Check out this great post by William Hogeland on the democratic revolution in Egypt. If the Egyptians want democracy, Hogeland argues, they should not be looking to folks like George Washington or John Adams, but rather to folks like Tom Paine, Herman Husband, Benjamin Rush (at least for part of his career), and the framers of the only truly democratic constitution in eighteenth-century America, the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.
Here is a snippet:
There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.
That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.
Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine.
Paine wrote “Common Sense,” and along with its bold characterization of all monarchs as tyrants, that pamphlet called for a hyper-democratic republic, when the better-known founder John Adams was calling for a republic in which democratic impulses would be sharply checked. Paine and Adams had a shouting match over it. Later Adams became President of the United States, and Paine became persona non grata in the United States, to whose independence he’d contributed everything he had. So be careful.
With Paine were less well-known radical American democrats. Herman Husband. Christopher Marshall. James Cannon. Thomas Young. Timothy Matlack. Benjamin Rush (he later became unradicalized, went the John Adams way — so we’ve actually heard of him). Hardly names to conjure with today, but these are our revolutionary democrats. What they wanted was to sever the ancient Whig connection between property and rights (a connection beloved by Adams, Madison, etc.), and to use government to restrain wealth, regulate business, and promote economic equality. Some lately have said that without a focus on what’s nowadays called “social justice,” there can be no real democracy in Egypt. If so, I’d love to commend Paine, Husband, Young, and the others to the Egyptian revolutionaries’ attention. History has obscured them, but it’s worth the effort to seek them out.
That crew led the radically democratic revolution that took over Pennsylvania in 1776. They did it in a way that reflects strangely on Egypt’s revolution. “The army is with the people!” some of the Cairo protestors exulted, and we hope it’s true. In 1776 Pennsylvania, however, the army was the people. Militia service was required of all able-bodied adult men. The genius of James Cannon was to organize the unenfranchised, propertyless militia privates throughout the state as a hugely powerful force on which security depended, and then have them seize the franchise simply by declining to take orders from a legislative body, the Pennsylvania Assembly, that had never allowed representation to the propertyless. With that, a new government was instituted in Pennsylvania, which for the first meaningful time anywhere allowed people with no property not only to vote but also to hold office.
While it can be debated whether or not radicals like Paine are what Egypt needs, Hogeland’s history is solid. Indeed, most of the founders were suspicious of democracy and did their best to tame it.