French History Discussions: France and the Anglo Saxons

Figure 1.--

A HBC reader believes that HBC underates the importance of France in the Western tradition, especially the influence of the French Enlightenment. He thinks that we give too much emphasis to the Anglo-Saxon powers. I think he is right that we do emphasize the Anglo-Saxon powers and this is certainly worth duscussing. Readers may be interested in our discussion.

Quebec Reader Comment

The American Founding Fathers are the sons of the Age of Enlightment. And this came from France with Voltaire, Diderot, D'Alembert and the greatest among them: Jean-Jacques Rousseau with the Social Contract for political issues on the concept of Freedom. {HBC note: Both Thomas Hobbes (1651) and John Locke (1689) addressed contractarianism before Rousseau (1762) and the other French philosophes.] And Rosseau wrote L'Émile for educational progress toward the respect of children. I am not sure that conservative England was ready to catch the message at the end of the 18th Century. And Loyalists who fled from America during the Revolution to the eastern Townships on the border of Quebec and Vermont were certainly pro-freedom. But men like Franklin and jefferson are sons of the Enlightment. And the struggle beteween Jefferson on the power of the states and Hamilton on a centralized government and economy illustrates something Canada is experiencing even today. (Maybe also the pollution reduction Act in California which is very different from Federal government policies.) From my point of view, France played a central role in the emergence of democracy and the first temptative was the United States, not England. The war against the French Revolution and against Napoleon led by British (the United States being neutral) was essentially reactionary as it was stated in the Trety of Vienna in 1815. In France, Rightists were unable to show the virtues of the monarchy "à l'Anglaise" and it was defeted by Louis-Philippe d'Orléans in 1830. The real revolution in France came in 1830 and 1848 with progress and comeback until 1870 when the Third Republic was the installation of a real democracy in France . Yes, there were some errors like the Dreyfus Affair. But it took another son of the Revolution with Emile Zola to stand by with "J'accuse" tract.

I think you underestimte the influence of French philosophy beginning with Descartes and the Encyclopedists and also the literature which gave an impulse on a real democracy. Of course, Dickens was great but also Victor Hugo with "Les Misérables" and Zola with "Germinal " and 'L'assommoir". Those ideas spreaded in Russia with Tolstoï and many others. Any revolution has its part of injustice but you have not to blame the tremendous impulse of the French Revolution toward a real progress of Freedom. All I feel is that you don't pay tribute to this springboard in believing in some conservative revolution like the Industrial Revolution made in England. Without syndicates (labor unions), England never would be a world leader. And you cannot represss indefinitly the forces of change like it was. I feel so much that from your point of view, the victory of opposing forces in any western country were allowed gently by rich people whose interests were against people to get much more money in clearing opponents by more obedient workers. Why do you think so many fench Canadians went to work in Boston, Manchester, Lowell, and other industrial cities because they were passive and willing to work for more than nothing because of their Catholic bishops. They lost completely their identity and became Americans . Did they gain something? I am far from believing it. Some became celebrities in Education or history like Giroux. Maybe because they are seeking for their roots like Cajuns from New-Orleans.

HBC Response

Our HBC reader raises a variety of historical issues here. I want to comment on two, the first is France and the Anglo-Saxon powers ad tghe second is the Industrial Revolution.

France and the Anglo-Saxon countries

Our reader is certainly correct that the Founding Fathers in America were children of the Enlightenment. And I think that the Enlightenment and The Reformtion are the two modern cornerstones of the West. The Enlightenment is an important part of the Western Tradition. And the leading Englightenment thinkers were mostly French. (We would add John Locke who came a bit before the Enlightenment to the list of impoetant philosophes.) The fact that Spain, Portugal, and Italy (not to mention the Muslim world) experienced neither is part of the reasons that Catholic Europe before World War II was so poor and backward and why Latin America today continues to be poor. Notice that here I add the Reformation to the Enlightment as a key Western influence. And this is one reason that France did not have the same impact as the Anglo-Saxons. Not only did France reject the Reformation, but they masacered the Hugonoughts, an action that had a very significant adverse impact on France. (As did the expulsion of the Jews on Spain.) The English were also intolerant (of both Catholics and disenters), but not so vilolently--in part because of the protections of English Common Law. Our reader is entirely correct that the Enlightenment had a powerful impact on the Founding fathers, but it was not the only or even the most important. The American Founding fathers were also influenced by the classical tradition (Greece and Rome). Even Washington who was perhaps the least educated of the major Revolutionary figures knew a great deal of classical history. The other important tradition was of course English common law.

There are several reasons that I place the Anglo-Saxon tradition above that of the French. Our reader is quite right that England was conservative, but the English conservative tradition is not one of oposing all change. And while Englnd was conservative, its historical tradition from the middle ages was oposing absolutism--that was what the Magna Carta was all about (1215). Of couse it was the Barons who wanted their rights then, but through the magic of English common law this gradually passed down to the lowest English subject. (This is why "The Winslow Boy" is one of my favorite films. A 14-year old school boy actually took the King to court. The point is that even the King is answerable to and restrained by law. Louis XIV summarized the alernate absolutist view, "I am the state.")

In previous exchanges with our Quebec reader, we discused the totalitarians of the 20th century and here France was on the right side--the side of the Anglo-Saxons--although France in the end failed. The French Army was incapable of offensive operations afer Verdun (World War I) and of course was defeated by the Whermacht in a few weeks (World War II). And the glories of France were tarnished by the way the French people embraced Vichy. But going back in history it was not the Germans that were the great threat to the Western tradition--it was Spanish and French Catholic absolutism. First it was the Spanish monarchs backed by Catholic absolutism (the Inquisition ect.) that threatened the emerging democracies (England and the Dutch). This threat was exemplified by Philip's Great Armada. Then it was French absolutism--be it Bourbon or Bonapartist. And here again it was England that played a key role it saving the Dutch Republic and the Germans from Louis XIV. By an accident of history, it was Churchill's ancestor Marlbourgh that played the leading role. And then later it was Engkand again that helped save all Europe from Bonaparte. The French Revolution undeniably expoused the great ideals of the Western Tradition, but in the Reign of Terror descended into an absolutism more terrible than Bourbon abaolutism--the tyranny of the majority. Bonaparte is a complicated figure, because he was actually more liberal and progressive than the English (the Code Napoleon is but one of his achievements). Wellington was an unrepented conservative reactionary, but he was not an absolutist. But Bonaparte was an absolutist and from my perspective absolutism is the real enemy of the Western tradituon.

And the English with all their faults (which our Quebec reader likes to list for me), through history have oposed absolutism. The English people (with a little help from the Scotts) opposed the efforts of sucessive royal dynasties (from the Plantagenangts to the Stewarts) to impose royal absolutism. Remember that an English king lost his head more than a century before the French got around to Louis XVI. The English opposed Spanish and French Catholic absolutism and then with their Anglo-Saxon American cousins opposed German absolutism in two great world wars. And it was the Anglo-Saxon powers that were the core of the Western resistance to Soviet absolutism. Again in the Cold War the French were not fully onboard. And now again the French are not fully on board in the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism--another form of absolutism. Only the Anglo-Saxons throughout the course of Western history have consistently opposed absolutism.

And here is why I so admire Canada which has been a staunch supporter in the fightt against tyranny in Europe, both German and Soviet as well as Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. The French despite their undeniable impotance to the Western tradition have not. And I am sad to say that the French in Quebec (despite all the talk of the Enlightenment and the rights of man) have not been entirely on board in this historic struggle (beginning with World War I and World War II).

The Industrial Revolution

Our reader makes an interesting comment about the Industrial Revolution. I couldn't agree more about our reader's comment for two basic reasons.

First the Industrial Revolution was not a conservative revolution. It was perhaps the most radical revolution in human history. The three great River Valley Civilization arose because of advances in agricultural production. It was the wealth this created that gave rise to civilization. Until the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of people around the world lived in abject poverty. Few could adequate food, clothing, and housing. The industrial revolution affected the lives of ordinary individuals more than any other event since the agricultura revolution that created civilization. The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed human society. The wealth generated allowed the ordinary individual to lead a decent life and educate his children. Socialists like to harp on the inquities created, but in fact never before in human history were the opportunities for a decent life opened to the common man. And the advances of democracy in the West created political institutions which gradually addressed the inquities created.

Second our reader suggests that it was only an accident of history that the Industrial Revolution began in England making it the preminant world power. Again we strongly take issue with this. It was not an accident of history that civilzation began in four river valleys. Nor was it an accident of history that the Industrial Revolution occurred in the West and specifically in England. Much of the major technological inventions occurred in China. But it was in the West that the various technological advances were combined to generate the Industrial Revolution. And look at who was responsible for many of the early advances--very ordinary people. Few of the advances occurred in southern Europe because the Catholic Church oposed science and free thinking. Gaileo was tried for this kind of thinking. And the Inqusition made it very dangerous to engage in any kind of free thinking. A discussion of the Reformation often gets tied up with theology. But at its heart, Luther's Reformation was a challenge to Catholic absolutism--the democratization of religion. Luther wanted the common man to read the Bible and this meant the birth of public education. To read the Bible meant that everyone had to be educated. Thus it is in the Protestant north, specifically England and Scotland, that the opposition to both religious and royal absolutism came together. The result was an unlocking of the fetters which restricted free thought. The result was not only the emergence of democracy, but the Indistrial Revolution. Of course other factors were involved, including the wealth of Empire, high (relative) wages, and the Royal Navy among others.

Second Thoughts

I realized that after finishing this page, there was something that did not sit well with me--the term Anglo-Saxon. I used the term here becuse it was the term our Quebec reader used when he wrote to HBC. But it is not the term I would have used. This is because, the term Anglo-Saxon has racial connotations that I do not wish to imply. Also it represents only one part of the English population. The Vikings made a very important contribution to Briitish demovracy as did the Scotts, both in Britain and America. The eqaltarian Viking tradition was very important in Britain. As were the Scotts in oposing the Eenglish crown. The origins of the English Civil War lay in Charles I's attempt to control religuon in Scotland--the Bishops War. And in America, the Patriot victory in the Revolutionary war was in large measure due to the backwoods Scotts-Irish. And America was even more diverse than Britain. The success of America in the 20th century was in part due to the immigrants who came from Catholic Europe, not to mention the Jews fleeing Tsarist pogroms as well as the full panoply of the American melting pot--blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and orientals. So rather than Anglo-Saxon, the term I would use here would be the "English speaking peoples".

Dutch Reader Comment

A Dutch reader has taken our discussion of the English speaking people, absolutism, and the Industrial Revolution a step further. He writes, "Without trying to get involved in the very interesting discussions, I would like to point out that all through the 19th century also in England the majority of the workers were forced to live in abject poverty. Dickens illustrated that so well in his books. However, I am surprised that you don't mention Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of "The Communist Manifesto" (London, 1848). Both men had moved to England where they died. Engels, who's father owned a factory in Manchester, wrote "Condition of the working class in England" (1844), a critical work as the title suggests. Socialism and communism were inevitable political movements. Even an arch-conservative as the Prussian Bismarck adopted some socialist ideas like old-age pension for German factory workers. But on the whole the "proletarians" were being exploited without mercy. Of course, we all know where communism eventually led to, but it was a necessary development during the Industrial Revolution." I think this is a very important comment. Here our reader expresses a very commonly held theory that the Industrial Revolution created poverty. Here we disagree, but our reader concludes with a point that we do agree with--where socialism leads. We think is comment is very important because it leads to the key as to why the English speaking world has prevailed over time--opposition to absolutism. A reason also that helps explain why the Dutch have been so sucessful. This is an especially intriguing question. The English were as Europe emerged from the medieval era, a very small kingdom located on the perifery of Europe. England had a relatively small population, much smaller than Germany and France. It did not have the intelectual tradition of Italy or the wealth of Portugal and Spain. Scholars in the 15th century could not have imsgined that that the future could possibly evolve a world in which English would the international language and that the English speaking peoples would become such a dominany force in politics, military power, literature, and science.


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Created: 7:21 PM 11/27/2007
Last updated: 5:33 PM 12/28/2007