Awhile back, I was perusing the archives of Professor R.J. Rummel's blog (Democratic Peace) and found some information that may help explain some of the disconnect that is perceived to be so prevalent between two historical allies, the United States and France. And although there is a strong historical bond between Europe and America, there are some distinct differences that exist and not all of this has arisen from the different opinions about the Iraq war. Many of these dissimilarities can be traced back into the early days of both nations' new found liberty; and by acquiring a better understanding of that period, some of the philosophical differences can be better explained.
Here is a brief, but pertinent examination of the differences between the French and American Revolutions (and the states they produced) written by Dr. Rummel and found on the University of Hawaii's website.
The crux of this matter can best be summed up by his opening statement:
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.
Here, we have two separate revolutions occurring close to the same time frame. The goals were similar, in that, they were fought for the specific purpose of freeing the people from what was then a corrupt yoke of tyranny. However, in setting up their respective governments after that yoke was broken, both nations were motivated by two very different schools of thought in what objectives each respective government should try to meet and what philosophy/ideology would best to serve the people of each nation.
In the American experiment, John Locke and Sir John Harrington were the philosophical influences that guided the Americans, to base their document on these three guiding principles, as explained by Dr. Rummel:
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.
Shortly after the creation of the U.S. Constitution, the French Revolution occurred. The two major philosphical influences on the new French government were Rene Descartes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, two products of the Enlightenment.
Per Dr. Rummel, here are the three guiding principles of that revolution and subsequent government:
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.
So, in essence, we have two separate entities seeking liberty and freedom from oppression, yet, we have two very different philosphical ventures on how to implement that liberty and freedom, and how to maintain it. What it all boils down to is, interest vs. reason and individual rights vs. the good of the community.
One can easily see the different approaches in the Constitutions of both nations. The American document's provisions for human rights is, The Bill Of Rights, something most Americans are taught, from elementary school on. Although many of us are well-adept at knowing the principles contained therein, many Americans not realize that France has a similar provison in their document, known as, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Let's look at some of the text:
Article I – Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common utility.
Article III – The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it.
As we see from these two passages, the focus is clearly centered on the community. But when we read the Bill Of Rights, we see the focus centered on the individual. In the U.S. Bill, the powers are separated, in the French Declaration, the powers are concentrated. In France, the government is the protector of rights. In the U.S., the government is the preserver.
One analogy I would submit is, both are solid foundations. But one is made of brick, the other is made of limestone. Bricks are man-made, limestone occurs naturally. One of the pre-eminent principles of the U.S. Constitution is, its outlined rights are presumed natural and God-given. Whereas in the French Constitution, the rights are created and flow from the State.
Not only were the foundational bases of both states different, both took different paths after their implementations. Both had their shares of troubles, there can be no doubt about that. But, one had a much more difficult time getting its experiment to work.
And that is where we will leave it, until the next post. Besides, this should be enough to chew on for a little while at least.