Democratic Revolution Introduction


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Democratic Revolution Introduction

  1. 1. Justice & Power session vii Democratic RevolutionNewton’s Principia is commonly taken to divide the first and second phases of theScientific Revolution. For a century and a half before 1687 the “new learning” had spreadand gained momentum. Then, after giving birth to calculus and Newtonian mechanics,the Revolution entered a period of consolidation called the Enlightenment. The nextcentury saw diverse and widespread attempts to apply the new theories to increasewealth, comfort, and happiness. New attention was focused on the “soft” social sciences,whereas the focus had previously been upon the “hard” physical sciences.In these four sessions we will consider together four disparate representatives ofEnlightenment thought. A major concern of this part of the course will be to seeAmerica’s foundation in the context of Western Civilization. The ideas which “[impelledus] to the separation,” natural rights, government by consent, sovereignty of the people,and separation of powers, all were perfectly familiar in Europe during the Enlightenment.As Robert Palmer suggests, “the most distinctive work of the [American] Revolution wasin finding a method, and furnishing a model, for putting these ideas into practical effect.”(The Age of the Democratic Revolution, vol. i, p. 214)Tendencies to attack traditional authorities like Aristotle and the Church were manifestedas early as the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century the trickle of scepticism hadbecome a flood. Even Spain finally had to give up burning heretics. In one sense this“rise of modern paganism” was part of the stalemate after two centuries of religious wars.Toleration and freedom from dogmatism created deism as preferable to the type ofsectarian slaughter displayed today [1977] in Lebanon, Ulster, and Uganda. [Today,2012, we may substitute jihad and southern Sudan as examples] How widespread the newfaith in Reason was can be argued. Certainly ignorance and superstition had theirdisciples. But there is no denying that scientific progress did fire the imagination ofmany.
  2. 2. The [famous] historian Georges Lefebvre [1874-1959] links the Enlightenment to class. The temper of the bourgeoisie...had differed since the beginning from that of the warrior or the priest….Experimental rationalism had laid the foundations of modern science and in the eighteenth century promised to embrace all man’s activity. It armed the bourgeoisie with a new philosophy which, especially in France, encouraged class consciousness and a bold inventive spirit. (The French Revolution, p. 54)This should not blind us to the fact that some of the most famous philosophes werearistocrats like Montesquieu, some self-imposed exiles from society like Rousseau,natural aristocrats like Jefferson, or gentry like Burke.Enlightenment thought on the nature of the state was broad enough to include organictheorists like Montesquieu and Burke and also instrumentalists like Jefferson andRousseau. The degree of bitterness with which critics denounced the status quo variedwidely also. Montesquieu and Burke were basically enlightened aristocratic [Burke wasnot himself an aristocrat, but he strongly identified with hierarchy] reformers whobelieved that popular sovereignty was a dangerous seducement. Rousseau and Jeffersonwould not settle for half a revolutionary loaf. When we apply the criteria of optimism,faith in progress, and the perfectibility of man, we find different pairs. Jefferson andMontesquieu looked to the future with the greatest confidence. Burke and Rousseau bothsuspected conventional notions of progress.By the end of the eighteenth century events forced men to choose. Men either sided withRousseau and Jefferson in sharing “...a new feeling for a kind of equality, or at least adiscomfort with older forms of social stratification” in Palmer’s succinct description ofthe Democratic Revolution’s core. (Democratic Revolution, p. 4). Or, men recoiled fromthe forces which events had called forth and sought conservative checks on the powerunleashed from the depths of society.As you review the history and read the excerpts from this decisive period, remember thatthe issues which these men argued are not closed, not settled once and for all. WhenFranklin was leaving the Philadelphia Convention in September, 1787, a lady asked himwhat form of government they had settled upon behind closed doors. The answer was “ARepublic, Madam, if you can keep it.” As the Greeks knew only too well, democracy hasa habit of giving way to tyranny. Jim Powers, Justice & Power; A Primer in Political Philosophy. 1977, p.p. 28-29