American Vs. French Revolutions

June 12, 2009

[First published April 10, 2005] I got carried away in writing this, and ended up with five pages single spaced, much too long for a blog. So, for the full essay, and that’s what it is, go here. This blog is a brief version.

There have been two revolutions, the American and French, and they expressed not only to opposing view of government, but they represent the struggle between Freedom and Socialism today.

The Constitution that eventually emerged from the American Revolution saw man as pursuing different, and often selfish, interests. The maximum satisfaction of all these interests requires that no one interest dominates. And what prevents such domination is a balance among opposing interests. This was a conception of Freedom as the outcome of this balancing of interests, each sustained by natural rights.

The Constitution thus embodied three principles. First, all men have certain inalienable Rights standing above and limiting government. Second, all governments carry within themselves the seeds of tyranny, of the absolute State, which can be limited only by a system of checks and balances. And third, since Freedom must reign, and no man working in his own interests can be unjust against himself, the government must be limited to defining and administering the common law. Government is to be an arbiter between interests, to serve a janitorial role of defending and maintaining the commonwealth. All else is the preserve of Freedom.

A conception of Freedom as an outcome of contending interests, each guaranteed inalienable Rights, and the three principles of Rights, checks and balances, and limited government, constituted the American Revolution — a revolution that established and preserved Freedom down to modern times.

The French Revolution of 1789 was also a revolt against the power of a monarch and aristocracy. Its motto was Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; its end was Social Justice; its means were to establish the sovereignty of the people, and to eliminate social and political inequalities.

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. René 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.

The first principle is that the benefits to the Community outweigh individual rights. This is what the common will or sovereignty of the people means ‑‑ that individuals are members of a Community which takes precedence over the individual, and that the Community has a will to be gratified, a justice to be sought, which no individual should bar.

The second principle is that the State, and thus government as its agent, can be beneficent instruments of progress, a tool to be used to pursue the common will, the Community’s betterment. Therefore, government should not be checked and balanced. Its powers should not be divided, for then the State is severely restrained. The Application of Reason to further Social Justice is crippled. Unlike the Americans, the French revolutionaries did not fear the State as such, but only the State in the service of the wrong class and bad ends.

And this led to the third principle of the French Revolution ‑- unlimited government. As the State’s implement of Reason working on behalf of the Community, government should not be limited. If necessary to pursue Social Justice, government should centralize, regulate, and control.

So, the American and French Revolutions launched an historic struggle between two conceptions and two sets of principles. One fosters Freedom and peace; the other furthers a statism which mankind has seldom, if ever, before known, a disease that not only blighted half the world, but even with the defeat of its most monstrous version, communism (Marxism), it still infests European politics and the American liberals, and especially, the socialist left.

The opposition between these principles remains the major schism today, the major historic battlefront. We are still heirs to the American Revolution, and the left and socialist are to the French. This is a struggle we can win. It all depends on democratic peoples understanding that the American Revolution is dying from a possibly malignant cancer – the statism of the neo-French revolutionaries at home and abroad – and in one form or another, domestic or foreign, it threatens us. The people’s common sense and their desire for freedom will in the end win out, if they comprehend the war being waged against them. It is the freedomist’s mission to assure this understanding


Link of Note

\”The” http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/french/french.html”>”The French Revolution”

By Rich Geib
Geib says

If the French revolution was the end of monarchy and aristocratic privilege and the emergence of the common man and democratic rights, it was also the beginnings of modern totalitarian government and large-scale executions of “enemies of the People” by impersonal government entities (Robespierre’s “Committee of Public Safety”). This legacy would not reach its fullest bloom until the tragic arrival of the German Nazis and Soviet and Chinese communists of the 20th century.

In fact, Rousseau has been called the precursor of the modern pseudo-democrats such as Stalin . . . Rousseau has been called the precursor of the modern pseudo-democrats such as Stalin and Hitler and the “people’s democracies.” His call for the “sovereign” to force men to be free if necessary in the interests of the “General Will” harks back to the Lycurgus of Sparta instead of to the pluralism of Athens; the legacy of Rousseau is Robespierre and the radical Jacobins of the Terror who followed and worshipped him passionately.

Freedom's Website Never Again Series


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.