Saturday, November 10, 2007

Contrasting Views on the American and French Revolutions

Two revolutions occurred in the late 18th century. Perhaps you've heard of them.

Positive Liberty has argued that the American and French Revolutions sprung from similar principles, while the University of Hawaii has argued the opposite.

Let's start with Positive Liberty:

I’ve seen religious conservative historians try to “credit” orthodox sources, most notably Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex, for the proposition of political revolution and consequently America’s Declaration of Independence. The same religious conservatives also tend to attempt to distinguish between America’s Revolution and France’s, arguing the former was a “Christian” revolution, the latter an “Enlightenment” revolution. As I noted in this post (one of my most widely read posts via search engines) the American and French Revolutions were declared according to a strikingly parallel set of ideological principles....

I agree that the American Revolution was not a Christian revolution - Jefferson's faith (as expressed in his Bible) is clearly not mine.

But let's see what the University of Hawaii says:

[I]n the late 18th century two momentous revolutions...triggered a great battle between the State and Freedom. Freedom emerged victorious in one; the State in the other. The great historical struggle since has been between the principles and conception of these two revolutions....

The American Revolution was the first. As a struggle against monarchical and aristocratic power, it was an explicit attempt to establish the greatest possible common Freedom. The leaders were careful historians who knew their political philosophy. Descendents of the English tradition of common law and rights, they were influenced by the great liberal philosophers, such as Sir John Harrington and John Locke. They understood that Freedom would be short-lived, that defeating an imperial State would only unleash a new State at home, unless the power of the State could be shackled. Their efforts, after a short experiment with the Articles of Confederation, were soon enshrined in the Constitution of the United States in 1787. In simple words, the Constitution was a conscious attempt to bound the State and preserve Freedom....

Unlike the American Revolution, whose philosophical ancestors were the English liberals, the French Revolution was fundamentally fathered by the French radical philosophers, especially Jean Jacques Rousseau, and inherited the faith in reason engendered by The Enlightenment. RenĊ½ Descartes' trust in geometric like reasoning and Rousseau's belief in the common will and sovereignty of the people framed the conception guiding the French Revolution. This conception is mechanical. Government is a machine, fueled by coercive power, and driven by reason; and its destination is Social Justice. Government is thus a tool to reach a future goal -- improving man. Those in charge of the State would therefore use reason to apply government to further and create Social Justice.

This conception is clearly different from that of the American revolutionaries. For the Americans, interests were the guiding force; for the French, reason. For the Americans, Freedom was to be preserved against the State; for the French, the State was used by reason to achieve Social Justice. For the Americans, individual rights were essential to protect interests; for the French, the collective, the sovereignty of the people, the general will stood above rights. Finally, for the Americans, no one interest could be entrusted with the State -- all interests had to be limited and balanced by their opposition; for the French, the State was a tool that should have no limit so long as Social Justice was pursued according to the common will.

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