Reflections on the revolutions in America, and France

by John MacBeath Watkins

Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, is one of the core documents that defines conservatism. Edmund Burke wrote it in 1790 in response to the chaos he saw happening across the English Channel.

But why did he not write this sort of thing about the American Revolution, which had happened earlier?

One reason is that the American Revolution was a kinder, gentler, sort of war. In France, anti-clerical and anti-aristocracy feeling was part of the source of the problem. In America, there was no national established church, and no hereditary aristocracy.

In France, the clergy and the aristocrats had so many tax exemptions, most of the taxes fell on
Louis XVI:Hero of the American Revolution,
guillotined in the French Revolution
everyone else, the merchants, artisans, farmers, and laborers. This was a reflection of their power in the country. If you were rich enough, you could buy into this power by purchasing a title. The way this worked was, you bought a position in government that came with a title. The position could not be revoked, and the titles tended to become hereditary. Hard-up French monarchs tended to create such positions and sell them for a high price. As a result, it was the smaller merchants and the peasants and working class that paid the taxes, many of which went to the aristocracy.

And France was badly in debt, mostly because its kings liked to fight wars. The Seven Years War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War, dragged on from 1756 to 1763, and losing cost France many of its colonies, including Quebec. Louis XV did a lot of the damage, but when he was succeeded by his grandson, Louis XVI, the latter decided to get a bit of France's own back by helping deprive the Enlish of some of their New World possessions.

He backed the American Revolution. Without the rather expensive aid of the French Navy, there might not be a United States of America. It was the French fleet that prevented the British from relieving the troops commanded by Charles Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown, resulting in his surrender.

But that aid to the colonies had to be paid for. One of the ideas that came to the French regime was a tax on salt. Everyone needs salt to survive, so it was in part a tax on being alive, sort of like a poll tax. But this was worse. The more you sweat, the more salt you need to keep moisture in your body. As a tax on sweat, it was a tax on labor: Those stuck with the hardest physical work would pay the most salt tax. The aristocrat sitting in the shade would pay less than those who labored in his fields.

The American revolution did not involve overthrowing the local power structure. Instead, it relieved them from outside influence.

This is the source of the notion of American exceptionalism. The idea, at least the way the phrase was first used, is that we never had a hereditary aristocracy to rebel against, so some of the more potent sources of working-class resentment that made Communism popular in Europe simply are not here. In fact, American Marxists coined the term in the 1930s to explain their lack of success.

The French Revolution was violent, and not particularly democratic. Their motto was liberté, égalité, fraternité. Démocratie wasn't a core value. Interestingly, the most famous liberal philosopher writing in French was a Swiss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that even a dictator could represent the will of the people. A country the size of France, he said, should be ruled by an aristocracy. The word aristo is Greek, and means "best." So he wasn't arguing for a hereditary aristocracy, it could be the Committee for Public Safety, if they were the best.

And who would argue the question of whether they were the best with those who decided which heads rolled off the guillotine?

The French Revolution eventually produced the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Now, one might think that an emperor would be regarded as an old-fashioned sort of ruler, but Napoleon had replaced the old power structure. Monarchs had relied on force, faith, and custom for their legitimacy. Napoleon had the force, but he was not a hereditary monarch, so he could not rely on custom, and he did not rely on the support of an established church.

For faith and custom, he substituted nationalism and victory in war. This is an unstable formula. Fist, you stir up the nationalism, and nothing does this better than a good, old-fashioned war. Then you have to win.

But if you fight for long enough, eventually you will lose, as Napoleon did at Waterloo. Nationalism is a dangerous tool for any regime, because the implicit bargain puts the ruler in a position that is difficult to maintain, the position of keeping the people stirred up against other countries but not being defeated and removed from office, either by popular revolt or by victorious enemies.

What made the French Revolution part of the enlightenment project was its reliance on reason to restructure society. The French foot, which was slightly longer than the English foot, found itself in the dustbin of history, replaced by the metric system. Celsius, a more rational system, replaced Fahrenheit This was a new world, replacing matters which had been adjudicated by custom with reasoned solutions.

Napoleon himself became a symbol of the Superman. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov muses about his notion of the superman:

"...The real Master to whom all is permitted storms Toulon, makes a massacre in Paris, forgets an army in Egypt, wastes half a million men in the Moscow expedition and gets off with a jest at Vilna. And altars are set up to him after his death, and so all is permitted. No, such people it seems are not of flesh but of bronze!"

In the secular world, God is dead, Nietzsche would later tell us. This leaves a God-shaped hole in our heads, and who steps forward to claim the plinth on which he loomed over our minds?

The Superman, exemplified by Napoleon, steps up to the plinth. Hobbes, a dedicated materialist, had said that God had to be a material being, simply one of exceptional power. By the time Dostoevsky was writing, people were postulating men of exceptional power to whom ordinary rules did not apply, a sort of God-like man (and it always was a man.)

In a way, this might be seen as a return to the God-king, expected to deliver victory rather than rain for the crops.

And we see it still today, when we credit or blame the state of the economy on presidents. Jimmy Carter, for example, presided over some very good economic years in his term in office, but a recession at the end of his four years was one of the reasons for his narrow defeat.

The French went through a series of evolutions and finally settled on a democratic way of governance, but not without such experiments as the reign of Napoleon III. But the fact that the revolution itself had not been democratic was a warning sign. While the logic of liberalism leads to democracy, not all attempts to replace custom with reason in the ordering of society are democratic in nature.

Karl Marx, for example, tried to come up with a rational way to make society better. But most of the attempts to apply his ideas have been authoritarian. Marxism has replaced the role of faith in these societies, and combined with force to form the governing class. Those societies returned to faith and force as their formula for the legitimacy of their rulers substituting the Communist Party for the church. It is not an accident that in post-Soviet Russia, Vladimir Putin has come to rely upon the Russian Orthodox Church for support, and stir up nationalism to get the public to rally around him.

The Nazi movement made a cult out of race, claiming it was scientific. The doctrine of blood and soil (blut und boden) emphasized “blood” in the sense of descent (race), and romanticized nationalism and rural living. The link between race and territory was essential to the ideology. Because people were bonded together by race, the social contract Locke and Hobbes postulated was not needed. And because they preached biological determinism, there was no need for democracy. Certain people were born to lead (this was called the fuhrerprinzip, or leader principle) and the rest were born to follow. Fuhrerprinzip dictated that the fuhrer's word was above all written law, and a leader demanded absolute obedience to those below them. The supreme leader answered to God and the German people, the lesser leaders answered to those above them and demanded complete obedience from those below them.

Nazism was on odd hybrid. It had the trappings of science, but its biology was bogus, merely a disguise for old attitudes. Germany had pogroms in the 1500s and in the 1920s. The Holocaust could be seen as the culmination of attitudes that had been around for centuries, simply carried out on an industrial scale and by the government rather than by mobs. It's “scientific” racism was so lacking in any actual science that German authorities could not detect a number of Jews who went through the war with fake papers claiming they were of German descent. And in fact, by any rational standard, they were, since their ancestors had been living in Germany by that time for longer than there had been a German state.

Marxism began with the best of intentions, and spread tyranny and suffering from the purges of the Ukraine to the killing fields of Cambodia. Fascism exploited existing hatreds and a desire for order while adopting the trappings of science. Both demonstrated that attempts to remake society based on reason can be disastrous when reason starts with flawed premises.

Both ideologies lacked a notion of the social contract. For Marx, you were born into your class. For the Nazis, you were born into your race and class. The Nazis thought you should remain in your class, while the Marxist thought you should fight to abolish all but the working class. Neither ideology reasoned its way to a democratic form of government, because each was intent on defeating a demonized enemy, capitalists for Marxists and Jews and other “lesser” races for the Nazis. In war, command and control are far more important than discovering the desires of the people. Nations which adopted these ideologies were not democratic because they did not value democracy, and they did not value it because they had different ideas about the origins and purpose of society.