Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Short History of the French Revolution

Popkin, Jeremy D. A Short History of the French Revolution. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998. 166 pp.

My adult opinions of the French Revolution were largely formed by Burke (and my irrepressible papist sympathies), but I can't claim to be very well-informed about it. This history, is, as advertised, short, but to my admittedly amateur tastes, seemed competent and fair. In addition to setting forth the events and personalities up through the Napoleanic Empire, it also introduces the major attempts to interpret the Revolution and understand its causes (Burke, Tocqueville, Marxists, Revisionists, Post-Revisionists, etc.). It also provides a good guide for further study.

To my Burkean sensibilities, one thing that stands out is the contrast between the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Bill of Rights tacked on to the end of the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights is, for the most part, very concrete, laying out specific restrictions on Congress or procedural rules for the courts rather than declaring abstract rights. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, however, reads more like a creed:
1. Men are born free and equal in rights; social distinctions can be established only for the common benefit.
2. The aim of every political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
3. The source of all sovereignty is located in essence in the nation; no body, no individual can exercise authority which does not emanate from it expressly.
4. Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm another person. Thus the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights; these limits can be determined only by law.
Similar ideas to these are found in our Declaration of Independence, and it may be that some of this rhetoric's relation to the French Republic is more analogous to that document's place in our Constitutional order. It may also be that some of these ideas were simply taken for granted in the United States, which were already more or less functioning on republican grounds without the sharp "social distinctions" of nobility and royalty.

Still, the whole thing reads a bit like a geometry proof or a succession of Descartes' "clear and distinct ideas", not just setting out the purpose of this particular assembly but of "every political association". We may, in practice, hold a lot of these conceptions about the nature of society, freedom and the state, but it wouldn't seem like we got there by explicitly legislating them (that is, legislating the the ideas themselves rather than just laws that presuppose them). From our perspective, these ideas seem self-evident, but, of course, they are not.

What makes "the nation"? How does authority "emanate" from it? Is the common benefit really adequately encompassed by liberty (defined by the "harm principle" in Article 4), property, security and freedom from oppression?

The Revolution provided certain answers to these questions, but these answers were not so much discovered by the philosophers in the National Assembly as they were made in the radical re-forming and re-concieving of society in the bloody purges and rapid succession of republics, empires and monarchies that followed.

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