Front Page Titles (by Subject) The French and American Revolutions Compared - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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The French and American Revolutions Compared - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The French and American Revolutions Compared
Representative government, a tradition of well-established civil and political liberties, and the heritage of the common law are only three of the more important examples of English political and legal institutions that passed into the civil social order of the United States. The Congress, the Bill of Rights, and the American system of law and justice today are all the products of British experience and political thought going back more than seven centuries.
Although the Framers of the American Constitution declared that they were creating a new political order for a new age, they never thought of repudiating their American past, their British past, or their classical past. On the floor of the Federal Convention, and in the State ratifying conventions, the leading men repeatedly appealed to examples from ancient times and from English history, and a few even relied upon philosophers of earlier centuries to support their views. They were seeking to preserve their ancestral America.
The wisdom of the Framers and their attachment to the political and moral heritage of Hebraic, classical, and British cultures, combined with the American experience, prevented them from falling into the ruinous political errors that, only two years after the Constitution was written, French reformers would begin to commit. Initially, the French Revolution that began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille (a prison in Paris that had come to symbolize the oppression of the “ancient regime”) was hailed by many in Europe and America as the dawn of a new era and the triumph of liberty over tyranny and injustice. Not a few, including many Frenchmen, likened it to the American Revolution, which was said to have set the example and provided the inspiration. But as time passed and political developments in France indicated that limited constitutional government was not the aim of the Jacobin revolutionaries, public opinion began to turn against the French. As early as 1790, Edmund Burke warned in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France that the revolution was doomed to failure because its leaders sought a radical break with the past and were attempting to create a whole new society based on visionary theories of government. The French, he asserted, were attempting not to restore their ancient liberties, but to set up a new order for all mankind based on what the French called the Rights of Man. Unfamiliar with constitutional government, lacking experience in parliamentary institutions and practices, having no solid grasp of the meaning and substance of the rights the English and Americans had come to know, the French naively believed they could leap over centuries of historical development and instantaneously create an enlightened political system never before experienced by any civilization. The whole scheme of things, thought Burke, was hopelessly idealistic and dangerous.
Not the least of his concerns was the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which lacked any constitutional base of support and therefore amounted to little more than words on paper. As interpreted by revolutionary leaders, the rights themselves—“liberté, egalité et fraternité”—called for a complete leveling of society, the abolition of all social classes and distinctions, including the elimination of the clergy, and a redistribution of the wealth. In pursuit of these goals, the Jacobins plunged the nation into what came to be called the Reign of Terror. Death stalked the countryside. Mass executions, murder, cruelty, and human atrocities of every description became the order of the day. France, once the pride of Europe and the hallmark of Western civilization, plummeted into a state of barbarism—on a scale never before thought possible. Thus was born the first modern revolution, the dress rehearsal, it is sometimes said, for the Russian Revolution of 1917.
During the Reign of Terror, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, who had been a leading member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, was the American Minister to France. Shocked by what he saw, he began sending home reports to American political leaders. Writing in 1792 to Robert Morris, another Pennsylvania delegate to the Convention, he related on one occasion that the owner of a French quarry had demanded damages because so many corpses had been dumped into his quarry that they “choked it up so he could not get men to work in it.” These victims, he continued, were “the best people,” killed “without form of trial, and their bodies thrown like dead dogs into the first hole that offered.” Other accounts of the Revolution by Gouverneur Morris were equally alarming: “(September 2, 1792) the murder of the priests … murder of prisoners. … (September 3) The murdering continues all day. … (September 4) And still the murders continue.”
Eyewitness accounts such as these, and tales of unspeakable horror and brutality told by other foreign visitors to France, confirmed the darkest suspicions of Edmund Burke, and as news about the fate of the French Revolution spread across Europe and North America, so also did Burke’s fame and influence. That Burke, who had defended the claims of the American colonists and steadfastly opposed all policies calculated to reduce private liberties or centralize the authority of the crown, should turn against the French Revolution puzzled many of his contemporaries when his Reflections first appeared. Had he not sided with American revolutionaries and argued that Americans were entitled to the rights of Englishmen? How, then, could he oppose the French claim for liberty? There seemed to be an inconsistency. Those who thought so misunderstood Burke, however, and, unlike Burke, also misunderstood the French and American revolutions.
Much of this confusion over the similarities and differences between the two revolutions was laid to rest by Friedrich Gentz, a German diplomat who served as an advisor to Clemens von Metternich, the great chancellor of the Hapsburg Empire. It was Metternich who presided over the Congress of Vienna, the famous international peace conference of 1815 that succeeded in restoring lasting peace in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. Gentz was one of Burke’s most ardent admirers on the continent, and in 1794 translated Burke’s Reflections into German. In 1800, Gentz published an important essay of his own, The French and American Revolutions. That same year, John Quincy Adams translated this work into English and arranged for its publication in Philadelphia.
Picking up where Burke had finished, Gentz defended the American Revolution as a constitutional struggle for political independence, the restoration of the rights of Englishmen, and the establishment of self-government. The American Revolution, he observed, was not an internal conflict, pitting Americans against Americans, but a military effort to throw off the yoke of foreign oppression. “The American revolution,” he concluded, “had more the appearance of a foreign than a civil war,” or what we would today call a rebellion. Moreover, the war was limited primarily to military engagements between British and American militia. There was no war against the general population, although many Americans lost their lives and property; and neither British nor American forces engaged in wholesale acts of savage brutality, mayhem, and murder. “If in America,” said Gentz, “single families and districts felt the heavy hand of the revolution and of war, never at least, as in France, were confiscations, banishments, imprisonments, and death decreed in a mass.” Having driven the British from American soil, “the country proceeded with rapid steps to a new, a happy, and a flourishing constitution” that enjoyed popular support throughout the country. In retrospect, it could be seen that “the revolution altered little in the internal organization of the colonies, as it only dissolved the external connection, which the Americans must always have considered rather as a burden.”
In contrast, the French Revolution was a true civil war. Its goal was not to expel a foreign enemy, but to overthrow the government of France and establish a new political order for all of Europe. As the Revolution progressed, its Jacobin rulers thought it necessary to erase all vestiges of the past and abolish the ancient institutions of France without any clear understanding of what would replace them. They even abolished the calendar and renamed the days of the week. Professing equality and fraternity, they addressed each other as “citizen.” In a mad frenzy, they set out to destroy the entire social fabric of France, including all traces of the Christian religion. Following the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793, they turned on the aristocracy and the clergy. Those who escaped capture fled the country. The rest were marched to the guillotine, a new and efficient decapitating device first conceived by a French doctor to reduce extended suffering and speed up mass executions. Eventually all classes, including the peasants, fell victim to the Revolution. During the Reign of Terror in 1793, when Maximillian Robespierre was in charge of the Committee of Public Safety, it is estimated that 4,554 persons were put to death by revolutionary courts. In 1794, Robespierre himself felt the executioner’s blade. In this bloody revolution, it has been said, France was at war not only with itself but with Western civilization. “With regard to the lawfulness of the origin, character of the conduct, quality of the object, and compass of resistance,” Gentz concluded, “every parallel” drawn between the French and American revolutions “will serve much more to display the contrast than the resemblance between them.”
What is the significance of these distinctions in understanding the origin and nature of the American Constitution? Above all, they help us put in proper perspective the political values and aspirations of American revolutionary leaders. This is important to know, because the men who led the “revolution” also wrote the Constitution, with George Washington at the helm not only as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army but also as President of the Constitutional Convention. The American Constitution was, in effect, the culmination of the American Revolution, and it is through the Constitution that the goals of the revolution were finally achieved.
The American Revolution, viewed in historical perspective, was a constitutional revolt in the English tradition. From virtually every standpoint, the American republic founded in 1787 was really more like the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain than any of the early republics of France. And the French have attempted five since 1789, as well as virtually every other form of government—the Fifth Republic, founded by Charles De Gaulle in 1958 being the first to establish stable government and show real promise, and that because it incorporates some key features of the American Constitution, including judicial review. But in the eighteenth century the French and the Americans had very different ideas about the role and limits of government, about democracy and republicanism, and especially about constitutionalism.
Probably the widest gulf between them, however, concerned the question of individual rights. The Americans fought for and secured the common law rights of Englishmen, whereas the French, much influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau and other radical French philosophers of the Enlightenment, dreamed of the Rights of Man. Deemed to be the natural rights of all mankind but having no practical base in human experience, let alone that of France, they were reduced by the French revolutionaries to the political slogan of “liberté, egalité et fraternité.” Assuming that all individuals are “by nature” good but have been “corrupted” by man’s institutions, the French believed that by eradicating the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the church, and by erasing the past, this natural goodness would surface and everyone would enjoy a perfect state of strifeless equality. There would then be no need for limited government, or as some believed, for any government at all, because there would be no need to be protected against naturally virtuous citizens. Nor would there be rich and poor, or social classes based on economic distinctions, because all property would be held in common once man reverted to a natural state of equality—“natural,” they said, because the state of nature, antedating the first government in prehistorical times, was thought to be the original and true condition of mankind.
The system thus envisioned by French revolutionary leaders approximated a form of philosophical anarchy and glorified a communal system of collective living in a “classless society,” a theory that later achieved a more sophisticated expression in the writings of Karl Marx and the Russian revolutionaries of the twentieth century. This utopian scheme never came to fruition, of course, because it was wholly at odds with the true nature of man. The French Revolution, lacking any sensible direction, rapidly degenerated into chaos. A national madness gripped the country, which eventually gave rise to totalitarianism and military dictatorship. With the French Revolution of 1789 we enter upon modern European history. To understand that revolution is to understand the history of the modern world. To understand the American Revolution is to understand why the American Constitution has survived and so many others, much influenced by the ideas and events of Jacobin France, have failed.
The American revolutionaries suffered none of the delusions of their unfortunate counterparts in France. There were a few Americans and British, notably Thomas Paine and the English Unitarian minister Dr. Richard Price, who championed the French Revolution, but they were part of a small and shrinking minority. Seeking to refute Burke, Paine published The Rights of Man in 1791, insisting that Burke’s view of rights was contrary to reason and that his misgivings were unfounded. “Notwithstanding Mr. Burke’s horrid paintings,” said Paine, “when the French Revolution is compared with that of other countries, the astonishment will be that it is marked by so few sacrifices.” Traveling to Paris to join the Revolution, Paine was at first honored by the revolutionists as “Citizen Tom Paine,” only to be thrown into prison, barely escaping France with his life.
The French Revolution left the nation bitter and divided for more than a century. The American people, however, emerged from their struggle united and free. Thus from the beginning American Constitution-makers had the general support of their countrymen. The principles of government they espoused during the Revolution and implemented after the British surrender at Yorktown were widely shared in every town and village. It was on the basis of this remarkable consensus, this serene moment of creation, this fertile ground of American political experience, that the new Constitution was established. Had the Americans fought their revolution a decade later and followed the French rather than the English example, it may be doubted whether the American Constitution, or any other, would have long endured. But history smiled upon the American people. Time and circumstance and the political wisdom of the Founders combined fortuitously to rescue them from the fate of the French republic. No tree of liberty has ever enjoyed a greater chance of survival than the Constitution that germinated in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. This is because it was deeply rooted in a constitutional tradition favorable to liberty, order, and justice more than five hundred years in the making.