Tuesday, January 10, 2012

John Quincy Adams on Protestantism & the French Revolution

I caught this while reading JQA's letter to his mother dated January 9, 1816 (I added paragraph breaks for clarity):

.... Dr. Price was duped by the goodness and simplicity of his heart, by the enthusiasm of his love for liberty, and by his ignorance of the world in which he lived. His ardent zeal in favor of the French Revolution has shed a sort of ridicule upon his reputation, and his opinions upon that and some other subjects have been so completely falsified by events which have happened since his death, that his very name is sinking into oblivion.

Indeed the Dissenters in this country have fallen much into contempt since his time. Their political and religious doctrines have a tide equally strong running against them; and their conduct, which at one time swelled into seditious insolence, and at another sunk into fawning servility, has thrown them into such discredit, that the church may now, if they please, persecute them with impunity. They attempted here a few weeks since to make a stir about the real persecution under which the Protestants are suffering in the south of France. They held meetings, and passed high sounding resolutions, and opened subscriptions, and sent deputations to his Majesty's ministers, and buzzed about their importance, as busily and intrusively as so many horse-flies in dog-days.

His Majesty's ministers put off their deputation with general, insignificant civilities, which they met again, and resolved to give highly satisfactory assurances of support and interference in behalf of French Protestants. His Majesty's ministers then set their daily newspapers to circulate the report that Protestants in France were all Jacobins, and that if they were massacred, and had their churches burnt, their houses pulled down over their heads, it was not for their religion but for their politics.

From that moment Master Bull has had neither compassion nor compunction for the French Protestants. The Dissenters by a rare notion of stupidity and Jesuitism (for there are Jesuits of all denominations) have denied the fact, and vainly attempted to suppress the evidence that proved it; of stupidity for not perceiving that this must ultimately be proved against them, and of Jesuitism for contesting the fact against their better knowledge, because they could produce Protestant invectives against Bonaparte after his fall, and Protestant adulation to Louis 18 after his restoration.

The French Protestants, like the English Dissenters, have been throughout the course of the French Revolution generally time-servers. Like the mongrel brood of Babylonians and Samaritans after the Assyrian captivity, their political worship has been after "the manner of the God of the land." They have feared the Lord and served their graven images. They hated Bonaparte, no doubt, in proportion as they found themselves galled by his yoke, and they had no gratitude for the protection and security which his authority gave them for the free exercise of their religion and the quiet enjoyment of their property.

But the Protestants had unquestionably been from the first ardent supporters and exaggerated friends of the revolution. It was indeed natural enough that they should be, for the revolution had redeemed them from a worse than Egyptian thraldom. My father well remembers from personal knowledge what was the condition of the Protestants in France before the revolution, and in what sort of sentiments concerning them and their religion all the Bourbons were educated.

The revolution gave them equal religious and political rights with those of the rest of their countrymen. They had been twenty years freely and eagerly purchasing the national property, and among the rest, it appears, had purchased two of the old convents at Nismes, and used them for churches. Yet they joined in the hue and cry against Napoleon after he was down. Yet they fawned upon the Bourbons, when from the shoulders of the enemies of France they were turned off upon them, and licked the dust at the feet of Louis le Desire. As if tythes, and monks, and barefoot processions, and legends, and relics, and religious bigotry, had not been the darling and only consolations of Louis and his Bourbons in their exile, and would not inevitably bring back religious intolerance with them.

Now, this is the foundation upon which the Dissenters here have relied, to deny that the present persecution of the French Protestants has been for politics. But now comes a letter from the Duke of Wellington, formally announcing that it was for politics, and henceforth, instead of whining, and resolving, and subscribing for the French Protestants, the churchmen here, if the coal of the Angouleme fires were extinguished, would lend him a fagot to kindle them again. The Duke of Wellington says, too, that he is convinced the French government have done all in their power to protect the Protestants. This is not so certain. But whether they have or not, is held to be perfectly immaterial. The French Protestants were Jacobins or Bonapartists—nothing more just and proper than that they should be hunted down as wild beasts. At the same time, the ministerial prints are teeming with reproaches upon two of the king's sons for having lately attended at a charity sermon preached in a Methodist chapel, and giving broad hints that the church must be strengthened against the Dissenters.

I'm not sure if I would categorize the FR as a "Protestant" event, but Protestantism certainly fueled its flames.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I will have to educate myself further on the French Revolution and American Revolution to make a more informed statement and take a position. And though I try to read about what is happening in our government, I may not have all the facts. But, this is my impression from what I know now.

The American revolution protected interests, while the French Revolution protected "social justice". The differences are in how the individual/collective and the personal/universal aspects of understanding "the human" are understood and resolved.

The American Revolution first began as a dissenting religious view/vision, that incorporated a "work ethic", while the French Revolution was based on an economic and "entitlement" mentality. The American Revolution was at first a self chosen resistance movement, that ended in a reaction to economic tyranny. The French Revolution was a little different.

The American Revolution supported the "dissentors" because of the belief in personal, private and individual liberties regarding liberty of conscience. The government was to be the arbitrator between conflicting interests supporting a balance and "just order" socially, as the Founders took for granted "self interests". The Constitution was to protect and provide for these liberties, while establishing a balanced order in society. Justice was an equal and balanced view of power.

The French Revolution already had an established order that protected the rights of the noble or political class. The rule of law, where the State was to arbitrate between conflicting interests, was not the environment, as the "upper crust" weren't paying taxes, the country was bankrupt, and the workers were working harder and the standards of living were growing meeker. A growing class envy began to erupt, which led to social chaos and bloodshed and ended in dictatorship.

America's ordered liberty prevents the growth of power at the expense of others, as long as the political class does not circumvent the procedural order that balances and checks power. I think that this is why we've seen the swing between the parties in power over the years. Today, though, leaders have become a politcal class all their own, that have their own power to protect. This is not limited government, but reaches or approximates a "noble class" that protects itself from accountability.

In this sense, our country is seeing a day where corruption abounds regarding the rule of law and balancing interests. Rulers aren't accountable to the same rules, as the average little guy, or in protecting the Constitutonal "checks and balances" or so it seems. Nor do they serve the country for the country's sake, or so it seems, because they seem to want to stay in power, once they've attained it, which increases State power, as the ruler/State become synonmous.

The middle class is disappearing, which was/is the "bread and butter" of American stability. And this is why, I think, our society is experiencing such an upheavel.

Dissenters are frustrated, because we do not believe in a "Divine Right of Kings", where there is no balance of power or accountability in government. No longer are the American people trusting that their leaders are ruling with "the people's" consent, but in spite of it. And this is why we have seen the "Tea Party" and the "Occupiers" movements begin.

Americans have believed that they have a right to ownership of their property and person. These were earned responsibilities, as well as natural rights. And isn't this what made America great? Individual seeking their own interests, which benefited society, as well as themselves?

Mark D. said...


I am liking the recent attention paid to JQ Adams! An overlooked member of the Founding Generation.

The connection between Protestantism and the French revolution is simple: Protestantism undercut the traditional stability of the French ancien regime, stability which was tied intimately to the link between throne and altar, a link that went back to the earliest Frankish kingdoms in western Europe. By attacking that link, Protestantism weakened the ancien regime at a critical point. Other points were then attacked by different groups of dissenters, until the whole thing came tumbling down in horror.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yeah there is a lot of great stuff from JQA. And I think he's a better writer than his father.

I still haven't figured out where he ended up at death. He MAY (or not) have converted back to unitarianism.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I think the main reason why the AR ended up okay and FR sent its society into convulsions is they displaced their monarchy and disestablished their church all at once. Once the radical changes occurred too fast and too soon, the "reformers" then displaced too much tradition when it tried to remake society.

America, on the other hand shook off a King/Parliament that ruled from thousands of miles across the Ocean and didn't have any national Church to disestablish. America also left most of its traditions/conventions in place.

In principle, I don't see the two events as radically different. Rather I see them as parallel events with the American slightly more moderate (Scottish) in the way it announced its ideals of liberty and equality and the French slightly more radical (Continental) in the way it announced its appeals to liberty and equality.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I agree that our society evolved away from an established authority and become protected by the "rule of law". But, one cannot ignore the entanglements that Jefferson warned about that created the financial stress on the French economy when they help in our Revolution. One has to question whether this is also the case with our own deficit and the costs abroad...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Indeed the Dissenters in this country have fallen much into contempt since his time.

I'd think this speaks of the fate of "deism" and the like, and that they were dragged down by their vocal support of the French Revolution. We also have the Second Great Awakening at this time, a countermovement to strict rationalism.
Dr. Price was duped by the goodness and simplicity of his heart, by the enthusiasm of his love for liberty, and by his ignorance of the world in which he lived. His ardent zeal in favor of the French Revolution has shed a sort of ridicule upon his reputation, and his opinions upon that and some other subjects have been so completely falsified by events which have happened since his death, that his very name is sinking into oblivion.


Dwyn Mounger said...

Returning to subject of French Protestants, English Dissenters, and the French Revolution, I think it most important to remember that the Huguenots originally supported the monarchy. Young Calvin (1536) addressed his INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION to Francis I. The Bourbons largely converted to the Reformed faith, while their fellow nobles the Guises remained Roman Catholic and clustered around the monarchy and Paris. Indeed, Francis Duke of Guise himself, in 1562, ordered his troops to attack worshiping Huguenots in Vassey, thus starting the French "Wars of Religion," as tragic as Germany's 30 Years War. To bring peace, Huguenot heir to the throne Henri IV converted to Catholicism, saying cynically, "Paris is worth a mass" (attendance by him, once a year), but issued the Edict of Nantes, giving a large measure of freedom to the Huguenots. But much later Louis XIV proscribed the Protestants, posting his brutal dragoons in their homes, forcing them to "convert," kidnapping their children to be raised R.C., destroying their churches (called "temples," for the word "eglise" was forbidden to them). In the early 1700s, finally, the Camisards (largely farmer Protestants of southeast France) rebelled against their persecution--and were brutally put down. Doomed-to-beheading Louis XVI, trying to find friends anywhere, finally gave them freedom to exist; and the French Revolution gave them more liberties. Hence some Huguenots supported the revolt, with reservations. By this time, in France, one had almost to choose between being a full-blown, Jesuitical Thomistic, traditional R.C. or else a Deist or an atheist. For the Jesuits despised even their Jansenist fellow R.C.'s, including Pascal, and proscribed them. Since the R.C. hierarchy supported the monarch for championing Holy Mother Church, the French Revolution wasn't just against the thoroughly corrupt monarchy but also the established religion. Notre Dame itself was sacked & turned into a "Temple of Reason." So was Basilique St. Denis, the "Westminster Abbey" of France, where royal graves were desecrated.
Southeast France today has a relatively healthy Protestantism, with the dominant Reformed & Lutherans (strong in Alsace-Lorraine) planning to unite, as they have in the Netherlands, in 2013. Prominent Huguenots were active in resistance to the Nazis during World War II, and the Huguenot remote village Le Chambon-sur-Lignon hid thousands of Jews, more than any other place in occupied Europe.
Interested in exploring Le Chambon & other Protestant sites with me? I'm leading a "Huguenot Heritage" tour April 23-May 4, 2012. For details,visit www.reformationtours.com & click on "Current Tours."
Dwyn Mounger, Ph.D.