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4 November, 18:31

A discussion of natural rights and the listing of a long series of offenses and abuses are structural features of

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  1. 4 November, 20:12
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    Partly as a consequence of President Bush's democracy initiative in Iraq and the greater Middle East-the "forward strategy of freedom," as he calls it-the ideas of natural rights on which our government is based have achieved a prominence that they have not enjoyed in American politics at least since the civil rights movement. This President probably has done more to revive the language of natural rights democracy-the 18th century vernacular of American politics-than any Republican President since Abraham Lincoln.

    One of the complications of this revival, of course, is that American policy in the Middle East has not gone swimmingly. It is an important question, then, whether the reverses and difficulties that America has encountered in Iraq have occurred because of the ideas of natural rights and democracy or somehow in spite of those ideas. Conservatives of all sorts, most notably and recently David Brooks in The New York Times, have raised the question whether or not American conservatism, particularly in the wake of the Bush Administration's enthusiasm for natural rights-based "democratization," has strayed too far from the philosophy of Edmund Burke, too far from a "temperamental" conservatism in the direction of a "creedal" conservatism.

    It is worth stepping back to speculate about what it means to base democratic government on the notion of natural rights, what these rights are, and what they mean for public policy. One way to make this concrete is to compare three revolutions' theories of natural rights: the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution.

    While these revolutions are 17th and 18th century phenomena, they continue to shape the modern world and the meaning of democratic politics-and, not coincidentally, the horizons of conservatism. Modern conservatism was born to some degree in opposition to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke, often regarded as the first conservative, took it upon himself both to shape a public account of 1688 for domestic consumption and to turn that account into a positive doctrine to critique the French Revolution. There is also the continuing question of how conservatives should view the American Revolution.

    These revolutions differ in their very characters. England's was a temperamental revolution, while the American and French Revolutions were creedal in nature, based on a belief in fundamental natural rights. While both the French and American Revolutions espoused natural rights, they actually appealed to two very different notions of natural rights. But while the French theory of rights differs fundamentally from the American, the former has increasingly taken hold on this side of the Atlantic.

    To make discussion manageable, this essay will compare the revolutions by focusing on three key principal documents: the English Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the American Declaration of Independence.
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