Saturday, January 13, 2007

I'll take liberty AND equality, thankyouverymuch

I tend to think of liberty and equality of opportunity as growing side by side and supporting each other, because IMO that's how it's worked in America, at least most of the time. So I get a bit puzzled sometimes as I study early 19th century France and Britain. France was, at least by the standards of the time, admirably egalitarian. You see many cases of men born into poverty and obscurity who rise to prestige on their own merits. But they were ruled by a control freak censor of a dictator. Britain, OTOH, was a highly stratified society largely ruled by a hereditary aristocracy--but was in almost all ways more free and open.

I'm usually pretty good at putting on the mentality of the past, but I guess as a 21st century American I have trouble understanding why the French didn't seize their freedom and the British their equality, because I'd find life without either equally unbearable. (Not, of course, that I'm claiming 2007 America is a perfectly free and equal society. But you don't want me to go into a political rant. Really, you don't.)

4 comments:

Laura Vivanco said...

In 1819 there was the Peterloo Massacre and there were serious riots in 1831 when the Reform Bill didn't get through the House of Lords. It passed the next year.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were reformers who were active, as well as radical newspapers and publishers (there's a list of them here).

It's not a period I've studied much (we spent rather a long time on the First World War and the leadup to the Second) but I get the impression that there was quite a lot of radical organising and campaigning, and it eventually led to political reform. And the 1830s saw the beginning of Chartism.

Susan Wilbanks said...

I know a little bit about Peterloo, the Reform Bill, etc., though I don't consider myself as well-informed on the politics of the era as I am the military and social history.

So I know there were reformers out there--I think I'm just projecting the same political impatience I tend to have in the preseny onto the past. (My husband can attest to my impatience with the slow grind of present-day American politics.)

Laura Vivanco said...

Another factor to consider is that Britain had already had a civil war, and that had been followed by a restoration of the monarchy. That (a) led to changes in the relationship between King and Parliament and (b) given that it was followed by a restoration of the monarchy might have demonstrated that revolutions don't always succeed.

It seems to me that, in general, for a revolution to take place the people who are about to revolt have to feel that (a) the situation as it currently is is completely untenable (e.g. they have nothing to lose but their chains), (b) that a gradual process of change is unlikely given past precedent, (c) that there's some chance of success, however slim and (d) there's usually at least one leader who encourages others.

Also, what we might consider oppressive might not have been considered so in the past by the oppressed groups, or at least, not by all members of the oppressed groups. You could easily argue that women have been oppressed for millenia, but they didn't organise themselves and start agitating for equal rights until relatively recently (historically speaking).

Susan Wilbanks said...

I can understand how the average citizen of both nations probably viewed things--France was exhausted after the upheaval of the Revolution, so it was probably a relief to have a powerful, stable, and reasonably consistent central government, and Britain did offer enough flexibility and opportunities for upward mobility that a) gradual change seemed feasible and b) an ambitious and talented individual could reasonably hope to rise in the world, if not all the way to the top of the heap.

Also, I'm sure a lot of people in both countries were just like I am now--not fomenting revolution or even marching in the streets all that often, but opinionated and as politically active as the system allowed, and looking for ways to bring about change while still making a living, taking care of their young children, etc.