On this day, La Quatorze Juillet, or Bastille Day as it is referred to in English-speaking countries, 225 years ago, marked the historic storming of the Parisian fortress-prison within which were guns and ammunition, in addition to several political prisoners. This fortress-prison, or the Bastille, was a symbol of the power of the French monarchy, and the storming thereof marked what many view as the official beginning of the French Revolution.
In fact, Lafayette (a crucial French figure who aided America in her war for Independence) – as a symbol of his hope in the French Revolution – even sent the key of the Bastille itself to President George Washington. Yet, although Lafayette saw the French Revolution as an extension of the American Revolution in ideals, it soon turned into a lawless bloodbath – and one in which the results were arguably worse and less stable than the system that was overthrown.
This holiday brings a reminder to all of an example of a revolution that did not succeed in protecting the very rights espoused as part of its purpose. Where the American War for Independence was part of what truly was an opportunity for an experiment in freedom, the likes of which has not been obviously seen in the world; the French Revolution turned to a lawless “Reign of Terror”, which would eventually end far from the alleged goals that many had claimed them to be.
Perhaps this is an example of the importance of purity in principle. An example of how little misconceptions and misunderstandings will lead to entirely different conclusions, and those conclusions will lead to entirely different results. If the recipe for human freedom was merely a change in the form of government, or the source of human freedom was political independence – than certainly even a brief glance at history would indicate human freedom as an impossibility. In other words, if freedom was merely found in changing the form of a social structure – then history would prove that freedom is nowhere to be found. Perhaps this point deserves a little more attention.
Who would logically argue that an overall increase in freedom and protection of rights occurred during the Reign of Terror, or even in the fruits of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia?
Merely a perusal of some of Robert Conquest’s historical research into the death tolls during the Communist experiment will easily demonstrate the foolishness of such a stance; which stance must necessarily be coupled with roughly 14-15 million people dying in a space of three years during the time of the “dekulakization”, or the terror famine (source: here). Yet, these situations involved the deposition of the monarchy – monarchy being the system of government so justly criticized by Thomas Paine in Common Sense, and which system was rejected similarly in the founding of the American systems of government.
The Reign of Terror, likewise, led to the summary executions of tens of thousands of people for political purposes. Not only did the french situation turn into a system of, essentially, “mob-rule” in which many people were unlawfully put to death (which is bad enough), but it also led to chaos itself being an expectation – which heavily inflicts the ability for progress to ever occur in society. Yet, once again, this occurred following the deposition of the monarchy of France!
Obviously, the source of human freedom is not to be found merely in the overthrow of monarchs. All too often, this merely leads not to more freedom, but merely to the whip exchanging hands from one “slave-master” to another. Keep in mind, this is not a defense of monarchy – but simply a case of simply judging things by their fruits.
But what about mere Political Independence? Is not this the source of human freedom?
Who would logically argue that there was more political freedom in the Congo when the Belgians were gone, or similarly in Vietnam once the French were gone? Or how about even India once the British were gone? Or what of the all-too-common tyranny experienced amongst the states even 238 years following Independence from Britain?
Mere political independence has surely not been the source of American freedom, even in the varying degrees in which it has been experienced since July 2, 1776. This is not a defense of imperialism or colonialism, but (once again) simply a case of judging things by their fruits.
Human freedom is only possible when every sovereign individual has complete control of all the derivatives of their lives, namely their property – both the non-corporeal and corporeal forms thereof. In other words, when every person has respected their innate and unalienable rights to the preservation of life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness – there is true and unabated freedom!
This should be both the aim and the standard by which a system is judged for success.
This is the standard held in the Declaration of Independence, and yet, interestingly enough, not the standard held up in the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This is in spite of the historical fact that Lafayette (mentioned earlier) even had a picture frame in his personal library in which half of it was the Declaration of Independence – with the intent that the other half was to be filled with the “French Declaration of Rights”. (source: here) Unfortunately, one could/can only wish that this turned out to be a true and fitting analogy!
Whereas the Declaration of Independence succinctly declares that every individual is sovereign (especially in the most original rough draft we currently have access to), Article Three of the attempted equivalent in France states that: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”
Regardless of the popularity of one like Rousseau (who promoted a nebulous social standard, such as is found in the quotation above) – often people confuse milk (as in “milk before meat“) with poison. In fact, many forget to think critically through the concepts that are supposedly “self-evident”. Is not a nation made up of individual people? Does society exist outside of the individuals that make it up? Therefore how could “no body nor individual…exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation“?
Some may not be sensitive enough to realize the significance of the philosophical basis – but perhaps the results speak for themselves. Certainly, the dealings of mankind in this world are not simple enough to conveniently fall into the black-and-white categories that are so conducive to human minds which seem to desperately crave oversimplification. I am certainly aware of the classic logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for: “after this, therefore, because of this”) Certainly, if the founding fathers of the American States had lost the war for Independence, the Declaration of Independence would not be any less correct.
Yet, there does seem room for analysis in the realm of correlation. Principles do matter, and they do shape the destinies of nations as much as they shape the destinies of individuals. And if a movement starts out wrong, it seems likely that it will end wrong.
Many assert that “the devil is in the details” – but in reality, godliness is in the details. Where the devil is vague and thrives on oversimplification – in my view, God is found in the details, and in the simple concepts that are so powerful that many look right beyond them!
Yet, at the end of the day, no promised result can precisely come without precise conformity to the recipe that would lead to that desired result. And if individual human rights are the end goal, one must not expect to find this result simply hanging on a tree in the forest, or merely in the deposition of a monarch – which monarch was, perhaps, even better than what was to come after.
This, based on the same reasoning, is often the case even within American history itself. In fact, this day has other significant lessons for us to remember.
July 14, 1798 – purposely on Bastille Day – President John Adams (the very man who has justly been called “the Atlas of Independence”, however unfortunately ironic that may be within this historical situation) signed the Sedition Act of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. This was a symbolic act and a reaction to the alleged “lawlessness” of the French Revolution, and an attempt to dissuade any similar action from occurring in America.
The Sedition Act, unlike the two Alien Acts with which it is associated, dealt with citizens – and was, thus, more controversial. It was made of two parts, the first of which was not as controversial in simply making it a crime to commit or organize sedition – such as resisting enforcement or organizing resistance to the enforcement of federal law. The tradition for such a statute went back far into English Common Law. The second part – the more controversial and more obviously constitutionally dubious part – made it a crime to say anything that tended to bring the government into ill repute.
Thus, the Sedition Act, in spite of the First Amendment guarantee of Free Speech and Press – which even goes so far as to state that Congress shall make NO law abridging these freedoms, “criminalized” speech (seditious libel, as it was called) that, once again, even tended to bring the federal government into disrepute (minus the Vice-President, of course, who happened to be less skeptical of the French Revolution – Thomas Jefferson). This was an affront to every notion of Constitutional freedom, and was used often to prosecute even those who were critical of President Adams and his administration.
For emphasis, it should be realized that this wasn’t merely a statute to lie dormant on the books. This was actually used many times to prosecute and convict people, even newspaper editors and a congressman from Vermont, for simply saying/writing things that brought the federal government, or even simply Adams himself, into ill repute.
In response to this, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison anonymously authored the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in which they, in effect, reminded the States that they were “duty-bound” to interpose on behalf of the people in the case of any federal tyranny and overreach. This brought out that not only were there First Amendment issues with the Sedition Act, but Tenth Amendment issues as well – since it was federal prosecutions occurring often with people that were truly citizens/persons living within the jurisdiction of the States.
These documents, and even more importantly, the increase in freedom that came as a result of the state interposition between the federal government and the people of the two states – are now championed as the standards for state nullification of any unconstitutional, non-constitutional, and, in the case of Wisconsin’s famous historical nullification of federal fugitive slave statutes in – even simply unjust statutes! (Wisconsin’s Supreme Court even nullified Federal Fugitive Slave Statutes for violating the liberties of people within the jurisdiction of Wisconsin – even though the the statute was prima facie Constitutional, due to the Fugitive Slave Clause)
There are many lessons that should be remembered in the modern political situation on this very historical day.
As far as the French Revolution itself is concerned, I thought it would be well worth it to post a link (found here) to a book on the topic that certainly raised some very interesting conclusions regarding the revolution.
In spite of the good intentions of great men that were involved, such as Thomas Paine, and even his writing of one of the greatest political treatises in the history of man in support of the French Revolution (entitled The Rights of Man); there truly was a sinister group of forces at play in that conflict – and America would do well to learn from the lessons of history.
Sure, the monarchy may not have been the best government possible, but certainly (as we have seen in Libya and Syria recently) order that comes from any state can be better than chaos that often comes as the alternative. This is not a defense of tyranny, but merely, as has been said, a case of judging things by their fruits. And often, it is not the will of the people as much as the will of various internal and foreign factions that have everything to gain from overthrowing a system in the alleged name of “the people” and their, perhaps, non-existent “general will”. (e.g. here)