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Henningsen: Whose Revolution

11/23/12 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) Since the election, there's been much discussion of how the Republican Party must change in order to reach larger sections of the American public. Teacher, historian and commentator Vic Henningsen offers his own suggestion.

(Henningsen) There's been a lot of talk lately about what Republicans need to do to "improve the brand" as the saying goes. Like: reach out to Latino and Asian voters; be more attentive to women; make better use of technology. My suggestion would be to get a better understanding of history.

A recurring theme at Republican rallies this year was the American Revolution. Every other person in attendance seemed armed with a pocket copy of the Constitution, which they were quick to quote from at length to back up the policies they believe would return our republic to its founding principles. But I think there's a profound misreading of history going on here. In their commitment to root-and-branch restructuring of American government, their dismissal of all who oppose them, and their willingness to engage in scorched earth, take-no-prisoners, political brinksmanship to achieve their aims, Republican conservatives are indeed heirs to a major historic  revolution.

But I'm afraid the model here is the French revolution, not the American.

We often forget that the majority of great American revolutionaries served their apprenticeships in colonial assemblies, where they learned that being "right" was only half the battle - and perhaps even less than that. To get things done, they had to acknowledge, tolerate, and collaborate with those who held opposing visions of what was right. They came to the business of revolution as practical politicians.

Leaders of the French Revolution rejected the give-and-take of political life. Historian R.R. Palmer observed of the most well-known group of French revolutionaries, that "Their ideal statesman was no tactician, no compromiser, no skillful organizer who could keep various factions and pressure groups together. He was a man of elevated character, who knew himself to be in the right... who would have no dealing with the partisans of error, and who," he concluded, "like Brutus, would sacrifice his own children that a principle might prevail."

We should remember that American revolutionaries sought to modify and reform an existing system, while the French sought to overturn one entirely and replace it with a new ideal. The results, of course, speak for themselves.

For more than two centuries we've maintained a functioning government, however imperfect and at times exasperating. The French Revolution, however lofty and inspiring its rhetoric, led to the Terror, rivers of blood, and eventual empire under Napoleon. In Thomas Jefferson's words, it ended in "the subversion of the liberty it was meant to establish."

Perhaps the recent election will force the extremists among us, who claim to be the sole interpreters of our nation's founding principles, to abandon their bold efforts to appropriate things that really belong to all of us - the Declaration of Independence, the flag, the Constitution, the very idea of the American republic.

Getting right with history would mean once again making room for all of us, a concept American revolutionaries enshrined in the words "e pluribus unum."

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