Friday, July 14


Further Reflections on the Revolution in France

I started to write a response to all the fascinating (and very well-mannered) discussion that arose out my last post, and I discovered it had grown too large to fit within the confines of my comment-box. This is all a fascinating conversation, and one which touches on many issues which interest me and which I have no solid answers to. My first comment deals with the polemical issue of monarchies versus republics. I think in many respects it's very damaging to view either revolution, in terms of its morality, as in these terms.

The Church recognizes any type of government that recognizes fundamental human rights; this may be a monarchical one or it may be a republican one; both are of considerable antiquity and can be viewed through a Catholic lens. For that matter, a monarchy, if recognizing ancient legitimate rights of the people (e.g., "the rights of Englishmen" or the Italian communes) and mediatized by the primus inter pares of the feudal spirit, can be very "democratic." It can also be almost dictatorial. It is the feudal monarchies of the Middle Ages where the Church flourished, rather than the newfangled divine right rule that cropped up in the wake of the Reformation. It would be a fascinating study to see if there is any more than a casual link between English Erastianism and the fad for bureacratic centralization that swept Europe in the decades following the 30 Years War.

Conversely, a republic can be very aristocratic, in ways both good and bad (Venice), or even despotic or totalitarian, when the tyranny of the majority takes it out on certain groups of people or are propped up by a morally bankrupt ideology. A republic can even have a king, in the instance of the heroicly quixotic tragedy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Neither monarchy nor democracy guarantee pure unalloyed good. A state Church may guard public morality--or yoked to a government She cannot support, may only serve to give scandal. It is difficult to say, given that in many places where state Churches flourished, as in Spain, Rome groaned at the unconscionable liberties kings and emperors took in their appointment of bishops. Today, we are faced with the bleak wreckage of two experiments--the democratic indifference of an America without a state religion, or the sybaritic ignorance of Europe, where Catholicism was once a revered and often very healthy part of the political fabric. Choose your poison.

This isn't to say that it has to be that way, in either case.

In the case of France, a simple overhaul of the system, without the gore and bloodshed of the Revolution, as well as the destruction of ancient and revered institutions, often for the sake of wanton violence, would have done wonders for La belle France.

To view the French and American revolutions as one single seamless garment is extremely misleading. To be sure, there were elements of proto-Jacobinism in the War of Independence, more than some realize today, but there were far more radical types in the regicidal sirocco of Cromwell's days--John Lilburne, the Fifth Monarchy Men and the Levellers to name a few. Still, the essential impetus that gave rise to the American Revolution was a conservative one, until the unfortunate Tom Paine tricked Lady Liberty out in Enlightenment garb. This is crucial to understand when considering the differences between the American Revolution, her French sister, and their far more gruesome niece, who gave birth to Russia's myriad troubles.

The Americans were arguing their case, at least at the beginning, not on the nebulous feel-good whimperings of Rousseau (equal parts hippie, yuppie and bobo), or the historio-economic piffle of Marx, but on the rock-hard rights of Englishmen, granted to them by their King in the days of colony charters, and impinged upon by the intermeddling of the Ministry and the Parliament. And mind you Parliament was at least nominally answerable to the voters even then--just not the voters in America, who had their own time-honored legislatures, confirmed by the monarch, that were being closed down by Parliament, one-by-one. There was more of the Mayflower Compact than John Locke to 1775, and more John Locke than Jean-Jacques Rousseau to 1776. (This is not to say Locke has no flaws of his own, but I can stomach him more easily than the philosophes). In some respects, the struggle was more Republican Florence versus the Emperor than the oppressed masses seething and throwing off their chains. It helped you had more sensible men like Hamilton and Adams to put the breaks on Jacobin Francophiles like Tom Jefferson and his evil genius the libelous Benjamin Franklin Bache.

France, however, lacked the quirky, awkward and often medieval twists and turns of inherited English rights. Much of this feudal heritage had gotten sheared away or reduced to insignificance by the centralizing mania of the Sun-King. The result was a machine which combined the worst of medieval devolution and modern bureacratic autocracy. In some respects, the Revolution started out moderately enough, with some bubbling here and there in the middle class. They wanted legal vindication of their newfound wealth and economic power, rather than the often flimsy hereditary rights clung to by an aristocracy that were not necessarily as rich or as powerful as the popular view would have one believe. The term "penniless aristocrat" was not so much an oxymoron as it might seem to us now. (Furthermore, if the middle class was so unimpeachably democratic why did so many of them enjoy running around sporting bogus blue-blood titles of their own?)

One of my less illustrious ancestors was a parson's illegitimate son--surely the lowest of the low--who married the daughter of a minor and possibly disgraced nobleman, who I think might have gotten beheaded for his crimes. My memory is vague on this point, and I am probably conflating two or three people, but the point remains. Upward mobility could also run the other way too.

I won't tire you with the rest of the story, but the best account of the period is Simon Schama's Citizens, which paints the horrible and very abrupt radicalization of the Revolution in luridly accurate colors. The radical impulse in America's independence was always muted by Yankee good sense, as well as a pragmatic balancing of philosophy and more quotidian concerns. The Founders knew what was bad for business, and I don't mean that as an insult. In France (as in Russia), Faith was washed overboard in the deluge, Rousseau and the would-be goddess Reason (or Marx and the Proletariat, if one thinks about it) became the supreme authority, the despot, the monarch even, and every other possible crown had to be knocked from the heads of any rivals, whether they be king, priest, or even the simple laurels of the rights that these old authorities had bestowed on the ordinary folk they ruled once upon a time. Let us cry, perhaps by way of exorcism, both the American "Liberty and Union!" and the French "Vive le Roi!" on this day of ill-omen, and pray for wisdom to prevail.

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