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The American Vs. French Revolutions
A Freedomist Interpretation

R.J. Rummel

The intellectual struggle worldwide today is now between the beliefs encapsulated in the American Revolution and those in the French. It is interests versus reason.
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First, some background. During the Middle Ages, the power of kings was checked by the a belief in the higher laws of God, to which kings and commoner alike - the nation, country, or kingdom, in short, the State -- were subject. But with the 16th century Reformation and the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism, the battle was decided for the State. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Wars of Religion, and established the modern nation-state system. The power of the State in the person of kings, now unchecked by the Church, was now supreme. However, kings needed legitimacy, money, and men for wars, all of which required the approval of the aristocracy. Jealous of their own power, stingy in supporting their kings, the aristocracy as a counterweight to the State enabled Freedom to survive. For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, the State and Freedom therefore existed in uneasy equilibrium -- neither complete, both limited.

Then, in the late 18th century two momentous revolutions destroyed this balance, triggered a great battle between the State and Freedom. Freedom emerged victorious in one; the State in the other. The great historical struggle since has been between the principles and conception of these two revolutions, for as the old balance between kings and aristocracies was destroyed, the success of Freedom or advance of the State has depended on the triumph of one of these two sets of principles and conceptions.

The American Revolution was the first. As a struggle against monarchical and aristocratic power, it was an explicit attempt to establish the greatest possible common Freedom. The leaders were careful historians who knew their political philosophy. Descendents of the English tradition of common law and rights, they were influenced by the great liberal philosophers, such as Sir John Harrington and John Locke. They understood that Freedom would be short-lived, that defeating an imperial State would only unleash a new State at home, unless the power of the State could be shackled. Their efforts, after a short experiment with the Articles of Confederation, were soon enshrined in the Constitution of the United States in 1787. In simple words, the Constitution was a conscious attempt to bound the State and preserve Freedom.

The Constitution's basic conception is that man pursues different, and often selfish, interests. The maximum satisfaction of all these interests requires that no one interest dominates. And what prevents such domination is a balance among opposing interests. The Constitution makers saw interests as different species in nature. A balance among them is established as each in nature pursues his different and often contradictory desires and instincts. The balance then assures the life and independence of each.

But this conception is abstract and needs a supporting structure of rights to guarantee interests can compete and balance. If all interests share absolute Rights, then the aggrandizement of any one would be prevented. So, with this conception of Freedom being the outcome of a balancing of interests, each sustained by natural rights, the Constitution embodies three principles. One is that all men have certain inalienable Rights standing above and limiting government, the agency of the State. Among these, as enshrined in the First Amendment, are the rights to the freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition.

The second principle is that all governments carry within themselves the seeds of tyranny, of the absolute State, which can be limited only by a system of checks and balances. Thus, the Constitution balances aspects of monarchy, aristocracy, and the commons in the independent powers of the executive, judiciary, and legislature; it balances a democratic tendency to mob rule by protections of minority views and rights. It balances popular representation in the House of Representatives against the equality of large and small states in the Senate. And it balances the need to satisfy popular interests with the requirement for their careful and dispassionate consideration.

The third principle is that Freedom must reign, that no man working in his own interests can be unjust against himself, and that therefore, government must be limited to defining and administering the common law. Government is to be an arbiter between interests, to serve a janitorial role of defending and maintaining the commonwealth. All else is the preserve of Freedom.

A conception of Freedom as an outcome of contending interests, each guaranteed inalienable Rights, and the three principles of Rights, checks and balances, and limited government, constituted the American Revolution -- a revolution that established and preserved Freedom down to modern times.

Only a few years after the American Constitution was founded, a second revolution -- a Counter Revolution -- occurred in France. The French Revolution of 1789 was also a revolt against the power of a monarch and aristocracy. Its motto was Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; its end was Social Justice; its means were to establish the sovereignty of the people, and to eliminate social and political inequalities.

Unlike the American Revolution, whose philosophical ancestors were the English liberals, the French Revolution was fundamentally fathered by the French radical philosophers, especially Jean Jacques Rousseau, and inherited the faith in reason engendered by The Enlightenment. René Descartes' trust in geometric like reasoning and Rousseau's belief in the common will and sovereignty of the people framed the conception guiding the French Revolution. This conception is mechanical. Government is a machine, fueled by coercive power, and driven by reason; and its destination is Social Justice. Government is thus a tool to reach a future goal -- improving man. Those in charge of the State would therefore use reason to apply government to further and create Social Justice.

This conception is clearly different from that of the American revolutionaries. For the Americans, interests were the guiding force; for the French, reason. For the Americans, Freedom was to be preserved against the State; for the French, the State was used by reason to achieve Social Justice. For the Americans, individual rights were essential to protect interests; for the French, the collective, the sovereignty of the people, the general will stood above rights. Finally, for the Americans, no one interest could be entrusted with the State -- all interests had to be limited and balanced by their opposition; for the French, the State was a tool that should have no limit so long as Social Justice was pursued according to the common will.

The two conceptions -- one of a natural realm of competing interests with happiness and justice as an outcome of Freedom, the other of Social Justice achieved through the State directed by Reason -- entails opposing principles. Those of the American Revolution, as I have mentioned, were of rights, of checks and balances, of limited government. Those of the French were also three, and they are in direct contradiction.

The first principle is that the benefits to the Community outweigh individual rights. This is what the common will or sovereignty of the people means -- that individuals are members of a Community which takes precedence over the individual, and that the Community has a will to be gratified, a justice to be sought, which no individual should bar.

The second principle is that the State, and thus government as its agent, can be beneficent instruments of progress, a tool to be used to pursue the common will, the Community's betterment. Government, of course, had been feared when ruled by kings and aristocrats. But in the hands of the people, government can only serve the people's ends. Therefore, government should not be checked and balanced. Its powers should not be divided, for then the State is severely restrained. The Application of Reason to further Social Justice is crippled. Unlike the Americans, the French revolutionaries did not fear the State as such, but only the State in the service of the wrong class and bad ends.

And this led to the third principle of the French Revolution -- unlimited government. As the State's implement of Reason working on behalf of the Community, government should not be limited. If necessary to pursue Social Justice, government should centralize, regulate, and control. No local or provincial government, no local council, court or judge, should be able to limit or contradict the pursuit of Social Justice by the State; no minority interest should have precedence over the General Will.

No wonder, then, that the American Revolution forged a Freedom that has survived for most of America's history, while the French Revolution created a bloodbath and State surpassing that of previous kings and aristocracies, a despotism ending in a Napoleon whose perfidy, aggression, and power was eventually defeated by the combined arms of the frightened monarchies of Europe. But the conception and principles of the French Revolution lived on to gain new vigor.

They underlie the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the first stirring of socialism, the writings of Marx and the birth of communism and democratic socialism. The French Revolution was defeated but the Revolution was victorious. Infesting intellectuals everywhere, its ideas eventuated in the successful Russian Revolution.

So, the American and French Revolutions launched an historic struggle between two conceptions and two sets of principles. One fosters Freedom and peace; the other furthers a statism which mankind has seldom, if ever, before known, a disease that not only blighted half the world, but even with the defeat of its most monstrous version, communism, it still infests European politics and the American liberals, and especially, the socialist left.

The opposition between these principles remains the major schism today, the major historic battlefront. It is happiness and justice as an outcome of a free balance of opposing interests, each guaranteed inalienable Rights, versus justice to be sought by reason using the State. The principles are those of individual rights versus a collective benefit; of checks and balances versus government as an unchecked instrument; of limited government and common law versus reason using government to create new law to further justice. To put this into the current political framework, we have here the opposition between Leftists and Freedomists.

Now, consider which set of principles governs the American federal, state, and local scene today. Is it not an assumption of legislators, courts, and executives at all levels that they have a responsibility to use the State to create Social Justice? Are not laws, regulations, and rules created to this end, and individual rights forced to give way before the presumed needs and requirements of communities, groups, or minorities? Is not Reason (often in the cloak of science) applied through government, presumably to better our lives and to protect us against our own interests? Is not planning -- that incarnation of Reason -- king?

Of course. And the best measure of all this is that largely in the service of reason's drive for Social Justice, the State now confiscates directly and indirectly somewhere between 40 to 50 cents of every American's earnings, more than kings generally dared to take from commoners. One is now forced to work five to six months of the year for government. Without pay. And this is not counting the governmentally induced, hidden tax, called inflation.

In all this lies my assertion: the Freedom established by the American Revolution has been losing the struggle against the Counter-Revolution. Yes, Freedom still lives. But our diminishing freedoms must not blind us to the State's grip on our lives. As a professional, as a businessman, as a family member, as one simply seeking happiness, most of what one does now is subject to government rules, regulations, and laws, and can be vetoed by judges or bureaucrats who are backed up, ultimately, by the gun.

Now, on this I should also avoid misunderstanding. It is fashionable in intellectual circles to soundly condemn the American political and economic system. Usually, what is desired in its place is one variant or another of democratic socialism or communism. I take a diametrically opposite stand. I say that we are gradually being converted from the American to the French revolutionary principles.

Political terms are slippery and often are used or misused for political advantage. The Constitution of the United States with its First Amendment established a republic and minimum, balanced government. Its economy was initially agrarian, but the freedoms of the republic were congenial to vigorous free market growth. Today, however, the United States is neither completely free market nor agrarian. In over 200 years the republic has turned into an industrial, mixed free market-socialist democracy, less than the European, democratic socialisms of England, Denmark, or Sweden, to be sure, but along the socialist path nonetheless in adopting the conceptions and principles of the French Revolution. In this lies the source of many of our social ills and domestic violence, and not in the free market or democracy.

But, we can still reverse directions. We are still heirs to the American Revolution; we still have sufficient freedom, and the future is what we make it to be. This task alone could be the focus of all our energy and ingenuity, were it not for the thug regimes and terrorists they support that threaten us from abroad. Nonetheless, I think we can fight both battles and win. It all depends on democratic peoples understanding that the American Revolution is dying from a possibly malignant cancer - the statism of the neo-French revolutionaries - and in one form or another, domestic or foreign, it threatens us. The people's common sense and their desire for freedom will in the end win out, if they comprehend the battle being waged against them. It is the freedomist's mission to assure this understanding.

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