The American and French Revolutions Compared

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So I would like to discuss the radical difference between the American and French revolutions, and would like to do so with the aid of Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832). He was a German writer, thinker, publicist, and man of public affairs. He wrote a short little booklet comparing the two revolutions, and it was published in 1800, the same year Jefferson was elected to the presidency. This year was significant because Washington and Adams had both been Federalists, and with the election of Jefferson, a Republican, it was possible to see the rise of normal “politics,” and peaceful transitions of power. America had survived—but what was the nature of this thing that had survived?

The booklet was translated for the English-speaking world soon after publication. The translation was done by John Quincy Adams, the son of our second president, and a man who was destined to become our sixth president. This meant the essay was presented to the reading public in English long before the translator rose to the presidency, and it provides us with a good glimpse of the early struggle to control the narrative of America’s founding. Everyone knew that America was independent now, but what did that mean exactly?

Names and Narratives

I would prefer to call our revolution the American War for Independence, but the American “Revolution” resulted in far more than simple independence. It was an event which captured the world’s imagination, which meant that many different factions wanted to use it for the advancement of their own projects. Everyone knew that the War for Independence was important. But what sort of importance did it have?

As historians, biographers, journalists, and politicians wrote about it, a battle for control of the narrative began, and it began very early on. Some saw it as the first in a series of inevitable revolutions, and so they naturally welcomed the French Revolution as the obvious next step. Others (e.g. Edmund Burke, Friedrich Gentz, or John Quincy Adams), saw the revolutions as strikingly different, as different as night and day.

Modern Christians have gotten used to our “culture wars.” This should not be surprising—these culture wars have been with us from the very foundation of our nation. They are not something new that erupted when the first hippies started to disrupt Berkeley. From the very beginning, we have had men like Patrick Henry, wanting America to take her place among the nations of Christendom. And also from the very beginning, we have had men like Thomas Paine, who wanted something much more like the French Revolution. For Christians, part of the reason our culture wars are so confusing is because we have neglected the principles laid down at our nation’s founding.

The fighting that we now call the American War of Independence actually started in 1775, and independence was not openly declared until July of the next year. The war lasted for 8 years, until1783. When the Treaty of Paris was signed, the new nation operated for six years under the Articles of Confederation, after which a consensus arose about the need for a more robust Constitution.

Making Distinctions

So John Quincy Adams’ wrote the preface to his translation of Gentz’s booklet, he makes his basic point very strongly. Gentz did a fine job, he said, because his booklet “rescues that revolution from the disgraceful imputation of having proceeded from the same principles as that of France” (p. 3). Now disgraceful is a strong word. He goes on to say that the revolutions of America and France were as different as “right and wrong” (p. 4).

I have already mentioned the name. At the time of the American Revolution, the word revolution did not have the connotations it came to have after the French Revolution. When we use the word revolutionary today, we mean some kind of fire eater. In at this time, the meaning of the word was closer to its cognate word revolve. A revolution simply meant that there had been a change in the government, that things had “turned over.” An example of this usage would be the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. While the basic structures of English society remained what they had been, one king was removed and another one installed.

But starting with the French Revolution, a more sinister and radical meaning took root. A revolution still means a turnover in the government, but now we have the extra connotations that guillotines bring to the situation. When the American Revolution was first undertaken, revolution was a reasonable noun to use. But now, in the aftermath of numerous other revolutions, almost all of them nasty, it would perhaps be better to use the alternative name for our war—which is the American War of Independence.

A Century of Revolution

Using the modern definition of revolution, it is safe to say that the 19th century was the century of revolution—more or less. The first revolution in this sense was the French Revolution, occurring just before the opening of the nineteenth century (1789–1799). The Russian Revolution occurred just after the nineteenth century had ended (1917). During the course of the 19th century, there were various street revolts in Europe (e.g. 1848), This century of turmoil did not leave the United States untouched—we did have an event that was roughly comparable to the French Revolution, but it happened in 1861, not 1776. Karl Marx followed our Civil War with great interest, and saw in it possibilities for the kind of radicalism that he was fomenting.

But the point I am making here, and which I want to make in the strongest possible way, was that the American War of Independence was not the first in this series, but was rather a different kind of event entirely. We took a different path. Edmund Burke, that great and insightful enemy of the wrong kind of revolution, the man who predicted the Terror before it happened in France, was an English parliamentarian statesman . . . who took the side of the Americans. The constitutional radicals were in control of Parliament, while the conservatives fighting for the basic principles of the English Constitution were in America.

Of course, this requires explanation.

Some History

When the Stamp Act was passed in 1765, the American reaction was hot. But the problem was not the tax per se, but rather the constitutional authority to tax. What would you do, as a resident of Montana, if one day you received a tax bill authorized by the legislature of Rhode Island? Take a step further. Suppose the bill was only for five dollars, and your friends tried to quiet you down by pointing out that it was only five dollars. You would hopefully point out that the amount was not the point. The point would be that Rhode Island had no lawful jurisdiction. That would be the point, right?

Parliament was the legislative body for England. The colonies all had their own lawfully constituted legislatures. This is what was meant by the phrase “no taxation without representation.” Because the colonists had no representatives in the Parliament (but did have representatives in their own legislatures), it was therefore completely out of line for Parliament to levy a tax on Virginians, Marylanders, or Pennsylvanians.

But how had Parliament come to think that it did have such a right? The answer requires us to go back one more century. In the previous century, the English Civil War had resulted in Charles I being executed in 1649. As a consequence, Oliver Cromwell ruled (not as king, but Lord Protector) during a period known as the Interregnum (1649–1660). After Cromwell died, his son Richard did not demonstrate the competence of his father, and so Charles II was brought back to the throne in the Restoration (1660). He ruled for a while, and when he died, he left no legitimate heir, which meant his brother, James II, took over.

Unfortunately, James was a Catholic with a bigoted streak. He also mismanaged his rule rather badly, and so in 1688, he was evicted from the throne, and replaced by William and Mary. This event was called the Bloodless Revolution, or the Glorious Revolution, whatever suits you. But the central point is that England was not kind to kings in the seventeenth century. James II was deposed, and Charles I had been decapitated. Naturally enough, after 1688, Parliament assumed, with some justification, that the relationship between themselves and the monarch had been greatly altered. And so it had been altered in England. But in the colonies, nothing had changed.

So the problem was that the colonies had all been planted, and their political constitutions fixed and established, prior to this turmoil in England. They were across the ocean, quietly growing up into a significant power, both economic and political. And their constitutions had been settled under the old system.

Here is Gentz on this crucial detail.

“Most of the colonies were founded before the middle of the seventeenth century; all before the revolution of 1688. The province of Georgia, the most southern of the colonies, and which was originally part of South Carolina, was the only one which received her separate constitution since the beginning of the century; (in 1732) and was likewise the only one for the settlement and cultivation of which the British government had been at any cost” (pp. 37–38).

The settlements were varied. Maryland, for example, had been a grant to a private individual. Others were royal provinces, which meant that the king was the immediate sovereign over them. Yet others had the authority of the king strictly limited in their charters—as with Massachusetts and Connecticut. According to their founding documents, they had various degrees of relationship to the king, but not one of them had any relationship to the Parliament whatever.

Each legislature had authority over its own laws, period, end, stop. The Charter of Maryland, to take one example, said they had the right to “free, full and absolute Power . . . to ordaine, Make, and Enact LAWS of what kind soever, according to their sound discretion.” Now the colonists were Englishmen, and this meant they were under the English Constitution. And this meant, in turn, that the power to tax was resident in those legislatures where they, the colonists, were represented. And only there.

So with regard to their taxation, English Parliament was an alien body.

“In no single colony, however its constitution, in respect to its dependence upon the crown, was organized, was there a trace of a constitutional and legal authority, vested in the British parliament” (p. 39).

So the stage was set for conflict. After 1688, the authority of Parliament in England ascended. During that same period of time, the colonies were prospering. The average standard of living for the average American grew past the standard of living of the average European by 1740. America had become an economic force to be reckoned with very early on. Parliament had becoming a political force (over against the king) at the same time. Conflict was inevitable.

Parliament’s mistake was a natural one. Now that they were in charge of the king, why wouldn’t they also be in charge of anything the king had been in charge of? This included all those prosperous, fat, untaxed colonies “over there.”

But all the constitutional power shifts had been occurring in England, not in America. This meant that when the Americans took their stand, it was on the basis of their rights as Englishmen. This is why a conservative like Burke could support them. The Americans were in the right, constitutionally speaking.

Each colony had an executive head, which was the crown. Each legislature was defined according to its respective charter. Not one of those definitions had any room for Parliament. Parliament was not listed anywhere on the flow chart. Maintaining the point in just this way was a matter of admirable consistency. This is why the Declaration of Independence is a series of complaints against the king. They didn’t complain against Parliament because they had nothing to do with Parliament. At the same time, the king had a constitutional responsibility to protect them from all such unconstitutional usurpations of Parliament.

Now this brings up another point that might seem to be an arcane bit of law, but it is really quite important.

In British feudalism, the king or lord owed his subjects or vassals protection. In return, those subjects owed him allegiance. That was how feudalism worked. In December of 1775, the British Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act, which stripped the colonies of the king’s protection, and determined that they were to be treated as foreign enemies.[i] The king did not step in to protect the colonies from this tyrannical force, and so, in the Declaration, the colonies declared themselves free of any allegiance to the king. They did not have to declare themselves free of any allegiance to Parliament, for they had never had any.

The Comparison

Compare all this to what happened in France. Take someone from Maryland, who had been born in 1750. Say he died in that same commonwealth in 1805. Such a citizen would have lived his entire life under the same civil authority, in the same civil society. Someone who had been born in France in the same year, and who died in the same year, would have died under a completely new order. The old regime was devastated, while in America independence was the result. The old England was still there. So the American War for Independence was strictly speaking a war of independence—an attempt to recognize the ocean. The French Revolution destroyed the ancien regime and sought to replace it with a complete novelty.

The French Revolution (1789–1799) began with a financial crisis. The Estates-General were summoned to deal with it, but things spiraled quickly out of control. The Bastille was stormed, and then the royal court was brought back to Paris from Versailles by force. Louis XVI was beheaded in 1792. The Reign of Terror followed (1793–1794), and some tens of thousands of people were executed. This is the time of the guillotine. But it has to be said again that Burke, who knew how to read the trajectory of ideas, set his face against the French Revolution before the Terror showed how right he was.

After the fall of the radicals, the Revolution was then governed by the Directory, until it was replaced by the Consulate of Napoleon Bonaparte—the dictatorship of a charismatic leader. When you look at the appalling series of events involved in the French Revolution, and you look at the sober restraint that characterized the American War for Independence, to say that they come from the same stock is really quite an astonishing historical slander.

Both wars had revolution in their names. Both occurred within a few years of each other. And unless you were as clear-eyed as Burke, what the French Revolution became was not immediately obvious. And it is true to say that some of the intellectual currents that were very popular in France were present in America, but not nearly at the same level. Thomas Paine was the kind of who could really move things in France, but he was pretty lonely in his radicalism over here. So the revolutionary elements that made the French Revolution so appalling were present here, but those sparks here did not come in contact with the same kind of combustible material as they did over there. They did not come into contact with those combustible materials because those kinds of materials were largely absent here—thanks to the Great Awakening.

Now of course there were some responsible Americans, men like Thomas Jefferson, who were open to the French Revolution initially. Remember that the French had come to our aid in our War. It was the French fleet that had bottled up Cornwallis at Yorktown. And George Washington had been greatly helped by Lafayette, who later on became a participant in the French Revolution.

But even with such historical details, we have to make some distinctions. The French Revolution, once it took off, had its cooler heads along with its incendiary types. Lafayette was one of the former, one of the cooler hands, and in their assembly he was seated with others like himself on the right side of their chamber. In fact, this is where our phrases right wing and left wing come from—the right wingers were the more conservative revolutionaries. I would argue it is not good to be either, but current events were as complicated back then as they are now.

So with all that said and recognized, clear-headed Americans knew that what they had fought for was not at all like what the French Revolution was seeking to establish. To run them together really is an historical slander, and it is to throw away one of the great achievements of the American founding—a righteous heritage.


[i] John Eidsmoe, God and Caesar (Eugene, OR, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997), p. 34.

This arguments in this post were originally published in the Omnibus textbook series, with the prose heavily reworked.