The Promise of American Life eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 523 pages of information about The Promise of American Life.

IV

DEMOCRACY AND NATIONALITY IN FRANCE

The recent history and the present position of France illustrate another phase of the interdependence of the national and the democratic principles.  The vitality of English national life has been impaired by its identification with an inadequate and aristocratic political principle.  In France the effective vitality of the democracy has been very much lowered by certain flaws in the integrity of French national life.  France is strong where England is weak and is weak where England is strong; and this divergence of development is by no means accidental.  Just because they were the first countries to become effectively nationalized, their action and reaction have been constant and have served at once to develop and distinguish their national temperaments.  The English invasions accelerated the growth of the French royal power and weakened domestic resistance to its ambitions.  The English revolutions of the seventeenth century made the Bourbons more than ever determined to consolidate the royal despotism and to stamp out Protestantism.  The excesses of the French royal despotism brought as a consequence the excesses of the Revolutionary democracy.  The Reign of Terror in its turn made Englishmen more than ever suspicious of the application of rational political ideas to the fabric of English society.  So the ball was tossed back and forth—­the national temperament of each people being at once profoundly modified by this action and reaction and for the same cause profoundly distinguished one from the other.  The association has been more beneficial to France than to England, because the French, both before and after the Revolution, really tried to learn something from English political experience, whereas the English have never been able to discover anything in the political experience of their neighbors, except an awful example of the danger of democratic ideas and political and social rationalism.

The ideas of the French democracy were in the beginning revolutionary, disorderly, and subversive of national consistency and good faith.  No doubt the French democracy had a much better excuse for identifying democracy with a system of abstract rights and an indiscriminate individualism than had the American democracy.  The shadow of the Old Regime hung over the country; and it seemed as if the newly won civil and political rights could be secured only by erecting them into absolute conditions of just political association and by surrounding them with every possible guarantee.  Moreover, the natural course of the French democratic development was perverted by foreign interference and a constant condition of warfare; and if the French nation had been allowed to seek its own political salvation without interference, as was this English nation, the French democracy might have been saved many an error and excess.  But whatever excuses

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