The American Devolution: Some Perspective on Present Discontent

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the perennial French diplomat, once quipped that those who have not lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution do not know the sweetness of living.  If the self-appointed representatives of the so-called 99 percent win the day, and if the squalor that they bring with them is indicative of what their victory portends, then a comparable quip may be warranted for our own time.

Unlike the motley assemblage that presently occupies various public spaces throughout the country, Talleyrand was born into a world where a veritable 1 percent actually existed.  That world was known as l'Ancien Régime, and the 1 percent -- by some reckonings as much as 2 percent -- who occupied its upper echelons were known as la noblesse française.  

What distinguished the French nobility was not simply the wealth they possessed, but the privileges they enjoyed.  Nobles were entitled to stand trial in separate courts and, if convicted of a capital offense, to a privileged death: decapitation [i].  They were subject neither to the billeting of troops nor to conscription in the militia, and they avoided the dreaded corvée -- the forced labor that so onerously encumbered the French peasantry.  Perhaps the principal privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy were financial ones.  Not only were nobles largely exempt from paying taxes, but they also enjoyed the privilege of imposing on the lower orders the burdens of taxation they so readily evaded. 

Whatever the pretensions of present-day protesters may be, today, nothing like this obtains.  If the top 1 percent currently controls roughly 40 percent of America's financial wealth, it is not theirs to possess and pass down in perpetuity.  Fortunes are made and lost in America.  Andrew Carnegie, who was born into poverty in Scotland whence he emigrated as a young boy and whose first job at the age of 13 was as a bobbin boy, working 12-hour days, six days a week for $1.20 a week, went on to become one of the wealthiest and, one might add, most philanthropic personages in American history.  Billy Durant, conversely, founder of General Motors and Chevrolet, lost his fortune in the stock market and spent his later years in relative obscurity, managing a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan.  Fluidity characterizes the social state of democratic societies just as rigidity characterizes the social state of aristocratic ones. 

Moreover, wealth does not confer upon those who enjoy it privileges of the sort that one inherited in the aristocratic world.  There is not a court system for the 1 percent and a separate court system for the remaining 99 percent.  What should be no less evident is that the 1 percent are no more possessed of the right to levy taxes than they are of the luxury of not having to pay them, popular canards to the contrary notwithstanding [ii].

What is interesting about what Louis XVI initially mistook for a rebellion -- and on this score, one may draw a parallel with the prevailing turmoil -- is that of all the eighteenth-century Continental regimes, the Revolution against the 1 percent broke out in the one country where the 99 percent were least oppressed.  In France, serfdom had been abolished long before the Revolution -- so long, in fact, that by 1789, virtually no vestiges of it were to be found anywhere in the country.  This was hardly the case in most of Europe at that time.  One did not have to travel to tsarist Russia to reach the land of serfdom.  Throughout the Hapsburg Empire, peasants were attached to lands they did not own, where they worked under compulsion, without any prospect of financial recompense.  In Germany, peasants were proscribed from leaving the manor to which they belonged; could not rise in rank, nor change profession, nor marry without their master's consent; and were subject to manorial justice, which watched over their private lives and punished with severity their intemperance and laziness.  

By contrast, the French peasant was legally free.  He made contracts and worked as he wished, came and went as he pleased, and bought and sold what he wanted.  What is more, not only had the peasant ceased to be a serf, but he had become a landowner.  This outcome was not established by the Revolution, but predated it.  In his travels, Arthur Young noted that half the land of France belonged to the peasants.  Such a state of affairs was unfathomable elsewhere.  Even in England, which was the most advanced country of eighteenth-century Europe and where there was no serfdom to speak of, the bulk of land was concentrated in the hands of a few thousand families. 

Like the French at the end of the eighteenth century, today's 99%ers behave in a manner that is incongruous and without measure.  As they rail against corporate greed and the iniquities of the system, all the while airing their grievances with the aid of technological conveniences that are the products of those greedy corporations and the fruits of that iniquitous system, one cannot help but find the whole ordeal somewhat farcical.  That is not to dismiss the very real trials and tribulations that many today undergo, but as Tocqueville noted of his countrymen at the time of the Revolution, it would seem that people find their position more unbearable as it improves.

For all the crimes and follies of the French revolutionaries, they often were motivated by aims that, however naïve and misguided, could be reckoned lofty and transcendent.  The sentiment expressed by the Girondist Jacques-Pierre Brissot, "The moment has come for a new crusade, a crusade of universal liberty," was a sentiment shared by many young revolutionaries.  It is difficult to glean something comparable in today's cacophonous clamor.  Perhaps the appeal for "economic fairness" would come closest, but upon hearing repeated calls for violence against the rich and demands that the 1 percent help shoulder the personal debts of the 99 percent, one detects something either Orwellian or imbecilic in this notion of fairness. 

In the end, fairness and equality are not synonymous.  It would behoove those who begrudge the wealthy their fortune to recall Theodore Roosevelt's judicious admonition:

Remember always that the same measure of condemnation should be extended to the arrogance which would look down upon or crush any man because he is poor and to the envy and hatred which would destroy a man because he is wealthy.[iii]

Some perspective would go a long way as well.  And if historical perspective is spurned, cotemporary perspective should suffice.  While the putative 99 percent are indignant that the 1 percent own such a disproportionate piece of the American pie, it is the 99 percent themselves who own such a disproportionate piece of the global pie.  Catherine Rampell, expatiating upon a chart in Branko Milanovic's The Haves and the Have-Nots, noted that "[t]he typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world's inhabitants."  If fairness really were at stake here, then those who inveigh against the privileged would do well to reflect first upon their own privileges -- privileges that the vast majority of the world's inhabitants know nothing of, nor ever will. 

David A. Eisenberg is assistant director for academic affairs in the Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.


[i] By way of contrast, common criminals were burned, drowned, maimed, bludgeoned, and broken on the wheel.  The guillotine, which would claim the heads of so many noblemen during the course of the Revolution, had been conceived as a humane instrument, not an inhumane one.

[ii] According to the Congressional Budget Office, more than half of all federal taxes and more than 70 percent of federal income taxes are paid by the top 10 percent of households with the highest incomes.

[iii] Theodore Roosevelt.  "The Man in the Arena: Citizenship in a Republic," delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris (April 23, 1910).

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the perennial French diplomat, once quipped that those who have not lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution do not know the sweetness of living.  If the self-appointed representatives of the so-called 99 percent win the day, and if the squalor that they bring with them is indicative of what their victory portends, then a comparable quip may be warranted for our own time.

Unlike the motley assemblage that presently occupies various public spaces throughout the country, Talleyrand was born into a world where a veritable 1 percent actually existed.  That world was known as l'Ancien Régime, and the 1 percent -- by some reckonings as much as 2 percent -- who occupied its upper echelons were known as la noblesse française.  

What distinguished the French nobility was not simply the wealth they possessed, but the privileges they enjoyed.  Nobles were entitled to stand trial in separate courts and, if convicted of a capital offense, to a privileged death: decapitation [i].  They were subject neither to the billeting of troops nor to conscription in the militia, and they avoided the dreaded corvée -- the forced labor that so onerously encumbered the French peasantry.  Perhaps the principal privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy were financial ones.  Not only were nobles largely exempt from paying taxes, but they also enjoyed the privilege of imposing on the lower orders the burdens of taxation they so readily evaded. 

Whatever the pretensions of present-day protesters may be, today, nothing like this obtains.  If the top 1 percent currently controls roughly 40 percent of America's financial wealth, it is not theirs to possess and pass down in perpetuity.  Fortunes are made and lost in America.  Andrew Carnegie, who was born into poverty in Scotland whence he emigrated as a young boy and whose first job at the age of 13 was as a bobbin boy, working 12-hour days, six days a week for $1.20 a week, went on to become one of the wealthiest and, one might add, most philanthropic personages in American history.  Billy Durant, conversely, founder of General Motors and Chevrolet, lost his fortune in the stock market and spent his later years in relative obscurity, managing a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan.  Fluidity characterizes the social state of democratic societies just as rigidity characterizes the social state of aristocratic ones. 

Moreover, wealth does not confer upon those who enjoy it privileges of the sort that one inherited in the aristocratic world.  There is not a court system for the 1 percent and a separate court system for the remaining 99 percent.  What should be no less evident is that the 1 percent are no more possessed of the right to levy taxes than they are of the luxury of not having to pay them, popular canards to the contrary notwithstanding [ii].

What is interesting about what Louis XVI initially mistook for a rebellion -- and on this score, one may draw a parallel with the prevailing turmoil -- is that of all the eighteenth-century Continental regimes, the Revolution against the 1 percent broke out in the one country where the 99 percent were least oppressed.  In France, serfdom had been abolished long before the Revolution -- so long, in fact, that by 1789, virtually no vestiges of it were to be found anywhere in the country.  This was hardly the case in most of Europe at that time.  One did not have to travel to tsarist Russia to reach the land of serfdom.  Throughout the Hapsburg Empire, peasants were attached to lands they did not own, where they worked under compulsion, without any prospect of financial recompense.  In Germany, peasants were proscribed from leaving the manor to which they belonged; could not rise in rank, nor change profession, nor marry without their master's consent; and were subject to manorial justice, which watched over their private lives and punished with severity their intemperance and laziness.  

By contrast, the French peasant was legally free.  He made contracts and worked as he wished, came and went as he pleased, and bought and sold what he wanted.  What is more, not only had the peasant ceased to be a serf, but he had become a landowner.  This outcome was not established by the Revolution, but predated it.  In his travels, Arthur Young noted that half the land of France belonged to the peasants.  Such a state of affairs was unfathomable elsewhere.  Even in England, which was the most advanced country of eighteenth-century Europe and where there was no serfdom to speak of, the bulk of land was concentrated in the hands of a few thousand families. 

Like the French at the end of the eighteenth century, today's 99%ers behave in a manner that is incongruous and without measure.  As they rail against corporate greed and the iniquities of the system, all the while airing their grievances with the aid of technological conveniences that are the products of those greedy corporations and the fruits of that iniquitous system, one cannot help but find the whole ordeal somewhat farcical.  That is not to dismiss the very real trials and tribulations that many today undergo, but as Tocqueville noted of his countrymen at the time of the Revolution, it would seem that people find their position more unbearable as it improves.

For all the crimes and follies of the French revolutionaries, they often were motivated by aims that, however naïve and misguided, could be reckoned lofty and transcendent.  The sentiment expressed by the Girondist Jacques-Pierre Brissot, "The moment has come for a new crusade, a crusade of universal liberty," was a sentiment shared by many young revolutionaries.  It is difficult to glean something comparable in today's cacophonous clamor.  Perhaps the appeal for "economic fairness" would come closest, but upon hearing repeated calls for violence against the rich and demands that the 1 percent help shoulder the personal debts of the 99 percent, one detects something either Orwellian or imbecilic in this notion of fairness. 

In the end, fairness and equality are not synonymous.  It would behoove those who begrudge the wealthy their fortune to recall Theodore Roosevelt's judicious admonition:

Remember always that the same measure of condemnation should be extended to the arrogance which would look down upon or crush any man because he is poor and to the envy and hatred which would destroy a man because he is wealthy.[iii]

Some perspective would go a long way as well.  And if historical perspective is spurned, cotemporary perspective should suffice.  While the putative 99 percent are indignant that the 1 percent own such a disproportionate piece of the American pie, it is the 99 percent themselves who own such a disproportionate piece of the global pie.  Catherine Rampell, expatiating upon a chart in Branko Milanovic's The Haves and the Have-Nots, noted that "[t]he typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world's inhabitants."  If fairness really were at stake here, then those who inveigh against the privileged would do well to reflect first upon their own privileges -- privileges that the vast majority of the world's inhabitants know nothing of, nor ever will. 

David A. Eisenberg is assistant director for academic affairs in the Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.


[i] By way of contrast, common criminals were burned, drowned, maimed, bludgeoned, and broken on the wheel.  The guillotine, which would claim the heads of so many noblemen during the course of the Revolution, had been conceived as a humane instrument, not an inhumane one.

[ii] According to the Congressional Budget Office, more than half of all federal taxes and more than 70 percent of federal income taxes are paid by the top 10 percent of households with the highest incomes.

[iii] Theodore Roosevelt.  "The Man in the Arena: Citizenship in a Republic," delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris (April 23, 1910).

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