Imagine your terror. You are the daughter of a minor nobleman. All you have ever known is your family's pleasant country house, which is surrounded by gardens and farms. One night you are dragged out of bed, dressed in servants' clothes, and rushed away in the old market cart. Your parents have been warned that the family is about to be arrested.
The concentration of power and wealth amongst a few at the expense of many is a recipe for unrest. A similar situation existed in during the revolutions in America and in France. The big difference between the two nations’ wars though is that, whereas in America the fear and trepidation existed before the war and was brought on by the occupying British, in France, the fear of being killed appeared after the monarchy was overthrown and was caused by the leaders of the revolution itself.
All revolutions are the moments in a nation’s history when the masses, that is to say, the millions of ordinary men and women, begin to participate in politics and take their lives and destinies into their own hands. Revolution stirs up society from the top to the bottom of its ability to survive. It mobilizes layers that were previously inert and non-political. There are many things that cause an entire nation to rise up against its own government. Those are times when the survival of a people gains more importance than the continuation of a people’s traditions that had marked them throughout their history. This was true of the American and French Revolutions, as well. Yet, there are many differences between the two freedom movements of Americans and the French. Therefore, we should look into the differences that led the French people and the American colonies to rise up and throw off their leaders’ yoke of bondage. Though both groups of commoners had similar goals and desires; the two movements ended up miles apart in terms of their final outcomes.
A careful study of the French Revolution provides a complete proof against those who have stated that the revolution in France was the work of tiny handfuls of conspirators and demagogues. In his work, A Brief History Of The Past Two Hundred Years, Raymond F. Betts wrote, “In sum, the French Revolution did many things, unleashed new forces, destroyed old ideas, offered new promises. Not the Revolution itself, of course, but the people who made it.” Europe in Retrospect: The French Revolution, the Ideology.
The role of the masses, otherwise known as the third estate, is fundamental in driving the revolution forward at every stage. Revolution is indeed a movement and a rebellion started and carried out by the neglected masses. Yet, though the French People had the ability to find the leadership needed to overthrow the monarchy, they lacked the willpower to guide the revolution after the monarchy had fallen. This is in great contrast to the thirteen colonies after England sued for peace. In comparison, it may be a bit unfair concerning the aftermath of the coup d’état. America had virtually ruled themselves for more than two centuries, by the time the nation ratified the constitution. When the fighting had ceased and the numbers of dead Americans were still unknown, the new nation had already constructed a political, economic and judicial apparatus with which to rule and defend its newly independent people. Though America faced difficulties in the style and form of its government, the years of cultural development and economic help from the King of France during the revolution all helped to keep the fledgling nation together.
In contrast, France’s revolution for Equality, Liberty and Fraternity quickly descended into a virtual state of terror after the king’s head was separated from the King’s crown. France’s populace had been the victim of a feudal system that had left them ailing, very poorly educated and very angry. The leaders of the French Revolution were men of great skill. Mirabeau was a great orator and able statesman. Danton was a figure larger than life, the rallying point of the revolution at a moment of terrible danger. Robespierre, with all his faults and lust for power, was a very brave representative of the Jacobins who had really united the masses of Paris’ poor to carryout the Revolution. As could be expected, the latter-day bourgeois critics of the Revolution had reserved all their most venomous spite for the most consistently revolutionary figures. Men like Hébert a most consistent leader of the masses, is given little attention. It is sad how each of these men and many others finally turned upon each other.
The leaders who led the rebellion turned it into a court of blood, suspicion and deadly intrigue. The only thing that seemed to stop the spree of guillotined nobles and suspected conspirators was when the revolution finally turned on itself. Robespierre’s acquiescence in the ordered execution of the outspoken and very popular Danton represented the beginning of the end for the rebellion that the French Revolution had unleashed. If the leadership had had similar experience in running a nation as the United States enjoyed after it successful revolt, perhaps the streets of Paris would not have flowed with so much French blood. When the revolution devolved into the mayhem that ensued, active participation of the masses ebbed and the revolution came to a complete stop; going actually backwards causing the French public to long for the days they had just decapitated. Instead of a movement toward freedom being carried out, as the American Revolution had done, the rebellion was taken hostage by a group of leaders who not only matched and exceeded the brutality of the monarchy, but also failed to change the lives of the people. Instead of starvation by neglect, now anyone thought to have collaborated or thought to be thinking of collaboration were quickly rushed to revolutionary France’s version of a humane death by guillotine. Probably the most historic and important thing that the French Revolution accomplished was to pave the way for the empire that Napoleon Bonaparte soon after founded.
Some of the primary causes for the French Revolution can be found in the class structure of the three estates. The Clergy, which held major sway in the rule of France and all other monarchies that ruled over the people, was the First Estate and received special favors and access. This brought on a lot of apathy and distain for the church. During the history of France, the church had tried and succeeded in interjecting its power and demands by threatening the monarchies with excommunication. It was from the Church that kings and queens derived their divine right to rule. Those who refused to submit to the Pope could never hope to be protected by the Vatican.
Contrarily, America’s experience and causes for revolution were vastly different to issues and reasons for France’s war. Americans had come to the shores of the new world with the great hope of building their evangelical faith in a free land where no one could ever persecute them again for their love of God. In contrast, The French Revolution was not only a push to rid the people of its selfish and neglectful political system. It was also a defiant fist in the air against the church. Whereas America encouraged growth of the church before, during and after the war, France’s revolution was a coup to throw off the church as an impediment to political and economic development.
The Second Estate that made up the three leveled society of pre-revolutionary France was the Nobility. The aristocracy in France had treated its people as mere servants. While the people were in the throws of starvation, King Louis XV was living a lavish life and conducting himself without the slightest concern for the plight of the Third Estate, the commoners, who represented the majority of the population. It is well rumored that King Louis the Fifteenth’s last words were, “After me, the flood!” Though only tradition, the words seem plausible in light of the king’s flippant and wasteful lifestyle in his court.
Another major catalyst for the rebellion and the death of the monarchy in France was due to the major role that the Age of Enlightenment had played over many years. This movement had planted seeds of freedom and free thought that had no alternative but to eventually overthrow the obstacles to the development of change and freedom. This Western movement had had a great influence also on thirteen colonies over in the New World, which had just started to thumb its nose at its sovereign. The ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, that though today may seem passé, were powerful and revolutionary in the days of the Louis IVI and Robespierre. So powerful were they that even music and scores were determined as divisive and banned from Europe’s concert halls because of the political fervor they induced. The opera, Figaro serves as a great example of this historical truth. When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his opera, Figaro, it was banned from many stages throughout Europe.
Simply put, the Age of Enlightenment had challenged the historic view that Kings devised their power by the rule of God and the Church. Therefore, the Age of Enlightenment challenged the established rule of a king’s divine right to rule. The new thought of the enlightenment not only launched a challenge to the ruling elite of nobility, but it also served as a direct threat to the clergy of the Catholic Church that had propped up the established monarchies throughout Europe. In addition, because the various thrones throughout Europe were all intermingled due to inner marrying for peace-making purposes, the whole thought of absolute rule was brought into questions. Perhaps the only kingdom to have ever responded to its people’s outcries was Great Britain when it produced the Magna Carte, which was a direct inspiration for the American Revolution, many years later. It is interesting to point out as well that the only monarchy to have survived this powerful force unleashed in the 1700’s is the Crown of England.
The American Revolution had writers such as John Lock and Thomas Jefferson and many others. Nevertheless, while the French Revolution fought for freedom from the King and from Christendom, post-revolutionary America experienced a great spiritual awakening which propelled the United States into the greatest gospel-propagating nation of its time. Preachers like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finny saw great masses of people turn into dedicated servants of Christ. It was said that some cities even witnessed great numbers of taverns shut down due to the lack of clientele. The results of the French revolution were quite different, which left the cathedrals and chapels empty throughout France. The Catholic Church in France has never really recovered.
Another aspect of the Age of Enlightenment that motivated rebellion was that the new ideals for life appealed to bourgeois grievances. The ideals and writings of the Age of Enlightenment had served as a base from which to lodge their complaints and desires for change in the ruling nobles. In addition, the desire to conduct free trade and to see an expansion of the Third Estate’s financial stability drove the commoners to demand that they be allowed to conduct business in a freer atmosphere. The development of Third Estate commerce was a great threat to the nobility. The best way to insure submission was to keep the populous weak and needy.
In addition to the cultural cast system and the Age of Enlightenment; another major cause of the French Revolution was the financial difficulty into which the ruling class had allowed the nation to fall. The financial reform problems of debt and the financing many overly ambitious wars had had no affect on the lavish lifestyles of the nobility. It was the commoners, the Third Estate, who bore the brunt of the bad decisions of the monarchy. The king and his family continued to spend extravagantly on their courts while the people starved. Consequently, it was the peasants and the bourgeoisie that paid all the hefty taxes that were levied to pay for the bad investments and rich lifestyles while the Second Estate, the nobility, refused to give up any of their tax concessions. The role of women in the French revolution is a graphic illustration of this fact. Among the most decisive moments in the revolution was the fifth of October 1789, when six or seven thousand women of Paris marched in the pouring rain to Versailles to demand bread and to force the king to move to Paris. The men were shamed into joining this strange procession of "the baker, the baker's wife and the baker's boy" which turned the king of France into a virtual prisoner of a revolutionary people.
Another important point in the drive toward revolution in France was the king himself. Louis XVI was a king who could be described as an introvert. He spent little time concerning himself with the people’s needs and concerned himself mainly with the needs of his court. He had been raised with the nobles and that along with an obtuse, weak demeanor caused him to simply disregard the signs of rebellion festering under the current of court games and its frivolous lifestyle. In addition, King Louis XVI seemed incapable of taking strong and decisive action. He was a caretaker and filled his days with the games and pomp and circumstance of his office. Also, his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, had great influence on the king. Though the words that have been ascribed to her are probably exaggerated, she did demonstrate a true distain for the French subjects and cared little for the people’s plight.
In the case of the Americans, the new-world patriots were aiming their arrows of descent at the British Crown. Yet, after the war, the new nation pulled together and a class society was formed that allowed the growth of all levels of society. The idea of equality was not really a foundation stone of the American Revolution. Americans had lived together, rich and poor since the founding of Jamestown. Yet, when the American people compared the “Nobility” of the new nation to the nobility of England, the new leadership seemed far more just and even handed. The nation revered its forefathers even in poverty, because they felt their interests were taken into consideration.
Finally, it cannot be minimized just how big a role the American Revolution played in the development of the French war against their monarchy. It has been pointed out that there were many differences between the French and American revolutions. Yet, the purposes and the doctrine of the American Revolution did give an impetus for the French to finally rise up and take the government by force. Also, the presence of French soldiers on American soil during the American Revolution did introduce new ideas of liberty and economic freedom in the minds of the leaders of the French rebellion. French soldiers who returned to France had new ideas and goals and quickly shared their views throughout the nation. As a result, the ideal proclaimed by the American forefathers and the wording of the American Declaration of Independence caused a yearning for more liberal freedoms for all people. It caused the people to let down their hesitancy to take up arms against the tyranny they faced in their own nation. It forced the people to understand that the only way to get out from under the terrible taxes of the lavish king was to call for no taxation without proper representation. All of this gave the people the common belief that a republican form of government was superior to a monarchy.
Is America perhaps in the midst of a new revolution? The current election has the potential of changing the land of the free forever. Barack Obama represents leadership that will take the nation toward social revolution where we will see a plethora of blushing, bearded brides. His persona is an enigma that is far more visible and available than the biased American press would lead us to believe. This nation that has been at war with Islamic radicals throughout the world is about to elect a man who finds his roots in faith of Mohammed. That, in itself, represents a revolution of thought and practice that will render the war on terror unwinnable. These changes are dangerous side of democracy that still must be preserved. If a land is ready to relinquish its hold on power and ready to yield the role of superpower, then such risky revolutions shall be inevitable.
The greatest protagonist of Revolution has no name. It is the revolutionary people themselves; those countless unknown and unsung heroes, activists and heroines from both America and and the world who embody the mainspring of the entire process. There are great differences in goals, ideals and results in the wars that turned America and France into the nations they are today. It will be interesting to see how the future revolutions of these two countries, both violent and bloodless, will develop. What is sure is the true words heard time and time again that nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. Until then, Vive La Revolution! - Steven Clark Bradley
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