The American Revolution resulted in a stable republic that has lasted more than two hundred years. The French Revolution began in the same time period with similar goals, but quickly degenerated into the Reign of Terror and ultimately the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. What made this Revolution end so differently? Following the revolution, America was left to its own devices; its geographical isolation ensured its survival. Financial ruin (caused in part by French involvement in the American Revolution) ensured the end of the French King’s absolute power, but did not explain the abuses and excesses that followed the initial Revolution (Schama, 1989, p. 62). France faced external pressures that were not present in America, beginning with the joint declaration of Prussia and the Holy Roman Empire threatening armed intervention in France, which spread into a conflict with most of Europe united against the French revolutionaries. The French Revolution failed because the French faced hostile external pressures that were not present in America.
The Spark of Revolution
The French Revolution had largely economic causes. The government was deeply indebted from its frequent intervention in various wars, including the American Revolution. But the financial crisis that gripped France in the eighteenth century alone does not explain the French Revolution or the excesses that followed. Simon Schama, a respected historian, explains that “If the causes of the French Revolution are complex, the causes of the downfall of the monarchy are not. The two phenomena are not identical, since the end of absolutism in France did not of itself entail a revolution of such transformative power as actually came to pass in France” (Schama, 1989, p. 62).
The American Revolution began in opposition to new taxes imposed by Great Britain without any American representation in Parliament (Nash et al., 2002, p. 141). The French Revolution had at its root a much more emotional issue; the people were facing starvation. A poor harvest led to a famine that was blamed on the aristocracy, and provoked a much more violent and emotional reaction from the common people than taxes aroused in America (Schama, 1989). The many hungry poor Frenchmen saw the privileged few as an evil to be destroyed. De Tocqueville, a French historian best known for his works on American democracy, explained that the “intense, indomitable hatred of inequality” was far more deeply rooted in French society than the desire for political freedom (1856/1955, p. 207).
Politically, the American colonies were much better prepared for revolution than France. The American colonies had more than 150 years of limited self rule experience through established legislative assemblies, such as the House of Burgesses in Virginia (Nash et al, 2002, p. 37). The Estates-General of France showed its lack of experience by being considerably less deliberative and more theatrical than the American Constitutional Convention (Schama, 1989). “When the revolution started, it would have been impossible to find, in most parts of France, even ten men used to acting in concert and defending their interests without appealing to the central power for aid” (de Tocqueville, 1856/1955, p. 206).
America had the advantage of not having a local king. The Comte de La Blache explained that “the French are not a people who have just emerged from the depths of the woods to form an original association,” and that the existence of the monarchy was a great complication for the French (Schama, 1989, p. 443). The fact that the Queen of France also was sister to the Emperor of Austria brought foreign threats to any assault on the monarchy.
The United States was also better prepared in terms of military organization. The American colonies had long-established organized militias who had experience fighting together in the French and Indian War; the Americans were able to fight the British as organized units. The French military was torn apart by the Revolution; anti-government feeling was widespread among junior officers and non-commissioned officers, and the army as a whole was inclined to disobey orders (Schama, 1989, p. 371-375). Defections and emigrations were common and created an atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia. The French Revolution was driven onward by a series of popular uprisings of mobs that were impossible to control and sunk to the deepest depravity and brutality. Schama described the fate of the King’s guards at the hands of the mob:
“But that noontime they were given neither shelter nor quarter. Hunted down, they were mercilessly butchered: stabbed, sobered, stoned and clubbed. Women stripped the bodies of clothes and whatever possessions they could find. Mutilators hacked off limbs and scissored out genitals and stuffed them in gaping mouths or fed them to the dogs. What was left was thrown on bonfires” (1989, p. 615).
The War on the Church
The American Revolution avoided making attacks on religion, largely due to the diversity of religious groups in the American colonies. The French revolutionaries however saw in the vast estates of the Catholic church a fiscal salvation for the Republic. The church was also seen as a political threat too closely tied to the monarchy. Church lands were sold and priests were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the state or face execution. Later, in keeping with a general policy of dechristianization, churches were looted and vandalized, and the church bells melted down for munitions to defend the Republic. (Schama, 1989).
It is interesting to note that such actions had support even in countries that were part of the counter-revolutionary coalition. Mary Wollstonecraft, a British radical thinker, justified the redistribution of property from both nobles and the Church in France, saying that both clergy and the nobility had received these lands not from any merit of their own but from illegal seizures of much earlier times (1790/1995, p. 50).
Invasion and Rebellion
The Americans were fortunate to have the Atlantic to protect them from foreign invasion. Once the British were gone, their geographic isolation allowed them to survive six years of ineffective governance and still achieve a peaceful transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution.
The French were not so lucky. Even before France boiled over into revolution, there was a precedent for counterrevolutionary invasion; Prussia had invaded the Netherlands to put down a revolution against their monarch (Schama, 1989, p. 252). The French revolution alarmed all the rulers of Europe (especially after the execution of the king, Louis XVI), and their stated goal of a republican crusade throughout the continent united former enemies against France. Brissot, a prominent revolutionary, had said, “We cannot be calm until all of Europe is in flames” (Schama, 1989, p. 643). France faced a coalition of Britain, Prussia, Austria, Holland, and Spain. As the Prussian and Austrian armies approached Paris, their commander, the Duke of Brunswick, issued a proclamation, stating his intention to restore the monarchy, and warned that if the royal family were harmed he would level the city of Paris and slaughter the entire population of the city (1792).
The French also faced an internal rebellion from the department of Vendee, where a royalist army arose in response to the Republic’s many attacks on the Catholic Church (Schama, 1989 p. 690). The counterrevolutionary rebellion, combined with the real threat of foreign troops on French soil and widespread fears of conspiracy, created an atmosphere of extreme paranoia that would spill over into the bloody slaughter of the Reign of Terror. “Obsessive fears of this kind led directly to the deaths of many thousands of people,” not just in France but also later in equally bloody revolutions in Russia and China (Tackett, 2000, p. 693).
From the ashes of the Terror, all that remained was a trail of blood. France’s radical republicans could not erase all of the economic problems from France simply by slaughtering the aristocracy. After the failure of the Revolution to establish good governance and end anarchy, “the ideal of freedom had lost much of its appeal and the nation, at a loss where to turn, began to cast round for a master,” which they would find in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte (de Tocqueville, 1856/1955, p. 209).
What then, is the lesson for our day that rises paramount from the failure of the French Revolution? That American ideals, institutions, and methods will not succeed as a universal prescription for the world; that local economic, political, social, and religious conditions can make policies that have succeeded in one country fail utterly in another. The blood still dripping from the blade of the guillotine and Napoleon’s battlefields calls out to us today, warning of the dangers of “nation building” and “regime change” without a profound understanding of how local conditions and culture will affect planning and the prospects of success.
De Tocqueville, A. (1955). The old regime and the French Revolution. (S. Gilbert, Trans.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Original work published 1856).
Duke of Brunswick. (1792). The proclamation of the Duke of Brunswick, 1792. Readings in European History 2. 443-445. Retrieved from http://history.hanover.edu/texts/bruns.htm.
Nash, G. B., Jeffrey, J.R., Howe, J. R., Frederick, P. J., Davis, A. F., & Winkler, A. M. (2002). The American people: Creating a nation and a society. (5th ed.). No location given: Addison-Wesley Publishing.
Schama, S. (1989). Citizens: A chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc.
Tackett, T. (2000). Conspiracy obsession in a time of revolution. American Historical Review 105(3). 690-713.
Wollstonecraft, M. (1995). A vindication of the rights of men with a vindication of the rights of woman and hints. (Sylvana Tomaselli, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1790).