One of the many differences between the American and French Revolutions is that, unlike the French, Americans did not fight for an abstraction. Americans initially took up arms against the British to defend and preserve the traditional rights of Englishmen. The slogan “no taxation without representation” aptly summed up one of their chief complaints. The right to not be taxed without the consent of your elected representatives was one of the most prized rights of Englishmen. When this became impossible to achieve within the British Empire, Americans declared their independence and then won it on the battlefield. That is, Americans fought for tangible goals; they fought to preserve their traditional rights rather than to overturn an established social order. Ours was a revolution more about home rule than about who should rule at home.
However, the French Revolution was about who should rule at home. They fought for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Neither equality nor fraternity can be achieved through force by the state. Perfect equality is elusive and, even if it could be achieved, would be inconsistent with liberty. Whereas Americans struggled for tangible goals, the French took on the Sisyphean task of striving for abstractions.
Yes, the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence deals in abstractions and universal truths. However, it is important to keep in mind the Declaration’s historical context. The signers of the Declaration did not think they were establishing a national government or founding a national Union when they signed it. There is not one shred of evidence in the historical record that they believed they had founded either a national government or a permanent Union upon the Declaration’s self-evident truths. They understood that they were signing their names to a document that simply explained why it had become “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” and that declared “the causes which impel them to the separation.” The Declaration was a document of dissolution. That is, it de-founded an empire, it did not found a new one. In the Declaration, thirteen constitutional political societies declared why it had become necessary for them to sever the political bands which had connected them to England.
After winning their independence Americans turned to the concrete lessons of history and experience to guide them in securing their liberty by establishing government on a solid foundation. “Experience must be our only guide,” John Dickinson reminded his colleagues at the Philadelphia Convention. “Reason may mislead us.” They sought not to create something new under the sun. Human reason, they knew, was fallible. Reason alone, unguided by history and experience, was likely to lead one into wild abstractions and the creation of an unstable government. Under such a government, novel and untested, liberty would not be secure. The only safe path forward was to look to history and allow experience to guide their reason.
Experience was “the best oracle of wisdom” and “the least fallible guide of human opinions,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist. James Madison, his collaborator, concurred. Experience was “the oracle of truth” and “the guide that ought always to be followed whenever it can be found,” wrote Madison. Experience would help prevent reason from leading them astray.
The French, on the other hand, deified Reason above not only experience, but also above religion and divine revelation. Indeed, they even transformed Notre Dame into a Temple of Reason and held pseudo-religious festivals in honor of this new deity. Reason unrestrained and unguided by history and experience proved unable to establish stable government or to secure liberty in France. Instead, it led them to descend into the Terror, the reign of Napoleon, and, ultimately, to the restoration of the monarchy.
Wendell Berry was right about abstraction: “abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found.” Let us turn instead, as America’s Founders did, to experience. “That experience is the parent of wisdom,” explained Hamilton, “is an adage, the truth of which is recognized by the wisest as well as the simplest of mankind.”
- Quoted in Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1985), 7.
- Alexander Hamilton, “Number 15” and “Number 6,” in The Federalist, ed. by George W. Carey and James McClellan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2001), 73, 23.
- James Madison, “Number 20” and “Number 52,” in The Federalist, 99, 273.
- Wendell Berry, “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 23.
- Hamilton, “Number 72,” in The Federalist, 376.
Published: Sep 14, 2013
Both the American Revolution and French Revolution were the products of Enlightenment ideals that emphasized the idea of natural rights and equality. With such an ideological basis, it becomes clear when one sets out to compare the French Revolution and American Revolution that people felt the need to be free from oppressive or tyrannical rule of absolute monarchs and have the ability to live independent from such forces. The leadership in both countries at the time of their revolutions was certainly repressive, especially in terms of taxation. Both areas suffered social and economic hardships that led to the realization that something must be done to topple the hierarchy and put power back into the hands of the people.While there are several similarities in these revolutions, there are also a few key differences. This comparison essay on the French and American Revolutions seeks to explore the parallels as well as the divisions that are present in both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The political climate in France during its revolution was quite different than that in America simply because there was not a large war that had just ended in America (while in France the Seven Years War had nearly devastated the French monarchy’s coffers). Furthermore, although the lower and middle classes were generally the majority of the rebelling populace, there was far more upper class support for the revolution in France versus the participation of loyalists in America.
One of the most important similarities between both the American Revolution and French Revolutions was that there was a growing dissent among the people aimed at the monarchy and its associated elite and aristocrats. Even though they were powerful in both France and America at the start of each revolution, their strangleholds on both the people and economies of each nation were weakening. For instance, “In 1763 Britain was on the very pinnacle of worldwide power and her old enemies were seemingly prostrate. At the same time, however, the nation was beset with political instability and was stumbling on the edge of bankruptcy" (Jensen 4). The reaction against the British monarchy in America only served to further weaken it and although it may have been strong in other parts of the world, the continued resistance exemplified by events such as the Boston Tea party and other revolutionary acts against the crown were taking their toll.By the time the American Revolution was strong and the war was beginning, Britain’s defenses were already down since they had so quickly lost the vast amount of power they had gained in the pre-revolutionary years. In France and in the case of the French Revolution, it was much the same and although some of the reasons differed for the revolution, on the whole, it was a very similar attack against the monarchy. “In the eighteenth century, the French bourgeoisie had become aware of the increasing disparity between its wealth and social usefulness, on the one hand, and its social prestige and opportunities on the other. It way was blocked and recognition of its worth was denied by a decaying class of parasitic, hereditary privileged, noble landowners. Its vitality was further jeopardized by a monarchy not only committed to antiquated aristocratic values, but also incapable of giving the country that firm yet benignly restrained direction under which the initiative of men of business might flourish" (Lucas 84). Just as in America, it was the middle and lower classes involved in the revolution and although the loyalists in America had a sound following, the demographics of the revolution were essentially the same.