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France, Revolutions, Constitutions and Liberty

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

In the November issue of the Links Newsletter, - Dedication, Deification and Divination of Voltaire: An Apotheosis, we were challenged on how to summarize a six month long immersion on Voltaire. We brushed by two seminal contemporaneous and interrelated events in history, the American and French Revolutions, both occurring as Voltaire was nearing the end of his life. The results of these Revolutions were as divergent and separate as the continents and the pond that separates these nations, but seemingly similar, with a common origin traced to France and Voltaire. The influence of Voltaire was profound. He triumphantly transformed intellectual thought and European civilization; changes from the Enlightenment that still reverberate across the globe today. But some of his enemies viewed him as the very cause of the French Revolution. We know the by-product of the American Revolution was a Constitution that has assured up liberty for more than 200 years. This issue of the Links will examine the legacy of the French Revolution, important French individuals who influenced history and how this legacy differs from the consequences of the American Revolution which serves to remind us that history can be made by great individuals and great events in our quest for freedom and liberty.

18th Century events in France through the Enlightenment period illustrated the concept that ideas change history, especially an idea as influential as freedom. Arguably, freedom is the definitive idea of a civilized world. Let's define our terms: Liberty is freedom under the law - the freedom of civilized people to govern themselves under given laws. Freedom maintains that responsibility and is a necessary component of liberty establishing that for every right there is a corresponding duty. Of course there is political freedom - the liberty of the individual to live as he or she chooses as long as that individual does not infringe upon the rights of others. So why was the end product of the French Revolution so different? Maybe some of the answers lie in the thoughts of other notables from France, especially Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

Montesquieu was born in the castle of La Brède near Bordeaux on January 18, 1689. He was the first great French Scholar associated with the Enlightenment. He was a man of wealth and position vastly different from that of Rousseau. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and became a Freemason. As his interest waned while practicing law, Montesquieu's passion burned in the spirit that lay behind the law resulting in his greatest work, now considered a great work in political theory and in the history of jurisprudence, De l'esprit des loix. Along with his earlier works the Lettres persanes; Persian Letters (1721) and Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur decadence (1734) Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans, (1734), Montesquieu reconciled the order of nature and the variety of human forms of association with science as the unifying truth amid the relativity of perspective. The laws of natural philosophy have no cultural or geographic boundaries from ancient history to today. He believed that political society progressed through a cycle of constitutions that was unstable and predictable. This cycle was one of the unchanging laws of history, such that civilizations move from self-governance and virtue to prosperity. This leads to selfishness and greed then, in the case of Rome, the virtue of the Republic proved too successful, leading to militarism, monarchy and despotism. This theory significantly influenced the Founding Fathers of America. Montesquieu's arguments were based on empirical evidence from history and suggested that the best form of government is one with a balanced constitution. He declared that England was the only country in the world to have political liberty as the direct goal of its constitution. From his publication, The Spirit of Laws, he had abandoned the classical divisions of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy and assigned an animating principle with each form of government:

  1. The Republic, based on virtue
  2. The Monarchy, based on honor
  3. Despotism, based on fear

These assignments involved a historical and broad descriptive approach which was not based on the location of political power but on the manner of conducting policy. Most importantly, his authoritative and admired ideas about the separation of legislative, executive and judicial authority or powers, each acting as a check and balance on the other, had a profound impact on the framers of the American Constitution. These architects knew that absent public virtue, nothing on paper would be stable and these American Founders understood the necessity of mutual restraints on centers of power.

The American Revolution reflected the ideas of Montesquieu; however, the French Revolution embodied the ideas of Rousseau. Unlike Montesquieu, Rousseau had humble beginnings. He was born in Geneva, Switzerland on June 28, 1712. He had an unhappy life full of paranoia and a sense that people were out to get him as well as feeling as if he were an outsider. He was a self-educated refugee in France and exploded onto the European intellectual scene with his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1749). He argued both from history and reason that progress in the arts and sciences was always accompanied by moral degeneration. Once societies of Egypt, Athens and Rome reached a certain level of cultural sophistication, decadence set in. Whereas Montesquieu was more a man of reason, Rousseau placed more importance on intuition and feeling, at times to the point of irrational intuition. Most importantly, he believed that the innate goodness man comes from a primitive society - the noble savage. However, a properly constructed society could change human nature to enable people to be better and live well without any need of constitutional reform. The American Founders believed human nature never changed and believed similar events can be reproduced by similar circumstances. Rousseau believed you can reconstruct individuals. In further contrast to Montesquieu, Rousseau believed all political power can be found in a single element, a general will. Each individual surrendered political liberties and his conscience or general liberty. This general will required that individual will be subsumed in a general will to the extent that its whole was greater than the sum of its parts resulting in a "national will." And, interestingly and disturbingly, this general or national will can be expressed by a single leader. France differed from America insomuch that France had a nobility that played a far greater role in politics in the 1700's,while America was just getting started. The freedom of the individual will was lost into this general or national will in France, where Kings and representative bodies were the expression of the general will of the people, which was considered absolute and never to be broken. Rousseau's true legacy was not American Democracy; his ideas spawned the ideologies of totalitarian regimes as later confirmed by the Russian Revolution.

The French Revolution did begin on the path and ideals of the American Revolution, but it degenerated into anarchy and ultimately tyranny, with chaos and uprisings rooted in Rousseau's ideas, allowing him the distinction of Father of the French Revolution. Attempts at a new constitution in France resulted in a series of self-serving revolutionaries who rose up to enhance their own power and instituted a systematic attempt of terror. In one example, nearly 2,000 French lives were put on barges in the town of Nantes and were conscientiously drowned. Terror became the instrument of governing. Maximilien de Robespierre, one of the best known and most influential figures of the French revolution, fell from power and was put to death by the guillotine, or the "National Razor," another symbol of the revolutionary cause. France was unable to come up with a systematic constitution. America created a constitution in one summer that promoted justice and liberty for over two centuries. Finally, the national assembly of the French Revolution, who did anything to preserve its own power in France, found its fulfillment not in a constitution for ordered liberty, but in a dictator predicted centuries ago and again by Montesquieu. Napoleon Bonaparte was a short, decisive, handsome military genius whose ideas reshaped Europe. He was an outstanding battlefield commander who could rally his troops with a great speech. George Washington might have been America's Napoleon, but he refused the role of dictator. Although Napoleon was such a great genius and strategist, he ultimately lost, because his strategic goal was to be in power, forever. Washington's strategic goal was to win the independence of America, and he achieved it. Instead of benefiting Europe, the French Revolution brought war and misery. The final outcome of the French Revolution and Napoleon's rule was the idea that only within the state does the individual find true freedom with the power of the state over the individual.

Over time in France, there was a restoration of monarchy with revolutions in 1830 and 1848, followed by a popular dictator, Napoleon III, the embodiment of "Rousseau's General Will," from 1852-1870. Following the revolutions of the 19th Century, a terror far greater than the Reign of Terror in France, or anything the French could have ever imagined, emerged in the form of a Russian Revolution carried out by Stalin. Through the 20th Century and traced back to the French Revolution, France dealt with problems in 1914 and a shameful surrender in 1940. Nearly all violent revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries ended in despotism. Perhaps the ultimate reason for the success of the American Revolution might be found in the moral character and integrity of its leaders, traced back to the philosophers of the Enlightenment period. Compare George Washington with Napoleon Bonaparte, James Madison with Joseph Stalin, author of the Soviet Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson with the brilliant Vladimir Lenin.

Fortunately, within the ISHLT we have our own checks and balances of our three basic elements mixed in proper proportion with a strong executive leader, represented by our President. We also have an aristocracy, represented by our Board of Directors, who are elected democratically into a system that embodies our broad base of popular support through each of our Councils, again elected democratically by our members. Each annual meeting is orchestrated by an elected Program Chair. Is Nice the centerpoint or near the crossroads of original thought, Philosophy and Political Theory in early Western Civilization? ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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