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The American and French Revolutions: Comparison and Contrast

Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 25 years.

In the same year that the American Republic began, the French Revolution started. Should these two revolutions, American and French, be acclaimed as "similar"?

In the same year that the American Republic began, the French Revolution started. Should these two revolutions, American and French, be acclaimed as "similar"?

Introduction

At first glance, it seems that the American and French Revolutions had a lot in common. After all, both took place around the same time. Both championed the desire for republican government and the principles of liberty. And many Americans promoted the French Revolution, and the Americans were indebted to the French who advanced their revolution, providing both money and material to the cause.

In fact, it's common in academia to treat the revolutions as being more alike than different. However, the historical record reveals that these two revolutions began from different premises and their results were even more divergent than their premises. This essay is devoted to providing a contrast to the American and French Revolutions, with a conclusion that these were two very different events.

Samuel Adams has been called the "Father of the American Revolution." Some have suggested that the expression "American Revolution" is a misnomer and that the movement should be rightfully called the "American War for Independence."

Samuel Adams has been called the "Father of the American Revolution." Some have suggested that the expression "American Revolution" is a misnomer and that the movement should be rightfully called the "American War for Independence."

A Revolution By Any Other Name...

The American Revolutionary War….

That’s what we often call it. It was, after all, a revolution, wasn’t it?

Was it?

If the French Revolution is the benchmark for how revolutions go, then the American Revolution was not a revolution at all.

First, consider the American Revolution. It's ironic that the roots of the American Revolution were British. Before the Americans get their Declaration of Independence in 1776, the British led the way with the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and the English Bill of Rights, documents that reasserted the rights of subjects against the arbitrary rule of kings, like the Stuart tyrants of the seventeenth century.

Like their counterparts in England, many Americans of the eighteenth century self-identified as “Whigs”, those that opposed the tyranny of monarchy and desired a republican form of government. Their resistance against the British began shortly after the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763 and culminated with those shots “heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord, about twelve years later. Indeed, our “revolution” was long in coming. The most radical act occurred in 1773 when otherwise reasonable men dressed up like the natives and dumped British tea into Boston Harbor in the celebrated Boston Tea Party.

Marie Antoinette, pictured, at the age of thirteen. The French queen was just one of the innocent victims of the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette, pictured, at the age of thirteen. The French queen was just one of the innocent victims of the French Revolution.

A Mob By Any Other Name...

For all of its mob-like appearances, however, the Boston Tea Party was characteristically uncharacteristic. The decision to dump the tea into the Harbor was not the product of roaming mobs. Rather it was a deliberated act; in fact, the tea was the only victim that night (except for a busted lock which Ben Franklin insisted be replaced). When one man stole some of the tea, he was punished by the colony.

In terms of violent behavior, the American Revolution can’t hold a candle to the French Revolution. Compared to the antics of the French Revolution, the infamous Tea Party in Boston was like the sisters at the convent sneaking into the dorm of the rival convent and shorting their sheets. The French Revolution was one of the most senseless bloodlettings ever to occur in the name of freedom. From the time the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille until the rise of Napoleon, thousands in France were senselessly murdered, including France’s hapless king, Louis XVI and his consort, Marie Antoinette.

But isn't one man's terrorist another man's freedom fighter? Well, look at it this way: it's hard to imagine George Washington denouncing the Christian religion, Thomas Jefferson cutting a man’s head off, holding it up to the crowd for a cheer or putting the head on a pike to be paraded around the streets of Boston or John Adams eating the heart of his enemy.

The fact is that there are many contrasts that can be made between these two revolutions. The Americans were trying to preserve their traditions of representative government and self-imposed taxation; for the French, everything that had to do with the ancien régime was repugnant and had to be uprooted, even its religion. The French Revolution was a conflict rooted in envy with desperate peasants whipped into a frenzy. The Americans, in contrast, did not envy the British; they wanted to be left alone, to chart their own political destiny. In contrast to the American symbol of liberty, the Liberty Bell, we have the French symbol of liberty, the guillotine.

As for the literary contribution, France gave the world a Declaration of Rights, a claim to entitlements, grounded in human reason; the American founding fathers gave their people a Declaration of Independence, a declaration of responsibility, grounded in self-evident truths. With the Declaration of Independence, America’s founding fathers were saying,“We have outgrown the role of a child in a paternalistic government. We are responsible and ready to stand on our own and take our place among the nations.” Previously, the colonies had existed in a state of "salutary neglect" for over a century. They were getting along fairly well without British meddling. They were making their own laws and living by their own wits. As Jefferson put it, it was time “to dissolve the political bands which had connected them with another.”

As for the French Revolution, the zealots of the movement imposed a “Cult of Reason." They tried to remove all vestiges of religion, like changing the seven-day week and removing religious holidays from the calendar (like Easter and Christmas). They were even mandating that priests be “uncelebate.” The ACLU would have been in heaven if they could have witnessed this secular spree run amok (except they don’t believe in heaven…).

It is true that the French Revolution and American Revolution have their roots in contract theory. However, the contact theory offered by Jean Rousseau (above) is very different than the one offered by British philosopher, John Locke (below).

It is true that the French Revolution and American Revolution have their roots in contract theory. However, the contact theory offered by Jean Rousseau (above) is very different than the one offered by British philosopher, John Locke (below).

american-revolution-french-revolution

The Foundation

Yes, both revolutions are the product of the Enlightenment, yet the American Revolution was not inflamed by the writings of philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire, but primarily by John Locke who, though a contract theorist like Hobbes and Rousseau, focused more on man’s rights to “life, liberty, and property.” As for the French Revolution, it was grounded in a “Cult of Reason” with rootless souls like Voltaire and Rousseau fanning the flames. Revolutionaries converted the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame into a “Temple of Reason” with the French actress, the seductive symbol of reason, being carried into the cathedral by men dressed in Roman costume.

The results could not be further apart. Locke’s ideas encouraged constitutionalism, a government of limited power; as for Rousseau, his contract resulted in a “General Will” which became the embodiment of absolute power. It isn’t a stretch to say that Rousseau’s ideas have been the progenitor for near every totalitarian menace we’ve experienced since him and the father of state education, the greatest menace ever foisted on the community of humankind in the name of progress.

Stranger than Fiction

Another remarkable contrast is what happened to the leaders of the Revolution. In France, the revolutionaries instigated horrible acts with many of them dying horrible deaths, like Maximilian Robespierre. As for the American revolutionaries, only one of the original 56 men to sign the Declaration died a violent death (and his death had nothing to do with the revolution). In fact, the instigators of the American Revolution fared well as revolutionaries go. Most of them were honored after the Revolution and lived long lives. In fact, every American president up to Abraham Lincoln died a nonviolent death, unless you consider eighteenth century medicine an act of violence, which took George Washington from this world prematurely.

And speaking of George Washington, the commander of the army, a leading “insurrectionist” became the first president and “father of his country.” By the end of his life in 1799, he was probably the most respected and most revered American. John Adams was the “Atlas of Independence,” on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, the chief architect of the Massachusetts constitution, an important template for the national Constitution (and is still the oldest written functioning constitution). He went on to be America’s second president. Thomas Jefferson, chief author of the Declaration of Independence, was instrumental in founding the modern American party system and was elected twice to the presidency. Adams and Jefferson would become political enemies, but reconcile, live long lives and die within hours of each other on the fiftieth anniversary of Independence in 1826—fiction couldn’t get any stranger.

Ben Franklin, signer of the Declaration and one of the first proponents of an “American Union” was a principal figure at the Constitutional Convention, was governor of his state of Pennsylvania, and one of the most famous Americans in the world of his time—he also lived a long life.

And then there’s James Monroe who, like Washington, fought in the Revolution, took a bullet in the left shoulder at the Battle of Trenton, leaving him seriously wounded. But he would live on to become America's fifth president and the architect of one of America's most important foreign policy statements: The Monroe Doctrine. Monroe would be immortalized in the Jonathan Trumbull painting Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton.

The one American revolutionary that did die a violent death, Alexander Hamilton, died in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr, but the duel had nothing to do with the Revolution. In the hours just prior to the duel, Hamilton confessed to his wife that he would risk dying rather than take the life of Burr, a sworn enemy. And he did take that mortal bullet on the evening of July 11, 1804 at Weehawken, New Jersey, vowing to do no violence and departed this life, confessing the Christian religion.

In the Gospels, Jesus said that those that live by the sword, die by the sword. It’s a truism: soldiers often die by the sword and it is often true that violent men come full circle and meet their bitter end in violence. But these men—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Monroe—were not men of violence.

A Change of Heart

So, if the American revolution was not a revolution of violence, what kind of revolution was it? According to John Adams, it was a revolution of the mind. In an 1818 letter to Hezekiah Niles, Adams said,

"But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was affected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. ... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution."

Some historians like Paul Johnson have attributed the American Revolution, in part, to the Great Awakening, the religious revival of New England that began in Connecticut in 1741. Johnson calls the Great Awakening the “proto-event” for the American Revolution.

As far as Adams was concerned, the American Revolution was a change of mind that affected a positive change for Americans and, yes, for mankind. And we can take Adams’ affirmation one step further--and this equally applies to the French Revolution--that before it was a revolt in the streets, it was a revolution of the mind, and before it was a revolution of mind, it was a revolution of the heart.

American Revolution or French Revolution?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. First Revolution
    • American Revolution
    • French Revolution
  2. Committee of Public Safety
    • American Revolution
    • French Revolution
  3. Committees of Correspondence
    • American Revolution
    • French Revolution
  4. "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"
    • American Revolution
    • French Revolution
  5. "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"
    • American Revolution
    • French Revolution
  6. Three Estates
    • American Revolution
    • French Revolution
  7. Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
    • American Revolution
    • French Revolution

Answer Key

  1. American Revolution
  2. French Revolution
  3. American Revolution
  4. French Revolution
  5. American Revolution
  6. French Revolution
  7. French Revolution

© 2012 William R Bowen Jr

Comments

mommy gay on March 12, 2019:

thank you

#gamergirl on February 06, 2019:

sooooooooooooo helpful

young blood 18 on October 09, 2018:

Cool fight

RichJ on September 25, 2018:

When I learned about the panoramic view of church history in the book of Revelation (chapters 2 & 3) I put it together with the Great Awakening and then I learned about what the Brits(in 1770s) called the Black Robe Regiment and I realized the same thing. America was actually started by a revolution of the heart started by a revival. Ironically one the preachers responsible traveled from England to preach here, George Whitefield. Also, the writings of Locke and Wise contributed greatly to the thinking of society at the time which formed the Declaration of Independence. Great article. Thanks for posting.

yung blood on September 20, 2018:

thanks for the help G

joe biden on April 15, 2018:

Hi, bro i just used this for a project, don't worry I cited thanks for the help broski.

Dirk Vavroch on September 03, 2017:

I am reading A Tale of Two Cities, and I am noting some disturbing similarities between the dam burst of the French Revolution and the seemingly imminent dam burst of the American cultural revolution. I can empathize with Charles Darnay's amazement at the rapidity and the extent of the cultural shift in his native country. I find myself marveling at the change occurring in American culture today. Yes, I am a Christian.

S on August 24, 2017:

It is excellent

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on March 22, 2013:

Couldn't agree more. Thanks for reading and for your comments.

wba108@yahoo.com from upstate, NY on March 22, 2013:

Your so right, there was a huge difference between the American and the French Revolutions. The behavior of the American patriots reflected a Christian foundation while the French revolution an atheistic one. The American’s respected the legitimate rule of law whereas the French acted as a violent mob, demanding their rights.

The French Revolution was informed by many of the same ideas of today’s leftists. The French were driven by envy, mob violence, freedom (associated with license), anti-Christian sentiment and entitlement. The American’s were driven by Christian ideals such as the inalienable rights of men, freedom (with responsibility to God) and a respect for godly traditions

wba108@yahoo.com from upstate, NY on March 21, 2013:

"The results could not be further apart. Locke’s ideas encouraged constitutionalism, a government of limited power; as for Rousseau, his contract resulted in a “General Will” which became the embodiment of absolute power."

Many fail to see that the"general will"

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on June 17, 2012:

Thanks Julie. Glad it was a help.

Blurter of Indiscretions from Clinton CT on June 17, 2012:

Very nicely done. I am fascinated by history and especially our revolution...voted up!

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on June 16, 2012:

Thanks Souvikm. Good luck on hubpages

Souvik Mukherjee from Bangalore, India on June 16, 2012:

Though I am not from the US or France, the hub provided great information about the 2 legendary revolutions. Liked it!

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