Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Note on the French Revolution

First I'd like to thank the Acton Institutes's Dr. Kevin Schmiesing for thoughtfully engaging me in the conversation about Christianity, political liberty and the American Founding.

I want to briefly explain why I often mention the parallels between the American and French Revolutions, something Dr. Schmiesing briefly addressed at the end of his post. Obviously it's not because I support what went down in France. But the connection between the two revolutions is relevant to the conversation. I frequently hear religious conservative overplay the ideological differences between the two speaking as though they were, in the philosophical sense, as different as night and day.

Protestant defenders of the Christian America thesis oft-say (paraphrasing) “the French Revolution was based on the Enlightenment, while America’s was based on Christianity,” or another variation is, “the American Revolution holds that rights come from God, while the French believed rights come from the people or government only.” Ultimately secularism is attacked and given the blame for the failure of the French Revolution whereas traditional Christianity is praised and given the credit for the success of the American. The Acton Institute's The Birth of Freedom imparted a similar message, with which I disagreed.

The conclusion I've reached is that the events were analogous (not duplicates) in an ideological sense, with subtle but profound differences. Yes, Rousseau more influenced the French, the more moderate Locke and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers more influenced the American. Both were, at heart, Enlightenment events with the American Revolution, a more moderate Enlightenment event.

The notion that men are by nature, born free and equal, with inalienable rights was central to both Revolutions. And both invoked a generically defined God as the ultimate guarantor of those rights (see the references to God in all three of their Declarations of the Rights of Man, documents directly influenced by America's DOI with Jefferson, the DOI's author, in France overseeing their writing: one, two, and three). "Liberty and Equality" may well be authentic "Judeo-Christian" ideas. But if we so conclude, we must also conclude authentic "Judeo-Christian" ideas were at the heart of both revolutions.

Another conclusion we could reach is the notion that men have inalienable liberty and equality rights is not a Christian, but an Enlightenment ideal, and that America managed to make these Enlightenment ideas fit within a "Christian" framework whereas the French did not.

The French swept away all traditions and attempted to remake society over in accordance with "the new science of man." The Americans left their old conventions in place but let society gradually change in accordance with those ideals, until our society likewise went into convulsions (indeed over those very same ideas of Liberty and Equality) from 1861-65.

It's true that traditional Christians (with Enlightenment thinkers) supported the principles of the American Founding; indeed ministers often defended these principles from the pulpit. However, likewise I've found that many notable American ministers, some heterodox, some orthodox, defended the French Revolution in their sermons, at least in the beginning, before things went so sour (some proceeded to defend the French Revolution even as the terror ensued). It's entirely possible that orthodox Christians, even ministers from the pulpit, can support and defend notions that are not authentically Christian.

I'll end with some quotations and links to primary sources demonstrating my claims. First a letter from Washington, written in January 1, 1796, praising the FR and asserting American and revolutionary France as "sister republics." Next, a quotation from Madison asserting the two events as parallel, in a post which discusses the "theism" of the French Revolution. Next a post on heterodox enlightenment ministers Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, both of whom immensely influenced the American Founding, supporting the French Revolution and seeing it as ushering in a "biblical millennium" of liberty, equality and fraternity. Next a post showing traditional orthodox Christian ministers, notably Ezra Stiles, supporting the French Revolution (even as things start to go wrong), many of them too flirting with the notion that the French Revolution would bring on a biblical millennial utopia. And finally a quotation from Noah Webster, aptly summarizing what was probably the consensus of Americans on the French Revolution, in 1794:

In the progress of the French Revolution, candid men find much to praise, and much to censure. It is a novel event in the history of nations, and furnishes new subjects of reflection. The end in view is noble; but whether the spirit of party and faction, which divided the National Assembly, sacrificed one part, and gave to the other the sovereign power over the nation, will not deprive the present generation of the blessings of freedom and good government, the objects contended for, is a very interesting question. Equally interesting is it to enquire what will be the effects of the revolution on the agriculture, commerce, and moral character of the French nation. The field of speculation is new, and the subject curious.

Ultimately history answered the questions on the French Revolution. We shouldn't understand America's Founders as being a bunch of Edmund Burkes. History proved Burke right. He was not caught up in a revolutionary republican zeitgeist as were most Americans of the Founding era.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think the American Founders jumped to conclusions about the French Revolution. Its flaw of course, which you concede, Jon, is that it tried to reinvent not just government, but society and even man himself.

The Irish-British Edmund Burke, the "first conservative," although a supporter of the American Revolution, was closer to the action in France and smelled trouble.

The French Rights of Man [1789]declaration initially waves in the general direction of a Supreme Being as justification, but it reveals its modernist heart by stating that "Law is the expression of the general will."

This is relativism, a far cry from the American declaration's "laws of Nature and Nature's God," reducing the immutable good to mere opinion.

Now perhaps renaming the Cath├ędrale Notre Dame de Paris the "Temple of Reason" and putting a naked chick on the altar served some greater good. But such things were conspicuous by their absence in revolutionary America. I suspect even the often impious Jefferson would have found it a bad idea.