Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Do Americans Increasingly Identify With the French Revolution Instead of Their Own?

Conservative columnist and pastor David R. Stokes argues that Americans increasingly seem to identify with and prefer the values of the French Revolution as opposed to their own Revolution. He writes that, when it comes to the political and social climate of the United States of America, "the spirit of 2013 is more like the spirit of 1789 than 1776."

If the American people indeed are favoring the ideals of the French Revolution over the American Revolution, they do so at their own peril. The French Revolution brought about social anarchy, violence, and ultimately dictatorship - and much suffering throughout the continent of Europe. The American Revolution, by contrast, produced the longest-serving, freest, and most successful Republic in human history. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a philosopher to see which legacy should be preferred.


JMS said...

Brian - my dismissive comments are more directed at Rev. Stokes than you, but man, what a tired old canard. Canard in the French sense
vendre un canard à moitié (to sell half a duck). Or I'll quote from John Fea's blog today about Gordon Wood's reminder to all of us that, "history is complicated." Why do we have to praise the American Revolution by bashing the French Revolution?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I think Stokes is onto something: Law as "the general will" rather than the natural law. The French Revolution is the beginning of modernity; the American founding the fruition of the classical and medieval.

Here's Stokes' thesis:

The American and French Revolutions are linked in our minds because of chronology; but they were vastly different affairs.


As our nation morphs its way along ...a significant number of people would seemingly prefer “Liberty – Equality – Fraternity” over “Life – Liberty – and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It is in the parsing of those vitally important words that we find the keys to understanding where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. One revolution was about individual rights and dreams. The other was about “the people” as a group and the highest virtue being “the greater good.”

Can you guess which is which?

There, I took out the contentious and unnecessary lefty-bashing phrases. I think he's drawn a defensible distinction, in the least an arguable one.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Stokes is onto much more than that, Tom. All that "unnecessary" stuff that you left out is actually very true and very necessary. The difference between the French and the American Revolutions was their theology. John Adams recognized this difference when he wrote to Jefferson that:

"No man is more sensible than I am of the service to science and letters, humanity, fraternity, and liberty, that would have been rendered by the encyclopedists and economists, by Voltaire, D’Alembert, Buffon, Diderot, Rousseau, La Lande, Frederic and Catherine, if they had possessed common sense... And what was their philosophy? Atheism,—pure, unadulterated atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, Frederic, De La Lande, and Grimm, were indubitable atheists. The universe was master only, and eternal. Spirit was a word without a meaning. Liberty was a word without a meaning. There was no liberty in the universe; liberty was a word void of sense. Every thought, word, passion, sentiment, feeling, all motion and action was necessary. All beings and attributes were of eternal necessity; conscience, morality, were all nothing but fate. This was their creed, and this was to perfect human nature, and convert the earth into a paradise of pleasure."

This philosophy of atheism reveals to us why Americans now find the French revolution more appealing than their own. Compare Adams' description of the French revolutionaries with this statement by Richard Dawkins:

"In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

In the same letter quoted above, Adams also offered an explanation for the failure of the French revolutionaries to fully establish atheism in their nation when he wrote that "they had not considered the force of early education on the minds of millions, who had never heard of their philosophy." Unfortunately, the atheists have learned from this oversight of the French thinkers, and they have invested more than fifty years in preparing the American mind for Dawkins' regurgitation of the nihilism of the French Revolution.

This will lead to nothing but heartache for the American people. Notice what Adams said about the liberty promised by the French Revolution. "There was no liberty in the universe; liberty was a word void of sense." This is the same liberty promised by the New Atheists. They profess to be free of God and the restrictions of religion, but what kind of liberty do they promise? -- a liberty that is "nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." What a stark difference this is from the liberty which the American founders obtained. According to Adams:

“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were ... the general principles of Christianity and the general principles of English and American liberty."

Unlike the empty promises of the French, the freedom of America was founded on the recognition of two distinct yet complementary sets of principles or laws - the law of nature and the the Law of nature's God.

Shortly after the revolution, James Wilson, who signed both of our founding documents, taught his law students of:

"That law, which God has made for man in his present state; that law, which is communicated to us by reason and conscience, the divine monitors within us, and by the sacred oracles, the divine monitors without us. This law has undergone several subdivisions, and has been known by distinct appellations, according to the different ways in which it has been promulgated, and the different objects which it respects. As promulgated by reason and the moral sense, it has been called natural; as promulgated by the holy scriptures it has been called revealed law."

Bill Fortenberry said...

Wilson also wrote:

“That our Creator has a supreme right to prescribe a law for our conduct, and that we are under the most perfect obligation to obey that law, are truths established on the clearest and most solid principles.”

This then is the reason that the American Revolution has produced more than 200 years of prosperity while that of the French produced the Reign of Terror. Both nations recognized the role of the natural law and reason, but only one recognized with Wilson that "Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine."

Mark D. said...

Great points, Tom. You should work up your comment into a post for the main page!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Mark. It's a hard point to argue esp with a hostile interlocutor: the Rights of Man [1789] makes all the right noises, as Jon posts here.


Cosmetically, it's the heir of the Declaration--Jefferson even advised Lafayette on it. But of course, Jefferson was a philosophical outlier at the Founding, and was an outlier in his dogged defense of the violence of the French Revolution after everyone else of the Founding generation was appalled.

Jefferson critic Conor Cruise O'Brien:

In the "Adam and Eve" letter to William Short, the Secretary of State instructs that squeamish diplomatist (and defector from the ideals of his patron Jefferson) to stop complaining about French Revolutionary atrocities and accept that there is no limit (except the sparing of two persons per nation) to the slaughter that may legitimately be perpetrated in the holy cause of freedom. And the letter to Short is not a case—as Jeffersonian apologists like to imply—of an isolated flash of hyperbole. The letter to Short is a follow-up to the Notes on a Conversation with George Washington, in which Jefferson records that faith in the French Revolution has been his "polar star" and his belief that Washington is a belated convert to that faith (converted by the victories of French Revolutionary armies). In his letter to Short, Jefferson is setting out the merciless, and almost limitless, exigencies of polar faith.


Jefferson condoned the September Massacres of 1792, atrocities on a far greater scale, numerically, than the 1995 massacre in Oklahoma City. After September, as before, the French Revolution remained Jefferson's polar star. The Adam and Eve letter was written after the news of the massacre of several thousand helpless people by the Paris mobs had reached America. Philip Freneau, Jefferson's protégé—an employee at the Department of State—explicitly defended the September Massacres in the National Gazette, at that date the principal organ of Jefferson's Republican Party, and under Jefferson's direct and active patronage in Philadelphia.

It is true that Jefferson later—and retrospectively—condemned "the atrocities of Robespierre." But that was in 1795, and Robespierre (who did not order the massacres of September 1792) was not only dead, but anathema to the new masters of the French Revolution. While Robespierre was alive, and the Terror was actually raging, Jefferson had no comment to offer on French Revolutionary atrocities.

There might be something in this vein.

JMS said...

I admire the ideals of the American Revolution, but am saddened by the violent toll it took on Native Americans and led ultimately the abortive revolution in 1861 over slavery (funny how that American Revolution gets overlooked conveniently by Rev. Stokes, but that’s what happens when you cherry-pick facts to support your argument while ignoring the rest). But as Abraham Lincoln noted in 1864, “We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” Americans agree that these values are vital to our nation, but what do they mean, and how have their meanings been contested and changed over time? So, the “bottom line” is that, “What made America free, and keeps it so, was not any single version of liberty and freedom but the interplay of many visions.” (D. H. Fischer)

And I admire the ideals of the French Revolution, but am saddened that the French Revolution rain off the rails into terror, violence, war and bloodshed across Western Europe on a horrific scale. What I objected to is the author’s reductionism, which found it necessary to fit the complexities of history and the American and French Revolutions into a black (the French) and white (the Americans) duality. Maybe, as Gordon Wood noted, in the video referenced by John Fea, we shouldn’t just decry cherry-picking “law office” history, but perhaps Rev. Stokes’ “pulpit history” as well.

Tom did not identify Stokes’s thesis. Nor is it what Stokes said it was in the last paragraph. His argument (thesis) of why the American Revolution is “good” and the French Revolution was “bad” was reduced to this: “The reason it has all worked and endured so well in this land is because we are a nation ’under God’.” So all the complexities and contingencies in America from 1765-1791, and in France from 1789-1815 comes down to this:

God – liberty – virtue – individualism – American Revolution = good

no God – no liberty – no virtue – collectivism – French Revolution = bad

But then Stokes runs off the rails with: “the French Revolution is the ancestor of all totalitarian systems to follow. Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot Lenin, and all other political gangsters were heirs of Robespierre and later, Napoleon.” Now Napoleon admitted he was no Washington, but he wasn’t Mao either. The good Reverend is guilty of grossly inflated bad historical analogies. Then he really goes off the rails about all of those collectivist “totalitarian regimes” like John Adams’ “Peoples Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” Seriously? As noted by even Wikipedia, “Massachusetts is officially named "The Commonwealth of Massachusetts" by its constitution. The name "State of Massachusetts Bay" was used in all acts and resolves up to 1780 and the first draft of the constitution. The current name can be traced to the second draft of the state constitution, which was written by John Adams and ratified in 1780.”

Five states in the USA are officially self-named commonwealths by their organic documents (and I am proud to hail from William Penn’s commonwealth), and Vermont and Delaware also make references to themselves as commonwealths. Apparently Stokes does not know about the link between civic virtue and res publica, Latin for “the public thing” and refers to what individuals in a community hold in common (i.e., the “public” or “common good” or “common weal” or commonwealth) above their individual self-interest.

The only thing Stokes is “onto” (in Jon’s words), is his keen observation that “to ignore those religious and cultural movements in America [the Great Awakenings] is to miss an important piece of the puzzle.” Otherwise it is full of bad history and bad historical analogies that we should not waste our time deconstructing.

If that makes me a “hostile interlocutor” according to Tom, so be it, I’ve been called worse. Also Tom, stop falsely asserting that Jefferson is an “outlier” (he isn’t), and then reusing a hack sot like O’Brien, a polemicist rather than a historian, who only diminishes your case.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But O'Brien is correct here about the Adam and Eve letter, and Jefferson's almost criminal tardiness in recognizing the French Revolution for its murderous nature.