Joe Cannon: Radical progeny: The tale of two revolutions

Published: Sunday, May 24 2009 12:57 a.m. MDT

A number of readers have wondered why we have wasted so much ink on all this philosophical mumbo jumbo. What is the point of the philosophical ruminations of some thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries who had little connection with or influence on the vast majority of the ordinary people of their times. Well, as has been noted earlier, "Ideas have consequences." Former Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick added, "And good ideas have good consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences."

In his introduction to the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, professor Alan Kors defines the Enlightenment as "a set of tendencies and developments of European culture from the 1670s to the early nineteenth century (including in the American outposts of that culture)." Nevertheless, when most people think of the Enlightenment, they think primarily of the French Enlightenment and its direct result, the French Revolution.

In her book, "The Roads to Modernity, the British, French, and American Enlightenments," noted American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb takes direct aim at the notion that there was a single Enlightenment. In particular, she seeks to redefine the Enlightenment to embrace at least two Enlightenments, each of which had important and very different consequences for systems of government and how we live our lives today. "For the past two centuries, the paradigm of popular revolution, like the paradigm of the Enlightenment, has been that of France. 'The sad truth of the matter' Hannah Arendt has said, 'is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance.'"

One of the sharpest disputes between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was over the relative merits of the French Revolution and its relation, if any, to the ongoing American Revolution. Notwithstanding the great efforts of modern day revisionists to take God out of the American Revolution, John Adams, consistent with his fellow founders, regarded the American Revolution as "founded entirely in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same father, all accountable to him for our conduct to one another." The disaster of the French Revolution, in Adams' mind, was its complete rejection of the reality of a God-ordained system of human liberty. "If the empire of superstition and hypocrisy should be overthrown, happy indeed will it be for the world; but if all religion and all morality should be overthrown with it, what advantage will be gained?" ("John Adams" by David McCullough)

Adams agreed strongly with British Parliamentarian and friend of the American Revolution, Edmund Burke, that the French Revolution "completely pulled down to the ground their monarchy, their church, their nobility, their law . . . and destroyed all balances . . . which serve to fix the state and give it steady direction, and then they melted down the whole into one incongruous mass of mob and democracy." Adams adds, "Everything will be pulled down. But will be built up? Are there any principles of political architecture? . . . Will the struggle in Europe be anything other than a change in imposters?" (Id.)

The French Enlightenment established human reason as absolute over revelation, the triumph of Athens over Jerusalem, embodying the Enlightenment idea of man as the center of all things. The American Revolution was a child of the British/American enlightenments. As such, it was at its heart, built upon the Declaration of Rights embodied in the British Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. These rights were obtained from God and inherent in mankind. The American Revolution, thus, "owed nothing to the French and much to the English." ("The Roads to Modernity")

While the American Revolution was not exclusively based on religious principles, such religious virtues, both social and individual, were crucial to the American ideal of liberty. Adams, again, "We shall succeed if we are virtuous. Liberty without virtue would be no blessing to us." (Roads to Modernity) The French Revolution, on the other hand, was explicitly anti-religious. Its notion of liberty quickly degenerated to self absorbed libertine-ness. "Here, as elsewhere, reason was not just pitted against religion, defined in opposition to religion; it was implicitly granted the same absolute, dogmatic status as religion."

Two centuries on, we are still wrestling with the consequences of the war between systems of thinking rooted in either God ordained inherent rights, responsibility, and liberty versus nihilistic, untethered, self absorbed individualism.

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News.

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