The American and French Revolutions: Comparison and Contrast
At first glance, it appears that the American and French Revolutions had a lot in common. After all, both took place about the same time. Both championed the desire for republican government and the principles of liberty. And many Americans promoted the French Revolution, and the Americans were indebted to the French who advanced their revolution, providing both money and materiel to the cause.
In fact, it's common in academia to treat the revolutions as being more alike than different. However, the historical record bears out that these two revolutions both began with different premises and their results were even more divergent than their premises. This essay is devoted to providing a contrast to the American and French Revolutions, with a conclusion that these were two very different events.
A Revolution By Any Other Name...
The American Revolutionary War….
That’s what we often call it. It was, after all, a revolution, wasn’t it?
If the French Revolution is the benchmark for how revolutions go, then the American Revolution was not a revolution at all.
First, consider the American Revolution. It's ironic that the roots of the American Revolution were British, where the move to constrain Stuart tyranny and the divine right of kings was well under way before the American Revolution. Before the Americans get their Declaration of Independence in 1776, the British led the way with the Magna Carta, Petition of Right and the English Bill of Rights, documents that reasserted the rights of subjects against the arbitrary rule of kings.
Like their counterparts in England, many Americans of the eighteenth century identified themselves as “Whigs”, those that opposed the tyranny of monarchy and desired a republican form of government. Their resistance against the British began shortly after the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763 and culminated with those shots “heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord, about twelve years later. Indeed, our “revolution” was long in coming. The most radical act occurred in 1773 when otherwise reasonable men dressed up like the natives and dumped British tea into Boston Harbor.
A Mob By Any Other Name...
For all of its mob-like tendencies, however, the Boston Tea Party was characteristically uncharacteristic. The decision to dump the tea was deliberate; in fact, the tea was the only victim that night (except for a busted lock which Ben Franklin insisted be replaced). When one man stole some of the tea, he was punished by the colony.
In terms of violent behavior, the American Revolution can’t hold a candle to the French Revolution. Compared to the antics of the French Revolution, the infamous Tea Party in Boston was like the sisters at the convent sneaking into the dorm of the rival convent and shorting their sheets. The French Revolution was one of the most senseless bloodlettings ever to occur in the name of freedom. From the time the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille until the rise of Napoleon, thousands in France were senselessly murdered, including France’s hapless king, Louis XVI and his consort, Marie Antoinette.
To put it another way, it's hard to imagine George Washington denouncing the Christian religion, Thomas Jefferson cutting a man’s head off, holding it up to the crowd for a cheer or putting the head on a pike to be paraded around the streets of Boston or John Adams eating the heart of his enemy.
The fact is that there are many contrasts that can be made between these two revolutions. The Americans were trying to preserve their traditions of representative government and self-imposed taxation; for the French, everything that had to do with the ancien regime was repugnant and had to be uprooted, even its religion. The French Revolution was a conflict rooted in envy with the desperate whipped into a frenzy. The Americans, in contrast, did not envy the British; they wanted to be left alone, to chart their own political destiny. In contrast to the American symbol of liberty, the Liberty Bell, we have the French symbol of liberty, the guillotine.
As for the literary contribution, France gave the world a Declaration of Rights, a claim to entitlements, grounded in human reason; the American founding fathers gave their people a Declaration of Independence, a declaration of responsibility, grounded in self-evident truths. With the Declaration of Independence, America’s founding fathers were saying,“We have outgrown the role of a child in a paternalistic government. We are responsible and ready to stand on our own two feet and take our place among the nations.” Previously, the colonies had existed in a state of "salutary neglect" for over a century. They were getting along fairly well without British meddling. They were making their own laws and living by their own wits. As Jefferson put it, it was time “to dissolve the political bands which had connected them with another.”
As for the French Revolution, the zealots of the movement imposed a “Cult of Reason." They tried to remove all vestiges of religion, like changing the seven-day week and removing religious holidays from the calendar (like Easter and Christmas). They were even mandating that priests be “uncelebate.” The ACLU would have been in heaven if they could have witnessed this spectacle (except they don’t believe in heaven…).
American Revolution or French Revolution?
Yes, both revolutions are the product of the Enlightenment, yet the American Revolution was not inflamed by the writings of philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire, but primarily by John Locke who, though a contract theorist like Hobbes and Rousseau, focused more on man’s rights to “life, liberty, and property.” As for the French Revolution, it was grounded in a “Cult of Reason” with rootless souls like Voltaire and Rousseau fanning the flames. Revolutionaries converted the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame into a “Temple of Reason” with the French actress, the seductive symbol of reason, being carried into the cathedral by men dressed in Roman costume.
The results could not be further apart. Locke’s ideas encouraged constitutionalism, a government of limited power; as for Rousseau, his contract resulted in a “General Will” which became the embodiment of absolute power. It isn’t a stretch to say that Rousseau’s ideas have been the progenitor for near every totalitarian menace we’ve experienced since him.
Stranger than Fiction
Another remarkable contrast is what happened to the leaders of the Revolution. In France, the revolutionaries instigated horrible acts with many of them dying horrible deaths, like Maximilian Robespierre. As for the American revolutionaries, only one of the original 56 men to sign the Declaration died a violent death (and his death had nothing to do with the revolution). In fact, the instigators of the American Revolution fared well as revolutionaries go. Most of them were honored after the Revolution and lived long lives. In fact, every American president up to Abraham Lincoln died a nonviolent death, unless you consider eighteenth century medicine an act of violence, which took George Washington from this world prematurely.
And speaking of George Washington, the commander of the army, a leading “insurrectionist” became the first president and “father of his country.” By the end of his life in 1799, he was probably the most respected and most revered American. John Adams was the “Atlas of Independence,” on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, the chief architect of the Massachusetts constitution, an important template for the national Constitution (and is still the oldest written functioning constitution). He went on to be America’s second president. Thomas Jefferson, chief author of the Declaration of Independence, was instrumental in founding the modern American party system and was elected twice to the presidency. Adams and Jefferson would become political enemies, but reconcile, live long lives and die within hours of each other on the fiftieth anniversary of Independence in 1826—fiction couldn’t get any stranger.
Ben Franklin, signer of the Declaration and one of the first proponents of an “American Union” was a principal figure at the Constitutional Convention, was governor of his state of Pennsylvania, and one of the most famous Americans in the world of his time—he also lived a long life.
And then there’s James Monroe who, like Washington, fought in the Revolution, took a bullet in the left shoulder at the Battle of Trenton, leaving him seriously wounded. But he would live on to become America's fifth president and the architect of one of America's most important foreign policy statements: The Monroe Doctrine. Monroe would be immortalized in the Jonathan Trumbull painting Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton.
The one American revolutionary that did die a violent death, Alexander Hamilton, died in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr, but the duel had nothing to do with the Revolution. In the hours just prior to the duel, Hamilton confessed to his wife that he would risk dying rather than take the life of Burr, a sworn enemy. And he did take that mortal bullet on the evening of July 11, 1804 at Weehawken, New Jersey, vowing to do no violence and departed this life, confessing the Christian religion.
In the Gospels, Jesus said that those that live by the sword, die by the sword. It’s a truism: soldiers often die by the sword and it is often true that violent men come full circle and meet their bitter end in violence. But these men—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Monroe—were not men of violence.
So, what kind of revolution was it? According to John Adams, it was a revolution of the mind. In an 1818 letter to Hezekiah Niles, Adams said,
But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was affected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. ... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.
Paul Johnson, Stephen Waldman and others have attributed the American Revolution, in part, to the Great Awakening, the religious revival of New England that began in Connecticut in 1741. Johnson calls the Great Awakening the “proto-event” for the American Revolution. As far as Adams was concerned, the American Revolution was a change of mind that affected a positive change for Americans and, yes, for mankind. And we can take Adams’ affirmation one step further in that before it was a revolution of the mind, it was a revolution of the heart.
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