Why the American Revolution Worked and the French Revolution Didn't
I consider myself an amateur historian, though some of my readers might place more emphasis on the amateur than historian. One thing that has puzzled me is why different results sprang from the American and French Revolutions. It might have something to tell us for today.
On the surface reading, the American and French Revolutions seem to hold similar ideals. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness does not seem that far removed from Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité. And if one says the American slogan does not mention equality, the Declaration of Independence surely does.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights[.]
Many claim that the difference is that the French document is godless. However, both the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man invoke the deity.
And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence ... –Declaration of Independence, 1776
Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen: … –Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789
There can be no doubt that there was an influence of Deism that motivated some of the intellectuals behind both revolutions. Indeed, Thomas Paine, the most influential deist of all time, was critical to both struggles. Paine wrote "Common Sense" for America — which cemented public opinion in favor of the American Revolution — and he would later be elected to Revolutionary France's National Convention. Thomas Jefferson wrote the American Declaration and was consulted on the French document.
So why did the revolutions veer so far apart in results?
Some say the French Revolution heralded those rights as coming from the state, while the American Revolution said those rights came from God. But that is not so clear. The French document asserts that such rights are natural and immutable, and one of the French declaration's writers was Abbé Sieyès, a French Catholic clergyman.
The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.
So we have two similar documents and revolutions, often with the same participants involved (Lafayette and Paine, etc.). Yet one was a success, while the other was a nightmare, which had to be re-run a few times until France got it right, or at least got it a bit better.
Others delve into conspiracy theories and the role of freemasonry. The name of Adam Weishaupt and the Illuminati crop up. Far too many claim that Weishaupt was Jewish, and their theories devolve into dark anti-semitic nuttiness. In reality, though Weishaupt had Jewish ancestry, he was raised Catholic.
Born in 1748 in Ingolstadt, a city in the Electorate of Bavaria (now part of modern-day Germany), Weishaupt was a descendant of Jewish converts to Christianity. Orphaned at a young age, his scholarly uncle took care of his education, and enrolled him in a Jesuit school.
If that does not stop the nuttiness and the conspiracy theorists, how do they explain that Washington was a freemason, yet our revolution worked?
The basic answer is that the lower levels of freemasonry are just a club of freethinkers. Not everyone involved with the Knights of Columbus is a Jesuit infiltrator for the pope, and not every freemason is on the occult fringes of the society. It was often just an excuse to take a night out from the wife and meet with the boys at the local club. There the latest politics could be discussed, while beers were quaffed — without the wife asking for help with the kids.
The simple answer to our question is more fundamental: the American people saw their revolution as stemming from biblical principles. Though deist himself, Paine knew he would have to appeal to Scripture to win over the American people in his writings. Indeed, Paine's "Common Sense" cited the Old Testament as condemning monarchies. He cemented the point with this statement: "For monarchy in every instance is the popery of government."
That must have settled the issue for Americans, the vast majority of whom were serious Protestants at that time. The American Revolution was seen as an outgrowth of Christianity, not a condemnation of it. It was the next step in the Christianization of society.
While deists were among the leaders of the Revolution, they did not see Christianity as an obstacle to the struggle, but rather as a partner. Some of the more serious denominations took up the patriot cause. They had been persecuted under England's Anglican hegemony and were in favor of the freedoms promised by the Revolution.
Not so with the French. The vast majority of the French were Roman Catholics, and the Catholic Church and clergy were often hostile to the French Revolution. The Catholic Church tended to get along with monarchies. The Church liked stability and concordats.
This led to the French revolutionaries rejecting Christianity altogether. They set up the competing Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being.
Robespierre organized a "Festival of the Supreme Being" in the summer of 1794. Having recently eliminated his adversaries Hébert and Danton, Robespierre delivered the keynote speech. In it he explained his idea for a civic religion worshipping a deist "supreme being" while resisting the more extreme tendency of some to eliminate spirituality outright through an atheistic "cult of reason."
The chief difference is that the American people appealed to the God of the Bible. As they did not reject Christianity, they put brakes on what was acceptable in their revolution.
The French leaders were disgusted with Christianity. Maybe this was due to the corruption of the Catholic clergy and the Church's partnerships with the monarchy. Their solution was to ditch the Christian ethic, and they devolved into the Terror.
It is not that the American people were not faced with a corrupt clergy. The Anglican church was heavily royalist. But the American people did not see a rejection of Christianity as the solution — rather, many embraced the more serious sects of Christianity as the answer.
This is the chief difference between the American and French Revolutions. After the American Revolution, America was arguably more serious about Christianity, while French Christianity was throttled. Over time, in Europe, Christianity, both Lutheran and Catholic, took a beating.
Of course, this is rarely mentioned in history classes today. We hear that the American Revolution was deist, which it was not, or that it was wholly secular. In truth, much of the patriot side appealed to what we would call the principles of the religious right today. Sometimes, a good historian will note the real background. (See "Was the American Revolution a holy war?")
This is also the chief difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties today. The Democratic party has rejected any pretense of biblical ethics, and Democrats have devolved into insanity worthy of Robespierre.
One side sees the Bible as essential to freedom, while the other side sees it as hostile. The Democratic Party has adopted the European model, and with it will come European results.
Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who wishes he had availed himself more fully of the opportunity to learn Spanish better in high school, lo those many decades ago. He runs a website, Latin Arabia, about the Christian Arab community in South America.