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Conversations with America:The French Connection

Updated on April 28, 2011

Revolution in Europe

I won't be talking about battles. They do not, by and large, answer the questions I want to ask. I read military history to learn how logistics, technology, personalities, and human decisions affect the action, but always as a subordinate interest to larger questions. The larger question today concerns the influence of the American Revolution in France.

France gave reluctant aid to the rebellious colonies. The French monarchy took a risk in supporting a colonial insurrection, as it had its own colonies. The French monarchy had money problems, and more than mere difficulties in balancing the budget. France's financial woes were due to an antiquated, inefficient infrastructure, hemmed in by privileges determined by class and residence. All the revolutionaries had to say of monarchical corruption and abuses of power could be said of France as well as of Britain. Yet France sank money into America's revolutionary adventure; at the end of the war, she had debt and impending bankruptcy to show for it. She had done it all, not from love of freedom, but from hatred of Britain.

There was in France true affection for the Americas and the colonists, however. Franklin knew this, and he also recognized how much of France's love was a drama the French had written themselves. He served his country by playing the part of rustic virtue, wearing a fur cap and forgetting his manners, in Paris. He played for Paris liberal salons a delightful invention--the American man--created by French intellectuals as a vehicle by which Paris, France, and the King could be criticized and examined.

France sent soldiers to America, as well. The Marquis de Lafayette, young, rich, and ready to play the noble crusader for freedom in America, crossed the Atlantic to join the fight. He idolized General Washington and the gentlemen of the revolution, men like himself, ready to sacrifice themselves for popular liberty.

France sent the Haitians, who perhaps learned more in this adventure than the French ultimately found desirable. The men who returned to Saint Domingue from the American War were ready for their own revolution when the time came, and they knew how to fight their own war, their own revolution. In the end, they discovered that they did not need and did not want the French. The republic they created out of the ashes of a slave revolt formed an example to other oppressed peoples into the twentieth century. It would be a republic self-consciously black in which to be a Haitian was to be black, proclaimed as such by the constitution, regardless of the variety of one's complexion.

Britain lost; the revolutionaries won and began the grand experiment in representative government we both glory and struggle in today. This victory and this experiment echoed in, but did not determine, events in the Old World. The French Revolution was a different creature entirely. The French revolutionaries did not have the security of distance to give them time to discuss and elaborate their plans, nor to provide security from their opponents. France's revolution was to be complete, or come to nothing. It was surrounded by foreign enemies who struggled to destroy the revolution at first, and later to contain it. The French Revolution threatened Europe in a way that the American Revolution did not.

The French Revolution, like the American Revolution, was born of the Enlightenment, but this Revolution, sharing with the Americans icons of Roman republican virtue, was more than a change at the colonial periphery. The French Revolution destroyed feudalism at the center of Europe. It made a citizen of a king, tried him as a citizen, and executed him for treason. Revolutionary France had to face the same question the Russian Revolution faced in the twentieth century: What do you do with the royals once the monarchy is gone? The French solved this question openly, in public, with the executions of its king and queen, and behind closed doors with the death of their son. The Bolsheviks solved it in secrecy. As long as the royal family remained alive, they were a threat to the revolution. They would betray it, or they would be pawns in European efforts to destroy it, a center of aristocratic hopes and factions.

The French Revolution divided not only Europe, but America as well. The Federalists, led by Washington and Alexander Hamilton, were against it and the French, while the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, applauded it. Neither understood it. Europe did understand; some reacted with hope, but many more with fear as the old order was dissolved and the unknown, an apparent chaos, took over. The American Revolution was provincial, of intense interest to a vewy few, but the French Revolution changed the Old World; it was a revolution at the center.

[For a fascinating, informative look at the French Revolution from a French perspective, I recommend the masterful, multivolume (unfortunately unfinished) history by Claude Manceron, available in English translation .]


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