It is only fair that I start out by telling you that I am not a fan of the French. Intellectually I know that it is wrong to judge a people and their history because of a handful of distasteful experiences. But, what can I tell you? I’m not totally sure where my angst comes from. I suspect it may have started with World War II movies and learning how General Patton and his troops were ordered to stand aside and allow that pompous ass, General Charles de Gaulle, to lead his French Resistance fighters into Paris as the “liberators”. Then sixteen years later, that same pompous ass, as the French President, used their accumulated dollars (much of which came out of the pockets of American taxpayers to rebuild France after the war) to make a run on America’s gold reserves. Did that play a role in President Richard Nixon’s decision to end the Breton Woods system of international financial exchange and, thereby, ending the last vestiges of the gold backed dollar? Many would say yes. I have other more personal reason for my feelings about the French that I won’t bore you with today. Today I wish to review with you some interesting and important history.
Before getting to that history, I should expose one more of my many short comings. I am regrettably not an American history scholar and much less a scholar of French history. Yes, I took all the requisite courses in highschool and college and passed them with flying colors, but it was a very superficial education in history. Although I have often enjoyed reading historical novels and biographies of some our Founders, it is probably safe to say that I have learned more American history since I started blogging than in all the previous decades.
This past weekend I was reading the most recent post by my friend, Cheryl Pass, at her blog, My Tea Party Chronicle. in which she linked an article titled The American Vs French Revolutions. I thought to myself, “that might be an interesting read”. It was. The author of the article, R. J. Rummel, is indeed a scholar of history and political science. Dr. Rummel is a professor at the University of Hawaii. If you go to the above link and click on the “personal” page you can learn of all his credentials. He is the author of several books and if you click those links you will long summaries and conclusions that are also interesting reading.
In Dr. Rummel’s article, he writes:
The intellectual struggle worldwide today is now between the beliefs encapsulated in the American Revolution and those in the French. It is interests versus reason.
After a short historical background on mankind’s struggle to break free from thousands of years of feudalism, he explains how those efforts bore fruit in the eighteenth century with two revolutions and two very different results:
Then, in the late 18th century two momentous revolutions destroyed this balance, 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, for as the old balance between kings and aristocracies was destroyed, the success of Freedom or advance of the State has depended on the triumph of one of these two sets of principles and conceptions.
The following two paragraphs provide the gist of his view of the American Revolution:
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.
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.
And then his synopsis of the French revolution:
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. RenŽ 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.
Two revolutions to break the chains of feudalism. Our revolution led to a limited government and maximum freedom while the French revolution led to an all-powerful state in which the elite know best.
Sadly, it is the spirit of the French revolution that lives on in much of the world today.
They underlie the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the first stirring of socialism, the writings of Marx and the birth of communism and democratic socialism. The French Revolution was defeated but the Revolution was victorious. Infesting intellectuals everywhere, its ideas eventuated in the successful Russian Revolution.
It is the philosophy of the French revolution that America’s “progressive movement” follows. I wonder if they know that?
What did I learn from professor Rummel¡s lesson? On a personal level, this son of a Scottish immigrant father and a mother whose roots come from Ireland has no interest what so ever of following the French anywhere! On a more serious level, it occurs to me at this late stage in life that our nation would be better served if we had more historians and less lawyers in Washington. Maybe we wouldn’t repeat the mistakes that history is there to teach us.
Well, now you know what I’m thinking. What are your thoughts?