Ann Coulter must have a real beef against popular uprisings. Last fall we looked at a column in which she argued that mass upheaval ran against the grain of American history. Now she’s contrasting the radical, bloody, atheistic French Revolution with our law-abiding, orderly, religious one.
I think she’s correct to draw the distinction. In many ways, the American and French Revolutions were qualitatively different. But I would quibble with her over a few points.
Edmond-Charles Genet, the ambassador from Revolutionary France who whipped up a ruckus in the U.S. By Harper & Brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For one thing, when the French Revolution did erupt, it was pretty popular among large segments of the American population. After all, the Democratic-Republican Societies openly celebrated Bastille Day, and cheering crowds greeted Citizen Genêt when he arrived in the U.S. One reason for this enthusiasm was the Republicans’ conviction that the French Revolution was part of the same movement begun in 1776, a conviction embraced by their spiritual figurehead, Thomas Jefferson.
Second, let me reiterate something I’ve suggested before in comparing the two revolutions. The Americans didn’t keep the guillotines running around the clock during their struggle for independence, but that doesn’t mean it was a bloodless affair. The Tories who suffered lynchings, floggings, confiscation, and exile would probably argue that the American Revolution was rather savage indeed. Washington and his subordinates managed to keep the Continental Army on a fairly tight leash, but militiamen and partisans weren’t always so restrained in dealing out violence. And if we consider the war between Indians and whites that coincided with the contest between America and England, the French Revolution doesn’t always look all that cataclysmic by comparison.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the American Revolution meant different things to different people. Some Patriots were content to define it as a separation from Britain and monarchy. Others had more radical ambitions. Independence was a chance to redefine the nature of American politics and society—to empower popular legislatures, to eliminate the deference that characterized the colonial world, and to alter the status of women and blacks. For some Americans, the Revolution rolled right on after the ratification of the Constitution, supplied with the momentum of its own ideology.
It’s not that Coulter’s portrait of the Revolution is wrong; there’s a good deal of truth to it. The problem is that it’s incomplete. You could fundamentally disagree with her about the American Revolution and its legacies, and both of you could still be correct because the Revolution was itself a sometimes contradictory affair. Even the participants and their heirs never completely agreed on what it all meant.