The French Revolution began, in many ways, much like our own American Revolution of just a few years earlier. Among its original aims were calls to remove a man believed by many to be an arbitrarily empowered tyrant, to expand human rights, suffrage, and opportunity, and to do away with the noblesse oblige, or aristocratic superiority. Many French citizens, in the beginning, took arms in order to fight against the longtime suffering of the most impoverished and downtrodden. Thomas Jefferson lauded these early efforts, as did the French hero of our own revolution, the Marquis de La Fayette. As Americans aware of our own revolutionary origins, can’t we relate to such ideals and beliefs?
And yet, for obvious reasons, the French Revolution should certainly serve as a cautionary tale. Questioning authority and challenging the status quo are the duties of an engaged citizen, but the French struggle is one that turned to fanaticism and violence. Consider the following quote from its leader Maximilien Robespierre: “Revolutionary government owes to all good citizens the fullest protection the state can afford; to the enemies of the people it owes nothing but death.”
One of the questions we should ask regarding this philosophy is this: When a government entrusted with extraordinary revolutionary power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of like-minded men, can they be trusted to honestly distinguish these “enemies of the people” from citizens who happen to disagree with their ruling party? What right does a self-appointed committee have to distinguish “enemies” from virtuous citizens? If death is the penalty for all “enemies,” what exists to stop any opposition from being branded enemies and being summarily erased?
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take away from examining history and the French Revolution is that no matter who holds the reins of government, we should always be wary of power and be willing to question those who wield it. Preserving a Republic or any form of Democratic government is a never-ending effort to maintain harmony and balance between a multitude of…