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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Right of Revolution

By Elisha Mulford (1833–1885)

[Born in Montrose, Penn., 1833. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1885. From The Nation: the Foundations of Civil Order and Political Life in the United States. 1870.]

IF there be in the constitution no provision whereby the political people in its normal action can effect an amendment or if the mode provided be such as to obstruct its action, there yet subsists in the people the right of reform; and if, while yet there is no way open to it or only some inaccessible way is indicated, the hope of reform shall fail, and the constitution and the government which is instituted in it be wrested from their foundation in the consent of the organic will, there is then, at last, the right of revolution. This, in the supreme peril, is the supreme necessity of the people. If the people no longer finds the correspondence to its aim in the constitution which it has once established, if its advance is thwarted and it is being deflected from its course, and its life is being deformed, although under the form it once enacted and alone has the right to enact; if the government becomes thus subversive of its ends, and the future holds no hope of a reform which may effect those ends, then revolution is a right. This maintenance of the continuous life and continuous development of the nation, against that which is hindering its growth, or sapping its energy, is not strictly a revolution. It is rather the reverse, since there is in it the maintenance of the organic being of the nation and it is in conformance to the organic law. It is not anarchic, for it is the only possible pursuance of the order of the nation, and its vindication from the false order which is interrupting it. It is the spirit of the people in its real strength which breaks through the system by which it is gyved. But it is only to be justified in the supreme necessity of the nation, and as itself the act of the nation as an whole, the work of the political people. It is not to be the act of a part only, as a section or faction. The development is only of the nation as an organic whole, and conditional in its organic unity, and it is this alone that is thwarted or imperilled, and in this alone the right subsists. Thus a revolution is not an insurrection, since the one presumes the action of the people as an organic whole, and is justified in proceeding from the people, whose determination is law; the other is the act of individuals, a section or a faction, in revolt from the will of the whole.

The revolution which is thus a necessity is not the discord, but it is more strictly the concord of the nation, and when thus a necessity, the order which is set aside will be succeeded immediately by the real order of the nation, in its new form, with the return of the energy of the people, and its ampler freedom. It is not therefore of any to glorify revolution, which can appear only in a disturbed order; but when in the mystery of evil, the energy of the people is impaired and its life withering, although its path can be only through violent struggle, it is yet to rejoice in the power which may resist and overcome the evil. It is thus that epochs of national revolution have been those not of despair, but of hope and exultation, and there has been in them, as there is not in the triumph of parties or factions, the renewal of the strength and spirit of the people.

The nation thus may be the stronger in the crisis in which its constitution is swept away, and there may be in it the evidence of a power which opposing evils could not wholly destroy. It is the life which could not be utterly crushed, and the strength which could not be entirely consumed by fetters forged through lapse of time, in which privileges assumed to be alone the precedents of action, and were girt by legal forms and devices, until they barred out the rights of men. The transition from the feudal constitutions of Germany has been in every crisis the development in its higher unity of a national life. The age of commonwealth, when the same result in part was effected in England, was the last great age in her history. The French Revolution bore throughout the deepest devotion to the nation, and in its tumultuous changes no voice was lifted against the unity and glory of France. The American Revolution was the act of the political people of the whole land, in the endeavor toward the realization of the nation. These crises were in the development of national life, and the constitution displaced was foreign to the political people.