There has been a plethora of information and historiography concerning the nature of revolutions, Hannah Arendt’s eponymous titled book dissects the nature of revolution with vicissitude.
However, for my own benefit, and perhaps for someone else’s, I am primarily interested in the dichotomy of two revolutions that occurred within a decade of each other and proved a reordering of ancien regimes in the West.
The American Revolution, set against British (read English) dominion, created a new state which at its inception was little more than a confederation of equal provinces, and only later collected into what we now recognized as the United State of America in form as well as function.
in contrast, the French Revolution very quickly set about to create a new state with a vision of a new transcendental order. Regicide, brutality and anarchy followed, but for a short period in and around the period of the Terror, the veil was pulled back just slightly to reveal a remarkably transformed society.
The question for me, (and perhaps others), is this: whose revolution was more of a revolution? It seems pat and trite to pull out a kindergarten euphemism that “everybody was the same”, because in real and demonstrable ways, they were the complete opposite of each other in both aims and means.
Simon Schama is widely known to have written in his tome, “Citizens”, that violence was the French Revolution. Instead of being a great force of change-minded bourgeois lawyers, the revolution to Schama was more Greek tragedy than modern politk. Schama defends the nobility as enlightened middle-class families who had recently been elevated to peerage as a result of financial success and the king as a hopelessly unprepared monarch who never quite understood what he was doing.
I mention the treatment Schama gives the revolution because when he places it in contrast to the American Revolution, he has nothing but ulgilating praise for the Virginia slave owners who designed a document to protect their “sacred” rights while a significant portion of the men, women, and children living on that continent did so in chains.
meanwhile, in the French area, innocent men and women were also being butchered under the guise of public safety and welfare.The tens and even hundreds of thousands who would go on to die either as victims or heroes of the new French Republic were cut down from across the political,religious, and economic landscape.Girondists died just as quickly and brutally as Royalists or even the hated Jacobins.
So how does one go about qualifying who suffered more, or who gained more? It would certainly seem that on the face of it the American Revolution was a more lasting enterprise, being one that has lasted over two centuries without a complete re-write of the founding document. Incremental change, in the fashion of Burke or Oakenshott is the principle design of the American political structure.
By contrast, the revolution that ended the lives of kings and commoners in France was swept up and consumed by its own fervor and ruled by a despot for the better part of 15 years until modicum or moderation and order was imposed.
If the American Revolution wins for its longevity, it certainly fails in what it accomplished.
American independence was born in the streets of Boston. Specifically, the wharf and shipyards. Anglophone merchants, ‘colonials’, by English definition, were bristling under a tax policy imposed to pay the exorbitant costs the mother country had incurred securing the North American continent for the English speaking peoples.
Heavy regulation of trade, and above all tax on that trade and its accompanying fees on every piece of paper that were required to facilitate trade, was seen as an offensive imposition to men and women who still viewed themselves as Englishmen and Englishwomen. The fact they were merely transposed to North American continent did not matter more than if they had been citizens living in Ulster or York.
Further, the taxes levied by the quasi-elected House of Commons were distasteful because English law had ensured that those taxed had to have agreed on taxation in arbitration with the King. Being that colonials were not represented in either the Commons or certainly not the Lords, what right then did the collective Parliament have to tax?
Not to be a bit of a nitpicker, but the above line or reasoning from early ‘founding fathers’ always struck me as somewhat irrational. Yes, their lack of representation was an unfortunate problem, but what the Seven Years War (aka the French and Indian War in the colonies, despite the fact the French and Indians were allies against Britain) accomplished more than anything was a final securing of open trade routes for raw materials that the Empire required for the burgeoning textile industry. For colonial citizens to complain that the war that essentially opened the whole of North America to their expansion cost too much seems vapid when compared with the plight of the French peasant that had not seen representation in 150 years.
In spite of all Schama’s pronunciations about how forward thinking Louis XVI and his court were, it was no substitute for an even marginally democratic institution like the English Parliament.
That said, when the fissure between King and Subjects broke, it broke wide open. Laws abolishing slavery, the state church, and forced tithes worked like a legislative crowbar against monarchism and its cohort of supporters.
I think in the end a calculated reasoning could discern that while the American Revolution was the most long-established of the new democratic republics, it is offensive to try and make any association with the French counterpart outside of the loose correlation that they both occurred at the tail end of the 18th century. Correlation does not equal causation, and the two should always be analyzed within their own frames as significant events.