Between Jefferson and Sieyès?

I don’t want to dwell on the political argument of this National Review piece arguing that Bernie Sanders’ upholding of Denmark as a model for his kind of socialism is wrongheaded and reflects ignorance of the nation he’s such a fan of. Needless to say, it’s pretty bad. But I’ve returned to posting here with the intention of making this more into a history blog than a politics blog. So, here’s some history according to Kevin D. Williamson:

The American revolutionaries emerged from a Puritan-Quaker culture shaped by the hardships of colonial life with the savage frontier in front of them and the Atlantic Ocean at their backs; the French revolutionaries emerged from a decadent Catholic culture shaped by court life and European rivalries. Both parties cried “Liberty!” but one produced the Bill of Rights and the other produced the Terror. The cultural distance between 21st-century Anglo-American liberals and tribal jihadis in the Hindu Kush is rather greater than was the distance between Thomas Jefferson and the Abbé Sieyès.

I’m also not going to talk very much about the Orientalist musings into which this is awkwardly embedded. I just want to address a few points on the histories of the American and French Revolutions. Williamson has not cited any sources for this brief lesson, and while it’d be unreasonable to expect detailed citations for such an off-hand comment, it forces us to rely on his own personal authority as a “roving correspondent” for the National Review, which does not fill me with confidence. I won’t be citing anything either, relying on my personal authority as a student of history whose research focuses on the influence of the French Revolution on the United States and comparative revolutions, but I’d be happy to do so for any of my claims on request.

So what’s the problem? It may seem too small, too petty, to get worked up about. But that’s what’s so infuriating: this was not a well-thought-out explication of history, which indicates that this is what Williamson comes up with by absentmindedly scraping around the bottom of the history barrel. It’s the thoughtlessness of it that’s the problem, the fact that these kinds of cliches and factoids and mythic narratives are what so many people turn to in order to understand our past and our place in the world.  Where did these ideas come from? Why do they keep plaguing us? And how do we get rid of them?

It doesn’t take much space to be wrong about a dozen things, and it can take much more time and space to dispel any one inaccuracy or flawed inference. So before revving up the bullet pointed list, it might help to take stock of how we got here. Williamson’s piece starts off by arguing that Bernie Sanders does not really know what’s going on in Denmark, a nation he considers a model for his ideal political economy. Williamson doesn’t actually spend much time making this point (and makes it poorly) before moving on to some really boring “socialism doesn’t work!” stuff that must be National Review boilerplate, but then the article starts down a series of weird digressions, the basic gist of which seems to be an argument that the institutions of one nation are very difficult to adapt to another. Fair enough, but why are we talking about the American and French Revolutions?

After citing Francis Fukuyama on “isomorphic mimicry” and the problems poor developing nations face in trying to adapt the policies and institutions of wealthy developed nations – which Fukuyama calls “getting to Denmark,” and I am not sure that Williamson was aware of the implicit comparison he made between the United States and developing nations by introducing this line of argument – he starts rambling about the futility of the liberal-democratic burden in the Muslim world:

That isomorphic mimicry is a great stumbling block. We’re right now in the end stages of failing, spectacularly, in a project to impose liberal democratic institutions on a Muslim world that isn’t much interested in them, but some of our more energetic conservative interventionists still seem to believe that one day an Arab or a Chinese is going to happen across a copy of the U.S. Constitution and build a Connecticut in the Orient. Cult is the first word in culture, which bears some consideration: The American revolutionaries emerged from a Puritan-Quaker culture shaped by the hardships of colonial life with the savage frontier in front of them and the Atlantic Ocean at their backs; the French revolutionaries emerged from a decadent Catholic culture shaped by court life and European rivalries. Both parties cried “Liberty!” but one produced the Bill of Rights and the other produced the Terror. The cultural distance between 21st-century Anglo-American liberals and tribal jihadis in the Hindu Kush is rather greater than was the distance between Thomas Jefferson and the Abbé Sieyès.

So here we are: two Revolutions for liberty, one by the cultural heirs of “Puritan-Quaker” frontiersmen who made admirable political documents, the other by “decadent Catholic” cut-throat courtiers who made admirable piles of heads. From this we learn something about how different cultures can produce wildly different political actors and outcomes, represented Jefferson and Sieyès. It’s important to note how he summons this up as an example of the importance of culture because while formative circumstances are a part of his miniature history, they don’t take the leading role and are only there to shape a fundamentally religious cultural core. From two different religious cultures in two different worlds we get either the Bill of Rights or the Reign of Terror.

But if his cultural archetypes, his account of circumstances, and his description of outcomes are all flawed in and of themselves and do not connect to each other with any accuracy to the historical record, so goes his argument. How does he do? Some notes:

  • The concept of a “Puritan-Quaker culture” is a strange one to which I could see many historical (17th and 18th century) Quakers and Puritans objecting. It conflates two religious traditions with rather different interpretations of Christianity, and there was no love lost between their adherents (Puritans could not abide Quakers in their New England colonies). They reflect two different political styles as well: the Puritans had a “democratical” model of government based on a hierarchical theocracy that only recognized the political competence of church members discerned to be saved, while the Quakers had a much more egalitarian ideal.
  • Perhaps more problematic is the degree to which this erases the great diversity of religious belief in the British American colonies. Is Williamson aware that Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony? Does he understand anything of Southern Anglicanism and the Baptist challenge to its aristocratic style? Or the general toleration of a variety of belief in New York? But there’s another problem: this concept is not sensitive to time. The Quakers and Puritans of the 17th century were rather different from those of the 18th. Puritanism adapted itself in an even more stodgy and conservative (but less zealous) direction in reaction to the Great Awakening movement, with its emotional, missionary, and egalitarian style. American Baptism came out of this movement, and was very popular with ordinary Americans. By the 1770s, the Awakening’s use of mass oratory and its egalitarian values arguably had much more to do with mobilizing Americans to support the Revolution and shaping its outcome than Puritanism. The Quakers, on the other hand, are an interesting case. Their relationship with the American Revolution was complicated by their pacifism, which made them supporters of accommodationist reform and opponents of armed insurrection. This left them prone to accusations of being a Loyalist fifth column. I understand that the actual changes over time of these religions and their influence in actual historical context may not be as rhetorically useful as some vague joint “culture” that supposedly shaped the origins of the American Revolution, but once again, Puritanical Quakerism (or Quakerist Puritanism?) was (were) not the sole wellspring(s) of early American culture.
  • The phrase “savage frontier” is especially pungent given the range of subjects the word “savage” can be used to describe, to say nothing of its use as a noun in conjunction with the early American frontier. I’m not sure what the purpose of this description is. Combined with its counterpart, the ocean at the backs of colonial Americans, one gets the impression of a desperate defense with no route of escape. I will consider the supposed oceanic wall below, but this scene is hard to reconcile with a passive and depopulated frontier. I don’t insinuate that Williamson is, consciously or not, conjuring an ugly racist caricature of Native Americans because I am following some rote leftist outrage algorithm, but because I really don’t know what else to make of this word choice (and his bit about “tribal jihadis” doesn’t incline me toward a charitable interpretation). If a frontier filled with savages is his intended implicit meaning, then this is an erasure of the actual history of the complex and varied relations between early European colonists and Native American peoples that doesn’t really illuminate much. It seems like a vague allusion to Fredrick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” of the American national character being shaped by the continual and repeated expansion and reformation of its society in the settling of a moving frontier. It has a dark edge when one considers the means by which this settlement was accomplished. Relations between colonial Americans and Native Americans were not always violent, though: sometimes they were allies, sometimes trading partners, and sometimes enemies. Violence would become a more common feature over time, but the frontier and its inhabitants were not always threats and there were advantages to ties with native peoples, especially in the earliest phases of settlement when English colonists’ survival often depended on native help. By the time of the American Revolution, though, British alignment with native groups as allies and restrictions on American settlement of native land became a major colonial grievance. What does this tell us about the outcome of the American Revolution? Anticipating Williamson’s point about the Terror, can we say that the French Revolutionaries would have done better if they had Native Americans to conquer and slaughter rather than political dissidents to execute?
  • As to “the Atlantic Ocean at their backs,” well, I am not sure that British North America was actually some kind of final destination for a one-way trip, a colonial point of no return. Of course, the point of a settler-colony is for the colony to be a destination for people to go and live and produce a new society, but past the opening phases of colonization, migrants from Europe and their descendants were not quite so isolated (much less trapped) as Williamson implies. This image of an oceanic wall trapping colonial Americans on the savage frontier reflects ignorance of the emergence of the Atlantic World as the dominant framework for understanding Early America. Suffice to say that for colonial Americans, the Atlantic Ocean was less a wall cutting off retreat than a vast highway connecting them to the wider world of British and European empire (more on this in a bit).
  • To talk about a “decadent Catholic culture” represents, it seems to me, a lack of skepticism about one’s primary sources. Many of the American Revolutionaries would have seen the Catholic Church and the nations in which it was the dominant faith as bastions of corruption. It’s not clear that we have to take their word for it, nor what this actually tells us about the origins of the (eventually rather vehemently anti-clerical) French Revolution. It is a significant difference that in the struggle of the American Revolution, early Americans did not have to contend with an entrenched church intertwined with the state, but Williamson does nothing with this difference besides vaguely tie it to “decadent Catholic culture.” Again, for Williamson, circumstances, whether institutional or geographic, are only relevant in as much as they shape culture… even if a more direct relationship between circumstances and outcomes is clearly operative. French revolutionary anti-clericalism wasn’t just a matter of the church’s “decadence,” it was a matter of the church’s power.
  • I am not sure how anyone who has made any serious study of the origins of the American Revolution can imply that the political culture of the American revolutionaries, in contrast to that of the French, was not “shaped by… European rivalries.” On a large historical scale, the whole point of England founding colonies in North America was imperial rivalry first with Spain, and then with the Dutch Republic and France. Once again, “oceans connect,” they do not hermetically seal British North America off from the British Empire and Europe. This would have unavoidably shaped the worldview and culture of early Americans. As a case study, Williamson might take a look at a little known conflict called “the Seven Years War.” The outcome of this war, for American colonists, was in part to sharpen the degree to which they saw themselves as full subjects of the British Empire, entitled to all the rights and protections that entailed, and equal participants in its culture. This was no small influence on the American Revolution. To go a step further, it is not clear that the American War for Independence would have succeeded without the “European rivalry” between Britain and France given the latter’s substantial aid to the Patriot cause. George Washington was very preoccupied, during the war and his presidency, by the danger of the American colonies throwing off the subjection of Britain only to become satellites of France.
  • On the other hand, I will give him “court life” as an important point of distinction. The crown against which Americans rebelled was an ocean away, and while I have been emphasizing the connective nature of the Atlantic, it does make a difference when your enemy’s capital and government takes a long journey by ship to reach. Williamson may see the Atlantic as a wall up against which early Americans had their backs, but this wall also presented a logistical challenge for Britain that shaped American strategy. The Patriot rebels only had to convince London that maintaining control over the Thirteen Colonies was not worth the expense; regime change in Britain was not, and did not have to be, on the agenda. The French, living with the monarchy and aristocracy in their midst, forced to deal with their hostility to any kind of constitutional liberal government, did not have this luxury.
  • For a moment I want to go out of order and talk about the posited gulf between “Thomas Jefferson and the Abbé Sieyès.” Jefferson is a truly bizarre person to use as a point of comparison between American and French Revolutionary ideals, given what an ardent supporter of the French Revolution he was. This is the man who told us that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Isn’t this the kind of sentiment that gets people sharpening guillotines and fixing bayonets to march on the armies of kings while singing “La Marseillaise”? While Sieyès voted to execute Louis XVI, he was not really very enthusiastic about it. Overall he was a moderate revolutionary, the kind who was opposed to the Terror. His moderation and call for the execution of the king “without rhetoric” is a point of contrast with the more bombastic Thomas Jefferson, vehement hater of monarchy, that seems contrary to Willaimson’s point. I don’t want to give the impression here that I think Jefferson was up for any and all violent revolutionary tactics, though: for all his rhetoric against monarchy, when he considered the French execution of their monarch he did not approve, and came to see the Terror as a mistake. So what does it mean that Sieyès – sitting in the National Convention, taking stock of all the current events he had experienced and his first-hand impression of the state of his nation – made a decision about the fate of Louis XVI that Jefferson – observing from Philadelphia – disagreed with? For one thing, it doesn’t really distinguish Jefferson much from any of the other famous American statesmen who were his colleagues, so it’s still strange that Williamson would pick the religious skeptic, French sympathizer (nonetheless), and southern plantation gentleman Thomas Jefferson as the face of the legacy of northern Puritan-Quaker frontiersmen rather than, say, anyone else. But what about Sieyès? He was no confederate of Saint-Just and Robespierre when revolutionary terror became the order of the day: he ducked out of politics while the ducking was good and later characterized his activity during the Reign of Terror as a matter of mere survival. So why is he the poster boy for all the beheadings? My guess: he was selected because of his status as an Abbé, although I am not sure how decadent he was.
  • Last, but not least, what to make of the conclusion that “[b]oth parties cried ‘Liberty!’ but one produced the Bill of Rights and the other produced the Terror”? I was not aware that the French Revolution had failed to produce any document enshrining human and civil rights. Some of the things it did manage to accomplish included the abolition of slavery, equality before the law (through the destruction of rank), suffrage without regard to socioeconomic status, the lack of a racial requirement for entry into the national legislature, and a fledgling attempt at economic policy to alleviate poverty and set people free from need. These are all mainstream 21st century political values of the modern liberal democratic republic that took the United States much longer to accomplish in fact (and we still have some work to do). I am not sure, in specific, how to stack up the executions of the Terror against the maintenance of slavery in the US until 1865. To my mind, the real failure of the Terror and the “radical” First French Republic is that it ultimately could not prevent the Thermidorian Reaction from rolling back its gains. But I think that a writer for the National Review mentioning the doomed project to uplift Muslims to modernity should be cautious about condemning the Terror in that magazine’s pages, because it arguably tells us much more about the neoconservative national security state than about the flaws of other modern political tendencies. (As a side note, given Williamson’s pessimism about the “project to impose liberal democratic institutions on a Muslim world,” he might be interested in looking up who told us that “no one loves armed missionaries.”)

Ultimately I can’t give any passing mark for this. I don’t think anyone sets out to be this wrong, it just kind of happens. You’re coasting along, trying to find euphemistic yet casually witty rephrasings of “half-devil and half-child,” and suddenly you think that some hodgepodge of factlets and narrative about the American and French Revolutions can really hit home how important culture is for a people’s “readiness for democracy.” But if the narrative is all wrong – if colonial Americans weren’t Puritan-Quakers because that religious formulation is incoherent and in any case not comprehensive enough, and what they had at their backs was a connection to the wider world of European letters and politics rather than a wall cutting off retreat; if Catholicism’s “decadence” was of unclear significance for the French revolutionaries and European rivalry was not really a point of distinction in their political upbringing; if summing up the distinct accomplishment of the American revolutionaries as the Bill of Rights shows a really laughable ignorance of a very important French Revolutionary founding document; if the price of taking revolution too far is not obviously worse than the consequences of not taking it far enough – then so is Williamson’s point.

The really interesting thing is that this historical point wasn’t even necessary. There are many ways one can make a point about “isomorphic mimicry” and “getting to Denmark” that don’t require being wrong in a dozen different ways about some of the most important events in modern history. It’s not at all that I think Williamson should have had more historical clarity, more depth, more detail. All things considered, less would have been more, and none at all ideal. So why was this Fractured Fairy Tales version of history needed?

Answering this question requires looking at context, and the (by this point possibly long forgotten) original subject of the article: Bernie Sanders the democratic socialist and Nordic social democracy. Consider Williamson’s conclusion:

Aping the superficial attractive forms of alien polities is not an error limited to the poor and the backward. Our progressive friends argued that Obamacare is just like the Swiss health-care system, which is generally quite highly regarded, and it is, with one important difference: Switzerland is full of Swiss people and the United States is not. The Swiss health-care system turns out to be poorly suited for a country that isn’t Swiss. Any bets on how well the Danish welfare state is going to play in Mississippi and New Jersey? Progressives who imagine that Americans are one election away from getting to Denmark do not understand Denmark, or America, or much of anything.

Putting aside his questionable assertions about the outcome of the ACA, the subtext of all that stuff about “isomorphic mimicry” and a recalcitrant Dar al-Islam comes to the surface here: America is not “ready for (social) democracy,” and hopefully never will be. Hence, Bernie is trying to change “too much, too fast”. Now, what other radical revolutionary movement, according to a stock historical narrative, tried to change “too much, too fast”?

On some level, I just don’t think conservatives – American or otherwise – can help themselves when it comes to the French Revolution. Ever since Burke they’ve made a ritual out of saying, “told you so.” They’ll take any opportunity to trot out the standard narrative of the good, noble, moderate revolution (America’s) and the bad, criminal, radical revolution (France’s). No matter how wrong the details, it doesn’t matter. France had a great many executions from 1793 to 1794 and so the whole project was garbage, never mind how much it got right that it took so many so long to catch up with. Never mind that the wages of moderation in sustaining a bloody status quo (or merely putting off the deadly reckoning by, let’s say, around 85 years) may be, in comparison to radicalism, like deaths from car accidents stacked against deaths from plane crashes (one is much more visible even if the number is overall much lower). You can say whatever you want and because It Is Known that the French Revolution was just as awful as you’ve heard, whatever point you want to make out of it gains a halo of historical wisdom.

I want to suggest, though, that this in itself is dangerous in ways that make the problem here more than pedantry from a disgruntled graduate student. When a commentator like Williamson solemnly points to the guillotine, it’s slight of hand. Even if it’s just a digression, what he’s doing, whether consciously or out of instinct, is trying to take your eyes off the whipping post.


2 thoughts on “Between Jefferson and Sieyès?

  1. Pingback: Between Jefferson and Sieyès? | Brittius

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