Revolutions: American and French

A book that has often caught my attention is Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light by Susan Dunn. I haven’t read it nor do I plan to. The title sounds like something I’d like to read, but the blurb and reviews of it lessen my interest. I’d love to read a good analysis of these two revolutions, just maybe not this one.

I mention it because of one review to which I commented. It is Completely Biased against French Rev by A Customer. The following is my response.

The problem is not all comparisons are useful.

The French Revolution was an event more similar to the English Civil War, both about the local population overthrowing a king and a new social order attempting to violently establish itself against violent oppression. The American Revolution was also very violent, but it involved more isolated populations, including little infrastructure such as roads connecting the colonies. Even if someone wanted to, an authoritarian group couldn’t have forced its will on such a spread out and disconnected population.

Besides, the American Revolution really was just the second part to the English Civil War, bringing to fruition what had been started there. The American Civil War was the final bloody conclusion to what the founding fathers failed to do. If you consider these three together, the Anglo-American political transformation was as violent as the French Revolution. It’s just that both justice and violence was severely delayed in the Anglo-American example.

You also have to consider that the French in Canada were developing a more democratic society long before the British colonies ever attempted that degree of freedom. However, the French colonial experiment in Canada was oppressively destroyed by the British, the prerogative of empires. Furthermore, consider the Basque people from Southern France who helped inspire the republican thinking of the founding fathers.

“Referring to the historical ties that existed between the Basque Country and the United States, some authors stress the admiration felt by John Adams, second president of the US, for the Basques’ historical form of government. Adams, who on his tour of Europe visited Biscay, was impressed. He cited the Basques as an example in A defense of the Constitution of the United States, as he wrote in 1786:

“”In a research like this, after those people in Europe who have had the skill, courage, and fortune, to preserve a voice in the government, Biscay, in Spain, ought by no means to be omitted. While their neighbours have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests, this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation of Europe. Of Celtic extraction, they once inhabited some of the finest parts of the ancient Boetica; but their love of liberty, and unconquerable aversion to a foreign servitude, made them retire, when invaded and overpowered in their ancient feats, into these mountainous countries, called by the ancients Cantabria…”

“…It is a republic; and one of the privileges they have most insisted on, is not to have a king: another was, that every new lord, at his accession, should come into the country in person, with one of his legs bare, and take an oath to preserve the privileges of the lordship”.[1]

“Authors such as Navascues, and the Basque-American Pete T. Cenarrusa, former Secretary of the State of Idaho, agree in stressing the influence of the Forua of Biscay

on some parts of the US Constitution. John Adams traveled in 1779 to Europe to study and compare the various forms of government then found on the Old Continent. The American Constitution was approved by the first thirteen states on 17 September 1787.”

The French had their own traditions of republicanism, self-governance and social democracy. History is complex. Why some traditions come to the forefront and others get suppressed is impossible to predict in advance, but easy to see with hindsight as somehow being inevitable, some kind of inherent character. Reality is to complicated for the simple stories we project onto it.

Some say the French Revolution was a failure. Many others would say the same thing about the American Revolution. Paine saw both revolutions with his own eyes and participated in both. Without his inspiration, the American Revolution likely would never have gone anywhere.

Yet, the American Revolution was taken over by plutocrats and oligarchs, hardly a victory to be celebrated. We continue to suffer from the oppressive ruling elite that established itself after the revolution. The oppressive police state we have seen grow with the Cold War and the War on Terror is simply the endgame of the average American having lost the American Revolution. The society we have was built by the winners.

Here is a passage from The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America by Barbara Clark Smith (Kindle Locations 2707-2813):

Mass demonstrations, committee meetings, and crowd actions were more than central to the resistance movement. These experiences were also critical to Americans’ capacity to imagine independence from Great Britain. We see this clearly in the text that many historians credit with placing independence in the forefront of American thinking: Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense.

In retrospect, the colonists may seem to have been slow to consider separation from the mother country. True, by the close of 1775, faith in Britain was at low ebb. In April, British soldiers and colonial militiamen had clashed at Lexington and Concord. Men from throughout New England had gathered to contain the British troops in Boston. In June, both sides had suffered significant losses at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Over the summer, the Second Continental Congress found itself petitioning for peace but conducting a war. Congressmen quickly adopted New England’s provisional forces into a Continental army and placed the Virginian, George Washington, in command. Through fall and early winter, Washington and his men held the hills around Boston harbor in a wary standoff with British forces occupying the city. Even still, many colonists treasured their ties to Britain. Then, in January 1776, Paine’s pamphlet came off the press in Philadelphia. A second edition appeared in February, and printers in New York, Boston, Salem, Newport, Hartford, Lancaster, Norwich, Albany, and Providence all issued copies within a few months’ time. With this publication, Paine helped shift colonial discussion from reconciliation with Britain toward independence.

One element of Paine’s success was rhetorical: his work was brilliantly written and forcefully argued. Did some speak respectfully of the drama of the state? Paine wrote of government as a “puppet show,” a genre known and understood by every apprentice who had wasted time in Philadelphia streets. Paine powerfully endorsed the capacities of ordinary Americans. Common men themselves might consider and decide matters of political right and political wrong, even to issues of empire, monarchy, and the very forms of government. Paine carried this conviction through four chapters, never explicitly confronting the conventional view of cobblers and farmers but rendering it moot. Rather than defend the commonalty, he wrote as if their competence were unquestioned.134

Yet Paine’s success reflected as well an ability to fathom the extraordinary political process taking place around him and the unprecedented possibilities that it introduced. Over the resistance years, Americans witnessed, read about, and took part in repeated public negotiations that exercised and affirmed their capacities as neighbors and countrymen. In mass gatherings, local governments, and local committees, merely common men of merely common sense had become increasingly accustomed to exercising political discretion and wielding political power. New men had argued and acted along with more experienced local leaders in official and unofficial bodies. Common tradesmen and farmers had stood in judgment of men who were their social superiors, and they had grown accustomed to receiving deferential hearing from merchants, lawyers, and other educated members of the Patriot elite. When writers in the press scoffed at their abilities, ordinary men had found articulate replies and allies among their betters. For such men, Common Sense reverberated deeply. It assumed and extended the most liberating premise of Patriot practice: the sufficiency of ordinary men and ordinary knowledge.135

At the same time, Common Sense confirmed another belief central to the resistance: the power and virtue of affection, the security to be found in the social bonds that united disparate households into community and society. “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” Later thinkers might employ Paine’s phrase to argue for individual rights against the state or for policies of laissez-faire. Yet in 1776, Paine meant something rather different, and something rather more, for what mattered in that crucible year was the strength of colonial societies, understood primarily as arenas of obligation and mutual commitment rather than individuality.

For Paine, as for other Patriots, what was good about society was its web of commitments. Society “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,” he wrote. Unified affections were the very basis of any connection among people, the very ground of political identity. Paine accordingly argued that political allegiance depended on powerful social bonds that transcended mere interest to include sentiments of mutuality and sympathy. Paine offered reasons why the colonies should separate from England and reasons why their strength arose from union with one another. Did some colonists feel gratitude for occasions when Britain had protected the colonies? Their feelings were misplaced, for when Britain defended colonial borders and colonial shipping, “her motive was interest, not attachment.”136 In this logic, self-interest might bind individuals or groups into alliance, but true political unity depended on a deeper tie. Only attachment could join different neighborhoods, towns, counties, or provinces into a single people. “Present convenience” was not enough. Political unity derived from such “feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life.”137 And though such feelings no longer subsisted between the colonies and Britain, colonists from different provinces, he maintained, did enjoy such confidence in and feeling for one another.138

Indeed, despite their manifest differences, had not many colonists of different regions, social classes, and religious beliefs forged a sense of sameness and commonality, precisely through their shared, public pursuit of the Patriot cause? There had been common resolutions of different provincial assemblies; committees chosen by hundreds of towns and counties in different parts of the continent; a gathering and acquiescence of different ranks in real and symbolic punishments, rituals that testified that every Son and Daughter of Liberty detested unconstitutional laws, overreaching officials, and invidious distinctions among neighbors and could be counted on to oppose them all. There had been renewed engagement with one another in commitment to fair and mutually beneficial exchange. In the pages of Patriot newspapers, colonists could read of one another’s actions and resolutions; they could know themselves to be part of a larger movement, a community of the like-minded and the like-hearted. If Americans could dispense with loyalty to England, it was because they possessed an equally powerful allegiance that could take its place.139

Readers responded to Common Sense with a sense of recognition and liberation. And no wonder. Here is Paine’s description of a hypothetical group of people (he called them “colonists”) beginning in an original state of “natural liberty.” Such people would quickly form a society, prompted by “a thousand motives” to “seek assistance and relief” from each other. Only when some individuals, weak in their “attachment” to their fellows, acted out of selfish motives would the colonists move toward the discipline of rudimentary government. Then, said Paine, “Some convenient tree will afford them a State-House, under the branches of which the whole colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem.”140 Could readers in British North America fail to recognize their own social and political movement in these lines? Here, surely, was the Patriot system of resistance, the meetings beneath Liberty Trees, assemblies of the many who regulated behavior with the threat of “public disesteem.” What were Patriots doing, then, other than forming a new society, laying the ground for a new political union? Americans could imagine a future of unity, cooperation, mutual benefit, and widespread prosperity. Perhaps they might rest secure in their mutual social, economic, and political ties. Paine’s pages made manifest this lesson of Patriot pacts, for all those who had been taking part in their towns, counties, and provinces. They stood at an extraordinary, pristine, and precious moment.

By spring of ’76, Paine’s words and the actions of George III worked together to convince many colonists of the need to separate from Britain. From the first, colonists had sought to recall the British people to the special relationship that they had assumed bound them to one another. Surely, the colonists believed, when Englishmen realized that Parliament’s policies would cause suffering among their brethren across the Atlantic, they would relent. But the intransigence of British policy makers prompted reconsideration. They came to realize, the Reverend Ezra Stiles said, that repeal of the Stamp Act had not come, after all, from “generous fraternal principles.” With the Townshend Acts, wrote Benjamin Franklin from London, many colonists “reflected how lightly the interest of all America had been estimated here, when the interests of a few of the inhabitants of Great Britain happened to have the smallest competition with it.”141 The British set themselves apart by “their total unfeeling neglect of the most essential concerns of us Americans,” wrote a South Carolinian. New Yorkers noted that the colonies had lost “confidence in the Tenderness of Great Britain.”142 Lingering hopes for reconciliation dwindled in the face of English policy. White southerners recoiled when they heard that the ministry was considering plans “for instigating the slaves to insurrection.” And in the wake of bloody combat between regulars and civilians, there came the news that George III, “with the pretended title of Father of his People,” was dispatching more troops against them.143 From a Patriot perspective, the parent country was guilty of a fundamental failure of feeling. It was Britain that renounced the historic connection, through lack of affection, tenderness, and fraternity. Joined with that belief was another: the security that England failed to offer, the colonists might provide for one another. In June 1776, the Second Continental Congress delegated it to a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to find the precise words.

In this way the Declaration of Independence was made possible by countless prior declarations of neighborly interdependence, declarations made in local meetings, in committee chambers, beneath Liberty Tree, in the press, in the hearing of a broad public. These were declarations made when the well-to-do passed up fancy imported gloves for more common American-made; when colonial women held spinning bees, sacrificed imported tea, and spent their time processing flax instead of buying fine cloth from European merchants. They were declarations made by college students who gave up liquors and merchants and storekeepers who gave up profits when commodities were in short supply. Such acts testified to faith in an ultimately common interest, a common commitment to regard no private interest apart from the whole.

Let me be clear: Patriots surely feared dependency. Their worries about vassalage and slavery were real ones. They feared the seductions of addictive consumer goods. They worried about the dangers of femininity seen in some women’s abandonment of household production and their entry into fashionable consumption. Dependence on the wealthy and powerful, indebtedness to strangers rather than neighbors-these would result in “the slavery and ignorance of the many.” Yet Patriots developed in detail and in practice, and through coercion and publicity, a potent critique of the sort of individual independence that many Americans in the nineteenth century would celebrate. For though the ideal voter and the ideal representative were each independent-not servile, not beholden to great men-that idea did not imply boundless endorsement of private judgment, individual dissent, or private accumulation of property. On the contrary: as Patriots saw it, securing the independence of the many required limits on the independence of the few.

In this context, independence meant sufficient wherewithal to allow dissent from the mighty and powerful; it did not imply independence from the locality, from the opinions of one’s neighbors, from a jury of one’s peers, or “the Tribunal of the Publick.”144 Patriots thus endorsed independence from the powerful, the wealthy, the would-be oppressor, but they opposed-sometimes violently-the independence of individuals from the judgments, standards, and interests of their neighbors. The distinction was logical and necessary for anyone who understood freedom as a matter of social arrangements, a social distribution of property. “It will be highly politic, in every free state, to keep property as equally divided among the inhabitants as possible,” said one Connecticut clergyman in 1773, “and not to suffer a few persons to amass all the riches and wealth of a country,” for the wealthy would soon control everyone else.145 Mutual dependence on neighbors represented the sole way for ordinary households to remain free of dependence on greater men. The alternative to “vassalage” and “lordships”-to the dependence of the lowly many on the exalted few-was the mutual dependence and association of the roughly equal. Within rough equality, there was room for rough inequality, so long as such inequality was countered by a shared status of inhabitant, subject, fellow, or neighbor, by constantly acknowledged and presumably continuing relationships with one another. So the tradesmen of New York might challenge the merchants: “Who is the Member of the Community that is absolutely independent of the rest?”146 No one, was the answer, and it followed that no one group might pursue its way without reference to or consultation with the others. Patriots did not require social leveling; they did require arrangements and institutions that secured ongoing mutual commitment and accountability. The independent nation and the empire that many Americans imagined would look much like a neighborhood writ large. The liberty that they sought thus required more than the absence of parliamentary oppression; it required the presence and vitality of neighborly relationships in their own societies.

6 thoughts on “Revolutions: American and French

  1. I was recently looking at some of the data for the two revolutions. I was specifically looking at casualties. My purpose was to try to find a way to do a total comparison. It is challenging.

    Let me put all the numbers in context.

    The 13 British colonies in America that revolted included a population of around 2,400,000 in 1775. France had a population of 24-26 million with 650,000 just in Paris alone. So, the Parisian population was more than a quarter of the entire American population.

    The American Revolution killed 25-70,000 American colonists, both rebels and loyalists. Another 31,000 British soldiers died. On top of that, there were around 24,000 casualties of Hessians, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Native Americans.

    The French Revolution is a bit more complex. It was a larger population and a geographically larger country with diverse large regions. Plus, a number of other countries were trying to topple the new revolutionary government.

    Still, the casualties were relatively low. There were only 40,000 dead from the Reign of Terror. The bloodiest violence was in Vendee, which had a death toll of at least 80,000 and possibly as high as 600,000 (the largest number is surely inaccurate, as recent estimates put it at 170,000).

    Let me try to make it a fair comparison. I’m going to only use the above population numbers for the thirteen colonies, since most of the British population wasn’t actually involved in fighting in the American Revolution. For that reason, I will only include the deaths of Americans (i.e., the colonial rebels and loyalists) and not the total casualties of all the British and non-British who fought.

    The French population during the French Revolution was about 10 times larger as the American population during the American Revolution. However, the casualties during the French Revolution were only 5 times larger than the casualties of the American Revolution.

    So, per capita, the French Revolution was far less deadly than the American Revolution. This is true no matter which numbers are used, whether the lowest or highest casualty counts for both revolutions. Plus, the violence of the French Revolution tended to be concentrated only in particular areas while some regions saw few deaths whereas the American Revolution was more evenly violent across all of the thirteen colonies.

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