Himmelfarb updates this ancient wisdom by persuasively placing the Scottish Enlightenment under the rubric of the British Enlightenment, so as to join Edmund Burke and Adam Smith in a single tradition. She also adds another Enlightenment, the American, to the mix as well. The French have long tried to claim that the American Revolution is merely an offshoot of the French Enlightenment project. Himmelfarb disagrees. She shows that the French took a different road to modernity than the Anglo-Americans, who took similar but slightly different routes.
The British valued virtue more than liberty, the Americans had it the other way around. But where the French differed is that they sought to replace the religion of old Europe with a new cult of reason. They even made Notre Dame Cathedral into a "Temple of Reason." By making a religion out of politics, with the State at its center, the French never embraced liberty the way Anglo-Americans did. It was this legacy which lent intellectual heft to all the great dictators, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.
My friend and colleague John Miller picks up the story basically where Himmelfarb leaves off. In "Our Oldest Enemy," he and his co-writer Mark Molesky debunk the mythology that America and France were anything like sister republics fighting side by side in lady liberty's defense. Yes, the French throne - not the Enlightenment philosophes - helped us out during the American Revolution, but that was a calculated attempt to give Britain a wedgie.
But before that - during the French and Indian War - and almost ever after, the French have practiced a nasty Realpolitik towards America and the world. The French supported the Confederacy in the Civil War, and let's not count how many Frenchmen supported the Germans - and the Holocaust. Suffice it to say, the Hollywood version of French heroism leaves a lot to be desired. "Next to the weather," Gen. Eisenhower lamented, "[the French] have caused me more trouble in this war than any single factor."
Eisenhower's lament was perfectly consistent with our entire history with France, as Miller and Molesky relentlessly document. During the Cold War, de Gaulle was always more of a hassle than a help. France's opposition to the Iraq war had a soupcon of principle in a kettle of cynicism and oil-for-food petrodollars. Indeed, we forget that the phrase "millions for defense, not a penny for tribute" stemmed from America's refusal to acquiesce to French shakedowns during the XYZ Affair.
Indeed, the most annoying irony is that while they ribbit a big game about bringing liberty and civilization to the world, France's record is one of sowing the seeds of tyranny and corruption almost everywhere they've planted their flag. Meanwhile, Britain's former colonies are mostly moving in freedom's direction.
These two books make excellent Christmas presents for those who need to wake up and smell the caf?u lait. So joy to the world, and down with the French! But I repeat myself.