Tuesday, January 27, 2009

History 112: The Case for Limiting Power to White Men of Property

Today we read about the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The French National Assembly viewed itself as acting “under the auspices of a Supreme Being.” A Supreme Being is not the traditional God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Supreme Being does not care if you believe in him or not, what Church you go to, or whom you sleep with. He is the watchmaker deity of Enlightenment deism, who set the world in motion, but does not interfere. In the absence of a deity running the world and granting political authority all power rests with “men.” Who counts as “men?” According to the Declaration: “men are born and remain free and equal in rights …” It should be noted that this statement goes against all empirical evidence. Everywhere we look, particularly if we are in 1789 France, we see hierarchy, people having power over other people. This lead Rousseau and most of the Enlightenment to have to bend over backwards, trying to justify this notion even though it makes no sense and all rational thought says otherwise. So ignoring all this, once we decide to buy into this “nonsensical” notion, we have to ask: who are these “men” that are born and remain free? Are they just men of property? Are black slaves included? What about women? These questions apply to the other open ended terms in the Declaration. Who is a member of this “nation” upon which sovereignty rests? Who is part this “general will,” which law is an expression of? Those who took part in the French Revolution were, themselves, not sure and the matter was hotly debated.

As moderns, who oppose slavery and support giving the laboring classes, blacks and women the right to vote, it is very tempting to look at the radical side of the Revolution, those who supported these things, as being on the side of reason and tolerance and those who opposed these things as being prejudiced, intolerant and outside the modern spirit. Therefore, if we wish to gain an understanding of past societies, it is important to make all the greater effort to understanding precisely those views which we ourselves do not agree with and which are foreign to our modern discourse.

Why might someone of an “enlightened” disposition oppose giving women the right to vote? Some of the most extreme acts of violence during the Revolution were carried out or actively supported by women. If you support rule of law and having government operate according to reason and not having pike wielding mobs chopping off heads it makes perfect sense to not want women taking part in the political process. Much better that they should stay home and be kept under the control of their husbands, who will make sure they stay out of trouble.

Why might a French Revolutionary committed to the principles of the brotherhood of man support the continued existence of slavery and the disenfranchisement of blacks? Emancipating slaves would not just harm white sugar planters in the Caribbean. It would bring down the entire French economy. It would give the advantage to countries like England which, as of the time of the Revolution, still continue to use slaves. Since we are in a struggle against the forces of monarchy, of which England is a prominent example, freeing the slaves would give the advantage to monarchism and help the cause of tyranny. All liberty loving French patriots should therefore support, for the time being, the continued existence of slavery. Furthermore the emancipation of slaves would not necessarily help those blacks living as slaves; they would be left without a place in society and without immediate means of employment. Also, as events in Saint Domingue demonstrated, freeing blacks and giving them equal rights would undermine public order and lead to violence.

Why might it not serve liberal interests to give power to the laboring classes, who are poor and lack property? As we have discussed previously, one of the major questions in political thought is why people decide to accept a government. As a person with property, one of my concerns about government is that it will decide to take it away and “redistribute” it. I have some money stashed away in a savings account. What is to stop our new president from deciding that, since I am not spending that money, I do not really need it and therefore it should be taken from me and used to pay off the national debt or go to some needy inner city family, struggling to make ends meet? If we give the poor the right to vote some demagogue might come along and get himself elected by promising poor people that he will take from those who have and give it to them. The most obvious solution is to limit the vote to those who own property or have a certain amount of wealth. Those who own property will want to protect what they already have and can be trusted to not use the government to try taking away the property of others.

During the French Revolution the main person advocating for mass enfranchisement was Maximilien Robespierre. We know what he did with this power. With the support of the urban laboring classes he took control and set off the Reign of Terror. Robespierre did not just take people’s property he had people guillotined. Rather than being a model of freedom, Robespierre was the first major mass murderer of the modern era, surpassed only in the twentieth century by people like Hitler and Stalin.

One can make a very good case that the French Revolution was fine as long as it was limited to the elites like the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. It is perfectly reasonable that the representatives of the third estate and the liberal members of the aristocracy and clergy allied with them, left to their own devices, could have worked things out with the king and brought about the necessary Enlightenment inspired reforms to the system. The problem came the moment the laboring masses and women got involved. It was they who turned to violence and brought about the mass slaughter of the Reign of Terror.

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