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Condorcet on why the French revolution was more violent than the American (1794)

While in prison possibly awaiting execution during the Terror, Condorcet wrote a history of the progress of humanity. In Epoch Nine he notes how the American Revolution influenced the French but explains why the French was more violent:

It was more complete, more entire than that of America, and of consequence was attended with greater convulsions in the interior of the nation, because the Americans, satisfied with the code of civil and criminal legislation which they had derived from England, having no corrupt system of finance to reform, no feodal tyrannies, no hereditary distinctions, no privileges of rich and powerful corporations, no system of religious intolerance to destroy, had only to direct their attention to the establishment of new powers to be substituted in the place of those hitherto exercised over them by the British government. In these innovations there was nothing that extended to the mass of the people, nothing that altered the subsisting relations formed between individuals: whereas the French revolution, for reasons exactly the reverse, had to embrace the whole economy of society, to change every social relation, to penetrate to the smallest link of the political chain, even to those individuals, who, living in peace upon their property, or by their industry, were equally unconnected with public commotions, whether by their opinions and their occupations, or by the interests of fortune, of ambition, or of glory.

In this state of things it could not be long before the transatlantic revolution must find its imitators in the European quarter of the world. And if there existed a country in which, from attachment to their cause, the writings and principles of the Americans were more widely disseminated than in any other part of Europe; a country at once the most enlightened, and the least free; in which philosophers had soared to the sublimest pitch of intellectual attainment, and the government was sunk in the deepest and most intolerable ignorance; where the spirit of the laws was so far below the general spirit and illumination, that national pride and inveterate prejudice were alike ashamed of vindicating the old institutions: if, I say, there existed such a country, were not the people of that country destined by the very nature of things, to give the first impulse to this revolution, expected by the friends of humanity with such eager impatience, such ardent hope? Accordingly it was to commence with France.

The impolicy and unskilfulness of the French government hastened the event. It was guided by the hand of philosophy, and the popular force destroyed the obstacles that otherwise might have arrested its progress.

It was more complete, more entire than that of America, and of consequence was attended with greater convulsions in the interior of the nation, because the Americans, satisfied with the code of civil and criminal legislation which they had derived from England, having no corrupt system of finance to reform, no feodal tyrannies, no hereditary distinctions, no privileges of rich and powerful corporations, no system of religious intolerance to destroy, had only to direct their attention to the establishment of new powers to be substituted in the place of those hitherto exercised over them by the British government. In these innovations there was nothing that extended to the mass of the people, nothing that altered the subsisting relations formed between individuals: whereas the French revolution, for reasons exactly the reverse, had to embrace the whole economy of society, to change every social relation, to penetrate to the smallest link of the political chain, even to those individuals, who, living in peace upon their property, or by their industry, were equally unconnected with public commotions, whether by their opinions and their occupations, or by the interests of fortune, of ambition, or of glory.

About this Quotation:

It is hard to imagine a man imprisoned for his beliefs and waiting execution by guillotining writing such an optimistic account of the progress which humanity had already made (Epochs 1 to 9) and the even greater possibilities which the enjoyment of greater liberty would provide in the future (Epoch 10). Condorcet wrote Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind before dying mysteriously in prison in March 1794. He was probably beaten to death by his Jacobin guards. He embodied the optimism of the liberal constitutionalists who were active in the early phase of the French Revolution and who believed that fundamental reforms of French society could be introduced by an enlightened government led by people like himself. He was on the radical edge of this group with his advocacy of the right of women to vote and participate in government, a view which was not shared by most of his colleagues. As he was sitting in prison he no doubt reflected on why the French version of the revolution which had swept the English colonies in North America was heading towards ever increasing violence. His conclusion was that the forces of opposition in the aristocracy and the Old Regime in France were much greater than anything the Americans had had to overcome. In France everything had to be changed if reforms were to be introduced, hence “convulsions” were necessary and were to be expected.

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