Recently the History Channel replayed their 2 hour special on the French Revolution. Watching it once again, I was struck by the realization that one of the major differences between the French and American Revolutions can be summed up in the often overlooked distinction between a republic and a democracy.
The American Founding Fathers deliberately did not set up a democracy, despite what the uninformed often insist. They created a republic – a representative democracy with limited powers divided between three separate branches of government. They were rightly distrustful of direct democracy, fearing it would descend into mob rule.
The American Founders were proven right in that fear within a decade. The French Revolution demonstrated where direct democracy on a large scale inevitably leads: from mob rule to chaos to bloodshed and, eventually, to dictatorship. Democracy to Napoleon by way of the guillotine and it only took 10 years!
The truly scary realization for me in light of recent trends is how much of this downward slide was justified as necessary because of the “crisis” of the moment at each step of the way.
The entire revolt was sparked by a food shortage – as is often the case. After that the crisis mentality was used to justify the guillotine (Robspierre had previously been opposed to capital punishment but then embraced it), government agents infiltrating bread lines to arrest anyone “insufficiently enthusiastic” about the Revolution, slaughtering thousands of helpless prisoners on the mere rumor of an uprising, the concentration of all power in the hands of 12 people (the Committee of Public Safety), the Reign of Terror (terror as deliberate government policy to intimidate people back into line) and, eventually Napoleon’s rise to power.
Today’s Progressives seem incapable of learning these lessons. Often conservatives complain that Progressives are trying to make us into France. By that, we usually mean modern France.
After rethinking these connections, I start to wonder if we should worry about historical France!