- Historic Sites
A Very Great Event
July/august 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
Most of the best colonial minds of the eighteenth century—Benjamin Franklin the most dedicated of them—did what they could to forestall the American Revolution, urging compromise and conciliation with the Crown until all hope was lost. But once the Revolution came, they did not look back with regret. And once the separation from the mother country was accomplished (with the help of French arms, money, and blood), the question of its necessity never arose. Our Revolution was clearly a good thing—a matter of pride and daring that informs the aspirations and achievements of the American people. But the question of whether the French Revolution was good and necessary is one that still divides France as dramatically as the severance of Louis XVTs bewildered head from his torso. For the French, their Revolution remains “a very great event that took a bad turn.”
Nevertheless, this year France will momentarily put aside its conflicts of ideology—the unending oscillation between the Party of Order and the Party of Revolution that haunts its political life. On July 14, the bicentenary of the fall of the Bastille, the French will embrace the very great event that defined them as a modern state and changed the nature of Europe forever. And Americans will cheer them on even though we, through most of our history, have been deeply disturbed by a convulsion that resembled ours in many of its words and ideals, but not at all in its actions and consequences. For a full picture of just how troubling the French appeared to their fellow revolutionaries on this side of the Atlantic, we recommend the article by Carry Wills that leads this issue.
For Americans today, of course, the French Revolution is no issue at all. When the Germans defeated France in 1871, we lost our fear of her as a threatening, sometimes intrusive and cruel power. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, indeed, Americans became increasingly enchanted with a French culture that reached astonishing peaks of creativity in the arts and sciences.
In the intervening years, that passion for the culture of France has been fortified by both peacetime and wartime alliances. As in many alliances, there is irritation and condescension on both sides, but the essential friendship prevails. I remember a scene that repeated itself in my home for several nights in a row during the months of May and June 1940. While the Wehrmacht roared toward Paris, my father, a man who knew almost nothing about France apart from the operas he loved, would slam his fist on the kitchen table and say, “France will never fall!” I like to think he spoke unknowingly for all Americans. It was an article of faith, one that was confirmed in fact a few hard years later.