The American and French Revolutions

LEADER TIMES WEEKEND RELIGION ARTICLE FOR

June 27, 2015 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129

The American Revolution lasted from 1776 to 1783, seven years.  The result was a stable, though admittedly imperfect, republic.  The French Revolution lasted from 1780 to 1799, almost twenty years.  The result was the French Empire under the emperor Napoleon.  Many of the stated goals were the same.  For the Colonies; “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  For the French; “liberty, equality and fraternity.”  Historians paint the French Revolution as a model for the breakdown of the European monarchies and the birth of freedom in Europe.  This kind of thinking betrays a serious failure of memory.  The French Revolution was a momentous failure.  Only in the United States of America was a new order of society born that could be a model for the rest of the world.  What explains the difference?

The Colonies were at war with England.  The French were at war with themselves and with God.  The Revolution attempted to de-Christianize France.  A Cult of Reason was established and those in opposition to the Reign of Terror (1793 – 1794) were fed to the guillotine.  Louis XVI was executed in January of 1793.  The number of civilians executed is estimated as between 16,000 and 40,000.  The Cult of Reason under Maximillian Robespierre disenfranchised the church and the clergy and renamed the Cathedral of Notre Dame as The Temple of Reason.

It is a valuable mental exercise to ask what the word “reason” means in this context.  It most certainly does not mean the use of the mind to determine truth from the available evidence.   The writers of our Declaration of Independence were using “reason” when they argued, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”  By “self-evident” the framers of the document meant that the evidence points to this conclusion.  I have tried to trace their thinking in the two articles preceding this one.

Most of the signers of the Declaration were men of faith, and well educated.  There is an attempt today to set faith against reason, as if faith was by definition unreasonable and emotive.  However, it is clear to anyone who is familiar with Christian belief that “faith,” (Better translated from the Greek as “trust”) requires substantial evidence.  To trust without sufficient evidence is ignorance, not faith.

What then does “reason” mean in the context of the French Revolution.  Essentially it means the rejection of all authority except the will of the individual.   It was Frederick Nietzsche who said that if God is dead everything is permissible.  Once God is eliminated from the thought process chaos appears.  Nietzsche committed suicide.  France almost did the same through their Revolution.

The history of the French Revolution is complex.  Historians have debated its causes into our own time.  Until recently the explanations have been largely Marxist.  More natural causes have played a role in newer analysis.

I would suggest that the difference in the two revolutions is the grounding, or lack of it, in a sound theology/philosophy.  Our forefathers believed that authority was rooted in the God of Creation.  Out of that understanding our personal and civic duties to care for that creation and respect its orders are our human responsibility.  The French Revolution illustrates what happens when this understanding fails to motivate change.  Change can move us toward God or chaos.  The Founders may have left us more to do, but they set a true course.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at ravscarle@verizon.net.) END-whs

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