Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jacobins, Robespierre on Property, America

Robespierre continues to be very insightful. It's becoming apparent to me that a lot of the reasoning behind the radical part of the French Revolution has not made it to the United States at all. In particular, Robespierre highlights the different path taken, one that wanted to make liberty a fact and not just something latent in society. American Exceptionalism has traded on the idea, from the very start of the US, that freedom and liberty are just naturally there, that the United States in colonial times already possessed great fairness and equality, liberty and freedom, and that the goal of society and social intervention since then should simply be to preserve this unique heritage. But first here's a quote from Robespierre's writing "On the Silver Mark", along with a quote from his proposed "Rights of Man":

Talking about a poll tax, that is a tax required to be paid in order to vote, R says this:

"The people of whom you speak are apparently men who live, who subsist, in society, without the means to live and subsist. For if they are provided with those means they have, it seems to me, something to lose or to preserve. Yes, the rough garments that clothe me, the humble garret to which I purchase the right to withdraw and live in peace, the modest wage with which I feed my wife, my children; these things, I admit are not lands, carriages, great houses; all of them amount to nothing, perhaps, to those accustomed to luxury and opulence, but they are something to ordinary humanity: they are sacred property, beyond doubt as sacred as the glittering domains of wealth" (On the Silver Mark, pg. 9)

And on the Proposed Rights of Man:

"So let us in good faith set out the principles of the right to property; something all the more necessary since the prejudices and vices of men have sought to envelop the question in impenetrable fog.
Ask some merchant of human flesh what property is; he will tell you, pointing towards the long coffin that he calls a ship, in which he has packed and fettered men who appear to be alive: 'There are my properties; I bought them for so much a head.' Question some gentleman who has land and vassals, or who thinks the universe turned upside down because he has them no longer, and he will give you ideas on property that are more or less similar.
Interrogate the august members of the Capet dynasty; they will tell you that the most sacred of all properties is unquestionably the hereditary right they have enjoyed since ancient times, to oppress, degrade and squeeze legally and monarchically the twenty-five millions of men who inhabit the territory of France, subject to their good pleasure.
In the eyes of all those people, property does not rest on any principle of morality. It excludes all notions of justice or injustice. Why does your Declaration of Rights seem to present the same error? In defining liberty, the first of mankind's assets, the most sacred of the rights it receives from nature, you said, rightly, that its limits were the rights of others: why did you not apply that principle to property, which is a social institution?" (Draft Declaration of the Rights of Man, pg 67)

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