POLITICAL OPINIONS #56: THE ROLE OF THEOLOGY IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION VS. FRENCH REVOLUTION

INTRODUCTION:

For those of you who have active imaginations, attempt to picture the results of the American Revolution if the Brittish had won.  An interesting juxtaposition when compared to the current state of history and an engaging exercise for those into the whole alternative history scene. While imaging the byproduct of the United States still being under English colonial control in 2018 maybe engrossing idea to entertain, let’s stack the chips a little higher. Hypothetically, what if the American colonists emancipated themselves from colonial rule, however, their efforts devolve into divisive chaos. The idealistic principles behind the revolution failed to maintain order and a political power vacuum is created, waiting for the lurking totalitarian to seize control. For many patriotic Americans, this may parallel the dark prophecies conveyed in dystopian science fiction novels. However, the events described are actually a loose interpretation of the French Revolution.

The question becomes why was the American Revolution such a political and philosophical success and the French Revolution was such an abject failure? Historians and political commentators have a litany of hypotheses addressing this inquiry. However, one particularly interesting claim made by Conservatives was the philosophical backbone supporting both revolutions. The French people were definitely influenced by the success of the American colonists, however, their philosophical principles varied.  The French Enlightenment philosophers were well known for their criticism of religion. The philosophical core of France’s secular culture is ingrained in the country even to the present day[1]. All you need to do is read Voltaire’s Candide to really demonstrate France’s tradition of staunch secularism. France’s core unifying philosophical tenant, with little to no moral safeguards, was logic. The Conservative critics overwhelmingly attribute the failings of the French Revolution to the moral shortcoming of the French secularism.

 

In contrast, the founding fathers of the United States were much more influenced by the theological principles of Christianity. The founders of the United States were influenced by the Enlightenment philosophers of England and Scotland. While the majority of European philosophers only saw the folly in religion the English/ Scottish philosophers remained unwavering in their faith [2]. Much of the founding principles of the United States were basic in Judeo-Christian ethos and solidified by the premise of natural rights that are divinely allocated. In a sense, it was a more egalitarian inversion of the divinely decreed ” Divine Right of Kings” championed throughout Europe a few centuries prior. The principle of a divinely sanctioned equality of man certainly has the rigidity that logic and reason does not. The fungible nature of logic and reason means that you can utilize these tools to fit your agenda. In contrast, the word of God is Gospel, with little leg room for manipulation if you are an orthodox Christian. Coupling the rights of citizenhood with faith works in regards to justification as faith is not be questioned.

In an attempt to clear the air here, I feel as if I should expound upon theological biases, I may have. My theological convictions reside in a purgatorial expanse between belief and disbelief. For categorical purposes, I would proclaim myself to be an agnostic. I do have a degree of openness when it comes to exploring these ideas. I just wanted to reassure the readers that I am not slanted towards any undue praise of Christianity.  If it works as a moral framework, even if it is situationally successful, I cannot outright condemn. Particularly on the grounds of intellectual honesty.  While Christianity does have its shortcomings there are also highly positive attributes about it as a moral philosophical belief system. The atheists are also imbalanced and have the disposition to deny any positivity that can be yield from religion. I certainly feel like I am at an advantage in being able to discuss this topic because I am not beholden to a strong conviction on their side of the dichotomous divide.

 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION:

The events leading to the  French Revolution were complex and cannot be pinpoint as one sole cause being the harbinger of the revolt against the King. Under the reign of King Louis XVI’s involvement in the American Revolution and ostentatious spending left France in financial ruin. As a countermeasure, the king raised taxes which was met with looting and riots. The discontent with the fiscal climate in the country was only compounded by the rise in population of the non-aristocratic populace. While they the peasant class out vote the aristocracy they were stifled by the “noble veto” making their efforts for political engagement futile. They band together to form what became known as the Third Estate in an attempt to gain more political representation. On June 17th, 1789, the Third Estate convened a meeting in an indoor tennis court. The formally adopting the title of the National Assembly. The members took the  Tennis Court Oath, professing not to leave until reforms have been made to the Country’s constitution  (fiscal, judicial reforms, and the privileges of the nobility). By June 27th most of the “.. Clerical deputies and 47 liberal nobles…” had joined with the National Assembly in the demonstration. King Louis XVI reluctantly complied with their demands.

 

By July of 1789, there were numerous rumors of a military coup transpiring in France among the nobility.  This rumor came to fruition on July 14, 1789, when rioters stormed the Versailles fortress in search munitions. This became the spark that started the revolution. This widespread rebellion against the French upper class became known as “The Great Fear” or “la Grande peur”. The efforts of the revolting class became recognized once the old feudalistic system was abolished on August 4th, 1789. This marked the beginning of a new Era in French History.

[3].

 

DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF MAN:

Finally on August 26th, 1789 the National Assembly approved the Declaration of The Rights of Man. Mirroring the similar ideals as the Declaration of Independence in the United States, minus the allusions to a higher power. The document created an egalitarian overlay that provides political rights to citizens regardless of socio-economical status with 17 articles comprising the document.

Articles:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. Nobody nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.

7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Anyone soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.

8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.

9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner’s person shall be severely repressed by law.

10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.

11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.

13. A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.

14. All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.

15. Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.

16. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.

17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.

[4].

The Declaration of the rights of man was a step in the right direction in regards to increased equality within France. However, it was not enough to quell the discontent of radicals such as Maximilien de Robespierre. More moderate members of the assembly were looking to establish a Constitutional Monarchy which did not sit well with individuals such as Robespierre. [3].

 

THE STREETS RAN RED WITH BLOOD:

 

The darkest period of the whole French Revolution was known by historians as the Reign of Terror. On September 5, 1793, after the revolutionary factions took over the government they enacted a campaign of terror against suspected nobles, clergymen and anyone against there misguide crusade for equality. Executions for those who impeded their cause ran rampant throughout France from Paris to the countryside. For the lower class people that were still religiously observant, there was a de-Christianization program spearheaded by Jacques Hebert. The  Committee of Public Safety headed by Robespierre held totalitarian control over the government. In a paranoid state of rage, the government limited political opponents on the left and right of the political spectrum in 1794. They suspended the of a legal defendant trial or legal assistance leaving with the jury only able to acquit or convict them. It estimated that the number of people arrested during this era was approximately 300,000, 17,000 officially executed, and 10,000 died in prison without trial. The chaos continued from the failure of the French Revolution did not fully subside until Napoleon Bonaparte took the control of the country in the late 1700’s- early 1800’s. Mr. Bonaparte may have brought order but was far from a champion of democracy and had his own lust for conquest. [5].

 

THE FAILURES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE:

It is quite evident that the French revolutionaries were drastically opposed to religion, especially Christianity. If you look at the origins of the intellectual principles behind the revolution it is clear that the many French citizens at the time saw religion as a divisive force. [1]. Whether or not religion does engender socio-economic stratification is open for debate. What is quite salient is how the absence and lack of tolerance towards impacted the actions of the revolutionary government.  If you really examine that portion of the Reign of Terror period of French history, the religious conservatives that fault the lack of religion in the French Revolution seem to be more credible.

 

The article from the Christian publication The Christian Post did a comparative overlay between the American and French Revolutions. 2014 article demonstrates how the philosophical differences between the two can be seen as the primary reason for the variance in results. The author states how the French revolution was the philosophical appeal to the “… human assertions of truth…”. Conversely, the American revolution was based on natural law which had divine justification. The French revolution attempted to depart from the virtue of religion and misplace a twisted sense of divinity on the “ruler”. Which post-Reign of Terror ended up being the warmonger Napoleon. The value that Christianity places on the individual is what was imparted to our Constitutional rights. Emphasized protection of human rights versus veneration of the state.

[6].

 

DISCUSSION:

As a skeptic of Christianity and all other formally organized religions, I do approach the benefits of religion with a healthy amount of incredulity. However, I am not one to argue with positive outcomes. To play Devil’s advocate here (no pun intended), we cannot necessarily confirm that the causation of the corruption and collapse of the French Revolutionary government was due to a lack of religiosity. It is something that we cannot methodically replicate, therefore we can only speculate as armchair historians. I should state that the religiosity of the American revolutionaries and the French was the most salient difference between the two. While we cannot prove the causation of the chaos and disarray of post-revolution France, is likely a multitude of different factors. It should be noted that French revolutionaries never set up comparable checks and balances systems as was set up in America. Unchecked executive power will lead to tyranny.

 

I can certainly see how the philosophical framework of Christianity could lend itself to establishing a government that protects the rights of the people. Christianity is a religion that focuses on the individual. The individual possesses freewill to either go on the righteous path or to sin. Because God gave people free will us should be able to exercise our natural rights without oppressive restriction from the state. In early civilizations, the Emperors of Rome or the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt declared divinity as justification for the totalitrian rule. A kind of government authority that takes no consideration for the rights of the constituency, but the desires of the king. It has to be accepted because the king is a god. Due to Christianity’s prescriptions against false idols, it can be surmised that giving too much power to a political leader or the government is heresy.  This because Christians are to worship God not the government.  The framers of the U.S. Consitution being privy to their Christian roots knew enough to place restrictions on the state and to avoid intermarrying the government with religion. Once you combine the two,  only unsavory things can happen whether you are a Christian or not.

I know that many secularists may be under the impression that there is the too much religious influence in American government. Anyone under the impression that we live in a theocracy is being melodramatic. If anything the Christian principles of putting God above the state has protected us from tyranny in an abstract manner. As we mentioned early how in France there was not the same emphasis on checks on executive power. It can be speculated that the checks and balances are there to keep us from putting government before faith. I will not be attending church anytime soon, however, I am thankful our Founding Fathers were Christians. Not because I believe that it is a superior religion to any other. It is because I value the built-in safety guards against over-concentration of governmental authority. If it happens to be derived from a specific theological perspective, then it is merely another feather in the cap of that religion. The irony is that many American atheists owe their freedom to deny the existence of a higher power to protections provided from the ideals of Christianity.

 

 

 

 

 

Foot Notes:

[1]: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3325285.stm

[2]:https://mises.org/library/scottish-enlightenment-and-presbyterianism

[3].https://www.history.com/topics/french-revolution

[4]. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp

[5]: https://www.britannica.com/event/Reign-of-Terror

[6]: https://www.christianpost.com/news/the-american-revolution-vs-the-french-revolution-123275/

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Author: invertedlogicblog

In pursuit of liberty, philosophical thought, and Austrian Economics.

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