Why do some reject the French Revolution?

Nov 2019
351
United States
I thought this conversation was about those couple of years when the French were beheading each other, just before they returned to another despotic leader that they named Emperor. I didn't realize it was about that nation that actually had a successful revolution against tyranny and never looked back.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
6,116
They successfully removed an entire ingrained social and political system.

It's just that it was somehow so radically different today people don't understand how fecking different it really was, or how radical the revolution, and its success at that.

And it seems particularly prevalent with the US and UK, that were only tangentially involved, and for the British only as enemies of France, which somehow translates into Manichean assumptions of Good (us) vs Evil (the French).
 
Oct 2013
1,343
Monza, Italy
France did not invent human rights; nor did it invent “inalienable rights”. That happened a good 70 or so years before in America. The French Revolution was important for Europe, I’ll grant that, but they invented nothing but did it half a century after it was already operating in the US..
I think that the American revolution - and the Bill of Rights included - was inspired also by a cultural French background which is commonly shared both by the French and the Americans in the second halph of 1700s, so the concept of human rights was a product of Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Rousseau) as well as readings of Locke, Cicero, Polibius and other Greeks and Romans.
 
Jun 2015
1,310
Scotland
I think that the American revolution - and the Bill of Rights included - was inspired also by a cultural French background which is commonly shared both by the French and the Americans in the second halph of 1700s, so the concept of human rights was a product of Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Rousseau) as well as readings of Locke, Cicero, Polibius and other Greeks and Romans.
I think John Locke would be a little put out by this?
 
Nov 2019
351
United States
I think that the American revolution - and the Bill of Rights included - was inspired also by a cultural French background which is commonly shared both by the French and the Americans in the second halph of 1700s, so the concept of human rights was a product of Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Rousseau) as well as readings of Locke, Cicero, Polibius and other Greeks and Romans.
It's important to note that the influences in the American Revolution were not all of the same genre ideologically. Today many are writing histories, including one I am reading currently, which emphasize either one extreme or another in the contributing ideas that influenced the formation of our Government, and the reasons that it was formed as it was. They ignore, in my mind at their very peril of understanding it, the one man who somehow distilled from these various ideas the government HE actually created. That man is James Madison. Yes, Jay and Hamilton had their very distinct influence in the document that is our Constitution, and without doubt defined many elements of it's final draft. It was however Madison who actually wrote the document, and the words describe it in his terms. Some, foolishly in my mind, think of Madison as some typewriter of Jefferson, they are quite wrong to believe that. Jefferson really had very little to do with the Constitution itself.

Madison and Jefferson shared many ideas, but differentiated in many more. Jefferson was actually against the idea of a Federation, and feared that it would lead to a state that would be too strong. Madison did as well, but also understood that for the nation to be able to succeed, it could not function without some core central government that had power to fulfill the minimal activities of governing. Jefferson was more democratic in his overall outlook, but also feared that a totally majoritarian government would be a majority also of the mob, with it's inherent imbalance. Madison also was aware of this, and wanted to insure that the government that he created, would not be so majoritarian as to endanger the rights of an individual or a minority. This is what he wrote in the Federalist Papers #10: "So long as men hold differences of opinion, they will form alliances with those most like themselves and will sometimes work against the public interest and infringe upon the rights of others." The crux of the point is that there was no sense to be rid of the shackles of the tyranny of a monarch, if in the end we were to be shackled by tyranny of a majority, easily convinced by demagogues.

So the importance for Madison was to establish a national government which had strictly defined powers, and to whom people were not in debt to for their rights, but for whom the government was in debt for it's privileges. Madison went so far in what he thought he had created in limiting the power of government, that he was shocked when those like Patrick Henry demanded that there be a Bill of Rights. In the end Henry was right, government usurps the rights of men to easily, and without a guarantee of those rights, many of our nation's founding principles would have been subsumed by the government. Madison admitted that once the document became law, and discovered how easily some attempted to suborn those rights.

Madison also realized that to have a one house legislature based on popular vote entirely, and broken down by demographics alone, would lead eventually to regional control by larger populations, to the disadvantage of those less populous area of the nation. The Senate was created as a body divided by states equally, so that at this level each state had equal power, and could inhibit the more easily challenged House and it's often emotional response to public outcry for actions. The Senate members were originally chosen by the legislators of each state, and only after the end of the 19th Century did all states finally utilize popular vote to determine it's members (though in reality, by electing the members of the individual legislatures, the populous were determining who would vote for the Senators).

Finally at the level of the titular leader of the nation was an "Executive" (President). The President had no power to create law, nor could he introduce laws, he could only suggest, and await the House and Senate's decisions on laws. However the President was responsible for the enforcement of those laws, and also for negotiating treaties, and managing the dispersal and receipt of funds that the House and Senate had appropriated. The President could negotiate treaties, and could declare War, with the House and Senate concurring. The President was not elected (and is still not today) by popular vote, they are elected by members of the Electoral College, whose members are selected individually by each state, and whose numbers for each state are determined by population within those states. The states are to determine who those members are, and again only after a number of years did most states determine to select those "Electors" by popular vote.

There is of course our Supreme Court which is the 4th branch of our government, those 9 appointed for life jurists, whose responsibilities it is to ensure that no Federal bill, or state action, or other activity, violates the Constitution, unless passed as an Amendment, and having received 3/4 of each individual state legislatures approval.

As you can see, there were in fact numerous levels of checks put in place consciously by Madison, to prevent usurpation of power by the central government. This was the crux of limiting government. None the less we find today many challenges to these principles, by all sides, but it is important to acknowledge that once the government is given powers it is so very very hard to pull back those rights that are lost.

These principles are very different from what most of the Enlightenment, and especially the French Revolution espoused. It is also important to differentiate as the founders, especially Madison understood as the equality of opportunity and rights, versus a concept of equality of results. The founders believed in the equality of opportunity and rights, that determining the outcomes of individual lives and economies, was outside the legerdemain of governing. In other words they believed in merit of living life appropriately and productively, and that merit deserved it's reward.
 
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Oct 2013
1,343
Monza, Italy
These principles are very different from what most of the Enlightenment, and especially the French Revolution espoused. It is also important to differentiate as the founders, especially Madison understood as the equality of opportunity and rights, versus a concept of equality of results. The founders believed in the equality of opportunity and rights, that determining the outcomes of individual lives and economies, was outside the legerdemain of governing. In other words they believed in merit of living life appropriately and productively, and that merit deserved it's reward.
You wrote a very interesting post, yet I think that the Enlightenment values were still relevant for the early American mind (Montesqueu, Rousseau were surely influential for people like Paine, Madison and Jefferson); the French revolution was a complex political event - there were classic liberal borgeous as well as socialist thinkers - which ended up with the spreading of democratic values and democratic institutions all across Europe during the XIX century (thanks to Napoleon, even though that sounds like a paradox) and the adfirmation of capitalism. I see the French revolution and the American revolution not as twins, but yet as "brother" events: victory of bourgeois values, triumph of individual rights and the starting point for capitalism.

I think John Locke would be a little put out by this?
I don't know, why anyway? :)
 
Last edited:
Jun 2015
1,310
Scotland
These principles are very different from what most of the Enlightenment, and especially the French Revolution espoused. It is also important to differentiate as the founders, especially Madison understood as the equality of opportunity and rights, versus a concept of equality of results. The founders believed in the equality of opportunity and rights, that determining the outcomes of individual lives and economies, was outside the legerdemain of governing. In other words they believed in merit of living life appropriately and productively, and that merit deserved it's reward.
Sorry just don't agree. Nearly everything you've written falls out of Locke. The idea that government is responsible for maintaining Human and property rights and should be removed if it fails was something he pushed hard. He also pushed freedom of thought, speech and religion and favoured representative government were the executive power was limited by individuals rights. Franklin certainly thought Lockes influence was significant and reading the 'Two Treatises or Government' all things relating to American Indipendence and constitution can be seen writ large.

A lot of Lockes thinking can be seen in the context of the aftermath of the English Civil war which was really a conflict of Government and Individual rights. Ive always thought the significance of the English Civil War on Enlightenment thinking and subsequent events is wrongly ignored.
 
Nov 2019
351
United States
These principles are very different from what most of the Enlightenment, and especially the French Revolution espoused.

I should have been more specific in my statement here. I hoped to encapsulate that point in the "especially the French Revolution espoused". I think it is expressly the Scottish Enlightenment writers and Montesquieu that had more influence than Rouseau. Yet in both those (Scottish and Montesquieu) there are grave and distinguishable differences, mostly on the notion that Monarchs had there place; Madison, as was as most of the American Revolutionaries, not going to see a place nor wish to see an semblance of interest in. Washington's Cinncinnatus references should not be taken lightly, he idolized the idea that service to one's nation meant doing one's service without expectation of being made a new Caesar.

Locke was highly considered by Madison, but for only segments of his writings. Locke's position on property were imbued in the Constitution that Madison wrote, however Madison seems to have formulated a more functional concept of property, especially as related to a nation founded under the principles that were extant in the government he was to create.

Here is a writer of an American Libertarian bent expounding on this point about Lockean views of property:

Locke answered these questions by selecting the last of these options. The acorns became the private property of the owner when he picked them up, for it was in the gathering that labor was first expended. “That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than Nature, the common Mother of all, had done, and so they became his private right.” But this raises a crucial question: “Was it a Robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in Common?” Locke replied that to require universal consent would lead to universal starvation. More is involved here than the practical problem of obtaining the permission of every person on earth. Morally speaking, such consent is not required because, according to both reason and revelation, humans “have a right to their Preservation.” Thus if even the right to eat acorns and other natural goods could not be morally justified without first obtaining the consent of every commoner, “Man had starved, notwithstanding the Plenty God had given him.” (It should be noted that self-preservation had long been defended as a fundamental right—indeed, as a duty—by natural-law philosophers. In the thirteenth century, for example, Thomas Aquinas maintained that “whatever is a means of preserving human life belongs to the natural law, and whatever impedes it is contrary to it.”)
When Locke wrote that “every Man has a Property in his own Person,” he was using “property” in its older meaning to signify rightful dominion over something. (See my discussion in The Philosophy of the Declaration of Independence: Part 2.) Hence it was quite common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to speak of property in one’s conscience, property in one’s freedom, property in one’s labor, property in one’s happiness, and even (as we find with James Madison) property in one’s time. Whereas we might say that “this computer is my property,” earlier philosophers might have said, “I have a property in this computer.” Locke included life, liberty, and estate (i.e., external goods) in his generic conception of property, so when he argued that the primary purpose of government is to protect property rights, he was not merely referring to material objects. Rather, he meant that a government should protect those fundamental rights (including the right to enjoy the fruits of our labor) that are essential to self-preservation and happiness.
Locke stressed labor as the foundation of private property because some form of labor is the basic method by which we sustain ourselves, even if that labor consists of nothing more than picking up acorns off the ground. Humans cannot survive without labor, so coercively to expropriate the fruits of another man’s labor is to violate his fundamental right of self-preservation. Labor is involved in every life-sustaining activity.



Here is Madison on Property:
This term in its particular application means "that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual."


In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

In the former sense, a man's land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.

In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.

He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.

He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.

He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.

Where there is an excess of liberty, the effect is the same, tho' from an opposite cause.

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

According to this standard of merit, the praise of affording a just securing to property, should be sparingly bestowed on a government which, however scrupulously guarding the possessions of individuals, does not protect them in the enjoyment and communication of their opinions, in which they have an equal, and in the estimation of some, a more valuable property.

More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government, where a man's religious rights are violated by penalties, or fettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy. Conscience is the most sacred of all property; other property depending in part on positive law, the exercise of that, being a natural and unalienable right. To guard a man's house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man's conscience which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection, for which the public faith is pledged, by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.

That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty, is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest. A magistrate issuing his warrants to a press gang, would be in his proper functions in Turkey or Indostan, under appellations proverbial of the most compleat despotism.

That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property strictly so called. What must be the spirit of legislation where a manufacturer of linen cloth is forbidden to bury his own child in a linen shroud, in order to favour his neighbour who manufactures woolen cloth; where the manufacturer and wearer of woolen cloth are again forbidden the oeconomical use of buttons of that material, in favor of the manufacturer of buttons of other materials!

A just security to property is not afforded by that government, under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species: where arbitrary taxes invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich, and excessive taxes grind the faces of the poor; where the keenness and competitions of want are deemed an insufficient spur to labor, and taxes are again applied, by an unfeeling policy, as another spur; in violation of that sacred property, which Heaven, in decreeing man to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, kindly reserved to him, in the small repose that could be spared from the supply of his necessities.

If there be a government then which prides itself in maintaining the inviolability of property; which provides that none shall be taken directly even for public use without indemnification to the owner, and yet directly violates the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons, and their faculties; nay more, which indirectly violates their property, in their actual possessions, in the labor that acquires their daily subsistence, and in the hallowed remnant of time which ought to relieve their fatigues and soothe their cares, the influence [inference?] will have been anticipated, that such a government is not a pattern for the United States.

If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments.


 
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Jun 2015
1,310
Scotland
These principles are very different from what most of the Enlightenment, and especially the French Revolution espoused.

I should have been more specific in my statement here. I hoped to encapsulate that point in the "especially the French Revolution espoused". I think it is expressly the Scottish Enlightenment writers and Montesquieu that had more influence than Rouseau. Yet in both those (Scottish and Montesquieu) there are grave and distinguishable differences, mostly on the notion that Monarchs had there place; Madison, as was as most of the American Revolutionaries, not going to see a place nor wish to see an semblance of interest in. Washington's Cinncinnatus references should not be taken lightly, he idolized the idea that service to one's nation meant doing one's service without expectation of being made a new Caesar.

Locke was highly considered by Madison, but for only segments of his writings. Locke's position on property were imbued in the Constitution that Madison wrote, however Madison seems to have formulated a more functional concept of property, especially as related to a nation founded under the principles that were extant in the government he was to create.

Here is a writer of an American Libertarian bent expounding on this point about Lockean views of property:

Locke answered these questions by selecting the last of these options. The acorns became the private property of the owner when he picked them up, for it was in the gathering that labor was first expended. “That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than Nature, the common Mother of all, had done, and so they became his private right.” But this raises a crucial question: “Was it a Robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in Common?” Locke replied that to require universal consent would lead to universal starvation. More is involved here than the practical problem of obtaining the permission of every person on earth. Morally speaking, such consent is not required because, according to both reason and revelation, humans “have a right to their Preservation.” Thus if even the right to eat acorns and other natural goods could not be morally justified without first obtaining the consent of every commoner, “Man had starved, notwithstanding the Plenty God had given him.” (It should be noted that self-preservation had long been defended as a fundamental right—indeed, as a duty—by natural-law philosophers. In the thirteenth century, for example, Thomas Aquinas maintained that “whatever is a means of preserving human life belongs to the natural law, and whatever impedes it is contrary to it.”)
When Locke wrote that “every Man has a Property in his own Person,” he was using “property” in its older meaning to signify rightful dominion over something. (See my discussion in The Philosophy of the Declaration of Independence: Part 2.) Hence it was quite common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to speak of property in one’s conscience, property in one’s freedom, property in one’s labor, property in one’s happiness, and even (as we find with James Madison) property in one’s time. Whereas we might say that “this computer is my property,” earlier philosophers might have said, “I have a property in this computer.” Locke included life, liberty, and estate (i.e., external goods) in his generic conception of property, so when he argued that the primary purpose of government is to protect property rights, he was not merely referring to material objects. Rather, he meant that a government should protect those fundamental rights (including the right to enjoy the fruits of our labor) that are essential to self-preservation and happiness.
Locke stressed labor as the foundation of private property because some form of labor is the basic method by which we sustain ourselves, even if that labor consists of nothing more than picking up acorns off the ground. Humans cannot survive without labor, so coercively to expropriate the fruits of another man’s labor is to violate his fundamental right of self-preservation. Labor is involved in every life-sustaining activity.



Here is Madison on Property:
This term in its particular application means "that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual."


In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

In the former sense, a man's land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.

In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.

He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.

He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.

He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.

Where there is an excess of liberty, the effect is the same, tho' from an opposite cause.

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

According to this standard of merit, the praise of affording a just securing to property, should be sparingly bestowed on a government which, however scrupulously guarding the possessions of individuals, does not protect them in the enjoyment and communication of their opinions, in which they have an equal, and in the estimation of some, a more valuable property.

More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government, where a man's religious rights are violated by penalties, or fettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy. Conscience is the most sacred of all property; other property depending in part on positive law, the exercise of that, being a natural and unalienable right. To guard a man's house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man's conscience which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection, for which the public faith is pledged, by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.

That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty, is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest. A magistrate issuing his warrants to a press gang, would be in his proper functions in Turkey or Indostan, under appellations proverbial of the most compleat despotism.

That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property strictly so called. What must be the spirit of legislation where a manufacturer of linen cloth is forbidden to bury his own child in a linen shroud, in order to favour his neighbour who manufactures woolen cloth; where the manufacturer and wearer of woolen cloth are again forbidden the oeconomical use of buttons of that material, in favor of the manufacturer of buttons of other materials!

A just security to property is not afforded by that government, under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species: where arbitrary taxes invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich, and excessive taxes grind the faces of the poor; where the keenness and competitions of want are deemed an insufficient spur to labor, and taxes are again applied, by an unfeeling policy, as another spur; in violation of that sacred property, which Heaven, in decreeing man to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, kindly reserved to him, in the small repose that could be spared from the supply of his necessities.

If there be a government then which prides itself in maintaining the inviolability of property; which provides that none shall be taken directly even for public use without indemnification to the owner, and yet directly violates the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons, and their faculties; nay more, which indirectly violates their property, in their actual possessions, in the labor that acquires their daily subsistence, and in the hallowed remnant of time which ought to relieve their fatigues and soothe their cares, the influence [inference?] will have been anticipated, that such a government is not a pattern for the United States.


If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments.


Thank you. A very informative post and a few things I hadn't read before.

I may be somewhat slow on the uptake but everything in your post appears to me to concur with what I wrote. I get the bits about monarchs, Locke proposed a constitutional monarchy were the power resided with Parliament much as we have today. I think even then it was a compromise in his mind and should be taken in the context of living shortly after Cromwell as head of state. The rest of your post is pretty much Locke.

Happy to be educated otherwise!
 
Nov 2019
351
United States
I would always consul people who want to make too much of Thomas Paine; he was a divisive personality, and though Common Sense was popular during the revolution, Paine's more radical views about government were not received well by most of the Founders. I do not consider his ideas a strong influence on Madison's drafting of the Constitution in any way. Federalists in America despised him, Adams abhorred him.
 
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