Light Unto the Nations: The Global Impact of the American Revolution


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Jonathan Israel, professor emeritus of modern European history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, discusses his book Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, which looks at how early Americans’ promotion of democratic republicanism, self-government, and liberty helped spur on revolutions around the world.

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This season of the Tel Aviv Review is made possible by The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which promotes humanistic, democratic, and liberal values in the social discourse in Israel.

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One comment on “Light Unto the Nations: The Global Impact of the American Revolution

  1. Greg Pollock says:

    This interview is the intellectual big time. Have you see the scope of Israel’s three volumes on the Enlightenment? I have two points.

    1) The discussion presumes that suffrage has been consistently de jure expanded in the US (setting aside voter id laws), but this is not quite true. I’d think all or almost all States in the Union prohibit voting by felons unless they individually have their voting rights restored. But the 15th Amendment prohibits voter exclusion based on race or “previous condition of servitude.” Since the 13th Amendment explicitly links conviction of crime in a court to “involuntary servitude,” I see no way to avoid saying a felon has a “previous condition of servitude” thereby; so, through the 15th, statutory denial of voting right AFTER incarceration (or parole) completed should be stricken. One might reply that voting is stripped as perpetual servitude upon conviction, but this could be used to deny any constitutional right by statute–a position SCOTUS has denied even for the incarcerated (e.g., religious rights on beards or, more forcefully, forbidding sterilization of prisoners, which indeed is forever). Why not then deny religious rights to any felon as a perpetual punishment for convicted crime, since then punishment, so servitude, would never end, so there would never be a “previous condition”?

    The First Amendment with incorporation to the States under the 14th forbid such State acts with respect to speech or religion. Just as the First Amendment is free standing, so too is the 15th; the States (or Congress) can define neither. Surely this issue has reached the courts. I suspect they have said that the intent of the 15th Amendment was to forbid prior slavery as rationale for vote denial; the same logic was applied to the 14th Amendment in 1872. And, in any case, surely in 1870, when the 15th was ratified, servitude ended when released from jail. Here text and original intent fuse nicely. The text is free standing, and one is released from incarceration and parole after meeting statutory penalties. Thereafter, one has a “previous condition of servitude,” and that cannot be used to forbid the vote. The US illegitimately curtails the vote to this day. This view, of course, will make me many friends.

    2) There is a tendency to equate individual opinions summed as the will of the people, so the vote (or a poll) become that measured will. The vote is, however, realized as a form of intergroup competition. One holds an opinion partly because allies hold it or opponents otherwise. That is, individual preference is immeasurable without group competitive context. People create their opinions to live in various social contexts, contexts in which group labels are unavoidable.

    Turnout gets to this a bit. Polls do not matter if the polled do not vote; getting out the vote is a form of inter group competition. (I have wondered whether poll predictive accuracy differs between, say, the US or UK and Australia, for in the latter all citizens must vote, thereby significantly changing the dynamics of intergroup competition during elections–the question is not getting out the vote but turning the marginal forced voter.) What blanket polls do is suggest areas where mobilization will fail, as in the swift decade change on gay marriage. But even here majority indifference can sometimes be trumped by minority zeal, as the indifferent may just not vote.

    But intergroup competition goes beyond voter turnout–it can include, for example, shutting down some opinions as being unacceptable if spoken (we see this today in the US over charges of political correctness which drove some of the Trump election, and presently in Metoo as, I believe, in part a response to Trump). Actually, expanding suffrage is a way of altering intergroup competition. Very rich liberals such as the Kennedy’s have done this with, surprise, expectation it would enhance their vote share. (In this LBJ’s forcing of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts was truly altruistic, for he correctly predicted the Democratic Party would lose the South, which it did.) Suffrage is not about releasing us all for individual deliberation. Politics is not about individual deliberation, and I think our empirical measures frustrate us because we are forced, ideologically, to assume otherwise. In Israel, one can say Sheldon Adelson’s capture of a major share of opinion formation via a free news daily is “undemocratic” only by recognizing that opinions do not float above group context. One says it is undemocratic because too much power in opinion formation is focused in too few hands. Suffrage is no longer the vote but the diverse wielding of opinion. The national right will guffaw at this, for they will say democracy is no more than the summed vote of the people. For the liberal left to win, “suffrage” must be generalized. And this is one reason why the word “democracy” itself is now under contest in Israel.

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