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Long: How not to overthrow the state

Long: How not to overthrow the state

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Washington and Lee University campus (copy)

Washington and Lee University is offering a class entitled “How To Overthrow The State.” It’s not what it sounds like.

By John Long

Just as the first American Revolution began in Lexington, Massachusetts, some day Lexington, Virginia, will be hailed as the birthplace of the second American Revolution, with statues of the alumni of a college writing course at Washington and Lee University.

Eh, on second thought, don’t get your hopes (or your fears) up.

Last week there was a tempest in a teapot about a course offered at W&L provocatively titled “How to Overthrow the State.” Several commentators immediately pounced without looking too far beyond the course name. There it is again — some professor fomenting revolution in our backyard!

Maybe I’ve hung around too many college campuses in my day, but I immediately shrugged. I don’t know the professor and I couldn’t find a syllabus online, but I quickly jumped to my own conclusion: nothing to see here. This sounds like a course on the history and literature of revolutionary movements in the past. Professors often give electives provocative titles for marketing purposes. If the prof called it “An Analysis of Anarcho-Syndicalist Treatises” I imagine his grading load would be greatly eased.

I couldn’t bring myself to get too exercised over the existence of such a course. Frankly, I’d probably enjoy taking it. I’ve made a study through the years of various revolutionary movements; not because I want to overthrow anything, but because it’s an important historical topic. Nor am I worried that the students will leave class ready to start printing leaflets in musty basements. My guess is the conclusion they’ll reach is that overthrowing the state ain’t so easy. Many more revolutionary martyrs than deposed tyrants have ended blindfolded against a wall.

By chance, I’d recently been discussing just this subject with my teenaged daughter. She’s developed an interest in musical theater of late, and I’d suggested we watch the movie version of “Les Miserables” together. If you’re not familiar with the play (or wonderful novel), it deals in part with an inept band of revolutionaries in 1832 France.

Not long before, we’d also watched “Hamilton,” a popular musical about the perils of marital infidelity. Alexander Hamilton and his buddies staged a successful revolution, she observed, while these dashing French tenors seemed doomed to fail. That allowed me to point out a few historical truisms about the success and failure of revolutionary movements, which she promptly tuned out because another stirring anthem began. Of course, if I was lecturing, I wasn’t singing along, so she didn’t object very much.

The American Revolution is arguably the most successful one in human history. Of course, it wasn’t an attempt to “overthrow the state” per se, it was an independence movement (the patriots didn’t care if King George kept his throne, as long as he kept it on his side of the Atlantic). It featured achievable objectives, a clear statement of ideology, superb leadership, popular support (though not so popular as we sometimes suppose!), and adequate military power to back it up. There were many other factors, but this short list puts our revolution in contrast to so many others.

The pitiful June Revolt of 1832 in Paris would be largely forgotten today had not Victor Hugo composed his novel around it. The small band of students had little following, only a handful of guns, and were trying to overthrow a state that was pretty secure (the king at the time had assumed power only two years before in another revolution). Like so many other wide-eyed radicals, they assumed the people would rally to their cause when they waved their banners. But the people… had better things to do.

Other examples abound. The first French Revolution did topple a government, but soon descended into chaos and terror. The 1848 Revolutions won rapid successes, but fizzled quickly. Various revolts to unify Germany in the 19th Century only achieved anything when Bismarck’s realpolitik chimed in. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 (there were two!) gave the world a democidal tyranny; the Revolutions of 1989 undid so much of 1917. A common theme in a lot of these movements, incidentally, is significant radicalism within the military. If the military was ready to defend the state, it usually didn’t end well for the guys brandishing pitchforks.

So don’t get too worried about the W&L students this semester. I’m guessing that if they do their homework, they won’t be in much of a hurry to overthrow any state. Despite extremists on right and left making a lot of headlines, the second American Revolution isn’t in the offing just yet.

Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.

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