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Were the American and French Revolutions sister revolutions?

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

The outbreak of the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the formation of the United States as a democratic republic ushered in a new era in the history of the West. By couching their grievances against Britain in the popularized political philosophy of the Enlightenment, the Revolutionists turned America into a practical testing ground for European liberalism. Thus, the American War of Independence set the stage for the French Revolution (1789-99) not only by bankrupting and weakening the French Crown, but also by providing European liberals and republicans with a model of a viable and enlightened republic. The American and French Revolutions are thus seen by many as sister revolutions – agents of modernization in both the state and society, reflecting the rise of the middle classes, and focused on representative government, religious freedom, constitutionalism, and civil rights.

Yet the two revolutions give quite a different impression to observers. The French Revolution looks like a modern revolution (the Soviet and Chinese revolutions, for example), with traditional social structures overturned, blood in the streets, new political rhetoric, new political institutions, new leaders, redistribution of political power and of wealth, and attacks on traditional religious practices and institutions. By contrast, the American Revolution left the pre-Revolutionary social, political, ecclesiastic, and economic hierarchies and institutions intact. It was elite-led, traditionalist, and conservative; it looked back to established English custom and English law, seeking not to overthrow the inherited form of government and the society’s power structures, but to preserve them. The governments with the greatest presence, influence, and authority in colonial America – the townships, churches, and provincial legislatures of the thirteen colonies – were not threatened by the American Revolution; they led the charge.

The American and French Revolutions thus seem similar only from afar. The American Revolution aimed to stop a lawless imperial government, not to change the law; it sought to limit the power and jurisdiction of a central government and to enshrine the powers and jurisdictions of local governments. The French Revolution aimed to do the exact opposite. Both succeeded, which is why France emerged from its revolution as a centralized and authoritarian state, whereas the US emerged as a decentralized country with limited government at its center.

This difference is apparent when one compares the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of Rights. The French Declaration of Rights lists all the rights of the citizen. This list was distributed to the counties and townships to let people know what rights they have, so they can know if their rights are being violated by their local governments, courts, nobles, or churches. Citizens who suspected that that their civil rights were indeed violated were invited to report this to the French revolutionary government, which was empowered to address such violations.

The American Bill of Rights, by contrast, is a compendium of prohibitions against the central government. It does not outline the citizen’s rights, but instead lists all the things the Federal Government is not permitted to do. The central difference between the two documents is that the American Bill of Rights reflects fear of the centralized governance – it protects the citizenry from the central government. The French Declaration of Rights reflects trust in central governance – it empowers a strong interventionist central government to protect the citizenry from local government authorities. This explains why European republicanism was centralized and authoritarian (consolidating power in the national government, at the expense of local governments) and Americanism republic was decentralized, allowing local populations to govern themselves.

The English fear of concentrated, centralized power was evident in the English Civil War (1642-49), the Glorious Revolution (1688), and the Jacobite rebellions (1715, 1745). This fear moved English colonists in America to resist the imperial government in the 1760s, and to overthrow it in 1776. The French revolutionists did not share this political philosophy – they did not fear centralized power; they welcomed it.

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