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A Tale of Two Revolutions


ISSUE:  Autumn 2000

Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light. By Susan Dunn. Faber and Faber. $26.00.


Near the American military cemetery at the foot of Mount Valérien, just to the west of Paris, stands a special monument to Franco-American friendship. There one can read a reminder of just how welcoming the French people have been for more than two hundred years. The inscription quotes Thomas Jefferson: “Everyone has two homes, his own and in France.” How true that sentiment must be for the thousands of G.I.s, who died in World War II and are now buried all over France.

The sentiment has not been reciprocated, however, on our side of the Atlantic, a fact celebrated ironically by the French gift of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty in 1889: many fewer French immigrated to America than Americans immigrated to France. This asymmetry in our relations may owe to the great American desert, that is, a land without people that the French cultural need for community finds so uncongenial. Moreover, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted during his travels to America in the early 1830’s, the egalitarian spirit of Jacksonian-era frontier individualism was simply too much for the libertarian affinities of the collective resistance to French monarchical government.

Despite the enduring mutual admiration of France and America, there are still deeper differences in their political principles. For instance, the U.S. has enjoyed the relative stability provided by a single constitution, albeit one substantially amended 36 times, while France has experimented with no fewer than 15 different constitutions. In 1958 it settled at long last upon one crafted by Charles de Gaulle during yet another constitutional crisis, this time thanks to the French army in Algeria.

The U.S.’s ingenious checks and balances among the three branches of government ensure that every minority voice has an opportunity to protect its interests. This system contrasts sharply with the salade macedoine of French constitutional efforts to enforce political conformity of one sort of another. There have been hereditary monarchies, ruling political clubs and revolutionary committees, Bonapartist military dictatorships, and fragile multiparty coalitions in various parliamentary regimes; the legitimacy of each one has been open to question since 1789.

It is the historical source of these differences that Susan Dunn’s book, Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light, traces back to the two great 18th-century revolutions. Each country’s revolutionary origins have marked them profoundly. Quoting Gouverneur Morris, signer of the U.S. constitution and U.S. ambassador to revolutionary France, Dunn notes how the French “have taken Genius instead of Reason for their Guide, adopted Experiment instead of Experience, and wander in the Dark because they prefer Lightning to Light.” And so it always seems to have been.

Our political roots reach back to two contrasting notions of democracy. In the U.S. it was defined by John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690), as reflected in James Madison’s contributions to The Federalist Papers (1788), that assumed that all men are naturally free, rational, and independent; they have given up certain individual liberties to protect their property collectively. In France, on the other hand, democracy was defined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Le Contrat social (1768), which inspired the likes of the Abbé Sieyès’s Qu’est-ce que c’est le tiers état? (1789), that declared all men free but everywhere in chains; their freedom was best guaranteed by an all-powerful General Will, however that was determined. In short, Anglo-Americans preferred freedom from, while the French embraced freedom for.

These political principles, Dunn argues, are clearly apparent in our respective revolutionary leaders, their motivations, rhetoric, achievement, debt to the 18th-century Enlightenment, and relative (in)tolerance for party conflict. The Founding Fathers, for instance, were no Committee of Public Safety. They prized moderation, compromise, le mot juste, constitutional government, and reasonable differences between reasonable men. Instead, the French champions of the republic defended energy, uncompromising virtue, audacious polemic, the people above all, and the extirpation of resistance to the General Will. These two political leaderships and the systems they represent could not have been more different.

In Dunn’s words: “Tumult, division, and competing interest groups in the United States vs. concord, unity, and community in France. Here were the antithetical concepts of democracy and nationhood that shaped the core values of both revolutions, influencing . . .their notions of individual rights and freedoms, coloring their political discourse and style, and setting the stage for the success or failure of the two revolutionary projects.”

But are they so different? Dunn portrays in the American case what social scientists describe as inherently functionalist, a consensus perspective on our national political process that emphasizes the peaceful resolution of conflict in frequent and pervasive compromise. From this perspective, the agreement leading to the U.S. constitution is a good example. Even though the first draft provided no protection of basic civil liberties, the framers left that omission for subsequent correction in the Bill of Rights. The amendment process, Dunn argues, was a natural consequence of American notions of democratic government that tolerate conflict, because it does not threaten the system’s legitimacy.

On the other hand, French politics, at least in Dunn’s eyes, is fundamentally conflictual, sustaining tension that rarely leads to enduring consensus. The radical revolution during two years of Terror under the First Republic (1792—1804) set the example for continuing uncompromising political conformity, whether of the right or of the left. All legitimacy was contested. The closest to stability the French ever got was the much unloved Third Republic (1870—1940); it survived as long as it did, because, as its first president Adolphe Thiers quipped, it divided the French least. The result was a series of parliamentary leaderships that remained in power an average of just 16 months.

The question worth asking here is whether or not such an assumption about American and French politics really holds. Was Washington indeed no Robespierre? In style and substance, of course he wasn’t. The men themselves and what they came to represent are very different, as Dunn explains so very well in her book. But following the logic of another school of historical thought, like the Progressives represented by Charles and Mary Beard, for instance, one could certainly say that Washington was himself a conformist, too, but of another sort, one bound tightly by certain presumptions of class, race, and gender.

The Founding Fathers were nearly all wealthy, landed elites. They were all white. And they were all male. As a consequence, their constitution compromised the interests of others who were not. Each state decided on property qualifications for the vote that severely limited political participation until the Jacksonian period. The constitution also danced around the issue of slavery, representing only three-fifths of non-free men in the House of Representatives and ensuring that escaped slaves were returned to their owners. Moreover, during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Samuel Adams paid no heed to his wife Abigail’s admonition “to remember the ladies.” The latter enjoyed many fewer political or legal protections until individual states eventually accorded married women property rights and the 19th amendment granted all women the vote in 1920. In sum, the original U.S. constitution was a very conservative document.

Most tragic of all omissions from Dunn’s interpretation of the American revolution is the Civil War. This devastating conflict resulted in more American deaths than all other U.S. armed conflicts combined. It reflected the most important failure of the Founding Fathers to resolve sectional differences over slavery, the legacy of which continues today, at least in part, in our troubled race relations. And much of this misery can be attributed, in another interpretive perspective, to the uncompromising revolutionary principles of a privileged class of white men. Washington may have been more like Robespierre than Dunn would have us believe.

To what extent were the French revolutionary leaders themselves indebted to America? The analogy is not so far fetched as it may seem, and to her credit Dunn develops it. After all, the National Assembly thought highly of American revolutionaries. As R.R. Palmer amply demonstrated in The Age of Democratic Revolution (1959—64), the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence are not so distant from those in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, whose revolutionary implications, at least as the Jacobins saw them, were worth defending to the death. It is interesting to note how de Tocqueville later remarked the egalitarian, not the libertarian instincts of Americans, perhaps because the social inequalities of early America were no less than those in Old Regime France. The real differences between the two revolutions are more contextual than substantive.

But this provocative exercise in proposing another significance for these two events ought not to detract from Dunn’s achievement in her Sister Revolutions. Hers is a thoughtful, well-informed effort to sort out the patterns of political relationships between two timely events. In our present selective Europhobia on both sides of the Atlantic, it is useful to be reminded just how close our earliest political leaders were to each other in the 18th century. We sometimes forget the regular traffic between France and America. Thomas Jefferson was not the only American to read French and do time in Paris, and the Marquis de Lafayette was not the only Frenchman to help secure our independence from Great Britain.

Moreover, Dunn concludes her assessment of 1776 and 1789 shrewdly: “As we enter the third millennium, let us return to the wisdom and insights into democracy of some of our greatest political thinkers—Machiavelli, Jefferson, Madison, and Tocqueville—who meditated on conflict, tumult, and renovation. But revolution also entails audacity. As we contemplate fresh solutions to fresh problems, let us audaciously hurl a few experimental bolts of lightning into our sky of eighteenth-century light.”

Such a notion would have brought a smile to the French father of the American separation of powers, le baron de Montesquieu, who never lived to see a revolution but whose Esprit des lois (1749) was an inspiration to more than just the Founding Fathers.

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