Notes on Thompson, Arendt, and Revolutionary Violence

In the first episode of HBO’s John Adams miniseries there’s a memorable scene (NB: it includes nudity) in which Adams is present at the tarring and feathering of a customs officer at Boston harbour. The purpose of the scene was to frame Adams as an outsider whose firm principles prevent him from ever being an organic leader of the American people—a theme that runs throughout the series. But it also does something else, which is to acknowledge early on that the American Revolution was an affair of violence. In a particularly poignant moment of the scene (2.02-2.07 in the clip), the director even chose to portray slaves in chains, looking on silently at the anger of the American mob. That is, he chose to remind us that violence in colonial and revolutionary America wasn’t just momentary and spectacular, but also pervasive and structural.[1]

Peter Thompson, in remarks at the recent Revolution Reborn conference written up in Common-place, characterised the revolution as “an internal civil war of extraordinary violence, justified by the rhetoric of a country in peril and folded into a formalized war for independence directed against external troops and their savage native allies, a terror erupting with particular force whenever and wherever these two wars collided.”[2] Historians generally now accept that the United States had a “violent birth,” just as violent as any European revolution. That scene in John Adams, which never appeared in McCullough’s book, perhaps marks a watershed in public acknowledgment of revolutionary violence. If so, it is only the beginning of coming to terms with it.

Before we recognised the violence of the revolution, we had Hannah Arendt, the political theorist and philosopher whose 1963 book, On Revolution, marked the high-point of triumphalist, Cold War, consensus historiography. Arendt’s American Revolution was exceptional because, unlike the French and Russian Revolutions, it did not entail a civil war of extraordinary violence. “The superior wisdom of the American founders in theory and practice is conspicuous enough,” she wrote, “and yet… it is as though the American Revolution was achieved in a kind of ivory tower into which the fearful spectacle of human misery, the haunting voices of abject poverty, never penetrated…

Since there were no sufferings around them that could have aroused their passions, no overwhelmingly urgent needs that would have tempted them to submit to necessity, no pity to lead them astray from reason, the men of the American Revolution remained men of action from beginning to end, from Declaration of Independence to the framing of the Constitution.[3]

For Arendt, then, it was the “social question” that distinguished American from French Revolutions. Because in her view and the view of her times, America lacked social tensions and inequalities, lacked the “spectacle of human misery” or the “haunting voices of abject poverty,” and thus lacked the motivation to resolve the social question, to redress unequal power relations, for those reasons the American Revolution had the privilege of cold reason and “superior wisdom.” This picture now bears very little resemblance to what we know about America or its revolution; yet the idea of the founders’ superior wisdom still sells many books.

If we recognise Thompson’s picture of the revolution better than Arendt’s; if we acknowledge the violence and the passion of the revolution in the way even John Adams asks us to do; then we might also look again at the structural violence, the invisible or symbolic violence, that comes with it. The rediscovery of violence among the American public may be a sign that they are no longer willing to swallow the old Arendtian story about America’s exceptional founding and wise founding fathers. Or to put it another way: perhaps what it will take to put the social question back on the public agenda is a little bit of violence.[4]


[1] As it happens, the director, Tom Hooper, was an Englishman (and an Oxford graduate). So maybe there really is something in the trans-Atlantic perspective?

[2] Thompson supervised my doctoral dissertation. His master-work on the Articles of Association and the role of slavery in structuring American approaches to public violence and surveillance is long-awaited. Seriously, I’m thinking about starting a petition, so get in touch if you want to help pile on the pressure…

[3] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963), 90.

[4] A year and a half ago, I taught a course that Sarah Pearsall had developed for Oxford Brookes University, which framed the entire colonial and revolutionary period around the concept of violence. At the time, I wasn’t sure how she’d made it work, or why she’d chosen that central theme, and I’m sure I taught it much less innovatively than she did. But I think I’m starting to get what she was going for.

7 responses

  1. I recently read about the Battle of Crooked Billet and how the British were so brutal to the captured and wounded patriots…burning them alive…that is violent….

  2. “I have never been in a down-and-dirty fist fight. I have never been roughed up by the police. I don’t hunt. I do not own a gun or knife and do not know anyone who does. And, of course, I have not performed military service. I am, then, in every respect typical of the vast majority of historians who have opined about violence and the American Revolution since the Vietnam era.” There’s another perspective, at the Duffle Blog, on similar abstract studies of violence. If you’re easily offended, especially by military sarcasm, don’t open the link. Otherwise, surf on over to: (redacted for the sensitive …)

  3. Arendt sees the American Revolution as a kind of failure, too, and for very specific reasons. See Chapers 5-6.

    There are good points on which Arendt can be criticized, but a typical Cold War triumphalist she was not, nor is her picture of the revolutions as simple as you suggest, see Origins, Crises of the Republic, and I would argue suggesting she was blind to violence as a theorist is to overlook quite a bit (ibid, “On Violence”).

    Arendt is making an observation about the different natures of the political elite as a revolutionary leadership class in respective revolutions. Problematic, one could say so, hardly in tune with the breezy anti-intellectualism of our day, no doubt, but triumphalist it is not, and the post indicates a real failure to grapple with the project in On Revolution and her work as a whole.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Thanks for the comment, Matthew. Naturally, the post isn’t an attempt to grapple with the entirety of either On Revolution or Arendt’s thought as a whole. I’m sure you know much more about it than me. So I’d be interested to know if you think my interpretation in the penultimate paragraph is wrong. It seems to me that this issue of the social question is central to her distinction between French and American Revolutions, and that it’s also central to her understanding of the different kinds of violence in them, too.

  4. Hi, thanks for the response. I should say that I think the overall post is absolutely correct, revolutionary America was not only a violent place, it was violence by definition, and more attention to the interactions and overlaps between bodily and symbolic violence in the revolution is a very good thing. I agree with much in the post, although I do question the implied assumption that Hannah Arendt over half a century later still has an iron grip on the scholarly literature, or that the intervening years have not seem lots of good work on violence of all sorts. Clearly, though, there is a disconnect between local or specific histories of kinds of violence and our larger picture of the revolution, and you make a strong case that this should change, or will soon. We had better come to terms with the overlooking of violence as much as actually existing violence in American history.

    Broadly speaking, I think you have it right that the social question shapes the distinction she draws between the american and french revolutions, and this rests on her discussion of the “rise of the social” in her book The Human Condition (1958). For Arendt, to take the terms of your last paragraph, the social question is already there, and its a mark of the darkness of the times that we fail to distinguish social questions from political ones (the reification of the political is one of the things Arendt is always, and perhaps justly in some sense, criticized for, although I hold with political theorists like Patchen Markell who think its more complicated than that, but that’s neither here nor there). Anyway, as she puts after her beautiful passage about the “failure of post-revolutionary thought” as a “failure to remember:”

    “Obviously, what was lost through the failure of thought and remembrance was the revolutionary spirit. If we leave aside personal motives and practical goals and identify this spirit with the principles which, on both sides of the Atlantic, originally inspired the men of the revolutions, we must admit that the tradition of the French Revolution–and that is the only revolutionary tradition of any consequence–has not preserved them any better than the liberal, democratic, and, in the main, outspokenly anti-revolutionary trends of political thought in America. We have mentioned these principles before and following eighteenth century political language, we have called them public freedom, public happiness, public spirit. What remained of them in America, after the revolutionary spirit had been forgotten, were civil liberties, the individual welfare of the greatest number, and public opinion as the greatest force ruling an egalitarian, democratic society. This transformation corresponds with great precision to the the invasion of the public realm by society; it is as though the originally political values were translated into social values.”

    She goes on to argue that this transformation was largely irrelevant to the other revolutions, because its leaders dismissed the motivating spirits as class values and focused instead on the social question proper: “the spectre of the vast masses of the poor whom every revolution was bound to liberate.” So the leaders of other revolutions assumed that they were outside of political questions and so in step with the force of historical necessity, seizing “upon the most violent events in the French Revolution, hoping against hope that violence would conquer poverty.” (On Revolution, new edition, pp. 212-213). As Jason Frank’s book Constituent Moments points out, temporality is a really crucial and understudied aspect of revolutionary thought and experience, and Arendt and Pocock in different ways were keyed into that.

    So, what makes the Americans specifically interesting in their revolution is that their revolution, at least a first, or at least at a certain level, concerned itself in its constitutionalism with maintaining, creating, and enlarging spaces of political experience, and one has to understand here that Arendt has a specific, neoclassical, and in my view very rich understanding of politics as a distinct form of human activity. This can be problematized endlessly (we’re good at that), but I think what makes Arendt useful is that she is self-consciously tuned into the language of the American Revolution and the thought behind it, more so than many historians then or since. Here is the rub, for me: both the promise and the peril of the American Revolution was that it concerned itself in its political thinking with who would and could appear, that is to say, be acknowledged, as having a political life. I think this gives us powerful insight not only into the Founding, but into the history of American thought and politics up to and including the present.

    My beef is largely with your depiction of her as a triumphalist, founding father worshipping cold war intellectual. I don’t think that picture really fits.


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