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Opinion | Morgan Liddick: A tale of 2 revolutions

Morgan Liddick
On Your Right
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County. His column appears in every Tuesday in the Summit Daily News.
btrollinger@summitdaily.com

Now that the beer and brats have somewhat settled and the political boilerplate and pretended indignation it generates have faded a bit, it may be time to really consider the great gift our country’s founders gave us, now 244 years ago. They gave us liberty — not only from England, but also from potential tyrannies closer to home. The former is well-known despite ongoing efforts to torture the event out of all recognizable form, but it is to the latter that we might better attend, given current events.

We can best understand the need by comparing the two great revolutions that drew a bright line marking the end of the Age of Enlightenment: ours and the French. Both drew inspiration from the ideas of the great political philosophers of that period: Hobbes and Locke, Montesquieu, Grotius and Voltaire. Both began as methods to halt the depredations of increasingly authoritarian and rapacious governments. But then the two took very different roads that continue to have disparate impacts on our world today. 

Our revolution was, from the beginning, a practical matter focused on a single goal: enlarging the space of human freedom. Its logic was that of John Locke, who argued that government’s proper role lay not in the granting of rights but in protecting those rights which all people had naturally and were, as our Declaration put it, “unalienable.” Government should be neither omniscient nor omnipotent; it was simply a contract among citizens and those who governed for specific, limited purposes and could be abolished if it failed to perform. The Declaration of Independence may have been a document that fell like a thunderbolt on the authoritarian monarchies of Europe, but it was the product of a group of men who understood the importance of limits.

Today, many see the founding generation as being populated by men who were better and wiser than we, and in some cases they may be right. Who is today’s Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, John Adams or Roger Sherman? But these men had company that day in Philadelphia. There was also George Taylor, a Pennsylvania ironmonger; William Floyd, a New York landowner; Abraham Clark, a New Jersey surveyor and attorney; and many others of the “middling sort.” They brought realism to the process.

The French Revolution began in a similar way to ours but became distracted. Its first years saw great successes: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the August Decrees and the revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood” all belonged to the 1789-91 period. But as the revolution dragged on, disputes over many broad goals grew and the once-universal revolution became more and more a conflict among emerging economic classes and existing social groups. Early moderate leaders such as Jacques Brissot and the Marquis de Lafayette were eventually thrown out of the Jacobin Club, which led the revolution.  Some were guillotined.

Eventually the radical Montagnard faction came to power and allied themselves with the Paris mob, which attacked both Versailles and the Assembly on Aug. 10, 1792. Their ascension brought the Committee of Public Safety with Georges Danton as its president and Robespierre as a leading member. In the 10 months of terror that followed, 1 in 5 French citizens was arrested and over 40,000 were executed, including Danton and Robespierre.

What are we to make of the contrasts between these two revolutions? Perhaps the value of limits? Our revolution began with a single purpose: the advancement of freedom. It ended with a stable, limited government that prospered the nation. The French Revolution had multiple goals, which came to include the creation of a centralized, powerful government that drowned all who opposed it in blood; it ended with the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. In both elements, it has been the template for many that followed, including the Russian and Chinese Communist revolutions — if that is any sane recommendation.

Perhaps we should note that revolutionaries with practical experience and achievable goals are preferable to those who have more grandiose plans for the remaking of all things, from government to society to humans themselves because if the envisioned system is perfect, as French revolutionaries believed theirs to be, man must be made to fit it, not the other way about. No matter how many executions it takes.

With respect to the last, those howling for “revolution” today should consider which of the two sorts of revolution Maximilien Robespierre might have chosen had he been asked before the blade dropped.

Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at mcliddick@hotmail.com.


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