On July 14, 1789, Thomas Jefferson was serving as America’s Ambassador to France. The author of the Declaration of Independence in another July, thirteen-years earlier, was an eyewitness to the political unrest leading to the storming of a political prison called The Bastille. Though the fortress housed only seven inmates at the moment, including four forgers, it remains the iconic symbol of the beginning of The French Revolution.
Our Constitution had been ratified a year earlier, and George Washington had recently been inaugurated as our first President, so there was great interest in America about what was going on in France 225 years ago. After all, the French had been extremely helpful to us during our successful struggle to, as Jefferson phrased it, “dissolve the political bands” that connected us to the British monarchy. Americans were therefore understandably sympathetic with a movement against monarchial tyranny in France.
The American and French Revolutions are linked in history largely because of chronology, but they were vastly different affairs. One led to a new birth of freedom—the other to terror and tyranny, becoming the prototype for unspeakable horrors to come.
Most Americans are familiar with a phrase from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961—that whole “Ask not…” thing. But I think the most important thing JFK said that day was this: “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.” [Emphasis added]
But what is happening in our nation right now may resemble what happened in France in 1789 more than what happened in Philadelphia in 1776. For many Americans, especially those on the left, the cry of “Liberty – Equality – Fraternity” is much more resonant than the one about “Life – Liberty – and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
It is in the parsing of those vitally important words that we find the keys to understanding where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. One revolution was about individual rights and dreams. The other was about “the people” as a group and the highest virtue being “the greater good.”
When Thomas Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”in the Declaration of Independence, he was borrowing from 17th century English philosopher John Locke who wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson’s use of this language was clearly designed to describe the rights of individual people to live free, be free, and pursue their dreams in a free marketplace. Those thoughts were very much present in that Philadelphia birthing room.
The French Revolution, on the other hand—though similar to what happened here in America, in the sense of changing things and breaking free from an old order—had little to do with individual rights.
It was all about collectivism.
And in many ways, the French Revolution is the ancestor of all totalitarian systems to follow. Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Lenin, and all other political gangsters were heirs of Robespierre, and later Napoleon. Those tyrannical manifestations were not misguided aberrations—distortions of something that started out good (as in, “Lenin was cool, too bad Stalin messed it all up”)—the seeds of the horror were present at the beginning. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th century Enlightenment philosopher, wrote about volonté générale or “general will,” and the Jacobins, followed by others, ran with it. In their thinking, “the will of the people” could only be expressed by enlightened leaders.
Yes, our revolution indeed drew a measure of strength from the Enlightenment, but it was of the earlier Lockean variety. America’s use of Enlightenment concepts was tempered by something else; something that set it apart from what happened in France—a spiritual foundation.
Vive la revolution - Vive la difference.
The French not only declared war on the monarchy, they also attacked Christianity, replacing it with a religion of the state and introducing the worship of secularism. Sound familiar?
In America, it was very different. I am not one of those who spends a lot of time trying to prove the Christian bona fides of every founding father, but I do believe that the influence of what was called The Great Awakening, which ended about twenty years before the shot heard around the world was fired, was still very much a part of our national fabric.
And another such movement, often referred to as the Second Great Awakening, began while the French were unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to be free. To ignore those religious and cultural movements in America is to miss an important piece of the puzzle. The very concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity sound nice and make for great propaganda. But in the end, without virtue born of something deeper and greater, even the best rhetoric is mocked by what actually happens when human nature runs amuck. This is why all totalitarian regimes like to call their realms things like The People’s Republic of China, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or The People’s Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
We need to beware of those who share our vocabulary but use a different dictionary.
The reason it has all worked and endured so well in this land is because we are a nation “under God.” There, I said it. There is no real liberty without that. All attempts at actual freedom end up moving toward tyranny without some sense of higher purpose and power. I believe firmly in the separation of church and state. But minus positive religious influence, a nation cannot long remain free.
C. S. Lewis said it very well in The Screwtape Letters 70 years ago: “Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn't know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side), we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state. Even in England we were pretty successful. I heard the other day that in that country a man could not, without a permit, cut down his own tree with his own axe, make it into planks with his own saw, and use the planks to build a tool shed in his own garden.”