Reasons for the American and French Revolutionsby Rit Nosotro
Compare the events that lead to the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
The primary difference in causes that led to the American Revolution and the French Revolution was based in the world view of the innate goodness or innate evil of man.
The French did not seriously question the right of monarchy until a nearly fatal economic depression brought hunger. With no other foundation than the vanity of intellectuals, mob mentality brought on the Reign of Terror. Conversely, the British colonies in America had a much different example set for them by the Glorious Revolution and such documents as the Magna Carta. Those precidents empowered the colonists, as respectable British citizens with rights and freedoms, to rebel in the face of injustice.
Another essay on this subject is Reasons for the French, Russian, and American Revolutions
Both France and the United States have gone through revolutions that drastically changed the way they operated as countries. America sought to release itself from British rule, while the French wanted to overthrow their monarchy and give the power to the people. Even though the revolutions seemed to have common objectives such as setting up a republic and releasing themselves from royalty, in execution and result they were extremely different. This was largely because of the philosophical and religious views of those involved, and in the colonies case the influence of the Glorious Revolution.
The French system of government was built on the foundation of feudalism, and thus there was a distinct rift between the plebs and the rich. This mentality was ingrained into the people, and this could account for the extended period of time that France remained the way it did instead of following in England’s path toward a constitutional monarchy. The French were used to the idea and life associated with a monarchy, and they did not necessitate change until a nearly fatal economic depression showed them the weaknesses of their absolute monarchy.
The British colonies in America had a much different example set for them by the Glorious Revolution and such documents as the Magna Carta. They were not plebs to be trampled on. In their mind they were respectable British citizens with rights and freedom. Not only this, but American’s were peculiar in that they understood their government, their laws, and their rights. They knew when they were placed in a situation of injustice or tyranny, and they had the precedent of the Glorious Revolution that told them when injustice was done, it could be retaliated against. This knowledge proved powerful when certain wrongs were done against them. It resulted in their independence and the formation of one of the most influential nations of the modern world.
As is nearly always the case, the economic ruin of France was not because of one clear mistake, but instead because of a myriad of political and social oversights. Three of these are in fact distinctive and should be noted, as the rest can be considered their wayward offspring. The first is the general disorder of finances in France. Enormous state debt which was caused by past kings and wars, fueled by a tax exempt aristocracy, and continued by frivolous spending drained the economy. The second problem was the political and philosophical atmosphere of Europe at the time. The ideas of the Enlightenment and Rousseau led to a nation filled with people who believed there was no right or wrong and that man was essentially good. The new republic of the United States gave an alternative to monarchy. The bourgeoisie supported the idea of a republic and began to denounce the absolutism of the monarchy. The peasants, influenced by the bourgeoisie’s ideas of freedom from feudalism, embraced the new ideas. Lastly, the French King Louis XVI was a man who could no longer command respect, having proved economically incapable, became contemptible in the sight of the nation. The French radicals wanted to exchange their king for a republic through revolution.
The atmosphere in the Colonies could not have been more different in the 1760’s. Britain was in solid control of America, the colonies were effectively free to do as they pleased, and they were content to be in the service of His Majesty George III. Parliament was for the most part just in its dealing with America and England as a whole had sacrificed much for the success of their cousins across the ocean. The “cause of the cause” of the Revolution in this case was a simple and ignorant mistake on the side of England. This mistake was that the Colonies were not represented in Parliament, and thus when they were issued acts and proclamations from a body in which they were not represented, there was a feeling of injustice. The Proclamation of 1763, which limited English settlement west of the Appalachians, was designed to ease tensions with Native Americans. The Sugar Act, Currency Act, Stamp Act, and Quartering Act were all designed to make the colonies, which were in fact deeply indebted to England, carry some of the load for and provide support to their mother country. Unfortunately these legitimate acts were made illegitimate by the fact that they were demanded without representation. A popular phrase before the revolution was in fact, “No taxation without representation.” This situation was exacerbated by the fact that when the colonies applied for representation in Parliament they were ultimately brushed aside. Parliament did help the situation by repealing certain acts, but the colonists’ reactions to a new Tea Act pushed more than just tea over the edge.
The unrest in France culminated in 1789 when King Louis XVI called for an Estates-General. In this Estates-General Louis’ goal was to solve France’s continuing economic problems, and formed a type of parliament made up of representatives from each of France’s social classes. This meeting was a problem as each class received one vote and was ineffective at resolving issues. The Third Estate which represented the working class decided to form its own assembly, and proceeded to declare itself the National Assembly. It began to deal with issues with or without the two other Estates and vowed to form a constitution before concluding the Estates-General. By July the other Estates and the King were in support of the reforms, but when the King dismissed one of the primary speakers of the Third Estate it sparked the Parisians into storming the Bastille prison. This assault led to further reforms and patriotism, but the factions and divisions between the ideals of the revolution eventually resulted in a form of anarchy, the execution of the king, and multiple changes in leadership that culminated in the infamous reign of terror.
The Tea Act decreased the tax on imported British tea and gave British merchants an advantage over merchants from anywhere else in the world. Three ships from England entered the Boston harbor loaded with tea but because of the Tea Act many American’s wanted the tea sent back to England in protest of the exploitation. Motivated by this unrest in the people, a group of colonists led by Samuel Adams boarded the ships holding the tea and threw 342 chests of it overboard. This action was promptly responded to by the so called Intolerable Acts which were all designed to punish Boston for its insubordination. This only led to further rebellion by the people and restrictions by England. The colonies then formed the Continental Congress on September 5 and British troops mobilized to capture munitions and supplies that would be potentially used against them and encountered state militia at Lexington. This skirmish provided the “shot heard around the world” which informally started the American Revolution on April 19.
It is interesting to note the extreme difference of context between the French and American revolutions. While one was nearly in a state of collapse, the other was in a state of peace and prosperity. Because of this each of them entered revolution in different ways. The French were led into revolution because of the failed efforts of their own King at economic reform. It is truly ironic that his efforts at saving his country resulted in his head being cut off. In contrast the American Colonies were placed into revolution after the increase of religious fears and political alienantion against the motherland. Policies made in England without representation led to the indignation of the Americans. They responded with frustration by destroying thousands of pounds worth of British merchandise. This led to further acts by England which resulted in more frustration from the Colonists. The result has been worth the journey as the United States is a powerful nation today, but its beginning is comparable to the bickering of two children.
Voltaire, a popular philosopher of the day, declared that within one hundred years the Bible would be over and done with, a useless book of fairy tales. The French tried to establish a ten day week, so that they would not be following the God ordained order of a seven day week, all the while executing anyone who might possibly have any ties to the aristocracy. Because one nation based their revolution on biblical principles, knowing man's evil desire, it succeeded in creating a government of checks and balances that is still in place today. The French, on the other hand, were decieved by vain intellectuals who blindly believed in man's innate goodness. They have seen horrible bloodshed and recurring war through the years. "Whoso taketh in hand to frame any state or government ought to presuppose that all men are evil, and at occasions will show themselves so to be."1
The possibility that the causes for the French Revolution were much more legitimate than the United States is a somewhat ground-breaking possibility for the average American. It is even more interesting to note that the actions of the Americans preceding the Revolutionary War could hardly be in line with acceptable Christian character. Insubordination and disrespect followed by reckless destruction of property are actions we expected to come from anti-Christian France, not from the United States. Ironically it was France who attempted to reconcile its difficulties in an organized and civilized manner. This key point at the start of the revolution is where America’s Christian foundation did come through and allowed an organized cause under one flag. In France this was not possible because of the Enlightenment and its effects on the mentality of the people. There were no attempts at a unified movement or a dignified march toward freedom. It started well but ended in horrific bloodshed.
1. Which influential person attempted to reform his nation, but ultimately failed?
a. Samuel Adams
b. King George III
c. King Louis XVI
d. Jimmy Carter
2. Which act(s) did not precede the Boston Tea Party?
a. Stamp Act
b. Intolerable Acts
c. Quartering Act
d. Tea Act
3. Which was not a direct cause of the French Revolution?
a. the General disorder of finances
b. the Political and philosophical atmosphere
c. the Example of the newly formed United States
d. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.
4. What best describes the American Colonies in 1760?
a. Peace and Prosperity
b. Economic depression
c. Severe tyranny and oppression
d. Borders from sea to golden sea.
5. Voltaire said that the Bible would
a. flourish extensively
b. get five new books added every year
c. die out within one hundred years
d. be cut down to only ten books.
1C, 2B, 3D, 4A, 5C
1 Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618), British author, soldier, explorer. In The Works of Sir Walter Raleigh, vol. 1 (1751). “Maxims of State,” ch. 26, The Cabinet Council.
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