Anatomy of a Revolution: Did the USA Do Any Better than the Arab Spring?

This week marks both the annual celebration of American Independence, the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president, Morsi, and the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a pivotal point in the US Civil War. While unrelated on the surface, all three are landmarks in building a nation and while we’ve yet to see the outcome of Egypt’s struggle with democracy, the other two certainly have appeared fruitful. Today the US is a thriving democracy with a strong economy. Meanwhile, many commentators have placed Egypt in another group – the failed Arab Spring.

Altogether, five nations have seen protests resulting in massive political upheaval with demonstrations in Tunisa, Yemen, and Egypt bringing in new leaders, and armed revolts in Lybia and Syria leading to both democracy and an uncertain ongoing civil war respectively. The outcomes of these revolutions has been highly criticized by many on both the left and the right who claim that the costs of such revolutions will outweigh any benefits as the economies of Egypt and Lybia are in turmoil and most of Syria is still a warzone with no end in sight. Often onlookers will remark, either cynically or racially, that Arab countries are not ready for democracy and that they lack the institutions or culture to support it. This critique was formerly lobbed at the US when it tried to impose democracy on Iraq after overthrowing Saddam’s regime with a lead story from The Economist labeling it “Democracy at Gunpoint.” However, liberals will be quick to remark that the Arab Spring is different in that democracy imposed lacks the ummm…democracy that a spontaneous self-propelled revolution inspires. Still there are those who point to every short-coming of these revolutions as evidence that they have already failed after only 2 years. These people have either forgotten their own history of the American Revolution or have gotten so used to instant gratification that they accept nothing less. Did the American Revolution look any better after 2 years? after 10? From where we are now the revolution looks like a beacon of success but what was it really like in those years following independence? Here are some things to keep in mind.

The US Didn’t Get It Right the First Time

There’s a reason why US history books go straight from the War of Independence to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 – because everything in between was a giant frucking mess. Those familiar with the Articles of Confederation might remember that it utterly failed because it created a very weak national government in favor of state sovereignty. This first constitution was so weak that it couldn’t even get the congress to show up when needed. This delayed the ratification of the Treaty of Paris to end the Revolutionary War, and a subsequent treaty with Spain they failed to ratify altogether. Furthermore, several states just flat out ignored provisions in the Treaty of Paris once ratified, as did Great Britain who kept troops on American soil well after the war was over. The US, 9 years after the outbreak of war, and one year after peace, was far from the paragon of stability.

There was also Shay’s Rebellion, the symbolic event of the Article’s failures, where a Massachusetts farmer led a militia in protest of over-taxation. In response the banks formed their own militia to enforce their collection while the government sat on their thumbs dumbfounded about what to do. I imagine if a similar situation occurred in Lybia or Egypt today between a corporation and local militia, the media would deem it anarchy – and they’d probably be right. Shay’s Rebellion showed that the USA really only existed in name only. The nation was deep in debt, it couldn’t protect its borders, enforce its treaties, or even get the states to show up to its congress. But at least they finally had the Constitutional Convention and all that changed right?

The Next Decade Wasn’t Much Better

Yes the Constitution set up a government that was much more capable of dealing with pressing issues facing the fledgling nation. It was now 12 years after the outbreak of war, and 4 years after its official end before a form of government that could stand the test of time was established. Even after the ratification of the Constitution problems still abounded. Barbary pirates were wreaking havoc on American trade with Europe as they no longer had the British navy protecting them. The US, still heavily in debt, pursued a policy of bribing the corsairs rather than fight them in what surely would be a losing battle.

The debt was such an enormous problem that before Hamilton established a central bank, the US went to war again to avoid paying it…with France, America’s strong revolutionary ally. While the US was heavily in debt from the war, France was no better off, having spent millions to annoy Britain. France’s problem was so bad that it ultimately contributed to its own revolution, the overthrow of the King, and the establishment of Republican France. The US, apparently at this point not giving a shit, decided that the debt they owed France was really just owed to the French king, now headless and unable to collect. Of course, France saw it differently and took over where the Barbary Pirates left off, capturing some 2000 US ships over 2 years in what was later called the Quasi-War.

The rogue action didn’t end there. Among other things there was the Blount Conspiracy, in which founding father William Blount attempted to seize the Spanish-controlled port of New Orleans with the aid of the British Navy. His plot was exposed yet ultimately he escaped all punishment and became a hero in his native Tennessee.

Finally Stability, But With State-Destroying Problems

After 1800, over 20 years after the outbreak of revolution, the US began to see some stability. The Jay Treaty ended the problems from the Treaty of Paris, the Louisiana Purchase gave the US control over the Mississippi River and access to the Gulf, the Barbary Wars ended the threat of Ottoman piracy when the US captured the city of Derne (the same city which spawned the Benghazi consulate attackers in 2012), and the economy began to grow under a central bank, a patent system, and strong industrial subsidization.

Of course, as the Civil War showed, this period of stability existed at the cost of an uneasy compromise on slavery and the role of the federal government. All of that boiled over in the most destructive event in American history, a war lasting five years, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, and creating a legacy of cultural resentment and inequality that lasts to this day.

Was the US Better Off?

Nowadays, in spite of some usual pundit bloviating, the US is not at risk of collapse or dissolvement, but in the years following the revolution it was not nearly that clear. European powers were quite interested in carving up the new state and a political wilderness existed in which nothing could get done. Two years into the Arab Spring we see a similar situation as rival factions compete for political hegemony and the leaders often only maintain an illusion of democracy and power. Morsi’s ousting today shows that Egypt didn’t get it right the first time either and they should expect hard times ahead. But that’s exactly the point of political upheaval. If you’re looking for a short-term and immediate payoff in revolutions you won’t find it – you won’t find it in the Arab Spring and you won’t find it in history. Stability under any regime is almost always preferable to revolution in the short term for the vast majority of people, but that doesn’t mean that this kind of change should immediately be discounted as a failed revolution. However, this example from history also doesn’t mean that the Arab Spring will eventually succeed and not simply revert back to dictatorships or tyranny of the majority, it simply means that it’s far too early to condemn the Arab Spring revolutions as failures. Only time will tell and only time will show any benefits or progress.

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