At first glance, the American and French revolutions seem to be closely connected in an “age of democratic revolutions.” The sister revolutions seemed to challenge and undermine monarchy in favor of popular self-rule and liberty. More fundamentally, however, the revolutions’ contrasting views of human nature shaped differing political philosophies, regimes, and cultures.
The American Founders’ thinking about human nature and government was guided by differing strains of thought from ancient philosophy, the English tradition, the British Enlightenment, and Protestant Christianity. As a result, they developed a realistic understanding of vice and virtue, sin and goodness. As James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
The French revolutionaries followed the thinking of the more radical French Enlightenment and particularly that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that humans were naturally good and perfectible but were corrupted by social institutions including absolute government, the churches, and urban society; human beings would only be free and enjoy their natural equality by tearing down those institutions.
As the Declaration of Independence indicated, the American Founders believed the Lockean idea that humans had natural rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and were capable of governing themselves in a republic. However, their corruptible nature meant that checks and restraints were necessary. As Federalist #51 asserted, “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
Influenced by the thinking of Montesquieu and by their experience under the Articles of Confederation, the Founders built in numerous auxiliary precautions into their United States Constitution to divide and constrain power and protect against human ambitions and passions. They included the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and bicameralism in constructing their novus ordo seclorum, a “new order for the ages.” But it was a new order built upon the history, experience, and wisdom of the past.
The French revolutionaries created a very different kind of government and consequently had a different outcome. They sought to break with the corrupt government and religious institutions of the past that preserved the privileges and wealth of the royal government, the feudal nobility, and the clergy. The monarchy survived for only a few years after 1789. It was limited by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and then by a republican constitution until Louis XVI was executed in early 1793. The national legislature was a government lacking a system of constitutional separation of powers and other principles. Instead, the one-house legislature served effectively the only branch of government that would surmise the “general will” of an enlightened people.
For statesmen like the British Edmund Burke, who wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, the outcome was all too predictable early in the French Revolution. The violence erupted almost immediately as revolutionaries tore down the corrupt institutions of the past. The revolution began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, attacking that symbol of political repression. Paris quickly became an armed camp while in the countryside, peasants went on a rampage against nobles and their feudal privileges murdering them, burning down their estates, and destroying their titles in the Great Fear that fall.
After closing the monasteries and plundering their wealth, the government made the clergy agents of the state with the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy. In 1792, the revolutionaries broke into jails and murdered thousands of priests, nuns, and nobles in an orgy of bloodshed and drownings.
Hundreds of thousands died in a French civil war when government suppressed revolts in the Vendee, and millions died across Europe when the French revolutionaries went to war to spread the fire of revolution to tear down oppression everywhere.
Finally, Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety guillotined some 3,000 “enemies” in Paris and had as many as 50,000 executed throughout France during the Reign of Terror from 1793-1794. It was not an aberration but rather a logical outcome of the violence directed against the old regime from the start of the revolution.
American Founders and citizens were deeply divided about the French Revolution in the early republic. Most Americans initially praised the French Revolution as an outgrowth of the American Revolution. Toasts were made, parades were held, and tri-color hats were doffed.
However, the American reaction to the French Revolution contributed to the growing political and ideological divisions in the early republic that led to the development of political parties in the United States. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans split over the foreign policy issue.
Thomas Jefferson, who was an observer and sometimes participant in early revolutionary events in France as a diplomat, was the most ardent supporter of the French Revolution. Taken by radical French Enlightenment thinking, he enthusiastically praised the execution of Louis XVI as a “criminal” and wrote his shocking “desolation letter” while turning a blind eye to the Terror.
Jefferson shockingly wrote with no small amount of hyperbole: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest….[and] rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it is now.”
Other Founders were more sober in their assessment. Alexander Hamilton wished, “Would to heaven that we could discern in the Mirror of French affairs, the same humanity, the same decorum, the same gravity, the same order, the same dignity, the same solemnity, which distinguished the course of the American Revolution.”
On the other hand, John Adams had also been a diplomat in France and other European countries during the 1780s and was less swept up in revolutionary currents in France. Adams’ political writings through the 1780s focused on constitutional balance in the separation of powers. As early as 1790, he predicted that the unicameral French legislature “must involve France in great and lasting calamities” since it was rooted in a flawed understanding of human nature and political philosophy.
The American and French Revolutions left a contrasting legacy for the modern world. The American Revolution and the principles of natural rights republicanism and constitutionalism served as an exceptional model for the world. The French Revolution unleashed the forces of secular nationalism that shaped the violent European twentieth century.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.