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Sep 23, 2005 12:19 pm

Classical Liberal Takes on the French and American Revolutions

John Rowe and I have been writing about the French and American Revolutions at Positive Liberty.

Rowe's The French and American Revolutions came first; I replied with Hasty Notes on the French Revolution and more recently with A Classical Liberal Take on the French Revolution.

I've since realized that some of the things I was saying have really stepped beyond just summarizing the mainstream French Revolution historiography (which had been my intent at the start), and now I'm wondering if I will ever get the chance to turn these observations into a monograph. Comments and suggestions are welcome, either here or there.

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Jason Kuznicki - 9/26/2005

I tend to think that the American Revolution was not radical in its social impact, but in its theoretical justifications, which laid the groundwork for many subsequent reforms (abolishing slavery, votes for women, etc). In this sense, I'd defend Rowe about the radicalism of the American Revolution.

As to François Furet, I've always been quite impressed by his work. He was the leader of the neo-Tocquevillian school of French Revolution history, and everyone now studying the era owes him an enormous theoretical debt.

I have some difficulties with Furet in that he sees the Terror as implicit from the very beginning of the Revolution not in France's social conditions or in its economic ignorance, but in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and other pieces of revolutionary political thought. I would put the explanation for the Revolution and the Terror squarely on ignorance of the power of unintended consequences, on poor understanding of economics, and on the boundless faith that many revolutionaries had in the central government. The Declaration was a frank improvement over anything France had seen before and was definitely a step in the right direction.

Common Sense - 9/23/2005

1. Rowe is weak on the American Revolution. It was more conservative than he suggests. "Americans" were quite pleased under British Rule during the period of Benign Neglect. Problems came when the Brits tried to change things; "Americans" reacted, trying to conserve their traditional independence, which led to a spiral of increasing conflict. For my overall views, see Burke.

2. You are quite good on the French Revolution in general.

3. You are spot-on about the merits of Tocqueville.

4. You are good on the Marxist view, especially its his appreciation for the (at least) Four Revolutions.

5. You are quite right to focus on the economics of the French State. A downward spiral with little chance of change short of Revolution.

6. As for religion, I quite agree that it was the hideous alliance of Church and State that was the religious problem rather than the Church alone. When will religious people realize that religion flourishes best when it is *disconnected* from the State?

7. What think you of Francoise Furet?