By Nathan Barton
On 14 July, the French (and some of their former colonies) celebrated Bastille Day. The French call it the “National Celebration” and it is usually considered their version of Independence Day, here in the Fifty States.
That is actually a complete misunderstanding of both that holiday and the French nation. There is really no event in American history that compares to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Certainly not the official date of adopting the Declaration of Independence by the Thirteen States, seceding from the United Kingdom and its empire.
The Bastille was a fortress built to defend Paris against the English, centuries before, but quickly converted to a prison. It doubled as an armory for storage of weapons and ammunition, and housed political prisoners of the king, and was therefore a method of controlling the mobs and people of Paris. Its storming only liberated six or seven prisoners (none of any real political significance to the revolutionaries), and resulting in the murder of the warden. It was actually a case of nearly pure mob violence, and not even comparable to the Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770. (Although that is the closest thing I can find in American Revolutionary events. It is definitely not comparable to the Battles of Lexington and Concord (19 April 1775) celebrated as “Patriots Day” in some American States.)
It took nearly a century for the French to decide on the 14th of July as their national celebration, unlike Independence Day. During that time, of course, the old regime (Louis XVI et al) was replaced by a revolutionary republic, a dictatorship, another kingdom, and TWO empires. Since 1870, the French have enjoyed (I’m being sarcastic) at least three republics, while still having an empire. It is a sordid and sick story, frankly. For which the French people have suffered greatly (and not just due to their own mistakes).
But back to the original revolution which included the storming of the Bastille, and the subsequent events.
Unlike the United States – the Thirteen and then more – the French did not secede from an empire. They took it over. So there was no declaration of independence. And there were lots of constitutions. Their revolt/revolution and first attempts at popular government was at least partly encouraged by the example of our own Declaration of Independence, our War for American Independence, and perhaps the US Constitution.
One of the most important documents was adopted by the “Constituent Assembly” (which had replaced the old French parliament, the Estates General) on 26 August 1789, just 43 days after the Bastille’s fall. This is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. While it is commonly thought to be based on the US Bill of Rights, that is hardly the case. James Madison did not introduce the Bill of Rights in the First Congress until 8 June 1789 and Congress did not approve the final version of it and send it to the States until 25 September 1789. (It was not ratified until 1791.)
But more important than the origins (or not) of the French Revolution and its most important document and statement of principles is the content.
For the French Declaration is not based on, and does not contain the same principles and applications to life, as the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
By far the major difference is that the French did NOT recognize human rights – life and liberty and property – are natural rights. That is, belonging to humans because we are human. Given to us by God, if you will. Unalienable – that cannot be taken from us. The French believe that rights come from the sovereign will of the people – the state or the nation. That is is the people who determine what rights we have and which we do not. In essence, that the state “grants” us liberty – and life and property. And that the state’s only criteria is the “will of the people.” In other words, there are no absolutes.
On the other hand, our American Founding Fathers, built on the basis of both the Old and New Testaments: God gave mankind liberty. Not some Catholicized myths and doctrines of a corrupted theology, in which kings are. And on the solid structure of English common law. Rights – liberty – are an essential part of being humans. Not members of “our nation” or “our people” or “our tribe” (which are the only “real people.” They existed before we had human governments, and they will continue to exist after human governments disappear from the universe.
More on this subject in future commentaries.
The study of contrasts between the American revolution and the French revolution is a worthy endeavor. It is something I encourage everyone to indulge themselves for the study will make one more learned and more appreciative of what America is.
An obvious and significant difference is the foundation upon which the revolutions were built, the French upon the wobbly, changing decree of the people; the American upon the resolute Providence. The results thereof are very interesting. It was as if the French had wished for entertainment after having become bored whereas the Americans were serious of their liberty.
“By far the major difference is that the French did NOT recognize human rights – life and liberty and property – are natural rights. That is, belonging to humans because we are human. Given to us by God, if you will. Unalienable – that cannot be taken from us.”
Sorry, but that’s wrong. There is no such thing as natural rights. That is to say, value judgements which are outside the domain of human perception. The only things that exist are those things which we can perceive. Rights vary widely from culture to culture, depending on the moral code which is in force. For example, Eskimos would kill a retarded baby, for the baby’s own good. So there is no absolute right to life. In addition the Romans used to control overpopulation with the sword.
There is no right to liberty either. Actually, you can’t define liberty because political and social freedom has varied widely over the centuries. A King would tell you that his subjects have liberty; and he might be right, under the circumstances.
There is no right to property, either. At its core, property is the right to control the use of an asset. But property is contingent upon life and liberty. And since it’s contingent, it cannot exist in any absolute sense. It’s only a dependent variable.
Further, there is no natural law; and there are no natural rights. There are only value systems which develop in response to local conditions. As an example, children have a developmental order of interrogatives. First they learn “What” and “Where.” Then they learn “Who.” Finally, they learn “When” “How” and “Why.” These are the same tools that are used to develop a moral code. It’s the question of who can do what, where they should do it, how and why it should be done, and when it should be done. There is no “natural” answer to these questions. There are only thousands of human decisions which hopefully lead to a successful culture.
Dan, I understand but I definitely disagree. Basically, there ARE natural laws, whether or not you believe in God or not. There are physical natural laws – conservation of energy, basic mechanics, statics and dynamics, chemistry, etc. And there are social natural laws. Violating these laws results in unwanted consequences, whether immediately or in the long term. Action and reaction apply both in physical and social realms, even if we ignore (for sake of argument, at least) moral issues.For those of us who are christian, it is of course easier to comprehend and apply a clear understanding. I believe that there is a fundamentally right way (a natural way) to deal with other people that transcends most religious differences and which even those who are not believers in a Creator or some kind of “higher power” can find – and even mostly agree on.
But I do appreciate your thoughtful comments, even though we disagree.