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When the French Revolution broke out two hundred years ago this month, Americans greeted it enthusiastically. After all, without the French we could never have become free. But the cheers faded as the brutality of the convulsion emerged—and we saw we were still only a feeble newborn facing a giant, intimidating world power.
July/august 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
When Washington criticized the Democratic-Republican Societies for introducing faction into American life, he was assailed for suppressing free speech. When Paine published his Age of Reason in 1794, it was made the occasion for attacks on the “atheism” of the French Revolution. Jefferson, suffering guilt by association with Paine, would be branded an atheist by his political enemies for the rest of his career. Not only were there public factions now, but one side saw behind the other a despotic foreign conspiracy and the other side saw an anarchic foreign atheism. Each looked through the other at a European specter. Monarchy had had its own odious image before 1789. But after 1794 even republicanism had a horrid aspect when one looked at a France reeling from the Terror.
John Adams’s early prediction that force alone would put down the French disruption seemed confirmed by the ascent of Napoleon. The American statesman Stephen Higginson rightly assessed it as something that “drew a red-hot plough-share through the history of America as well as through that of France. It not merely divided parties, but molded them; gave them their demarcations, their watchwords and their bitterness. The home issues were for a time subordinate, collateral; the real party lines were established on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Despite the American Revolution’s priority in time, the French Revolution became the revolution for all later ages. It is the model, the measure by which other uprisings are judged—the one used, retrospectively, to belittle or enlarge our own earlier rebellion. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was criticized according to its proximity to or departure from the French Revolution—not by its detractors and defenders only, but even by its participants, who were conscious, despite their emphasis on the future, that they were reenacting various stages of that primordial overturn and who looked among themselves for people to play the roles of Danton, Robespierre, and others.
The French Revolution ideologized the modern world. Its period even gave us the term ideology , when followers of the philosopher Condillac’s theory of knowledge became known as idéologues . It made the champions of unarticulated loyalties, people like Burke, paradoxically articulate a rationale for such loyalties, laying the basis for conservatism to this very day. Burke did not describe himself as a conservative, since the terms liberal and conservative were not yet in political use as polar terms. But the Revolution gave us the first lasting expression of such a polarity: the use of left and right in a political sense—taken from the pro-Revolutionary and anti-Revolutionary parties sitting to the left and right of the speaker in the National Constituent Assembly.
Monarchy had seemed odious before 1789. After 1794 even republicanism seemed horrid as France reeled from the Terror.
A wave of émigrés fleeing the French Revolution brought the establishment (especially the churchly) view of the Revolution to this country, to find allies or enemies for that view. So deeply did reactions to the French Revolution enter into our own attitudes that such a “vernacular” masterpiece as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn draws heavily on the picture of the Revolution established in the English-speaking world by Carlyle and Dickens. Even the most isolated and parochial reaches of American society reacted to the cardinal event of modern history.
Jefferson, looking back years later on the French Revolution, wrote Adams as one old man to another: “Your prophecies to Dr. Price proved truer than mine; and yet fell short of the fact, for instead of a million, the destruction of 8. or 10. millions of human beings has probably been the effect of these convulsions. I did not, in 89, believe they would have lasted so long nor have cost so much blood. But altho’ your prophecy has proved true so far, I hope it does not preclude a better final result.”
Jefferson sadly concluded that the French people were not yet “virtuous” enough to accept a sudden republicanism after so many years of superstition and despotism; this was the fear that made him want to limit immigration to America from lands where established churches had corrupted men’s outlook. The Girondin hope for an early liberation of mankind was obliterated. For Jefferson, the past was destroying the Revolution. For Burke, the Revolution was destroying the past. Each was, in his own way, right. In the end the “twin republics” of the eighteenth century could claim only a bitter sisterhood in disillusionment.