Thursday, April 30, 2009

History 112: The French Revolution and Napoleon

1. I know we said that Jefferson was influenced by the Enlightenment. How much and in what way did the American Revolution influence the French Revolution?
2. I noticed a resemblance between our Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Rights. Is there some sort of connection?

First of all there is the practical connection between the American and French Revolutions as the main reason why, come 1788, that France is in the financial mess it is in is because of what they spent helping the colonies in terms of both military and financial aid. By the way, America never paid back the money it borrowed from France. Also there is the ideological issue as both the Americans and the French were influenced by the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers could look across the Atlantic and say: look, these policies we are advocating are working in America so why not try them here in Europe. (In truth America during the 1780s was not in good shape with the Articles of Confederation. But progress is relative; at least we were not resorting to cannibalism or holding our females in common.)

3. What were the effects of the French Revolution (and the Declaration of Rights) on other countries?
4. My question has to do with the influence of the French Revolution. Ihave heard many times that aspects of the French Revolution were usedin countless revolutions and wars. Can you briefly go over them?

The French Revolution was closely connected to the Enlightenment. This is not to say that the Enlightenment caused the Revolution. Just that the Revolution made use of Enlightenment ideas. This made the Revolution an issue for anyone facing the issue of the Enlightenment, whether pro or against. In a way the French Revolution, with its turn to violence, harmed the cause of Enlightenment and by extension liberalism. The fact that the Revolution became associated with excess and extremism strengthened the hands of political and religious conservatives. I personally count it as a misfortune that it was France, with its strong anti-clericalism, that became the standard barrier of the Enlightenment. I suspect that we would have had a far healthier transition into modernity and a better grip on issues of religion and public life if it had been the English or German Enlightenments that took the lead.

5. There seems to be a pretty big contradiction between the idea of equality that the men of the French Revolution were fighting for and their suppression of women. How was this justified? One justification was that women didn't own property, so they were able to be overlooked, yet even if they did own property, they were still thrown into the "property-less" category. This seems like a terrible justification to me, so how did they get away with it? How much support was there in favor of sexual equality during this time?
6. In Chaumette's Speech at the General Council of the City Government of Paris Denouncing Women's Political Activism, he basically says women shouldn't be involved with politics because they will slack on their house work, which is so ignorant. But my question is on their involvement in the government. I was not aware women had tried to play a role in the actual running of the government, how common was this?

The idea of women playing a role in the government is still something very theoretical. At this point the issue of working class men taking a role in government is still being debated. Now the people debating this issue are fully aware of the stakes. If you assume that every person has some point blank right to take part in government, which traditional political thought had never accepted, than why not allow women to take part. At which point comes the counter liberal argument that it does not benefit the public interest to hand political power to just anyone. Taking part in government requires one to have a certain level of leisure and education. For someone to have a vote and be able to make use of it they are going to need to have the time to take off from work to go to the polls. (This is a problem that plagues the laboring class vote today. They are not willing to take the time off from work to go and vote.) More importantly one has to have the time and education to inform oneself about the issue. Otherwise one is just picking between random names. (When I go to the polls I tend to leave large parts of the ballot blank. I usually have no idea what platform various people running for school boards and other local offices are supporting.) In a society where there is no mass education and where most people do not much in the way of leisure time it makes sense to limit political power to those groups where, by and large, the people do have the necessary education and leisure.

7. Did the French have the same debates and arguments about slavery as we
did in the United States?

The French discussion of slavery is very similar to the one that the United States was having at this point in time. At this point slavery is something that exists but everyone assumes can and should eventually be gotten rid of. The slavery issue takes a radical turn in the United States with the invention of the Cotton Gin, which makes the production of cotton cloth economically plausible. Slavery, for the south, becomes not just something that exists but necessary for the existence of the “southern way of life.”

8. I don't quite understand what Barnave was saying about French colonies. Was he suggesting that people in these colonies should not be protected under the declaration, thus allowing them to import slaves from these colonies under the pretense that they don't share the same rights as the mainland French?

Antoine Pierre Barnave was advocating for the continued tolerance of slavery, at least for the short term, on pragmatic grounds. If the cause of world liberty rests on the success of the French Revolution and if the cessation of the French slave trade would harm France than the cause of world liberty requires that France continue its slave trade; opposing slavery is supporting tyranny. I admit that there is something morally repulsive about this logic, but he does have a point.

9. I find it odd that Napoleon would put his relatives as "dictators" in his recently obtained territories. Did they actually have training as military leaders? Where they as qualified and accomplished as Napoleon...or were some of them just mooching?

Some of Napoleon’s relatives were fairly talented like his brother, Jerome, and his step son, Eugene, were fairly talented. Others, like his brother Joseph, were less so. The funny thing about Napoleon is that he was attempting to created his own revolutionary version of Old Regime Europe.

10. Napoleon's empire seems to fall apart remarkably quickly after his downfall in the reading, is this a result of what was already occurring or more simplified than a truth of what was a in reality a longer process?

It was a fairly quick breakup. There were a lot of people who were very keen on breaking it up. It is a testimony to Napoleon’s great talent that he managed to keep his empire together for as long as he did.

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