Tag Archives: French Revolution

Our civilized, God-fearing, English-speaking Revolution

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.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

A kinder, gentler Revolution?

We’ve reached that point in the term when my classes are studying the Age of Revolutions, specifically the American and French ones.  One benefit of trying to teach all of history in one fell swoop is that you get to compare far-flung events with each other.  Because they fit together both chronologically and topically, most world history texts treat these two upheavals together.

The American Revolution, so we’re told, was a pretty civil affair in which small armies came together to swap volleys from time to time, but otherwise there were no great shake-ups of the sort that happened in Europe, where huge citizen armies raged across the continent and the guillotine did a brisk business.

Personally, I’ve always wondered if the American Revolution might have been somewhat closer to its French counterpart than we often assume.  During a seminar in grad school, a classmate of mine once raised the question of why there was no reign of terror during the American Revolution.  I responded with another question: What about the Loyalists?  If you were a Tory militiaman captured by rebel partisans and facing summary execution, or a pro-British property owner who’d just had his property sequestered and been driven out of town, or a royal officeholder about to be tarred and feathered, you probably wouldn’t have agreed that the American Revolution was a cakewalk.  The end result of being fitted with a Patriot rope is pretty much the same as getting dragged to the guillotine, as far as the person on the business end is concerned, even if people in the latter category vastly outnumbered the former.

Britain welcomes Loyalist refugees, in a metaphorical engraving from 1783. From Wikimedia Commons

Only about ten or fifteen percent of the Tories actually fled the country, and a few of those who did leave ended up returning.  This may not sound like the behavior of a persecuted class.  But J. M. Roberts, in a chapter dealing with the two revolutions of the late eighteenth century from his one-volume history of the world, notes that “fewer fled from France during the Revolution than from the American colonies after 1783.  A much larger proportion of Americans felt too intimidated or disgusted with their Revolution to live in the United States after independence than the proportion of Frenchmen who could not live in France after the Terror” (pp. 734-35).  He also notes that most of those who lost their lives in France did so “in the provinces, often in conditions of civil war and sometimes with arms in their hands” (p. 734).  It’s something to think about, at least.

I’m not denying that the French Revolution took a more radical and nastier turn than its American counterpart.  For one thing, the French Revolution had a class angle; for another, Washington and the other top-tier American leaders fought their war along conventional, disciplined, professional lines.  There were doubtless other factors, too many and too complex to be the subject of a blog post, which put the brakes on America’s revolution.  Still, I think we should be cautious when we generalize about the tameness of that conflict, because we risk forgetting those rare occasions when the gloves came off—and the Americans who clung to their monarch and found themselves on the wrong end of history.

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