Saturday, September 17, 2005

The French and American Revolutions:

An oft-repeated claim comparing the American and French Revolutions goes something along the lines of "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." Admittedly, I know more about the American Revolution than the French (so perhaps Kuznicki will chime in), but my research tells me these claims are wrong, that both the American and French Revolutions were based on the same Enlightenment principles, which were relatively novel for the time ("the new science of man").

As Francis Fukuyama put it in a Booknotes interview about his classic, The End of History and the Last Man:

Now, by the French Revolution, we don't mean just the limited historical event; what we mean is the emergence of what we understand as modern liberal democracy because in the French Revolution, ultimately what it was about was a revolution in favor of the principles of liberty and equality. Now you could substitute the American Revolution for that because, I think in that kind of ideological sense, those two revolutions were equivalent. I mean, they were both revolutions to create what I earlier defined as a liberal democracy as a political system based on popular sovereignty with guarantees of individual rights.

This isn't to say there weren't profound differences between the two revolutions; clearly there were. But at base, they appealed to same Enlightenment principles. This shouldn't be surprising; Jefferson, the author of our Declaration of Independence also, while in France, assisted in writing the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Declaration of Independence was also heralded in France and helped spark their revolution. It's no wonder that the two documents are quite similar in what they say.

The way both nations approached these revolutionary ideas was quite different. To repeat, these Enlightenment principles were revolutionary, that is they were anti-traditional. In both societies many traditional practices, customs, laws, and institutions were antithetical to these principles, slavery being the most obvious, but also monarchy, feudalism, established Churches, religious tests, and many others. The French attempted to "sweep away" all those practices and institutions, inconsistent with these Enlightenment principles, and remake society, going so far as to start the calendar over from "year one." Their society went into convulsions.

America on the other hand, allowed as a compromise many of the institutions which were inconsistent with our ideals of liberty and equality. But in doing so there existed a great tension between the revolutionary anti-traditional principles upon which we were founded and the illiberal traditional practices like slavery, state-established Churches and religious tests, and other "compromises" with liberty and equality. But because there was such a tension, history in the US marched in the direction liberty and equality and most if not all of these illiberal institutions were eventually ended because of our foundational principles. Obviously the American approach to liberty and equality turned out to be superior to the French for no other reason than their society went into convulsions and ours didn't (but then again, they had an established Church to disestablish, and a monarchy to unseat).

Also, contra the claim "we followed Christianity, the French, the Enlightenment, or America is based on God given natural rights, the French, government granted positive rights," in reality, the theoretical approach to God and rights was nearly the same in both the American and French Revolutions.

Again, given that Jefferson was one of the main "idea-men" behind both Revolutions, this shouldn't surprise. Both made supplications to an always undefined, generic God, never explicitly referencing Him as the God of Scripture (even though, in many minds He probably was). And both invoked God as the ultimate guarantor of rights.

For instance, in all three Declarations of the Rights of Man (one, two and three), God is invoked. First, "Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen." Then in the following two Declarations, "proclaim(s) in the presence of the Supreme Being the following declaration of the rights of man and citizen."

True, these supplication are nominal and vague, but American supplications to God in our Founding documents and pronouncements (given by our key framers) are similarly nominal and vague! Indeed, the American Constitution is entirely Godless save for the customary way of stating the date, "In the Year of our Lord" and in invoking the "blessings" of liberty (and the French, likewise refer to natural rights as "sacred").


Anonymous said...

I always address the "Is America a Christian nation?" question early in my American literature classes. Instead of asking them simply to answer the question, I ask my students what "Christian nation" might mean, and which of the meanings might make sense when applied to the United States.

Does it mean "Most Americans are Christians?" Then perhaps America is a Christian nation. But then, what does it mean to be "Christian"? Do most Americans (or the nation as a whole in, say, its foreign policy) exemplify the pacifism and anti-materialism of the Sermon on the Mount? Of course not.

Or does "Christian nation" mean a nation founded upon Christian principles and toward Christian ends? This is the point at which I have the students read and compare the wording of two charters, the Mayflower Compact and the U.S. Constitution:

The Mayflower Compact (1620)--"In the name of God, amen. We, whose names are underwritten . . . having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the Ends aforesaid."

The Preamble to the United States Constitution (1787)--"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." (I also throw in Article VI, Clause 3: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”)

The first gives us a crystal-clear example of how a charter is worded by people deliberately founding a Christian polity. We are told directly that the colony is being "undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith." The Founding Fathers could have used similar wording, but didn't. The rationales for creating the Union is purely secular: insuring tranquility, providing for defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty.

Certainly the United States is not a Christian nation in the sense in whic Plymouth was a Christian colony. Still, some students typically insist that it is a Christian nation in some other sense, in a way that falls short of the Plymouth standard yet means more than the mere demographic fact that most Americans identify themselves as Christians. Funny thing--they can never seem to figure out what sense that is, though.

Jonathan said...

Many thanks. Excellent comment.

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