In the last few years, the modern left has largely found itself championing the rights of the marginalized. Their ideals are quite lofty, seeking equality, liberty, happiness, autonomy, among others. They claim to be the party of the masses, while the reverse is the party of the rich. Yet, their rhetoric has become largely contradictory and rings hollow in the face of fact. The masses are dividing rather than uniting, losing sight of the true ideals of equality. What we are seeing is a modern-day French Revolution here in this country, a party that has lost sight of the true Lockean nature of the Constitution and instead become only infatuated with the lofty—not necessarily practical—ideals of the Lockean and Rousseauian Declaration. A new Revolution is upon us, and the Terror is not far behind.
This seems like quite a claim at first, but with further explanation, hopefully I can clarify my point. Here in this country there is a distinct brokenness between classes and people, a separation between governor and governed. I find a core issue is a failure to understand the founding of our country, and a broken understanding of its Founding documents. As such, some political agendas are rapidly reflecting the beliefs of the French Revolution rather than the American founding. We must correct that. First, let’s briefly address the philosophical foundations of the two ideological events—Rousseau and Locke.
First, Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke were both products of the Enlightenment, thinkers who delved into the concepts of community, man and government. Both clearly believed in life, liberty and equality, but there, their definitions differ. Rousseau held a purer belief in the goodness of man, an understanding rooted in his theory that man’s perfect form was in the rawest natural state—the “noble savage”. While unable to regain that state, man seeks to enter into political life in order to enhance that goodness, returning total autonomy to the masses. Here the general will would rule through popular sovereignty. This political theory largely birthed the French thinkers in the Terror, and eventually partially influenced communist thought. In contrast, Locke presents a darker, more Puritanical view of man. Here, Locke sees that true, man is entitled to life, liberty and property, but the darker nature of man will lead towards those rights being trampled in a natural state. Therefore, government is founded in order to protect those rights and protect against man’s darker tendencies. To Locke, experience was the ultimate teacher—something that greatly influenced the Founding Fathers.
With this brief understanding in mind, what then do I mean that the modern left holds the ideals of the Declaration without the structure of the Constitution? Well let’s first look at the Declaration and its writer. First, Thomas Jefferson was a wholehearted advocate of the French, and eventually was a supporter of their Revolution. Like them, I think that some parts of Rousseau influenced him, and eventually a line in the Declaration. In writing this document, he was utilizing the rhetoric of Locke in that of life and liberty, but he changed property to “pursuit of happiness”—a distinctly abstract notion that is found much more in the ideals of Rousseau than Locke. Thus, a much loftier ideal is set, but one that is not necessarily clarified. Man must seek that which is his own happiness. But that was the very purpose of the Declaration, it was meant to convey a sense of lofty ideals and righteousness. It was never intended to be more than that, and most certainly never intended to be a ruling document. That’s why we have the Constitution. As it is often represented, the Declaration is a golden apple, while the Constitution is the frame that provides structure and protection to the ideals of the apple.
In the context of the French Revolution, the Rousseauian understanding of that apple removes the frame. Not that the left disregards the Constitution, but simply seeks to emulate the ideals of the declaration and specifically the section relating to pursuit of happiness—without the stability of the Constitution. This understanding leads to happiness and equality becoming equated with the general will of the people.
The French Revolution largely sought this—a return of the power into the hands of the 3rd Estate (the general masses). Now there were three phases to this revolution, but the most important are the first two. The first separated the nobles and king from the 3rd estate, as the nobles sought more power and the 3rd estate realized their own worth in the face of rising taxes. The third estate called for a total reconstruction of the government and social orders. What this then turned into would become the second phase, or the Terror. In seeking total autonomy through violence and their own force, the people took away structure. What was initially lauded as the will of the people turned rapidly into the will of Robespierre. As a result, the ideals of equality and liberte that were shouted from the rooftops quickly turned into the division of rival factions, to the point of execution without trial. Their ideals could not exist without a proper structure, which through their obsession with their own autonomy they destroyed.
The fault of the left is the failure to understand the fundamentals of a representative republic versus a total democracy. They call for social change through large crowds, social media, and even as we have seen through blocking those that they view as “anti” their own view. This is stark reflection of the old French Revolutionaries—the Voltaires and Robespierres. In the name of equality and autonomy, they seek to remove their rivals and institute their vision as fact. While promoting diversity, they instead destroy it. Nothing holds its original meaning. A paradox has set in, slowly creeping into the rhetoric of a party so obsessed with promoting welfare that they destroy opinion. The will of the people is their watchword, but not their action. Their salvific notions have raised a fictitious god of the masses who sets and dictates truth, just as in the Second Phase or the Terror. Now we see that this Terror is very much a growing beast in this country now; a beast hungry for opinion, discourse, and diversity.
This fictitious god of fraternity is traced by Kim Holmes in a lecture given to the Heritage Foundation on the ideological divide between the French and American Revolution. She discusses the three fundamental words of the French movement, liberte, egalite, and fraternite. According to her, the most dangerous was the French spirit of fraternite, a spirit fundamentally rooted in holding an indivisible consensus among the people—an impossibility. She writes “pushing for agreement to the extreme of violence is the most divisive—and exclusionary—thing you can possible do.” Her article nails the failure of Rousseau and the French. Essentially, their spirit of unanimous opinion and the single general will was fundamentally paradoxical. By including all you exclude many, by instituting a single justice through violence, you commit violence through injustice. Her article is worth a read. Yet this is the struggle that is facing America today from the progressive and radical left. In its desperation for agreement and inclusion, the left in fact has become exclusionary and divisive—look at any college campus with a conservative speaker or to a more extreme, Antifa; heck even the women’s march.
The issue then found in such exclusionary tactics is clear. It will only continue, excluding more and more. The French Revolution presented this—at the height of the Terror, two-thirds of those in prison were citizens who had supported the Revolution initially. Such a mentality will only turn on those that originally supported it and I think we are seeing that in sphere of public discourse. The new guillotine is not one where heads are rolling, but rather one slowly killing off the great nobility of ideas and discourse upon which this country formed.
Yet too, we see that in the Great American Experiment, the Founders started with ideals—“we are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That we are endowed by are Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These are the defining words of the American people, there is no question to it. They were the defining words of the French as well. But these words are nil without the beginnings of another—words found only here— “we the people, in order to form a more perfect union…” The Founders saw to it that they put the foundation of ideals in place first, setting a moral high ground, but then placed a great fortress around that ground to protect it, known as the Constitution. Ideals without structure become merely fleeting emotions, not unlike motivation without drive or willpower—eventually it will die. Not so with stability.
The purpose then of the Constitution was and is to provide stability to the people. It provides a structure for society to function without impugning on the rights of others. It provides benefits, and protects against the imposition of the governing upon the governed. Additionally, it institutes the Lockean reality of equality—that property and opinion will not always be distributed equally. The structure of the system then works to promote peace among the citizens through stability against the darker nature of man. This stability is the catalyst for virtue to grow among the citizenry, its federalist intent placing the burden upon the lowest rungs of government to solve problems and promote happiness. But in order for this all to grow smoothly, this structure must be followed and lived in, with virtue as its key.
One of the most important things that the American Founders understood was the fallibility of human reason and understanding. Humans are fickle beings, easily swayed by the signs of the times. Thus, in order to counteract a fundamental failure of human nature, the Founders set out to institute a structure riddled with checks and balances against the worst tendencies of man. Simply put, experience is the ultimate teacher, and experience taught the Founders that reason alone was not enough. The French did not learn this lesson, elevating reason to the highest of thrones—and thus falling.
The fundamental misunderstanding by the left now is a failure to see the points made by the father of the Constitution James Madison. Federalist 10 is one of the most important documents to understand the calculated purpose behind the Constitution, a purpose directly opposed to the populist radicalism of the modern left. This essay, dedicated towards quelling the violence of faction, stresses the various methods and checks within the new system. Freedom cannot be destroyed, nor can human opinion be forced into solely one camp or another. Madison writes:
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other, and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.
There we see it—something fundamentally different between French and American. Here in the American world, the first order of our government is to protect the opinions of all and their right to voice that opinion. This in inherently opposed to Rousseau’s failed concept of “the general will”—there is no general will. Man will have different opinions, and that’s ok. We must encourage that and look back to our Founders for a constant reminder of how and why our system of government was formed. We cannot continue to fail, especially in the face of this new Terror.