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The Age of Revolution: America and France

Updated on August 28, 2013

Bloodshed. Gunfire. Cries of victory. These are the themes that characterized the eighteenth century, which was described as “The Age of Revolution.” Two of the major revolutions of the eighteenth century, the French and American revolutions, are often compared because of their similar causes: a desire for independence and freedom. However, these revolutions effects were entirely different; one was prosperous, the other chaotic.

"The Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull
"The Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull | Source

The causes of the American and French revolutions were similar in that both peoples desired freedom from an oppressive monarchy. By the 1700s, the colonies in North America still belonged to the British, but these colonies had grown completely independent, even from one another. However, they were not viewed as independent by their motherland: England. The British Monarchy cared for what most empires do: money, power, and politics, and the colonists could be used as means to those ends if necessary. Indeed, England confirmed these sentiments with a heavy taxation campaign that nearly crushed the Colonists, financially. Gathering together, the colonies sent proposals, letters, and delegates to the British Parliament to repeal the taxes, but the British government persisted. After all of the legislation that left the colonies poor and miserable, the final straw was the Tea Act, a political scheme to give the British-based East India Company a North American monopoly on tea. When the tea was shipped to the colonies, it remained, unloaded, in the harbor for twenty days, until rebels, disguised as Native Americans, boarded the ship and tossed all of the tea into the harbor, an event later deemed “The Boston Tea Party”. John Adams described the event as, “so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it an Epocha in History.” After the events of the Boston Tea Party, the British government cracked down more firmly than ever, sending British troops into private homes, closing the harbors, removing the right to vote for local officials. They attempted to isolate Boston, thinking it was center of dissent in the colonies, but the rest of the Colonists supported Massachusetts and would not bend. A local leader named Paul Revere began to gather the local militia, in order to display their willingness to fight the British troops if they were to fire upon the colonists. Eventually, the British did fire upon the colonists, the shot heard ‘round the world, and the war had begun.

"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix
"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix | Source

Similarly, the French also experienced oppression from their monarchy in the form of taxes. Socially and economically, France was separated into three estates: the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Beugoise. The Clergy paid no taxes, the Nobility paid a tiny fraction of taxes, and the rest of the tax burden was left on the poorest members of French society. During this time period, King Louis XVI reigned. A weak and indecisive king, he was not respected by the people, and his wife, Marie Antoinette was not endeared either, as her gluttonous, lavish lifestyle was envied and despised by the poor. In France men named philosophes, Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot, wrote witty satires, exposing the ineptitude of the French government. These men were progressive thinkers, who often leaned toward democratic socialist ideals and removed religion in favor of reason. The philosophes, along with the events of the American Revolution, incited an aching desire for the independence and equality in the French proletariat. During the American Revolution, Louis XVI sent heaps of monetary aid to Americans, in order to display France's contempt for England. Louis XVI also had also been engaged in several other wars, and by the time a severe famine occurred in 1788, France had spent all her money away. Louis XVI was forced to tax the Clergy and the Nobility. While voting on the new tax reforms, the Beugoise wanted the vote be counted individually, meaning each person in each estate received one vote. The other two estates, however, wanted the votes be counted by body, meaning the Clergy would receive one vote, the Nobility would receive one vote, and the Beougoise would receive one vote. Knowing that this unjust method would result in the Clergy and the Nobility coming out on top yet again, the Beougoise left the meeting. Later, when attempting to meet again, the Beougoise found their meeting room locked and therefore migrated to a tennis court to hold their meeting. There, they decided they were through with the French government, and called themselves the National Constituent Assembly, claiming they would be the provisional government until the French people could form an official constitution. In an attempt to disband the dissent in the Third Estate, Louis the XVI pretended to agree with their ideas for reform, all the while setting up troops around the perimeter of Paris. Tension began to build. Eventually, Louis showed his true colors when he dismissed a beloved finance minister who was pro-reform. Immediately, riots broke out in the Paris streets, and people began to search for weapons to fight off the French soldiers. Richard Thames says in his book The French Revolution,“...a cry went up: 'To the Bastille!' This ugly old fortress had once been a prison for political offenders. Now it contained only seven prisoners. But it was a symbol of royal power. It was stormed and taken, to the delight of the mob.” The mob took over the government of Paris within days, and cities and villages all over France followed suit. The French Revolution, like the American, was incited by a government who cared more for the nobility than the working class, and who paid for its escapades with its people’s money. However, the revolution had only just begun, its effects would be even more radical!

After the bloodshed of the Revolutionary War, America was formed through the Articles of the Confederation and later the Constitution, and the effects were astounding as America grew and expanded, but not without consequences with the Native Americans. Once America was established as its own, independent nation state, it no longer needed to appeal to Britain’s political micromanagement in their relationships with the Native Americans. While some Native Americans managed to integrate into society, the vast majority were forcibly moved into the Midwest by President Andrew Jackson. African-american slavery also thrived, creating tension between pro and anti slavery states, which would escalate into the Civil War years later. Monetarily, the decades after the Revolution were prosperous. Americans gained a substantial amount of land from the French during the Louisiana Purchase, and they also continued to expand West for many years. Quickly, America became one of the richest nations in the world. The Civil War united the states and rid the country of the strict dividing line, dividing slave states from non slave states. After the abolition of slavery, America truly fulfilled the promise of equality detailed in the Constitution. The United States continued to be a beacon of justice and a major world power into the twenty first century.

Execution of Louis XVI
Execution of Louis XVI | Source

In France, the effects of the revolution were swift and drastic. Quickly, the new, democratic government was taken over by radical revolutionists called Jacobins, who sought to completely overthrow the economic, religious, and social orders in France. They created a new calendar, the first day of the year being the anniversary of the Revolution, and attempted to purge Christianity from society. Along with these reforms came the ghastly Committee for Public Safety, a sham, whose job was to murder anyone suspected of supporting anti-revolutionary ideals. This killing spree was known as “The Reign of Terror.” Heading this “committee” was Maximillion Robespierre, who was eventually executed by the French people. His death rallied the Thermidorian Reaction, a movement by the French citizenry back to what the Revolution initially stood for: freedom and prosperity. Unfortunately, the French people went a bit too far back, allowing Napoleon Bonaparte to take the French, political stage. Napoleon called himself the “Emperor of France,” a sneaky loophole, as the French people said they would never have another king. Involving France in the Napoleonic Wars, Bonaparte reverted France back to an imperialist monarchy. However, after several failed attempts, France would one day fight a revolution that would stick, and the great country remains a democratic world power today.

The American and French Revolutions were similar in their causes: an oppressive government and an inherent goal of freedom and independence. However, their effects differed greatly. Where America continued to prosper, France’s post-revolution years were chaotic and bloody. Studying these two revolutions can help us identify the victories and failings of past revolutionaries toward their oppressive situations.


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