You say you want a revolution?

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Like devotees of crossword puzzles, those who read through the many letters, journals and other literature of the past develop a rather extensive vocabulary. On occasion, a new word will pop up and cause even the hoariest student of history scurrying for a dictionary. Words like “redoubt” and “abatis” are old stuff to most, but how often does “flagitious” come up in conversation?

Sometimes, it’s not so much the word itself as its use in a document that needs looking up. For example, Dr. John Cochran head of the Hospital [Medical Department] noted in a letter in 1781:

“This [letter] will be delivered by Doctor Young, a deranged surgeon, whom I recommend to Congress to fill one of the Vacancies of Hospital Physician & surgeon”

Lest anyone panic, Dr. Cochrane was not recommending an individual with mental problems to treat the sick and wounded. As far as can be determined, Dr. Young was as sane as anyone else. He was “deranged” in terms of having no position in the Hospital, not suffering from a “deranged mind”, a mind out of its place.

Derangement is not the only word whose usage has changed over the years. Perhaps the most changed is one used at Saratoga NHP almost daily: revolution. When most people use the word, they usually think of a great and enduring change to almost any system: something new, forward-looking and, well, revolutionary.

By contrast for most of the 18th century revolution was defined as something that was anything but novel. In Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language it is defined as “Course of any thing which returns to the point at which it began to move”, that is, a return to an original location or state. True, Johnson also defines revolution as “Change in the state of a government or country. It is used among us κατ’ ἐξοχὴν [super eminently], for the change produced by the admission of king William and queen Mary.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 to which Johnson alluded eschewed any notion of novelty. Right out of the gate, in his proclamation William of Orange made sure that all understood that his political action was not usurpation but a revolution bringing things back to the way they were supposed to be: “restoring of the laws and liberties of England, Scotland, and Ireland….” (King Billy, it must be noted, had to agree to a lessening of his royal powers as England became a parliamentary monarchy, but he was still the king.)

Not too surprisingly, we find other revolts in the years of the “Long Eighteenth Century” that are rarely accorded the name of “revolution”, but their intentions were as circular as those of 1688 and probably deserve the name.

In Russia, Ekaterina II (The Great) had assumed the throne by deposing her husband Tsar Piotr III in 1762. Piotr’s overthrow and murder apparently were not viewed as a bad thing, at least among the intelligentsia and ruling powers. However, there were elements in the Russian population that really wasn’t comfortable with the settlement or things in general for that matter.

The concept of “American exceptionalism” is hardly exceptional. In Russia during the Early Modern Period, a number of people loathed westernizing efforts in “Holy Russia.” Called “Old Believers”, they eschewed all western influences (although with the invention of vodka, potatoes were eventually accepted), despised all religions except for the Orthodox Church and longed for a time when they were ruled by Russians (apparently they’d forgotten about Ivan the Terrible) and not that German, Sophie, who called herself Ekaterina.

Another group, Russian serfs (agricultural and industrial) were as free as slaves in the Americas, and we know how enviable their life was. For some reason the serfs didn’t enjoy their work or status and hoped that someone would ease their miserable existence.

Ignoring Piotr’s failings, these groups grasped at rumors that he had escaped, and was just waiting to return and set things right for Holy Russia.   Piotr became an icon of what was right with Russia before what was wrong ­Ekaterina and just about anything from The West.

Enter Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachev, a Cossack and one-time soldier, who managed to convince a mélange of Old Believers, serfs, factory workers and Cossacks that he was the deposed Tsar Piotr. How many actually believed his mythomania is impossible to say, but with enough charisma and lots of violence, Pugachev convinced others that he was their tsar and would bring back the Good Old Days to Holy Mother Russia.

Pugachev’s rebellion scared the willies out of Russia’s rulers. It commenced in 1773 and ranged many hundreds of miles, even briefly capturing the city of Kazan before being defeated at Tsaritsyn (present-day Volgograd). Betrayed by his followers hoping to save their own skins, Pugachev was shipped to Moscow in an iron cage, given several bouts of “ordinary” torture and beheaded in Moscow in January 1775. Any village that had supported his revolution, willingly or not, was subjected to horrifying official retaliation.

Where Pugachev was a no-soy-bean-filler impostor, José-Gabriel Condorcanqui in Peru had a slightly better claim to being above the riff-raff. Although one of the oppressed Indios, he had been educated by Spanish-run schools and even given a title: “Marquis d’Oropesa”. As a village cacique he was a man of some importance, if by trade a mule driver.

To say that the Native population was oppressed is an understatement and while they might have seemed impassive to European observers, there was an abiding resentment that was just looking for an avenue to express itself. Like Pugachev, Condorcanqui tapped into this and let on he was a direct descendant of The Inca and called himself Tupac Amaru (Resplendent Snake).

Besides general wrongs done to los Indios, Condorcanqui had a personal grudge or two against the Spanish. His status of cacique did not let him prevent the many outrages committed his villagers; particularly the wholesale kidnapping of men to forced labor in mines. He ran afoul of the corregidor (magistrate) Don Antonio Arriaga who wanted to erect gallows in Condorcanqui’s village to hang corpses of Indios who had tried to escape from the mines. In November 1780, he took action.

Tupac Amaru and other Indios captured the hated corregidor, who was horrifically and symbolically executed several days later. Amaru proclaimed himself “Don José primero, Inca del Peru” &c. the first Native ruler in over 200 years.

Although Amaru’s bands initially terrified the European overlords with attacks and atrocities, the rebellion was crushed. Amaru was brutally executed along with most of his family in 1781.

In all three instances, the Glorious Revolution, Pugachev’s and Tupac Amaru’s revolts the solutions offered (or violently inflicted) were returns to a perceived past by replacing the hated king (or tsarina) with another. Was America’s successful uprising a revolution that recapitulated the past, or something new and different?

Actually, it was a little of both.

Leaders of the Colonies (and later, States) exerted themselves to portray their goals as a return to liberty. This would be instinctive as most of the leadership had legal training of some sort, and Law is based upon precedence. The Rights of Englishmen were heralded as the goal before independence was declared. After declaring ourselves out of the British system “natural rights” were extolled, this essentially preceded and trumped any nationally ensured rights.

There was a big difference between the backward looking revolts and the drive for American Independence: no one in the United States implied that King George III needed to be replaced. Certainly, George was reviled, loathed, hated, despised and hanged in effigy, but there was no pretender to his throne. As far as the United States was concerned, George could keep his job and all its perks (including dental benefits) we just wanted him to keep his Royal Nose out of our affairs.

When it came time to actually form a government, there was a great deal owed to the past. Britain’s Parliament certainly gave some important inspiration, and the new national capital gave more than a nod to the Roman Republic filling it with neo-classical architecture. But in that government, there was a system that neither William of Orange, Yemelyan Pugachev or Tupac Amaru would ever have thought of: an elected republic.

The ability to elect leaders took the “American Revolution” out of a cycle based entirely on the past. As a system of government, it has often proven unwieldy, but it affirms a belief that the future has unlimited potential, which is the real revolutionary ideal.

Post Scriptum: Flagitious [fləˈjiSHəs] (adjective) of a person: criminal, villainous. The Gentle reader is encouraged to use it in conversation at the next cocktail party when conversation lags.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *