Sunday, September 9, 2012

Defining Liberty: The Stark Contrasts Between the French Revolution and the American War of Independence


            The period of the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason as some have named it, was an age in which the established order of all things was vigorously questioned and subjected to reason. Not since classical Greece was such emphasis put on rationality and not on power, might, birth-right, or the force of arms. Men, disaffected with the failures and shortcomings of the world around them, had been speaking their minds for ages. But the successes of the scientific revolution in casting off the monopoly the church had over explanations of the physical world, and the advent of the ability to mass-produce the written word via the printing press combined to embolden the thinkers of the Age of Reason and provide them a forum to reach the masses.
            This Age of Reason, with the exception of Britain, and Prussia under Frederick the Great, was for the most part, an intellectual exercise in which ‘enlightened’ nobility desired to expand their minds and wished to discuss the latest matters of political and social theory. It did not very often manifest itself in practical ways until the late 18th Century. From around 1763 to 1799 two events transpired to put to test two very different practical applications of the principles of the Enlightenment: The American War of Independence and the French Revolution.
            Much has been written on the stark contrasts between the American and French Revolutions. That there were differences is not a matter of debate, but the reasons for these differences is something that is debated to this day. Were these violent divergences simply differences in the fundamental philosophy underpinning the movements? Were they a result of the differing contexts between 18th century Colonial America and Bourbon France?
            While there are certainly many contextual realities that greatly influenced the ways in which both of these tumultuous events evolved, the primary difference that shaped the events of those 36 years is one that is deeply rooted in the contextual and philosophical realities of the day: that of the foundational source of the rights of man. While the Americans held that God, or nature’s God to the deists, was the guarantor of the natural rights of man, the French largely dismissed God from the equation, substituting Him for reason.

The Origins of Natural Rights

In Samuel Adams leaflet, “The Rights of the Colonists”, a document of just over 2,000 words written in 1772 to a Boston town meeting, he refers to God seven times. Among these references is: “The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift and voluntarily become a slave.”[1] Routinely he refers to God as the source of human freedom and the natural rights. Similarly, the Enlightenment philosopher most appealed to by the United States’ founders, John Locke, in his Second Treatise appeals to God and His creation in his logical argument for the natural state of man’s freedom.[2]
While the American founders routinely referred to God or the Creator as the author of the natural rights of man, the French, in their haste to sever all ties with organized religion went to great lengths to deny the place of the divine in the rights of man. Nowhere in the famous French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man does it reference the words God, creator, or divine.[3] But it does refer to the “law” specifically as that as “the expression of the general will” 14 times in less than 900 words.
The British philosopher Edmund Burke immediately recognized the danger in this document. “The primacy Rousseau gave to ‘the public order’ and ‘public’ necessity struck him as deeply sinister.”[4] In 1790, Burke rightly divined the outcome of the Revolution: that of “gallows”.[5]
When there is not a supreme rule of law that is immutable and subject to the whims of a mob, it falls prey to whatever charismatic strongman is able to conjure up a majority. The Terror of France was no exception. “The constitution of September 1791 upheld the inviolability of ‘the King of the French’, the inviolability of the right of association and the inviolability of the freedom of worship. Within two years all four had been violated, beginning with the Church’s property rights.”[6] Hitler and the National Socialists, Mussolini, the Bolsheviks, Lenin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge all started out with massive popular support, if not majorities in many cases. All these” expressed the general will of the people”[7], but without a constraint imposed by a higher authority, they left a wake of wanton destruction and desecration of the very natural rights of individual man that the Enlightenment thinkers declared.
Franklin, Madison, Washington, and others referred many times to a virtuous people as the only ones who could preserve the rights of men in a nation as free as the one formalized in 1787. If that is true, what does that virtue seek to uphold and emulate? Certainly simple majorities cannot determine what is virtuous: there must be some higher standard.
If then there is something that is self-evidently wrong in what sometimes transpires in the “expressed … general will of the people,”[8] what separated the outcome of the struggle in America from that in France? It is the belief that God is the basic guarantor of the individual rights. If these natural rights are insured by God Himself, then no fickle, general will of the people can violate them. It is solely due to this moral underpinning, this appeal to the author of virtue itself, that the government of the United States for many years and the laws established by the same have been the best protector of these individual rights of man.

Rights of the Individual Versus the Collective

Similar to the first and most crucial point, there is a natural derivative of God-given rights. It is one that flows logically. If God grants these natural rights to individuals at birth and they cannot be violated without violating God’s natural laws, then they must apply to the individual and only the individual.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment thinker and writer more influential than any other in the French Revolution, espoused the collective as the most important entity in a society. Rousseau was troubled when observing that “man was born free and everywhere he is in chains.”[9] From this point he developed his own theory of the social contract that vastly differed from Locke. He understood that somewhere along the line between absolute freedom at birth and the various social orders throughout history, something happened to disrupt a perfected outcome. He clearly understood that because of sin, man needed rules, laws and order to govern societies and to protect the rights of people. Where Rousseau showed his abandonment of God for the sake of intellect and reason is when he reached the conclusion that each individual gave up his individual rights for the sake of the collective in which he voluntarily[10] chooses to participate. By redefining natural rights as one that applied to the collective and not the individual Rousseau either denied God as the granter of individual rights, or denied His absolute sovereignty and omnipotence. Either way, Rousseau effectively ejected God from the equation. If God grants individual rights, who is Rousseau to change them?
This redefinition of individual rights to collective rights is the practical consequence of the removal of God from the equation of political philosophy. When the constant that is God is removed, all the variables in that equation are subject to the vagaries and changes in human opinion. If there is no God, than there are no moral absolutes. If there are no moral absolutes, then there is nothing to restrain man so long as he has a majority of opinion on my side. This kind of moral equivocating is of small comfort to slaves on 19th Century southern plantations, Soviet citizens in the 1920s and 1930s, Jewry in Nazi Germany, and anyone who voiced opinions contrary to the “expressed … general will of the people”[11] during the Reign of Terror.
The American founders however were far more practical in their understanding. They had a firm foundation of the principal of God-given individual rights. Additionally they had enjoyed those rights with virtually no interference from the British crown for over 100 years. With the causes of the Revolution fresh in their minds, namely what they considered governmental infringement upon their individual freedoms, they crafted the governing documents of the United States to protect and enshrine the concept of individual rights as the ultimate end of government.
In fact, outside of the compromises made concerning slavery, the most difficult point of contention in the American Constitutional Convention was that of how to properly document the protection of these rights. The anti-Federalists were adamant that there be a numerated bill of rights itemizing what protections this document afforded the people from their own government. The Federalists thought the document was clear enough with the enumerated powers clause that it limited the federal government’s powers. The Federalists concern was that if specific rights were mentioned as protected it could be misinterpreted that the government granted these rights to the people rather than God. That these are concerns that have manifested themselves in today’s America displays the remarkable prescience of the Federalists.
What is important to remember is the only moral reason government has to protect individual rights is due to their divine origin. Without it, the individual right is no longer sacred, and the individual is, just like occurred in France, sucked into a vast collective, the rights of which were subject to the of the whims of the latest strongman in power or the expediency of the state.

The Equality of Opportunity versus Equality of Outcome

While Rousseau’s redefinition of rights from the individual to the collective marked the philosophical point of divergence between libertarian advocates of limited government and those who support statist solutions; the practical line of demarcation occurred with the redefining of equality from one applied to opportunity to one defined by outcome. This is the beginning of the still-furious conflict between those who champion free-markets principles and laissez faire capitalism; and the supporters of a social welfare state to include Marxist principles in all their forms. Just as the logical continuation of God being the source of the natural rights of man leads to the conclusion that individual rights of man are immutable, so a logical conclusion of Rousseau’s theory that the rights of the collective outweigh the right of the individual is that a generally good condition of the collective is the goal of government. If therefore, the welfare of the collective is to be pursued, it could easily be surmised that the natural equality of man extends to his condition amongst his contemporaries at all times, throughout a lifetime.
The most influential Frenchman on this subject was François-Noël Babeuf, who could be considered the first Communist. His shift in understanding of what defined equality was not born of ideology but of the misery around him. The French economy had been decimated by decades of clinging to mercantilism, suffocating debt and inflation, agricultural inefficiencies[12], natural disasters, government price-controls, and other forms of government interference with the economy. When seeing the starving masses around him Babeuf viewed commerce as a primary culprit and saw equality as something that should mean an equality of condition.
The failure of commerce to live up to its promises was an irrefutable fact of common observation. The greater part of those who grew linen and hemp … were without shirts, clothing, or footwear, while those who worked with their hands … or as building workers were similarly deprived of their basic needs.[13]

            While in France, equality of outcome was deeply influenced by the French context of poverty and suffering; the American equality of opportunity[14] was equally informed by the American experience of individual independence and personal responsibility. For over a hundred years, the American colonists came to the New World seeking religious freedom, riches, fame, or the opportunity to obtain a piece of land to farm and live, unmolested by an intrusive government.
            It is no accident that American colonists, with this as their experience chose to embrace their previous experience of personal independence and opportunity. It is equally no accident that a people whose entire experience was under the thumb of oppressive state control would turn to the state to amend the squalor of Revolutionary France.

Religious Liberty vs. State Religion

In the American colonies, the church was largely de-centralized. In the Puritan-settled areas of the Massachusetts colony Congregationalists flourished. Congregationalists were descendants of the separatists in England who tried to reform the official Anglican Church. In places like Virginia where profit was pursued more than purity, the Anglican Church took hold. Though separated as it was from England, they largely were interlinked local churches who governed themselves out of necessity. As the charter for Maryland was secured by Lord Baltimore, a British Catholic convert, he intended in part to provide Maryland to be a place of refuge for Catholic colonists.[15] William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania intended his colonial charter granted in the 1860s to be a place of refuge for oppressed English Quakers.[16]
While Congregationalist areas oppressed Quaker minorities within their own communities, and everyone opposed the Papists, the broader context of personal independence enjoyed by the colonists influenced their piety as well. A sense of toleration for differing beliefs and opinions, so long as they were centered on God, developed in the Colonies. This was influenced by the background of the oppression from which many had fled the continent, and the lack of a centralized, strong government.
            While America enjoyed liberty and economic opportunity with independent churches whose only ties to government were loosely affiliated and local in nature, France was a literally a battleground of bloody Reformation conflicts between the government-sponsored state Catholic Church and the Protestant Huguenot minority. During the turbulent 1500s French Huguenots were segregated as an oppressed minority at best, and outright killed for violating religious edicts issued by French ruling authorities at places such as Vassy in 1562 and the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.[17] With the Edict of Fontainebleu in 1685, Protestantism officially became a crime in France and between 200,000 and 800,000 Huguenots fled.[18]
            Due in no small part to the sanctioning and support of the French monarchy, the First Estate grew into a political power to include controlling a sizable amount of French land and great amounts of wealth. During the economic crises that precipitated the French Revolution the Church was understandably reluctant to acquiesce to the attempts to nationalize their property and holdings.[19] With the very real and close association the Church had with the French aristocracy, they attracted similar amounts of rage from the disaffected Third Estate.
            During the tumultuous times and excesses of the Revolution, in the desire to sweep away all that remained of the Ancien Régime, all forms of Christianity and acknowledgement of God were largely removed.     Some took to the abolishment of Christianity with marked zeal. “’What,’ said [Dupont, a Girondist], ‘shall thrones be overturned, scepters broken, and kings executed, and yet the altars of the gods remain untouched? … Nature and reason, these are the gods of man. These are our gods.’”[20]
It was not enough to have beaten down the ancient idols; it was found needful to inaugurate with parade a new worship, that of Reason and Nature. … The opera was put in requisition. It furnished for the occasion a vestal, to represent the goddess of Reason … It was in the cathedral of Notre Dame that the municipality erected the stage for this contemptible profanation. The Temple of Philosophy was constructed in the choir. … The Torch of Truth blazed on the corner of a rock. Young ladies in white, and crowned with oak leaves, surrounded the verdure-draped seat of the goddess of Reason, and chanted in her honor.[21]

The French in their overreaction to abolish everything from the past, instead of creating something pure and new, merely substituted something just as flawed. The state became the new god. The individual existed to serve the state.[22]
If one follows the same line of logic that started with no divine grantor of human rights, no higher virtue, and no accompanying immutable natural law to which to appeal; followed by the redefining of these rights from that of an individual’s possession to that of the collective, it is no surprise that the state therefore becomes the new God. Both religious-based and secular human psychology recognizes the need for spiritual health. From Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to the Mosaic Law’s first commandment, to Bob Dylan, all recognize the need to have a higher purpose. If God is removed from the equation, something else will fill the void; and for agnostics and atheists it is often the self or the state that takes the place. “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”[23]


            In 1856, the great French admirer of the American experiment, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the differences between the outcomes of the two revolutions were attributable to contextual issues. Among these were the natural decentralization of power in America, the stable rule of law, the survival of religion rather than the destruction thereof, and most importantly the fact that “the French put equality above liberty.”[24]
            Though de Tocqueville was correct in his identification of the differences, he did not delve deep enough into the heart of the matter. These differences were merely the logical consequences for the disagreement in the origins of the natural law and the rights of man. Correctly attributing God as the giver of the natural law and the rights of man denies to human beings the permission to modify these core truths according to the whims of the mob. Rousseau should have known this. His observations of the suffering of human beings were correct. His Calvinist background testified to the original sinful nature of man; and only the restraining hand of God’s common grace held back the complete potential of the wickedness of mankind. It is astounding that Rousseau and others were prideful enough to assume that a general collective, of course guided by academic elites or benevolent dictators like Frederick the Great, would be able to eschew their own sinful nature and use human reasoning to develop their own concepts of what was right for the ordering of human societies.
            The true genius of the founders of America was that even though some, like Franklin, and Jefferson had lingering doubts about God, if for practicality alone, they recognized the pragmatism of appealing to a higher power as the source of rights and as government as the God-appointed protector of these rights. They recognized the danger of a dictatorship of ideas and reason and established checks upon themselves. Even as they compromised with their recalcitrant Southern neighbors on the issue of slavery, they understood the natural tendency of mankind to oppress one another and built the very mechanisms through which simple mob majorities could not prevail over God’s natural laws. That great Federalist founder James Madison pointed out “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [imaginary] idea.”[25]


Adams, Samuel. “The Rights of the Colonists” The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting, Nov. 20, 1772. Hanover College Historical Texts Project. Retrieved July 30, 2012 at
Dehault de Pressensé, Edmond. Religion and the Reign of Terror: or, The Church During the French Revolution. New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1869.
Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Dylan, Bob. “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Slow Train Coming. New York: Columbia Records, 1979.
Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The West and the Rest. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
Hennesey, James J. American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Lindsay, Thomas Martin. A History of the Reformation. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Apple iBook Edition, 2012.
Miller, Randall M. and William Pencak, ed. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002.
National Assembly of France. “Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789.” Yale University Avalon Project. Retrieved July 30, 2012 at
“No Liberty Without Virtue” The Washington, Jefferson, and Madison Institute. April 3, 2011, Retrieved September 7 2012, from
Robespierre, Maximilien. The Writings of Robespierre. Kindle Edition, 2012.
Rose, R. B. Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1978.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract and the First and Second Discourses. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
Sonenscher, Michael. Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Stone, Bailey. Reinterpreting the French Revolution: A Global-Historical Perspective. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[1] Samuel Adams, “The Rights of the Colonists,” The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting, Nov. 20, 1772, (Hanover College Historical Texts Project. Retrieved July 30, 2012 at
[2] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, (Apple iBook Edition, 2012), 9.
[3] National Assembly of France, “Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789,” (Yale University Avalon Project. Retrieved July 30, 2012 at
[4] Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest, (New York: Penguin Press, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc. 2772.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Jean Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 156.
[10] This is in itself a fallacy of logic. No one born into a social contract chooses to participate in said contract. That individual’s rights are stripped the moment they enter into the world order of the appropriate social contract.
[11] National Assembly of France.
[12] William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9.
[13] R. B. Rose, Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1978), 190, 191.
[14] Granted, slavery is still the elephant in the room, but for the sake of brevity and clarity, it will not be discussed in this context.
[15] James J. Hennesey, American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 37.
[16] Randall M. Miller and William Pencak, ed., Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002), 59.
[17] Thomas Martin Lindsay, A History of the Reformation, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914), 189, 190, 199.
[18], “Louis XIV” (Retrieved September 6, 2012 from
[19] Doyle, 131, 132.
[20] Edmond Dehault de Pressensé, Religion and the Reign of Terror: or, The Church During the French Revolution, (New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1869), 195, 196.
[21] Ibid., 226.
[22] Michael Sonenscher, Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 26.
[23] Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Slow Train Coming, (New York: Columbia Records, 1979).
[24] Ferguson, Locs. 2801, 2814.

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