Which Revolution?


In my opinion, the best part of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961, had nothing to do with asking anyone anything. The moment to remember was when he said:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.

It is interesting, even sadly ironic, that what is going on in our nation right now does resemble an old revolutionary spirit, but not necessarily that of Lexington, Concord, or Philadelphia. In fact, a case can be made – if one looks closely – that the spirit of 2013 is more like the spirit of 1789 than 1776.

The American and French Revolutions are linked in our minds because of chronology; but they were vastly different affairs. One led to a new birth of freedom; the other to terror and tyranny. That one also became the portal and model for horrors to come.

As our nation morphs its way along, en route to becoming what some liberal diehards very much want it to be, a significant number of people would seemingly prefer “Liberty – Equality – Fraternity” over “Life – Liberty – and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It is in the parsing of those vitally important words that we find the keys to understanding where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. One revolution was about individual rights and dreams. The other was about “the people” as a group and the highest virtue being “the greater good.”

Can you guess which is which?

When Thomas Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, he was borrowing from 17th century English philosopher, John Locke, whose triad was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson’s use of this language was clearly designed to describe the rights of individual people to live free, be free, and freely pursue their dreams in a free marketplace. Those thoughts were very much in presence in that Philadelphia birthing room.

The French Revolution, on the other hand – though similar to what happened here in the sense of changing things and breaking free from an old order – had little to do with individual rights. It was all about collectivism. And in many ways, the French Revolution is the ancestor of all totalitarian systems to follow. Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot Lenin, and all other political gangsters were heirs of Robespierre and later, Napoleon. Those tyrannical manifestations were not misguided aberrations – distortions of something that started out good (as in, “Lenin was cool, but that Stalin guy, he was messed up!”) – the seeds of the horror were present at the beginning.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th century Enlightenment philosopher, had written about volonté générale or “general will” and the Jacobins, followed by others, ran with it insisting that voice of “the people” could best, actually only, be expressed by so-called “enlightened” leaders.

Our revolution indeed drew a measure of strength from the Enlightenment, but it was of the earlier Locke variety. And America’s use of Enlightenment concepts was tempered by something else; something that set it apart from what happened in France—a spiritual foundation.


Vive la revolution — Vive la difference.

The French not only declared war on the monarchy, they also attacked Christianity, replacing it with a religion of the state, introducing the worship of secularism. Sound familiar?

In America, it was very different. Now, I am not one of those who spends a lot of time trying to prove the Christian bona fides of our founding fathers, but I do believe that the influence of The Great Awakening, which ended about 20 years before the shot heard around the world was fired, was still very much a part of our national fabric at the time.

And another such movement, often referred to as The Second Great Awakening began while the French were unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to be free. To ignore those religious and cultural movements in America is to miss an important piece of the puzzle.

The very concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity sound nice and make for great propaganda. But in the end, without virtue born of something deeper and greater, it all ends up looking the same. This is why all totalitarian regimes like to call their realms The Peoples’ this or that – like The Peoples Republic of China, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or The Peoples Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

We need to beware of those who share our vocabulary, but use a different dictionary. Are we still about the individual, personal, hard-fought-for rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, or does the cry: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity seem to increasingly be the spirit of this age?

The reason it has all worked and endured so well in this land is because we are a nation “under God.” There I said it. There is no real liberty without that. All attempts at actual freedom end up moving toward tyranny without some sense of higher purpose and power. I believe firmly in the separation of church and state. But minus positive religious influence, a nation cannot long remain free.

Thomas Paine’s story should be a cautionary tale. He, of course, wrote Common Sense in early 1776, and it was by all accounts vital to shaping public opinion in support of our patriotic ancestors. He was a revolutionary. Mr. Paine helped us early on, but as he moved on and shared more of his thinking via his acerbic pen, he expressed ideas that, while probably resonating with some today, would in no way mesh with the spirit of 1776.

While Common Sense supported the ideas of freedom, small government, and even low taxes – all very much part of that old revolutionary spirit – by the time the French were acting out, his writings became increasingly more radical. When parts one and two of his work, The Rights of Man, appeared in 1791 and 1792, he became a pariah in England and fled to France like where he was treated like a hero, being made an honorary citizen of the republic. But by this time, his writings advocated a progressive income tax, public works for the unemployed, and guaranteed minimum incomes.

And don’t even get me started on his next bestseller, The Age Of Reason; a rant against revealed religion. Paine died virtually alone and penniless in 1809. Only six people attended his funeral.

This of course, brings us back full circle to the thesis of this article – that concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, expressed individually (the intent of our founders), can only keep from drifting toward collectivism when there is a spiritual impulse – or at least a spiritual pulse.

C. S. Lewis said it very well in The Screwtape Letters 70 years ago:

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side), we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state. Even in England we were pretty successful. I heard the other day that in that country a man could not, without a permit, cut down his own tree with his own axe, make it into planks with his own saw, and use the planks to build a tool shed in his own garden.

4 thoughts on “Which Revolution?

  1. Very true. John Adams recognized this difference as well when he wrote to Jefferson that:

    “No man is more sensible than I am of the service to science and letters, humanity, fraternity, and liberty, that would have been rendered by the encyclopedists and economists, by Voltaire, D’Alembert, Buffon, Diderot, Rousseau, La Lande, Frederic and Catherine, if they had possessed common sense… And what was their philosophy? Atheism,—pure, unadulterated atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, Frederic, De La Lande, and Grimm, were indubitable atheists. The universe was master only, and eternal. Spirit was a word without a meaning. Liberty was a word without a meaning. There was no liberty in the universe; liberty was a word void of sense. Every thought, word, passion, sentiment, feeling, all motion and action was necessary. All beings and attributes were of eternal necessity; conscience, morality, were all nothing but fate. This was their creed, and this was to perfect human nature, and convert the earth into a paradise of pleasure.”

    This philosophy of atheism reveals to us why Americans now find the French revolution more appealing than their own. Compare Adams’ description of the French revolutionaries with this statement by Richard Dawkins:

    “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    In the same letter quoted above, Adams also offered an explanation for the failure of the French revolutionaries to fully establish atheism in their nation when he wrote that “they had not considered the force of early education on the minds of millions, who had never heard of their philosophy.” Unfortunately, the atheists have learned from this oversight of the French thinkers, and they have invested more than fifty years in preparing the American mind for Dawkins’ regurgitation of the nihilism of the French Revolution.

    This will lead to nothing but heartache for the American people. Notice what Adams said about the liberty promised by the French Revolution. “There was no liberty in the universe; liberty was a word void of sense.” This is the same liberty promised by the New Atheists. They profess to be free of God and the restrictions of religion, but what kind of liberty do they promise? — a liberty that is “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” What a stark difference this is from the liberty which the American founders obtained. According to Adams:

    “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were … the general principles of Christianity and the general principles of English and American liberty.”

    Unlike the empty promises of the French, the freedom of America was founded on the recognition of two distinct yet complementary sets of principles or laws – the law of nature and the the Law of nature’s God.

    Shortly after the revolution, James Wilson, who signed both of our founding documents, taught his law students of:

    That law, which God has made for man in his present state; that law, which is communicated to us by reason and conscience, the divine monitors within us, and by the sacred oracles, the divine monitors without us. This law has undergone several subdivisions, and has been known by distinct appellations, according to the different ways in which it has been promulgated, and the different objects which it respects. As promulgated by reason and the moral sense, it has been called natural; as promulgated by the holy scriptures it has been called revealed law.”

    Wilson also wrote:

    “That our Creator has a supreme right to prescribe a law for our conduct, and that we are under the most perfect obligation to obey that law, are truths established on the clearest and most solid principles.”

    This then is the reason that the American Revolution has produced more than 200 years of prosperity while that of the French produced the Reign of Terror. Both nations recognized the role of the natural law and reason, but only one recognized with Wilson that “Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine.”


  2. Hi David!

    Visiting by way of link at American Creation.

    The two revolution, as you write, turned out to be very different affairs. I can’t say, however, that I am convinced that they started out that way. The French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen sounds like the “spirit of ’76.”


    The different contexts of the revolutions, I think, contributed to the different attitudes about religion. In France, the Catholic establishment supported the Monarchy and the aristocracy and so were seen as enemies of the revolution.

    In contrast, the Americans were a nation of dissenters from Britain’s established church. Even the many adherents to Anglicanism in the South proved lukewarm in their attachment. And the colonial Anglican churches were run largely by the laymen in the vestries rather than by the Bishop of London or the commissaries who represented them in the colonies. Even the Americans took radical action at times: after the revolution, Virginia seized the properties of the Anglican Church and sold it off, much like what later happened in France.

    That is not to say the many French revolutionists embraced an anti-Christian outlook, but the historical context is as important as important as ideology.



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