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essays

December 1978

Was the Revolution Objectively Necessary?

And by what criteria would we assess such a question?

“The American Revolution and Natural Law Theory.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (July/September 1978): 491–502.

American patriotic historians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries labored retrospectively to morally justify the American Revolution. They attempted to gain certain knowledge through the principles of natural rights rooted in natural law, but in this attempt they radically reinterpreted the meaning of natural law from an abstract transcendent standard to a concrete, imminent social process working in human history. It is doubtful whether the new interpretation of natural law “proved” or made more rigorously certain the moral legitimacy of the Revolution to anyone who did not already share the American historians’ ideology.

The problem of establishing morally certain knowledge was earlier mirrored in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence. The Declaration left ambiguous how the pre-Revolutionary historical facts could be connected with the transcendent certainty of “the Laws of Nature” to justify the separation from England. The Declaration’s listing of 27 recent grievances against King George III might establish the historical expediency and utility of a revolution but not its justification in moral certainty and necessity. To make up for the Declaration’s epistemological deficiencies, the revolutionary historians aimed at grounding arguments of historical expediency in the universal and immutable standards of natural rights.

The problem of reconciling arguments of expediency with arguments of moral principle and the immutable laws of nature appears in the historians’ inability to explain how such worthy men as John Dickinson had opposed the separation by appealing to the same “certain” natural law invoked by the revolutionaries. It seems that the “certain” standard of rights and natural law made for uncertainty and disagreement. Whose intuition into the certain and immutable laws of nature should we accept, the loyalist Dickinson’s or the separatist patriots’ and historians”? Natural law’s virtue—its promise of a clear standard of epistemological certitude because of its transcendence—seemed to be its very weakness. For who could arbitrate disagreements about applying natural law to historical events? Yet to dismiss the promise of a transcendent standard of truth and value risked moral relativism and nihilism.

The historians’ problematic solution was to formulate a new “processive” or “historicized” theory of natural law: “a Natural Law no longer conceived as a static body of immutable principles. Rather Natural Law was historicized; it was seen as a process by which fundamental principles were made concrete in the course of history itself.” In effect, to know that a historical tradition of constitutional rights existed would allow men to demonstrate the legality of natural rights and provide a historical standard to know for certain when rights were violated.

A problem remained. The historicized natural law might allow historians to make moral evaluations about factual events without appealing to any dubious transcendent standard outside the events themselves, but critics could still charge that historical interpretations remained subjective, arbitrary, and partisan.