Sunday, June 1, 2008

Social Contract Theory in the French and American Revolutions

Have you got a pretty good idea now, having read my last post, what this 'social contract' business is all about? If not, say so.

The movers and shakers in both of these revolutions, which were almost contemporaneous, were intensely conscious of the writings of John Locke; both groups believed that they had been given a rare opportunity: to make a fresh start; to build a new kind of state constructed according to rational principles; new from the ground up, cleansed of barnacles and rot, the accumulation of centuries of corruption (our founding fathers were thinking, rather unfairly, it seems to me, of their British political and legal inheritance), this new state would provide liberty and justice for all instead of the few. (Some of this may remind you, relevantly, of Martin Luther's assault on the Church in the 16th century--there was at that time, of course, just the one.)

Why did the Americans succeed (more or less), while the French sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives merely to set the stage (as Joseph de Maistre predicted) for Napoleon, and a century--and more--of bitter and debilitating political conflict?

The French revolutionaries took the metaphor of a fresh start and a clean slate literally. They literally cleared the ground of the feudal institutions and people that they blamed for the accumulated inequalities and injustices of the past. The Bastille, symbolic of all that they hated, was obliterated without a trace.

The Americans were all practical politicians as well as "men of substance" for the most part in their local communities. The feudal past was not thick on the ground as in France; it had mostly been left behind. These men were also very well educated; some were close students of history, especially Greek and Roman history. Many were lawyers, educated in the English Common Law. When they began to write their own social contract, or constitution, they had a functional system of parliamentary and ministerial governance to examine and learn from. These were immense advantages, none of which the French revolutionaries possessed--who were forced to fight a war while at the same time they were trying to design their new state.

The Americans also had Alexander Hamilton, the greatest practical philosopher of liberal government and politics in the world at that time (or since).

1 comment:

  1. The metaphor of "a fresh start and a clean slate" is inherently dangerous. It implies changing human nature, which in turn implies some sort of thought control. The persecution of the Catholic Church and the executions of aristocrats that occurred during various phases of the French Revolution reflected this commitment to a fresh start, despite the fact that liberty, equality, and fraternity ought to teach us to accept others as they are.
    Marxism is a philosophy that looks forward to the withering away of the state, which can happen only in a world without disagreement. That is why Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were such monsters. I explain all this in THE BLESSED HUMAN RACE, written under my English name, George Jochnowitz.