The political editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, declares: "Obama needs a history lesson." The required lesson is that "America was moulded along Adam Smith’s lines while Scotland imported the disastrous ideas of the French Enlightenment which continue to dominate discourse today... Essentially, the Scots Enlightenment stood for individual liberty and small government while the French one stood for power, and big government."
The "essentially" is a nice touch. If this is your idea of a history lesson, then you'll probably also wish to consult the bio-energy expert Dr Karadzic for an exposition of recent advances in medical science.
The "disastrous ideas of the French Enlightenment" that so exercise Fraser were strongly influenced by admiration for the English (note: not the Scots). Consider Voltaire's gushing idealisation of England in his Lettres philosophiques ou Lettres anglaises of 1733, letter 8:
Voici une différence plus essentielle entre Rome et l’Angleterre, qui met tout l’avantage du côté de la dernière: c’est que le fruit des guerres civiles de Rome a été l’esclavage, et celui des troubles d’Angleterre, la liberté. La nation anglaise est la seule de la terre qui soit parvenue à régler le pouvoir des rois en leur résistant, et qui d’efforts en efforts ait enfin établi ce gouvernement sage où le prince, tout-puissant pour faire du bien, a les mains liées pour faire du mal; où les Seigneurs sont grands sans insolence et sans vassaux, et où le peuple partage le gouvernement sans confusions.
For the philosophes, England was the nation of liberty and free thought. It wasn't true, but Voltaire's starting point was the exercise of arbitrary authority in France. I fear that Fraser thinks the French Enlightenment is another name for Paris's revolutionary tribunal that sat a full 60 years after Voltaire wrote. If so, then that is an error.
The French Revolution was not caused by the Enlightenment. It gave office to those who had been influenced by the Enlightenment, such as Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld. These were not agents of "power and big government" - indeed Lafayette had given military service and substantial funds to the American Revolution, which Fraser is concerned to claim for Scottishness. The reforms enacted by the Constituent Assembly from 1789 to 1791 were quite limited, but went in the direction of secularism and the removal of the hereditary principle. Those who believe, crudely, that the American Revolution was good and the French Revolution bad might explain why the sainted Thomas Jefferson, as ambassador to Paris, saw these causes as consistent. (Conor Cruise O'Brien, one of the great polymaths and statesmen of our time, does in fact have an explanation. In his book The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1998, he argues that Jefferson - Jefferson! - was inconsistent with the American Revolution, and should be regarded as an ideological forerunner of Pol Pot. That really is his thesis; Pol Pot is his own analogy. At least O'Brien recognises the problem, even if his solution is bizarre.)
Fraser - as I'm addressing him - might explain also why the revolution of 1789 was so admired throughout Europe, including Britain (and I do mean Britain) and particularly in Germany. This was not a "disaster": it was, like the American Revolution, a historic moment for the cause of reform, secularism and (I use the term without irony) progress. The turning point was war with Austria and Prussia in 1792. This precipitated a second revolution and all that followed: regicide, terror, and the reassertion of autocracy and nationalism. There was no reason that European governments should have sought to undermine the movement of 1789, and in doing so they became steadily more authoritarian at home.
Here's a more recent analogy. Most of my readers will probably hold Lenin responsible for the repressive character of the Soviet state and what turned into the horrors of Stalinism. I certainly do. But I do not hold Alexander Kerensky responsible for them. He stood for the principles of democratic government against reaction. Likewise the notion that the French Enlightenment was a force for repression and arbitrary authority is baloney.
I suspect I know what's behind this historical revisionism. The American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb's book The Roads to Modernity was recently published in the UK, with a foreword by the prime minister. The book is a sustained attempt to distinguish the British and American Enlightenments from the French tradition. There is a clear subtext here about modern politics that takes precedence over the history, and that I don't in any case find as appealing as some of my fellow Atlanticists do. I'm still less convinced by the preposterous message inferred by the political editor of The Spectator: "That so many people in Europe still believe the French principles (government virtuous, masses selfish) shows how this continent never could quite shake off the hierarchies."
The comments underneath Fraser's post are obviously not his fault. But there's one who signs himself with the self-explanatory moniker "TGF UKIP", and who is enthusiastic about the "fascinating and illuminating post and series of comments". I quote him not to embarrass Fraser but because I think he's understood Fraser's point very well, more's the pity.