In lieu of a life spent online, I’ve been lately throwing myself into a study of European history. Books and (judiciously downloaded) podcasts are filling the gaps left by years of bad teachers, and I find myself marveling at the thrill and relevance of the never-too-distant past. In particular, I’ve become minorly obsessed with the French Revolution, a subject on which until very recently I professed near-total ignorance; I knew the fall of the Bastille, the execution of Louis XVI, Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, and then somehow Napoleon showed up — but while that skeletal knowledge might have placed me in the “above average information levels” camp among my fellow ahistorical Americans, it’s also a sad indictment of a purported liberal arts education, and, replicated on a national scale, a travesty for both political pragmatism and American progressivism.
American education is typically much more focused on American history than world events; the few social studies teachers I had growing up who weren’t terrible were all professors of the unfolding United States, and the meager years spent on narratives outside our own borders — sixth grade, tenth grade, two semesters in college — built a shabby collection of facts that barely approached the depth of understanding I had developed of America’s own past. Knowing one’s country is not a bad thing in itself, but as I’ve ventured into foreign histories I’ve been downright astonished by how woefully underdeveloped — or totally absent — my sense of context — of America’s place in the world — has been. And, to my mind, there is no better representation of the scale and necessity of such context than the contrasting examples of the American and the French revolutions, and the resonance and lessons of each.
The central problem of teaching the American Revolution as a primary framework for understanding history is that the American Revolution is an extreme outlier. The early United States was unique for a whole host of reasons: geographic isolation, distance from colonial power, hospitable climate, rich natural resources, and — most significantly — a low-enough-density indigenous population that European settlement, while rife with frontier skirmish, was never seriously destabilized by conflict with native people (they just didn’t have the numbers). It’s not morally unproblematic by a long, long, long shot, but it does pave the way for a much more uncomplicated path to stable statehood than most any other child of European empire.*
Insufficient context tends to be taught regarding one of early America’s most significant political advantages as well. As most schoolchildren are taught, the Pilgrims — and the other New England Puritans, and the Pennsylvania Quakers, and the Maryland Catholics — were fleeing religious persecution in England; they were outsiders and the word we might easily call to mind to describe them is “anti-establishment,” wherein the establishment in question is the Church of England. But the Founding Fathers — deist intellectual products of the Enlightenment — wrought something much more significant in the Constitution: not attitudes of anti-establishment but of disestablishment, which was truly revolutionary in the Eurocentric world at that time. To be anti-establishment, after all, is to simply oppose a particular power structure, without reference to the preferred replacement — Henry VIII was anti-establishment in regards to Roman Catholicism, but he was hardly an advocate of disestablishmentarianism; in rejecting the papacy he maintained the divine right of monarchy by establishing the Church of England in its stead. Similarly, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock founded a colony not of broad tolerance but of narrow self-interest, distinct from ruling English theology but with religion and government still deeply interwoven, the principles of each assumed to come from the same source; in detail it was not representative of the burgeoning American nation but the fundamental overlap between the religious and the political — imported from England but stamped across all governmental structures throughout Europe and, in one way or another, most of the world — proved durable in the colonies, even as different colonial regions aligned themselves with vastly different faiths.**
Because the thirteen colonies consisted of separate islands of self-interested religious freedom, formation of any supracolonial governing state could not be peaceably affected by the same mechanisms of power at work in Europe, which were largely predicated on (often violent) religious consolidation — that is, the only practical solution afforded the Founding Fathers to link the motley collection of believers known as early Americans was a fully secular state: disestablishment, severing all ties between the institutions of religion and of statehood. European Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau provided the intellectual scaffolding on which the revolutionary American Constitution was constructed, but the scale of challenges on the Continent and in Britain — the weight of so many embedded cultures and institutions — rendered the realization of an Enlightenment state vastly more difficult there than here.
Nothing better illustrates the contrast than a quick study of the French Revolution. Having financed and fought alongside the colonists in the War of Independence the French intelligentsia, source of so much Enlightenment philosophy, were enamored of the American example; writings and speeches from 1789 are littered with reference to the likes of Washington and Franklin. The ancien-regime of Louis XVI and his forebearers, feudal and oppressive and economically disrupted, was at a breaking point which the King himself recognized, summoning the Estates-General for the first time in over one hundred and fifty years. This hierarchal body was divided according to social class but the Third Estate — that of the “people” — demanded additional representation beyond what they were traditionally awarded, a legislative bulwark against the combined votes of the First (clergy) and Second (nobles) Estates. The Third Estate represented by far the most populous class of individuals and interests, the argument went, and unless positioned as a truly equal counter against the landed, entrenched, and frequently collusive Church and aristocracy, all chances for legitimate reform were essentially defeated from the outset. Procedural rectitude demanded a vote to change the vote: significant numbers of clergy defected from the First Estate to support the Third, and several key nobles joined up as well, meeting as the National Assembly in a tennis court when the incensed King — who had not anticipated such agitation from the populace — locked them out of Versailles.
Given the too-common characterization of the French Revolutionaries as a guillotine-wielding, radical mob determined to blow up society for the sake of an atheist republic (see: Dickens, Charles) it’s easy to overlook the early expectations of the National Assembly, for as inspired as its members may have been by the American example most anticipated actually following the British example — that is, constitutional monarchy. The declaration of a Republic was far from a foregone conclusion, and a significant element of the argument both for and against republicanism centered on religion. Monarchial power was divine and presupposed the existence of God; that governing legitimacy could derive from the consent of the governed was not only a novel concept but — to instruments not only of religious authority but of all authority, not only in France but all across Europe — a deeply dangerous one. Austria, Britain, and the fading Holy Roman Empire stood together to destroy this revolt against divine right and its worldly manifestations of aristocratic power and wealth. The opposition began aligning itself well before Louis XVI’s execution in 1793, overcoming deep-seated divides between Protestant and Catholic to wage war against this upstart ideology of democratic republicanism.
In contemporary America, it is fashionable for those on the right to declaim that America is — or at the very least was founded as — a “Christian nation.” But European history offers a violent rejoinder to that very idea; the early United States had a predominantly Christian population and government procedure borrowed some vague, non-denominational ritual affirmation of a higher power. The French Republic began life Catholic then became secular, taxing the landowning Church; it turned atheist during the Terror,*** and after Napoleon signed the Concordat of 1801 papal authority was recognized again as the source of legitimate government power.**** France would not disestablish again until the Third Republic, in the twentieth century. Britain — whose population is less churchgoing than America’s — can still justifiably be called a “Christian nation,” as it has, to this day, never disestablished. Unlike France or the United States, Britain — England — is not a republic but still a kingdom, still a constitutional monarchy, and so disestablishment triggers the same concerns of the French Revolution: it calls into question the very legitimacy of the monarchy. Even as the Windsors have become largely symbolic, even as religious affiliation and church attendance have sharply declined in England and Britain, the ancient marriage of Church and State still stands, united until the monarchy should fall.
Napoleonic France and contemporary Britain are not what people typically imagine when the phrase “Christian nation” is uttered, but the institutions of Christian religiosity were (and are) embedded within government in each; they are, truly, by definition, “Christian nations.” Considered in the context of world history the notion that pluralist, secular America — which proclaimed disestablishment as a founding principle from the outset, which overtly, explicitly, and radically rejected the idea of an established church — could ever be considered a “Christian nation” is at best laughable, and those who promulgate such a falsehood are either painfully, dangerously ignorant, or else willfully proffering bald-faced lies.
The greatest irony of the American right in the context of the French Revolution comes from their identification as “right.” Contemporary American conservatism has created itself in the image of the American revolutionaries, or at least in the image of the revolutionaries which best suits their purposes — as both the political and the moral imperatives of big-tent liberalism have wrought distance between today’s progressivism and slave-owning Jefferson and Washington (or womanizing Franklin) conservatives have claimed the Founding Fathers for themselves, linking the god-guns-small-government ideology of the GOP to the goals of revolution itself; in such a formulation it is the church-going, anti-tax, gun-owning white male who is both apogee of and intellectual heir to the US constitution and its writers.
The labels “right” (or “right-wing”) and “left” (or “left-wing”) as political designations have their origin in the French Revolution — specifically, in the architecture of the National Convention. Those who sat on the right-hand side of the speaker were traditionalists — conservatives, such as it is. The left was occupied by republicans, commandeered by Robespierre, agitators for a new era. It is not merely that the American right-wing is associated with the conservatives of the French Revolution by nomenclature that breeds irony; it is a consequence of the gap between platform and propaganda, between claiming a heritage of revolution while advocating for the United States — the secular city on a hill — to become a “Christian nation.” Fomenting establishmentarianism was a cause not for revolutionaries in either France or the United States, but rather for conservatives of the time, conservatives who then were known colonially as “loyalists” or in the Convention as “royalists.” The religious establishment was tied to monarchy, two sides of the same coin, and to believe in the state apparatus of a “Christian nation” was to believe, inseparably, in king and queen. That the American right-wing purports to be children of the republican revolution while spouting the religious rhetoric of constitutional monarchists is but the most egregious contradiction of the ahistorical mythmaking surrounding our nation’s founding: that those on the right publicly distrust intellectuals and intellectualism but also claim to know the hearts and minds of the Enlightenment-bred Founders is pretty bad, too.
Such irony — whether born of ignorance or deception — is not harmless. Contemporary American libertarianism, the strand of conservatism devoted to states’ rights, has lately seen a resurgence of one of its most prolific defenders, the nineteenth-century senator John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was a Southerner, devoted to upholding slavery, willing to rend the Union to preserve white hegemony. Like the interpenetrability of monarchism and religious establishment, there is no pulling apart Calhoun’s theories of states’ rights and his belief in the social and moral correctness of slavery; they are inseparable quantities, the one informing the other in an ugly, elegant Mobius strip of racism and liberty. Those who seek to strip away the one and only revive the other fail to understand that without the ugly to underpin the elegant, the entire thing falls apart. But the project is nevertheless at work, forging ahead in statehouses and courthouses, legislative councils and lobbying groups. The party that still likes to call itself “the party of Lincoln” has found their intellectual grounding in his polar opposite, his lifelong enemy, the man who gave reason to dissolve what Lincoln strove to hold together.
Lack of proper historical context, then, triggers two separate but related phenomenon. The first is our inability to evaluate foreign revolutions with any kind of realism; the media’s current hand-wringing over the failure of the Arab Spring to immediately produce full, vital, and lasting democracy is Exhibit A. Even taking the American Revolution as a reference point would seem to indicate that durable institutions of government require more than a year to develop, but if we look through the lens of the French Revolution — where the challenge was not only creating new forms of government but also overcoming the influence of deeply embedded old habits — then anything less than a century seems pretty okay. (If we take the development of German democracy as a lens, anything without a world war seems like a good deal. Anyone who claims the west is inherently more prone to civilized democracy sure likes to erase the often-barbarous mechanisms by which such modern democracy came to be!)
The second phenomenon is our inability to fully grasp the nature of the American story. No culture exists in a vacuum, and the United States must be put into a global historical context to be truly understood; the relationship between the American and the French revolutions is complex and contested, and there are some who see in it an argument for American exceptionalism. We did not descend into chaos and totalitarianism because we are better, because our Constitution is better, because American common sense is better — but the moral ambiguity of the French revolution suggests that such notions as “common sense” are, themselves, fundamentally empty, useful propaganda but poor as the basis for government. After all, the French predicated their revolution on the same ideals as the Americans; they believed in the same common sense of the people.
The success of the American revolution has, with time, made it seem almost a staid affair, men in wigs who tossed out the British and wrote themselves a Constitution. The French revolution resonates still because its descent into violence makes it so difficult to pull apart; European modernity was a bloody tug-of-war that lasted from 1789 to 1945 and even through until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the nineties. As a consequence there is still a vital presence to revolutionary ideas — they have not fallen fully into the dusty pages of history but are still felt, repercussions still being lived and sorted through in places like Serbia and Kosovo, Turkey and Egypt and even in the endless bureaucracy of the EU. By contrast, the American revolution carries no message of progressive urgency. As a rhetorical device it has been captured by the right, by the conservatives, by the guardians of tradition, by those whose suspicion of change and fealty to the past puts them at fundamental cognitive odds with the very notion of “revolution.”
We need not be bound by the past; we are not obligated to accept wholesale the paradigms of our ancestors, and we may pick and choose what to carry forward, adapting to the moment at hand. But if we should lay claim to our pasts it must be with full knowledge, accepting the reality and the weight of what has come before, rather than rewriting history to suit our own ends. The point of history is not to comfort us but to confront us: to confront our own biases and to challenge our perceptions, that we might press forward more informed, that we might learn from mistakes already made, from the errors of Calhoun and Robespierre, Madison and Hamilton, Danton and Washington.
America in world-historical context is a much more interesting place than America, as commonly presented. We would all do well to get to know it.
*Similar company: Canada, Australia.
**Characterizing the range of Christianities present in the colonies as “vastly different” might seem overwrought when compared to the differences between, say, Unitarianism and Islam — but violent schism over relatively trivial (at least to the contemporary layperson) doctrinal matters is a frequent occurrence in medieval history, and the bloodshed between British Catholics and Protestants continued from Henry VIII until the very end of the twentieth century (in Northern Ireland). By the standards of the day, America was an extreme example of religious diversity and pluralism.
***Although Robespierre is often vilified as the very worst of the Revolution’s radical, atheist tendencies, he actually split with many of his compatriots over the shift from a secular state to an explicitly atheist state; while his downfall and execution is commonly attributed to a reaction against his excessive zeal with the guillotine it was really his efforts to establish a non-sectarian but religious “Cult of the Supreme Being,” in lieu of the “Cult of Reason” preferred by most of his contemporaries, which was the last straw. (The former motive remains, however, broadly true — after the execution of Danton, Robespierre seems to have been living largely on borrowed time. Also, for the record, Robespierre is fascinatingly divisive and indecipherable even to this day, and everyone should read Hilary Mantel’s “A Place of Greater Safety” because, seriously, it will blow your goddamn mind.)
****Napoleon brought Catholicism back into the official fold largely for reasons of political expediency — after waging war against the Papal States he wanted the pope off his back, and he also sought a mechanism to consolidate his own absolute power, which was not available to him so long as France was a true republic. He could declare himself emperor but without the imprimatur of Rome’s approval such a title had no real meaning, even though he mocked the whole concept of divine right at his coronation, famously taking the crown from the pope and putting it on his own head by himself — essentially giving lie to the carefully crafted (and violently maintained) justifications of a divinely-ordained distinction between emperors and monarchs on the one hand, and pagan autocrats or strongmen in the fashion of Archaic tyrants on the other. The egoism involved in such an act might be off the charts, but as an act of deconstructivist theater, it’s also pretty badass.