build the country from the bottom up, which they claimed to do through the various levels of soviets serving the different arenas within the Russian empire. But the extent of the Bolshevik revolution was such that these soviets themselves were ultimately repressed and replaced by Bolshevik institutions bearing the same name but without the popular base.

The Russian case is almost the reverse of the English; popular participation was anarchic, and institutionalization came at the end of the revolution in the most heavy-handed manner. The prior anarchy enabled a small but very determined elite, capable of being far more ruthless than Napoleon, not only to impose on the country their own will and a regime of their design, but essentially to exterminate or expel all possible threats to that regime. In Russia, the ancien regime did not come back; instead there was usurpation from within, with Stalin seizing power from his revolutionary colleagues. The result was not a reactionary but reformable regime, as in England, or a slower process of consolidation of the revolution's gains, as in France, but a totalitarian police state.

The English could gain from a situation in which there was proper popular participation but insufficient institutionalization even though it took a little longer to do so and the revolution itself failed. The French could survive in a situation in which there was neither proper popular participation nor proper institutionalization; it simply took them much longer to gain the results of the revolution. The worst result was in Russia, where there was a lack of proper popular participation but rapid institutionalization by a small elite to achieve the formal goals of the revolution, yet in such a way as to produce an utterly contrary actual result.

The Varieties of American Revolutionary Leadership
and Their Common Denominator

The major figures of the American Revolution can be classified into four categories: the revolutionaries, exemplified by Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry; the statesmen, exemplified by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson; the constitutional architects, exemplified by John Adams and James Madison; and the father of his country, George Washington -- in a class by himself. While each category reflected the application of somewhat different talents to different tasks, what is most interesting for our purposes is the common denominator that kept them all within the American style of revolutionary leadership. Let us look at each in turn.


Revolutions are made by people, but people are made willing to initiate or join a revolution by a very select group of individuals capable of finding reasons why a revolution is necessary and then taking the action necessary to foment it. Two of the most prominent such figures in the American Revolution were Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry.

Samuel Adams (1722-1803), who lived to be eighty-one, was a professional politician throughout the revolutionary generation. He was the chief organizer of the opposition to the Stamp Act in Massachusetts and managed the Boston Tea Party. He is generally characterized as a "born revolutionary." He was a delegate to the Continental Congress throughout the active period of the war and signed the Declaration of Independence. At the same time he helped frame the Massachusetts constitution and was the author of its bill of rights. Although he opposed the federal Constitution, he did not retire from state politics, being elected lieutenant governor in 1789 and becoming governor in 1794, an office he held for three years.

The contrast between Samuel Adams as a revolutionary and revolutionary ideologist and similar figures from other major modern revolutions is striking in every respect. He was convinced of the rightness of his cause and the need to promote it with all the political and propaganda skills at his disposal. Adams did so because he viewed the people as capable of knowing their own interests, not as chained by habit and custom so that they had to be forcibly led to the right path even against their will, as is the view of most other revolutionaries. A clever user of mass action, he rejected mobs and carefully staged even his "mob" scenes so that those involved in them would maintain their control. He utterly rejected the notion of concentrating all power in the hands of the revolutionary elites, vigorously supporting checks and balances, federalism, and constitutionally protected rights. Adams' thought linked that of the Old Whigs or Commonwealthmen with Massachusetts Puritanism and the ideas of the Enlightenment. He and his fellow revolutionaries were as much bound by the political compact, indeed by the moral obligations of covenant, as anybody else, no matter how just their cause.10

Patrick Henry (1736-1700) was somewhat more incongruous as a revolutionary. Although he, like Adams, came from a modest background, early in his career he became a wealthy trial lawyer. He too was revolutionized by the Stamp Act and soon came to be considered the most dangerous demagogue in Virginia. Like Adams, he was uncompromising toward the British. He became the first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia and served from 1776 to 1779. Subsequently he led the opposition to Virginia's ratification of the federal Constitution, for the same reasons as Adams, namely that it concentrated too much power in the hands of a distant government. Nevertheless, he also supported checks and balances, federalism, and individual rights as key elements in his political thought. Unlike Adams, Henry was not enamored of the details of politics, nor did he enjoy the routines of office. After 1794 he rejected a number of high offices offered to him, but in the year of his death he returned to the state legislature, this time as a Federalist, to support the new federal government against the Virginia Resolves. In his case too the combination is clear: a revolutionary in the American context meant one who stimulated popular action and then took on his responsibilities within the institutionalized framework of popular government.11

What is characteristic of both Adams and Henry is that both men not only encouraged popular action leading to revolution but made the transition to become major officeholders, in both cases governors of their commonwealths, during the revolutionary period and after the result was already institutionalized. They were very different from the kind of "professional revolutionaries" encountered in other modern revolutions (or in the American, in the person of Thomas Paine), whose talent was fomenting revolutions. Although both opposed the federal Constitution of 1787, they did so not because they were opposed to the institutionalization of the results of the Revolution, but because they were convinced that a different mode of institutionalization was more faithful to the revolutionary goals they espoused. Both men died peacefully after illustrious careers, honored by their fellows.

What was the fate of the revolutionaries who sparked the other great revolutions? The list of those who met violent deaths in the throes of revolution is not only long but comprehensive. Who among them died in bed? Indeed, who among them even made the transition to power for other than a brief revolutionary moment before being led off to the guillotine or the firing squad?


Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is the archetypal statesman of the American Revolution in myth and in reality. He played a prominent role in both the domestic and the foreign affairs of the fledgling republic and in the governance of his adopted Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was also the most famous American in the world at that time. As America's premier revolutionary diplomat, he too reflected a very different model than was to be found in other revolutions. In most of the other revolutions, professional diplomats with great personal ambition but no particular loyalty to any particular regime were co-opted by the revolutionary leadership to fulfill the tasks that Franklin took upon himself. As ideologists, the revolutionary elites were not prepared to trust anyone other than those entirely without ideas or convictions, mouthpieces who would serve any master. Franklin was anything but that.

Franklin's watchword was prudence, well-tuned to a revolution of sober expectations. One of his major domestic roles was to see to it that the Revolution's expectations remained sober. There too his skills were principally diplomatic, whether in the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, in the drafting of Pennsylvania's first constitution, or in daily political affairs.

Franklin was another long-lived revolutionary. Already prominent and in his sixties at the beginning of the revolutionary generation, he spent the first third of that generation in London representing Pennsylvania and other colonies, and there he became convinced that revolution was inevitable. So he returned home to serve in the Continental Congress and as a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, where he played his usual bridging role. He was sent back to Europe for the duration of the war and the peace negotiations, where he used his considerable diplomatic skills to become the architect of the crucial alliance with France. He returned in time to serve as a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, helping to negotiate the acceptance of its compromises. He died in 1790 at the age of eight-four, at once distinguished and beloved.12

If Franklin fairly reeked of prudence, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) presented himself as a radical. He was perhaps the most extremely ideological figure among the top leadership of the American Revolution, the only one to suggest semi-utopian programs for restructuring society. The very use of the term sounds out of place in comparison with other revolutions -- that too tells us something about the state of the American experience. Nevertheless, the two men had much in common besides their commitment to the cause of American liberty and the fact that they lived to almost the same age and died in pleasant surroundings after illustrious careers. Franklin was the prudent man who was a radical in the pursuit of liberty. Jefferson was the radical who was prudent in the pursuit of a stable republic. In today's terms, somewhat anachronistically, we can refer to both as "liberals." Both were Deists whose early training was within the framework of Calvinism or Reformed Protestantism -- Franklin was a descendent of Massachusetts Puritans and Jefferson a descendant of Scots from Ulster. To use another anachronism, both were intellectuals in public affairs.

Jefferson entered political life in 1769, while the revolutionary generation was still in its formative stage, and stayed active politically until the end of his presidency forty years later. He rose to national prominence in 1774 on the very eve of the Revolution and was sent to the Continental Congress the next year, where, as we all know, he was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He returned to Virginia almost immediately thereafter to participate in the restructuring of his native commonwealth along republican lines, serving in the state legislature and then as governor from 1779 to 1781. He left the governorship only because of his wife's illness and death.

Jefferson returned to the Confederation Congress two years later and played a major role in shaping the legislative landmarks of the confederation era, from the plan for decimal coinage through the Northwest Ordinance of 1784. He spent the five years from 1784 to 1789 representing the United States in France and hence missed the Constitutional Convention. This experience gave him a firsthand view of prerevolutionary France and the beginnings of the French Revolution.

Jefferson came back to the United States to serve as the first secretary of state in Washington's cabinet, then resigned when Washington opted for Hamiltonian policies. In cooperation with James Madison, he founded the Democratic Republican party, today, the Democratic party, the longest-lived popular political party in the world. He became his party's candidate for the presidency against John Adams in 1796. Although he lost to Adams, under the original terms of the federal Constitution he became vice-president. Since he was in the opposition, he spent little time in Washington, working instead to organize the party for the 1800 elections that brought him to the presidency, in which he served two terms, retiring in 1809 to Monticello. He remained there as an elder statesman until his death on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.13

Significantly, Jefferson was highly disposed to support the French Revolution, not only in its earlier stages but through the 1790s. Indeed, he was accused by the Federalists of being a jacobin, and he did have strong sympathies in that direction, at least intellectually and from a distance. Like Franklin, he liked France, even if he was appalled by the poverty in French cities and the reactionary ways of the ancien regime. As an intellectual, he was attracted to French culture. His sympathies for the French Revolution, however, were manifested in most un-Jacobin ways. Thus his opposition to the Federalist administration of John Adams with regard to the undeclared sea war with France was expressed through the Virginia Resolves, which claimed that states could prevent the enforcement of federal laws they deemed unconstitutional, a position that went against the Jacobin spirit in every respect. Moreover, he was a most un-Jacobin president; the biggest "usurpation" he undertook was the Louisiana Purchase, for which he himself wanted to obtain a constitutional amendment. Fortunately his sagacity won the day, and he decided that it was too good a bargain to pass up, so he exercised the executive powers of his office to complete the purchase.

There was indeed a moment when the Federalists assumed that his election to the presidency meant a Jacobin takeover. Jefferson's victory was labeled by his supporters "the revolution of 1800." Discussion was rife in the country suggesting that the transfer of administration from the Federalist party to the Democratic Republicans would bring a Jacobin-style revolution in its train. Jefferson made deliberate efforts to disabuse people of any such notions, just as Washington had earlier rejected suggestions that he lead a military coup. In his first inaugural address he summarized his position, stating, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." Thus Jefferson, supposedly the arch-revolutionary, first inaugurated the party system, which institutionalized ways to achieve change without revolution, and then presided over the transition of federal administrations from party to party with no disruption of the processes of government -- two of the crucial inventions of modern democracy.

As was noted above, none of the other three revolutions came close to succeeding in either regard. The English civil war offered a dynastic transition that failed because of the inappropriateness of Cromwell's son and heir, Richard, and the overall rejection of the Cromwellian dictatorship. The French Revolution went from one bloody change of regime to another. It is to Napoleon's credit that once he seized power, he stopped the purges; but still, seizing power is not orderly succession, now as the counterrevolution of the Bourbons who came after him, or the subsequent revolutions of 1830 and 1848, or the Paris Commune of 1870. It was not until the establishment of the Third Republic that peaceful transition from government to government became a reality in France, and even De Gaulle staged a kind of palace revolution 170 years later to finally bring the French Revolution to completion (or so it seems at this point). Transition in the Soviet regime started bloody, led to dictatorship, continued bloody, and now seems to be institutionalized in a less bloody but utterly undemocratic way.

Jefferson's own sense of his greatest accomplishments is reflected in the epitaph he chose for himself: "Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." He was indeed a revolutionary, but a sober one, in the American mold, who gloried in the proclamation of human liberty and equality, the constitutionalization of individual rights, and the founding of a public university.

Constitutional Architects

For the two exemplary leaders in this category, I have chosen John Adams, the author of the Massachusetts Constitution -- the model for state constitutional design -- and James Madison, the principal author and expositor of the United States Constitution. John Adams (1735-1826) lived to be ninety-one, dying in bed on the same day as Jefferson, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, equally venerated. He entered politics during the struggle over the Stamp Act and remained active until the end of his presidential term in 1801. He was a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778 and was one of the architects of the intersectional compromise that brought George Washington to the command of the Continental Army. With Jefferson and Franklin, he served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence and led the debate on its adoption.

Adams served in three capacities as an American diplomat: as commissioner to France, as a member of the commission that negotiated the peace treaty with Great Britain, and as the first envoy to that country. In 1779/80 he was the principal author of the Massachusetts Constitution, his most enduring constitutional work. He was the country's first vice-president, serving under George Washington for both terms and then being elevated to the presidency in his own right. He served only one term, being defeated by Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans. Though he was strongly anti-Jacobin, his prudent behavior as president kept the United States from declaring war on France as most of his Federalist colleagues wished. He managed to confine hostilities to an undeclared sea war until differences between the two countries could be negotiated away.14

Adams' great constitutional monument, the Massachusetts Constitution, combines within it the principal dimensions of American constitutionalism -- the constitution as political covenant and compact, a constitutionalized declaration of rights, and a frame of government resting upon checks and balances and separation of powers, all within a solidly republican framework. It was the first constitution to be put directly to the people for approval. That it remains the constitution of that commonwealth over two hundred years later, with only the most minimal changes, is a reflection of its enduring value.15

James Madison (1751-1836) can be said to have been the first political scientist to have served the American people and, in a certain sense, the founder of American political science. He lived to be eighty-five. Graduating from Princeton on the eve of the Revolution, his first major political role was participation in the drafting of the Virginia Constitution in 1776. He served in the Confederation Congress from 1780 to 1783, where he advocated strengthening the powers of the federal government. He was the author of the Virginia Plan presented to the federal Constitutional Convention in 1787, and his leadership in the convention led to his being acknowledged as the "father of the Constitution." Once the convention ended, he helped lead the battle for ratification and was the principal author of The Federalist. However, he accepted the popular demand for the inclusion of a bill of rights in the federal Constitution as the price of ratification and submitted the principal draft for it when the First Congress convened.

Madison served in Congress from 1789 through 1797. With Jefferson, he founded the Democratic Republican party that won the "revolution of 1800," thereby introducing the principle of orderly change in control of the federal government. He was secretary of state during both terms of Jefferson's presidency and with Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the treasury, was part of the triumvirate that headed the executive branch in those years.

Madison succeeded to the presidency after Jefferson and served two terms. Like Adams, he was not a particularly successful president, being better at designing constitutions that at operating them. Also like Adams, he was a true federalist, concerned with a properly governed nation and properly governed states, and with a proper relationship between them. Thus, despite his strong nationalist tendencies, he could join with Jefferson in authoring the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves to interpose state law against federal legislation on constitutional grounds.

Unlike Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, who saw the states as the organic polities and the confederation as a perpetual league of quite limited powers, John Adams and James Madison saw the system as an integral whole having a number of working parts -- federal and state, executive, legislative, and judicial. In that sense Madison was the first to formulate the idea of the United States as a political system, complex and intricate, but a single whole nonetheless. Subsequent students of Madison's thought who are less attuned to the theory of federalism than he have assumed that he was either a frustrated centralizer or else inconsistent, since he sometimes supported strengthening the powers of the federal government and sometimes those of the states. What they have failed to grasp is that he wanted to do both, as appropriate.16

It was Madison's intricate institutional design, as modified by other prudent revolutionaries of the Constitutional Convention, that provided a basis for consolidating the gains of the American Revolution and ensuring what has been, with one exception (the Civil War), and orderly yet dynamic government of a continental nation for nearly two hundred years. It is significant that we can point to no figures similar to Adams and Madison in any of the other three revolutions. None had constitutional architects, since none were even constitutionalized in the same way, if at all.

Father of His Country

If James Madison was the father of the constitution, George Washington (1732-1799) was clearly the father of his country. Although his life was shorter than that of the others discussed here, he too died peacefully in bed -- in fact, soon after he had accepted a commission as lieutenant general (then the senior rank) in the United States Army to prepare it for the incipient struggle with France. Washington's great skill was to be the exemplary leader who by moral example and prudent action could both lift the spirits of those he was leading and guide them to right action. He knew how to make the most of scarce resources and hence did not build any aspect of the Revolution on exploitation of the public he was serving. His compatriots and subsequent historians have agreed that his outstanding talent was the force, even majesty, of his personality. That, coupled with his moral commitment to a republican revolution, made him what he was.

After an early military career, Washington entered politics as part of his responsibilities as a country squire. He served in Virginia's House of Burgesses from 1759 to 1774, throughout the whole period of the buildup toward revolution. There he was one of the first to resist the British policy designed to impose England's authority on the colonies and thus became an early leader of the revolutionary party. Sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774, he hoped and subtly campaigned for command of the revolutionary armies after the battle of Lexington, and he was chosen commander-in-chief of the Continental forces on June 15, 1775.

From the time he assumed command on July 3 of that year until he relinquished it in December 1783, he was the preeminent soldier of the American Revolution. Often criticized for lack of military aggressiveness, he understood the nature of the campaign he was obliged to wage, given his scarce resources and the strength of his British opponents. He waged that campaign brilliantly, wearing down the British until French reinforcements helped him defeat them in the decisive battle of Yorktown. Washington comes down to us as a grand commander, when in fact he fought a semi-guerrilla war, maintaining organized formations but after the first year rarely engaging the British in head-on combat. Between Monmouth in June 1778 and Yorktown in September 1781, he did not fight a single full-scale battle. Rather, he directed strategy for campaigns in other fields that were increasingly of a guerrilla character. Given the military tactics of the time, his thrusting and parrying were inventive and extraordinarily ;successful departures from the accepted modes.

It was natural for Washington to be chosen to preside at the federal Constitutional Convention. There the same personal qualities and skills that enabled him to lead the revolutionary army so successfully served him in good stead and made him the crucial figure in bringing together the different individuals with their positions so that a document emerged that was both acceptable and inspired. As in his role as commander, it was not the brilliance of his ideas but his sense of timing, his ability to conciliate people of strong views, and his sheer presence that made the difference.17

Unanimously elected first president of the United States, Washington proceeded to preside over the translation of the U.S. Constitution into a working government. As Leonard D. White has shown in his study The Federalists, in some respects this was his most brilliant achievement.18 He gave meaning to the concept of chief magistrate as head of the executive branch of government, establishing in the process precedents that have endured to this day in a whole range of fields.

What is extraordinary about Washington is the degree to which he set the tone for the new United States of America in so many fields, from religious freedom to foreign affairs, from civil-military relations to the presidential management of the cabinet. Not the least of his contributions was teaching us and his successors that what generals and presidents should not do as well as what they should. In essence, he embodied and helped shape the political culture of the United States as well as its institutions. That is what puts him in a class by himself. Canonized by the generations immediately after his own, he was then treated to a major debunking when later historians discovered that he was indeed human. Now that we have survived his humanization and indeed benefited from it, his true greatness is becoming more apparent on every level. He was indeed of the family of the lion and the tribe of the eagle.

The other great revolutions had figures of the same family and tribe but whose behavior and contributions were very different. Perhaps the most inspiring of them was Cromwell, who had many of the positive characteristics of Washington but neither his moderation nor his self-restraint. In the French Revolution, Robespierre was more like Samuel Adams gone mad, and Napoleon was Washington in reverse. In certain technical respects they had parallel careers. Both rose through the army; both presided over efforts to institutionalize the revolution, and both played major roles in the administrative organization of a new government. But those comparisons serve only to point up the differences between the two men rather than their similarities. Washington was the quintessential republican, conciliating, working within the public framework of shared powers an authority, great because he could get men to work together, not because he could impose his will by gaining control of the top of the pyramid. Napoleon was the quintessential modern dictator, inspiring to his followers and his people, but in a coercive way and only from the top.

What is one to say about the Russian Revolution? There the tasks of Washington were shared by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. The first, ruthless in his ideological commitment, functioned in ways diametrically opposed to the American. the second was a commander of armies like Washington but remained an outsider otherwise. And the third consolidated like Washington but was his very antithesis in moral qualities and personal self-abnegation.

What is common to all the Americans (and many others who could have been mentioned) is that they played several roles. Though their classification as models here has not been arbitrary, it is not as though Jefferson were not a constitutional architect, John Adams not a revolutionary, Madison not a statesman, and so forth. Indeed, what is characteristic of them all is that all served in both the executive and the legislative branches of the government of their respective states or the United States or both, and in no case did they ever confuse the responsibilities of one branch with those of the other. In general it can be said that neither did they confuse the responsibilities of the state and federal governments, though there the issue is less clear-cut. In some respects this is the best indicator of the special quality of American revolutionary leaders -- their sense of what was appropriate in the institutional context as well as what was necessary to achieve the revolutionary goal.

The Problem Resolved: A Different Model of Revolutionary Leadership

I have already suggested that it is the combination of proper modes of popular involvement, political institutionalization, and leaders committed to prudence that produced the different model of leadership characteristic of the American Revolution. Eric Hoffer summed up the matter: "Precisely a society that can get along without leaders is the one that's producing leaders." It is fitting to sum up by retelling Hoffer's story of his experience during the Great Depression with a work gang in the San Bernardino Mountains.19

During the Depression, a construction company had to build a road in the San Bernardino Mountains, and the man who was in charge, instead of calling employment agency...sent out two trucks to skid row....Anybody who could climb up on that truck was hired, even if you had only one leg....They...drove us out to the San Bernardino Mountains, and...dumped us on the side of the hill. The company had only one man on the job, and he didn't even open his mouth. We found there bundles of equipment and supplies and then we started to sort ourselves out.'s the most glorious experience I ever had. We had so many carpenters, so many blacksmiths, so many cooks, so many foremen, so many men who could drive a bulldozer, handle a jackhammer....We put up the tents, put up the cook's shack, the toilet, the shower bath, cooked supper.

Next morning, we went out and started to build a road. If we had to write the Constitution, there would have been somebody there who knew all the "whereases" and the "wherefores." And we could...have built America. We were just a shovelful of slime scooped off the pavement of skid row, yet we could have built America on the side of the hill in the San Bernardino Mountains. Now you show me people anywhere in the world with such diffuse competence. It's fantastic. In other words, when I talk about Americans being a skilled people, I don't mean only technical skills, I mean social and political skills.

The vigor of a society should be gauged by its ability to get along without outstanding leaders. When I said that at the University of Stanford, all the young intellectuals...ran after me...and said, "Mr. Hoffer, the vigor of society should be gauged by its ability to produce great leaders." And then I stood there and I said, "Brother, this is just what happened. Precisely a society that can get along without leaders is the one that's producing leaders."

Hoffer may have exaggerated somewhat, especially since he spoke only of the first dimension: popular involvement. The founding fathers understood that with it there had to be political institutionalization as well. They devoted themselves as much to that end as to making the Revolution in the first place.

One final note: it remained for Abraham Lincoln to sense and consider the one problem that transcends both the character of popular involvement and the nature of the political institutions. Let us return to his address before the Young Men's Lyceum:

In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People,...find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them -- they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation -- to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

Lincoln continues by raising the question:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Lincoln suggests that internal disorder is the only possible way to bring down the American polity, because sooner or later internal disorder will bring down

the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed -- I mean the attachment of the People....At such a time and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope of the lovers of freedom throughout the world.

Lincoln in his address focused on the question of the mob's taking the law into its own hands -- in other words, improper popular involvement. His response to that was to endorse the maintenance of the political institutions bequeathed the Americans by the founders:

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the last particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitutions and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor -- let everyman remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap -- let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; -- let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and Almanacs; -- let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.

But Lincoln knew that proper popular involvement and institutionalization are not enough, for they will not necessarily control those who belong to the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle. His answer is perhaps less than fully satisfying, returning as he does to a reliance on a proper political religion. We are left to rely upon that, to which we can add the fostering of a proper political culture of the kind that animated George Washington and his compatriots.


1. The full story of Washington's gesture is told in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-44), 26:222-229.

2. Martin Diamond, A Revolution of Sober Expectations (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1976).

3. See Peter Shaw, The Character of John Adams (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976).

4. The Federalist, No. 51.

5. As cited in Abraham Lincoln, Works (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:108-115.

6. On American revolutionary mobs, see Moshe Hazani, "Samuel Adams and Saint-Just: Contrasting Examples of Professional Revolutionaries," in this volume.

7. Neil Riemer, The Democratic Experiment: American Political Theory, vol. I (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1967); Clinton Rossiter, Seed Time of the Republic: The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953).

8. Daniel J. Elazar, "The States and the Congress Move toward Independence, 1775-1776," Publius 6, No. 1 (Winter 1976): 135-143 (see Appendix A).

9. Willi Paul Adams, The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Donald S. Lutz, Popular Consent and Popular Control: Whig Political Theory in the Early State Constitutions (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980); Ronald M. Peters, Jr., The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1978).

10. Hazani, "Samuel Adams and Saint-Just."

11. Robert D. Meade, Patrick Henry, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957-59).

12. Carl Becker, Benjamin Franklin (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1946); Paul W. Conner, Poor Richards Politicks: Benjamin Franklin and His New American Order (New York: Greenwood, 1980).

13. Dumas Malone, Jefferson in His Times, 6 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-82); idem, Thomas Jefferson as Political Leader (New York: Greenwood, 1979).

14. Catherine D. Bowen, John Adams and the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown, 1950); Page Smith, John Adams, 2 vols. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962).

15. Peters, Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

16. Irving Brant, James Madison, 6 vols. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941-61); Marvin Meyers, The Mind of the Founder (Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press and University Press of New England, 1981).

17. Forrest Macdonald, E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965); James T. Flexner, George Washington, 3 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968-72).

18. Leonard D. White, The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History (New York: Greenwood, 1978); Douglass Southhall Freeman, George Washington, 7 vols. (New York: Scribner's, 1948-57).

19. Eric Hoffer in an interview with Eric Sevareid on CBS television (September 19, 1967).

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