Revolution and the American Mind

"The world has never had a good definition of liberty."
—Abraham Lincoln

Food lines lengthen in Moscow; show trials continue in Beijing; bicycles replace motor vehicles in Havana. As the Warsaw Pact and Berlin Wall crumble, so does the standing of Mao and Che, even on college campuses. The closing of this millennium may not bring the kingdom of heaven, but it has brought searching reconsideration of the meaning of revolution.

In three essays composed for the Massey lectures at Harvard University, David Brion Davis, one of this country's preeminent intellectual historians and author of two prize-winning volumes in a proposed trilogy on the history of slavery, reflects on how the meaning of revolution shaped the birth and maturation of the United States. For many scholars the outbreak of the American Revolution marked the beginning of an Age of Democratic Revolution, which extended to the middle of the 19th century. It was a remarkable period of economic growth and social upheaval to be sure, arguably the most important period in the making of the modern world. On both sides of the Atlantic, in country after country, disaffected social groups emerged and coalesced into mass insurgencies. Taken as a whole, they threw down the gauntlet to hierarchy, challenged arbitrary and despotic power, and championed citizenship, civil liberty, and natural rights. Alexis de...

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