Skip to main content

Liberté Egalité Animosité

May 2024
14min read

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.

There were two great revolutions against European monarchs in the late eighteenth century. In the first, the French nation helped Americans achieve their independence from George III. Without that help our revolution could not have succeeded. Yet when the French rebelled against Louis XVI, Americans hailed their action, then hesitated over it, and finally recoiled from it, causing bitterness in France and among some Americans. Why had the “sister republics” not embraced each other when they had the opportunity? Instead of marching together, the revolutions, so similar in their ideals, roots, and principles, passed each other at shouting distance. What began in mutual encouragement ended in mutual misapprehension.
The French philosophes hoped the American Revolution would weaken the hold of Louis XVI’s repressive establishment.

The root of the trouble lay in the equivocal nature of the aid France extended to America in the 1770s. The American Revolution wore two different faces in France, and each was one of the many faces of Benjamin Franklin. On the one hand, Louis XVI was using British colonists to discommode his rival, George III, and Franklin was the courtier who pointed out the advantages of such a course to Louis’s ministers. A famous contemporary image of Franklin is the porcelain statuette group by Lemire, in which Franklin bows to the French king, who presents him with the Treaty of 1778, which allied us to France (a document that would be the subject of heated controversy just over a decade later).

A more complex picture of the diplomatic forces at work is the allegorical print by Étienne Pallièr, which shows Franklin helping unleash the French Hercules, who bashes with his club Britannia and her cowering lion. On the right side of the print, Neptune dispatches the French navy, carrying cannon forged by Vulcan. All the gods of neoclassicism move to accomplish the will of Louis XVI’s government. One king rebukes another in the balance of imperial politics. (Although the Declaration of Independence had been specifically crafted to bring France into the conflict, Louis responded only after the first substantial defeat of an English army at Saratoga.)


But to the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, Franklin bore quite another face—himself a neoclassical god now, Prometheus, the tamer of lightning and the scourge of tyrants, the scientist and the philosopher of freedom. That’s the way Fragonard drew Franklin and Marguerite Gérard engraved him, adding the heroic hexameter of Turgot, Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis (“He tore from heaven lightning, and the scepter from kings”). Turgot, the reforming economist, had to circulate his line of poetry anonymously, since the plural for kings (tyrannis) showed that French thinkers hoped the American Revolution would effect changes in their own society, weakening the hold of Louis XVI’s establishment, which had censored their works. Franklin encouraged this view of America’s meaning for the future, joining the Paris-based Masonic lodge of the Nine Sisters, where hopes of a revolution in France were harbored.

Some of the officers who went to serve in the American Revolution—notably Lafayette, Rochambeau, Chastellux, and Admiral d’Estaing—were enlightened critics of their own government as well as supporters of American aspirations, but George Washington never forgot that the motive of King Louis in sending these auxiliaries was not any devotion to antimonarchical principle but a maneuver to regain some of the holdings in the New World he had lost to England after the Seven Years’ War.

Washington alone took the measure of French aid in both its aspects. He was a champion of the Enlightenment in areas like his opposition to established churches, but he also had an eye to the practical conditions for exercising freedom. (In the current debates in Congress over Central America, he would definitely agree with those who think free elections mean little to people who cannot feed their own children.) He meant to keep America free from dependence on France as well as from submission to England.

When Lafayette, for example, tried to organize an army to recapture Canada, Washington expressed to Congress his vigorous objections. He wanted to use France, not be used by it. The independence of America could only be maintained by keeping it nonaligned between the great powers. The historian Edmund S. Morgan has convincingly traced Washington’s neutrality policy back to the touchiness he felt about accepting French help from a king with his own designs in mind. Washington’s caution was justified years later, at the end of the war over the American colonies, when it came out that Louis was negotiating with George III to grant Spain all American territory across the Alleghenies.

But this was a secret war of wills between Washington and King Louis that went on under a surface of amity. Washington did not even confide his misgivings to Lafayette, despite their friendship. After the war diplomatic relations between the two countries, though strained somewhat by French commercial losses in the war, were cordial as a result of Alexander Hamilton’s efforts to repay on a regular basis the debts incurred to France. Meanwhile, the leading thinkers in the two countries seemed to form a single community of rational discourse. French visitors to America—Crèvecoeur and Brissot de Warville—found models for French social reform in American institutions. American visitors to France—Thomas Jefferson and Joel Barlow—saw the stirrings of discontent with the established church and state as natural consequences of the example America had set in its state and federal constitutions. Thomas Paine, having argued for commonsense government in America, went to France to vindicate the rights of man. The French officers who had served with Washington were the only men at Louis XVI’s court allowed to wear a foreign decoration—the Order of the Cincinnati eagle, designed by a Frenchman, Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette—recognizing the indebtedness of the French Revolution to Americans, who had shown the way—sent the key of that prison to Washington. Lafayette’s face became the first of many that the French Revolution would turn toward America—and a more welcome appearance could not be wished. Jefferson, who had recently returned from France to become Secretary of State—Lafayette was at his farewell dinner in Paris—was actually more enthusiastic about the French Revolution than was France’s minister to America, Jean Baptiste de Ternant. Jefferson thought the French experiment would not only confirm the American one but spread irresistibly to all the other enlightened parts of Europe. When the National Assembly in France, conscious of the model offered by the Declaration of Independence, issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man, it was designed to be adaptable to any country.

Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, thought, like Jefferson, that French republicanism would spread to other countries—a prospect he feared as destabilizing. He reminded Washington that all treaties had been made with the regime of Louis XVI and that any new government in France would not have the same claim upon America as had the one that actually supplied help to America in its time of crisis. This was Hamilton’s way of turning the revolutionary assistance France had given to America against that country’s own revolutionary effort. The equivocal nature of Louis XVI’s actions was coming back to haunt Franco-American relations.


Jefferson was not convinced. He argued heatedly in cabinet debate that treaties are made with the people who make up a nation and that any people can alter its form of government without forfeiting prior claims upon other nations. Washington agreed with Jefferson that treaty obligations must be met—that, for instance, payments on the war debt should be continued—but he was no more ready to commit America’s fortunes to the giant republic of France than to the giant monarchy of France.

While the cabinet debate was going on in private, an international propaganda war broke out in 1790 over the future of the French Revolution. Thomas Paine was at the center of a triangular debate in England, France, and America. The mob’s invasion of Versailles, menacing the queen—an attack repulsed by Lafayette—had ruffled the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke’s deep sense of historical decorum. Burke wrote his impassioned Reflections on the Revolution in France to defend ancient establishments. Paine responded from France with The Rights of Man, saying Burke “pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird” of the French nation. Thomas Jefferson indiscreetly recommended Paine’s book to its American publisher as an answer to “heresies” that had arisen in America over the French Revolution—an allusion to John Adams’s Discourses on Davila (1790), in which Adams denounced French experiments with freedom. When Jefferson’s letter was published, he had to apologize for this attack by one member of Washington’s administration on the Vice-President of the United States.


There was great misunderstanding on all sides because events were moving rapidly in France, though reports of them came slowly to America. In 1792, when news arrived that France had declared war on the alliance of kings that was taking shape in response to the Revolution, Hamilton argued that America’s guarantee of French rights in the West Indies was framed in case a defensive war should arise, and France had now taken the offensive. Jefferson replied that France was forced to take pre-emptive steps.

But Jefferson’s words were being undermined without his knowledge. Lafayette, leading French troops (with Rochambeau) against the Austrians, concluded in 1792 that his home government had reeled out of control. He defected from the army and was soon writing Washington from an Austrian jail, posing delicate problems for the President, who wanted to help his old ally without committing America to either of the two sides Lafayette had already taken. The French Revolution no longer wore a face familiar from America’s own fighting days.

Jefferson’s hopes shifted to Brissot de Warville, the rising leader of the Girondin faction, a friend of America who spoke of “our” revolutions and republics (Washington deleted a similar “our” from one of Jefferson’s documents addressed to France). The summary execution of aristocrats by popular tribunals in France led to some nervous arguments in America over the need to break eggs when making revolutionary omelets. Jefferson had written to Lafayette, before his defection, that “we are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed.” After Lafayette’s imprisonment Jefferson wrote to his former secretary, William Short: “My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to the cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it now is.”

Jefferson did not know, when he wrote those words, that Louis XVI had been executed on January 21, 1793. Jefferson later wrote that he would have voted, if he were in the French government, for removing the king but not for killing him. That was also Thomas Paine’s attitude at the time, and Paine was in a position to do something for the king. Ironically, he tried to arrange to have Louis conducted into exile in America, under the safe-conduct of the new minister about to depart for Philadelphia, Edmond Charles Edouard Genêt. Despite Paine’s arguments, Citizen Louis Capet was condemned, and Americans began to realize that revolution meant one thing in a home country deposing its ruler and another in colonies seceding from an empire. There had been no regicide involved in the American Revolution—not even any executions of Loyalists. The death of the king raised the stakes of this second revolution, for its sympathizers as well as its participants.

“Republicans” in America had to rationalize the violence by a harsher definition of what revolution means. As French philosophes had used the American Revolution to change their society, so Jeffersonians out of government argued that the French Revolution, by its logic of antiaristocratic purity, showed that changes were still to be made in American society. If the French Revolution was different from the American, that only meant that the American Revolution should be made to resemble the French more closely. Democratic-Republican Societies were formed not only to support the French Revolution but to import some of its practices. Some Americans began to address each other as “Citizen” and to wear the liberty cap. Bostonians even decided that the proper term for a woman was “Citess.”


The aim of all this activity was to push America into open support of France. To prevent this, Washington decided to proclaim the neutrality he had been observing all along. Jefferson argued that he had no power to do this—that only Congress can declare war and that the state of peace when no such declaration has occurred does not need to be proclaimed by the Executive, the department of government that lacks war powers. But Americans were organizing support for a foreign belligerent, and Washington wanted to prevent that. Jefferson at least succeeded in keeping the actual word neutrality out of the so-called neutrality proclamation of 1793.

Jefferson was more enthusiastic about the French Revolution than was France’s minister to America.

At the very time Washington was proclaiming neutrality in Philadelphia, the new French minister arrived in Charleston. With him, the French Revolution acquired a particular face in America that would prove fatal to hopes for Franco-American unity—the face of Citizen Genêt. Genêt, a young aristocrat popular with the Girondins, made it his open aim to rally the American citizenry against its own government’s stated policy. This was a bracing prospect for people like James Madison, who deplored the President’s neutrality in a letter to Jefferson: “The proclamation was in truth a most unfortunate error. It wounds the national honor, by seeming to disregard the stipulated duties to France. It wounds the popular feelings by a seeming indifference to the cause of liberty.…If France triumphs, the ill-fated proclamation will be a millstone which would sink any other character [but Washington’s] and will force a struggle even on his.”

When Lafayette was jailed in 1792, the French Revolution no longer wore a face familiar from America’s own fighting days.

Unfortunately for Genêt, he listened to similar talk from “true Americans,” who felt that he must save the President from his own advisers. Hamilton had argued against receiving Genêt at all. Washington overruled him, but Genêt made matters sticky by not bothering to seek a diplomatic reception before he began rallying opinion and money for the French cause. He made a public tour that brought him in a leisurely fashion to the seat of government in Philadelphia.

Jefferson, for as long as he could, nurtured great hopes for the Genêt mission. He was glad to see Ternant, the royal minister, removed, since he thought that remnant of the old regime had been an obstacle to the natural sympathy that would be expressed between the two republics once they understood each other. Jefferson assured his friends that Genêt “offers everything and asks nothing.” Genêt had brought with him a personal letter to Jefferson from his old friend Condorcet, which urged that “our republic, founded like yours on reason, on the rights of nature, on equality, ought to be your true ally … [that] we ought in some sort to form one people.”

This was Jefferson’s hope too, but Genêt took the idea of one people so literally that he acted as a citizen of the world talking to Americans as one of them. The Girondin stage of the French Revolution was the most optimistically proselytizing one, and Genêt felt he could speak to all free men without regard for the ceremonies of established governments. He had replaced his own title with the universal “Citizen.” He expected American officials to set aside their titles too.

When they did not, Genêt treated them as betrayers of their own revolution. He threatened to appeal over the head of Washington to the people the President claimed to represent. He even attacked Jefferson for the State Department’s implementation of the neutrality policy. Jefferson, in his turn, came to realize that Genêt was doing far more damage to the French cause than Ternant ever had. By July 1793 he was writing Madison: “Never in my opinion was so calamitous an appointment made, as that of the present Minister of F[rance] here. Hotheaded, all imagination, no judgment, passionate, disrespectful and even indecent towards the P[resident] in his written as well as verbal communications, talking of appeals from him to Congress, from them to the people, urging the most unreasonable & groundless propositions, & in the most dictatorial style.…He renders my position immensely difficult.”

Jefferson’s only hope of preventing a public reaction against Genêt (and through him against France) was to keep the insulting record of his dealings from publication. But that was made impossible when Genêt went from propagandizing to active war making: he was in touch with Western leaders like George Rogers Clark, who wanted to seize Louisiana from the Spanish. Genêt, an adjutant general of the French army, offered the support of his nation to such a “filibustering” movement. This was all the more embarrassing for Jefferson since Genêt had extracted a letter of recommendation from him introducing Genet’s emissary in this matter to the governor of Kentucky. Genêt, at first a nuisance, had become a disaster.

Yet by the time his recall was demanded, Genêt had to request asylum in this country (where, indeed, he lived out the rest of his long life). During his absence the Jacobins had replaced the Girondins and instituted the Terror. Friends of America like d’Estaing were sent to the guillotine—to which Genêt would undoubtedly have been conducted had he returned to France. Paine, imprisoned by Robespierre, lived in the shadow of the guillotine until its blade fell on Robespierre himself. The Revolution was devouring its own.

America was now a “sister republic” to France only in its own bitter divisions. The ideal accepted by all sides at the beginning of the Washington administration had been a factionless society, in which partisan appeals were to be submitted to impartial consideration. Early divisions had occurred, in the cabinet and in Congress, over matters like the establishment of a federal banking system. But these had not become matters of widespread popular agitation until Genêt made his appeals to the people and Democratic-Republican Societies began staging rallies in imitation of the Parisian mobs. John Adams was no doubt exaggerating when he remembered, late in his life, a time “when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day threatened to drag Washington out of his house.” But there was tumult and disorder of the sort not seen since the demonstrations against George III.


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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.