The American and French Revolutions (Fall 2012)

The world is increasingly becoming a global community and one in which modern telecommunications make it possible for people from all corners of the world to be connected with events in all corners of the world. Within this rather recent historical development of mass media it is easy to see how world events can quickly exert influence on one another, but this current transparency of interconnectedness was not always the case within the study of history. In fact, at first glance history can appear to be the study of a timeline, a series of independent events, which on the surface are simply unrelated dates and places. The New Lexicon Webster Dictionary defines history as “a record of past events, usually with an interpretation of their causes and an assessment of their importance” (Canadian Edition, 1975, pg. 459). This definition points toward a deeper understanding of pre global communications history where events despite the lack of immediate transparency demonstrated by the mass communications present, can nevertheless be linked by their impact on one another. Within this fascinating context, it is possible to examine three seemingly separate events such as the Enlightenment, the American Revolution and the French Revolution to determine how they are interwoven. The Enlightenment was essentially an intellectual movement in Europe led by philosophers who questioned traditional values, such as, religion and structures, such as, systems of government. They focused on reason and logic and discussed the importance of the rights of man. The American Revolution was the war between the British and the Thirteen Colonies of America that ended with American Independence. The French Revolution was a series of political and social uprisings in France which led to abolishment of the French monarchy and many social reforms. This paper proposes that the American Revolution, which was first, the “baby” of the enlightenment, later became the “parent” and therefore a major influence on the French Revolution. In order to prove this thesis the paper will first highlight specific examples of Enlightenment influences on Thomas Jefferson and two key American Revolution documents he was instrumental in the creation of, ”The Declaration of Independence” and “The Constitution of the United States of America”. Second, the paper will examine how each of the following links to the American Revolution: King Louis XIV’s political and military support of the war of independence, the success of the American Revolution and members of the French army who fought alongside the colonists in their revolution and later returned to France all served as “parental” influences on the French Revolution.

Shots fired between British troops under the General Gage and American patriots in Lexington, Massachusetts on April 18, 1775 marked the beginning of the American Revolution. This struggle ended with Britain signing the “Treaty of Paris” in 1782 granting the Thirteen Colonies of America their independence. This long road to independence began with the Seven Years War fought between Britain and France for control of North America. Britain, although victorious, was left with an enormous debt. King Charles III mistakenly tried to recoup some of Britain’s losses by levying taxes such as the Stamp Act of 1765 on the American Colonies. When the colonists continued to reject all new taxation attempts the British parliament passed what the colonists came to refer to as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts. These acts tried to limit the powers of colonial governments and strengthen the power of the King in the Thirteen Colonies. Prior to these actions average colonists were proud of their British heritage and even felt a sense of loyalty to the King. (Unger, 1978, 108) However, in reaction to Britain’s new power-seeking policies, the colonies which had previously acted independently of one another decided to join together at the First Continental Congress in 1774 and present a united front to Britain. The Congress resulted in a united front and a diplomatic request that Britain remove unfair taxes and restore the rights of their colonial governments. King Charles III decided not to back down or bow out. Consequently, the colonists began to: recognize their need for independence, second, justify their rebellious actions and third, establish a new way for their government to function without Britain at the helm. These requirements were fulfilled by turning to the Enlightenment and its philosophers for ideas and direction. Evidence to support this influence can be found by examining Thomas Jefferson, a key player, in the American Revolution and two central documents of the Revolution, the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Constitution of the United States of America” which he played an essential role in writing.

Thomas Jefferson, a pivotal player in the American Revolution, was clearly influenced by the Enlightenment philosophers. In his biography of Jefferson, Jerry Holmes, states that Jefferson received an education in the Enlightenment and its thinkers at Williamsburg College under professor, Dr. William Small (Holmes, 2002, p.10). This Enlightenment influence is evident in The American Declaration of Independence which the members of the Second Continental Congress assigned Jefferson to write. It is composed of two main sections. The introduction or preamble describes the rights of all people. The body announces the colonies’ independence from Britain and states reasons why these rebellious actions can be justified. Both these sections can be directly linked to the ideals of Enlightenment philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith which Jefferson studied.

The preamble to Declaration of Independence refers to the “Laws of Nature” which mirrors general Enlightenment views that the universe runs according to natural laws which are logical and scientific. The second paragraph reads “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” This excerpt can be traced back to the ideas presented by John Locke in his article, “Two Treatises of Government”. In it, Locke discusses the three natural rights of man which he says are life, liberty and the right to own property. Furthermore, Locke states that the government has an obligation to those it governs to uphold their rights and if it ignores this obligation then the people have the right to overthrow the government by revolution if necessary. The Declaration of Independence states “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”. Cleary Jefferson was influenced by Locke when he stated that the colonists were within their natural rights to declare their independence and revolt against British rule. In fact, the Declaration of Independence gives a list of twenty-seven ways the British King had ignored the natural rights of man and become “destructive” to them therefore giving the colonists the right and even the obligation to revolt against him.

When Jefferson changed the wording of Locke’s third natural right from “property” to “the pursuit of happiness” in the preamble of the Declaration he shows that he was also influenced by Enlightenment economist Adam Smith. Adam Smith’s major work, “The Wealth of Nations” states that each man should be free to pursue his economic goals and happiness without government intervention. An invisible hand would then make sure the efforts of individuals would be combined for the good of all. Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness can be defined as each man having the right to try to prosper economically, as Smith stated he should, in order to pursue his well-being which in turn will lead to happiness.

The ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers not only influenced the political leaders who declared American independence, they also influenced the system of government that followed. The influence of Baron De Montesquieu, Jean- Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire can be found in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitutional Congress was the provisional government governing the Thirteen Colonies until a Constitution was written and adopted. On September 17, 1718 the Constitution of the United States which outlines the new federal system of government was ratified. The Constitution states that the central government is to be divided into three branches of government. Article one defines the legislative body which is comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Article two describes the executive branch which consists of the President and his cabinet. Article three outlines the judicial branch which is the system of courts and the Supreme Court. This idea of separation of governmental powers into three branches has its foundations in the ideas of the Enlightenment philosopher Baron De Montesquieu. In 1748, Montesquieu wrote “The Spirit of the Laws” which called for three branches of government: legislative, judicial and executive. Montesquieu explained that the split of government was needed to maintain checks and balances so that no one body of government could become like an absolute monarch and dictate to the people destroying their liberty. There is a clear link between Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu’s ideals of government in his article, “The Spirit of the Laws” and the Constitution of the United States once again demonstrating that Enlightenment ideas influenced the American Revolution.

The Bill of Rights which is found in the first ten amendments to the Constitutional also demonstrates the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers, specifically Voltaire and Rousseau. The following excerpt from the Bill of Rights “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of’ reflects the views of Voltaire. In 1763 Voltaire wrote, “A Treatise on Tolerance” in which he outlined the brutal results of religious intolerance in the execution of Jean Callas and made his case for religious tolerance. Rousseau, who believed that society could suffocate men’s freedoms including the freedom to one’s own opinion and the right to express it, wrote in a letter to Voltaire. “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it”. (Freedom First, par 35) The right to freedom of speech which Rousseau stated he would defend with his life is also present in the Bill of Rights. Analyzing excerpts from “the American Declaration of Independence”, “The Constitution of the United States of America” and the “Bill of Rights” demonstrates that the American Revolution was like a baby conceived and born of Enlightenment influences. In turn, that baby would become a parental influence on the future French Revolution.

The French Revolution followed the American Revolution and was definitely influenced by it in several key ways: France’s political and military support of the war in the colonies, the success of the American Revolution and by members of the French army who fought alongside the colonists in their revolution and then returned to France.

Angry at its defeat in the Seven Years War resulting in the loss of French North American possessions to Britain, King Louis XVI welcomed the opportunity to avenge France when it arrived on his doorstep in the person of Benjamin Franklin. In September of 1776, the Continental Congress of the Thirteen Colonies sent a delegation headed by Franklin to petition France to join the colonies in their war for independence against Britain. In January 1778, France declared it was ready to become an ally and signed two treaties with the colonies. The first treaty recognized the independence of the colony in commercial matters. This meant that France was the first country to officially recognize the independence of the United States. The second treaty set up a military alliance, which eventually saw some 15,000 French troops join the revolutionary forces. Louis XVI’s decision to support American independence turned out to be costly both politically and financially. Politically, in recognizing and supporting the colonies in their fight against an oppressive king in Britain, Louis XVI set the stage for the peasants of his country to follow the same path by defying his authority with revolts in later years. Financially, the war left France with a huge national debt. In 1789 Louis XVI attempted to raise taxes to keep the country from going bankrupt. The Nobles of the Assembly of Notables refused to grant higher taxes and told him he would need the approval of the Estates General. This body consisted of three estates namely the clergy, the nobles, and the commoners or basically everybody else. The calling of the Estates General set in motion a series of events which officially began the French Revolution. The Third Estate members revolted against their votes being counted as one, which would result in the votes of the first two states outvoting them two to one. On June 20th 1789, the Third Estate met at an indoor tennis court and declared by the Tennis Court Oath that they had become the National Assembly which would not dissolve until it produced a New Constitution for France. Louis sent troops to disband the assembly. The assembly answered back with a sound “NO” and the famous words of its president, “The nation is assembled here and receives no orders” (Newman, 2002, pg.180). Clearly the assembly was no longer willing to accept this monarch as absolute ruler of the French people. These events, which began the political revolution, were sparked by the influence of the American Revolution. Specifically its success gave the French Revolutionaries hope that they could succeed. Louis XVI’s acceptance of American as an independent nation that had freed itself from the chains of Britain showed that even he supported the rights of people over the rights of governments headed by monarchs. Finally, the debt France built up helping the Americans earn independence led to the calling of the Estates General which in turn led to the National Assembly declaring independence from Louis XVI on behalf of all the oppressed people of France.

France sent 15,000 troops to colonies to help fight alongside the American revolutionaries for their independence. Two thousand gave their lives for the cause, but many survived and returned to France. They brought with them the American ideals of liberty and democracy as well as a distrust of absolutism and divine rule (Barber, 2006, pg.222). They had witnessed the success of a revolution which sought to uphold the rights of individuals to elect their government. Marquis de Lafayette was an example of one of these French soldiers who was influenced by American Revolution and who in turn, influenced and played a role in the French Revolution.

After serving under George Washington in the Continental Army and participating in several key battles and victories of the American Revolution, Lafayette returned to his home in France. When Louis XVI called together the Assembly of Notables to request an increase in taxes to pay down France’s debt, Lafayette was present and opposed the increase. Furthermore, he suggested that Louis must call a meeting of the Estates General before taxes could be raised. This showed he believed that people needed to be represented in decisions that affected them - a notion he had learned in America. He was also one of the members of the Second Estate or nobles which chose to join with the Third Estate when it declared itself the National Assembly on behalf of the citizens of France and refused to disband. Lafayette’s decision to support the political revolution enfolding around him was clearly a direct result of his involvement in the American Revolution.

Marquis de Lafayette wanted a representative government elected by individuals with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Rights, which he had learned about during his education as a member of the nobility, but more importantly ones he witnessed firsthand in the “American Declaration of Independence” and fought for in the war, were what he wanted for France and its people. This vision was further developed in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and its Citizens” which Lafayette helped its author Sieyes write and edit. The Declaration was adopted by the new revolutionary National Assembly of France on August 26, 1789. Excerpts from this document such as, “The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression and “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body or individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation” can be traced back to the preamble of the “Declaration of Independence” written during the American Revolution. (August 1789). The specific wording was somewhat different but it called for same basic rights as the “Declaration of Independence” and also stated the power of a government comes from the power of the people. The text of the two declarations are similar but Lafayette further demonstrating the influence of the American Revolution, asked his friend and neighbor, Thomas Jefferson, to help he and Sieyes draft their document. (Murphy, 2003, pg.1) Remember, that friend and neighbor was also the author of the first draft of the American Declaration of Independence which serves as clear evidence of a link between the American and French Revolutions in which the former heavily influenced the latter.

It is generally accepted within our society that parents exert influence on their children and that when those children become parents they will in turn influence their own offspring. This view of parental influence can be used to explain how events on the timeline of history which on a surface level can appear unrelated and independent of one another can actually be interlinked or related to one another. In our modern age of mass communication, nations around the world have almost instantaneous views into events worldwide and therefore can be influenced by and react to them rather quickly. Furthermore, mass communication ensures these influences are transparent and readily identifiable. This reality of global events being intertwined is not new rather it is only the speed at which the connections happen which has been accelerated by the mass media. Historical influences of events along the timeline may not have been as readily identifiable as in the modern mass media age nevertheless these influences filtered down slowly and can be likened to the influence parents have over time on their offspring and how those children then grow up to influence their own offspring over time. This child/ parent model works well when explaining the influence the Enlightenment(parent) had on the American Revolution(child) and the influences the American Revolution(parent) had in turn on the French Revolution(child). And so, history in all ages and times is a fascinating web of interwoven and interconnected influences and events. This web precedes all notions of a global village however it is one that was not always built at its current staggering pace which has been accelerated by the mass media, telecommunications and internet of the twenty-first century.

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  2. Holmes, Jerry. Thomas Jefferson A Chronology of his Thoughts. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 2002.
  3. Murphy, Gerald. “Declaration of the Rights and of the Citizen”
  4. Myers, Melante, ed. Legacy: The West and the World. Toronto: Patty Pappas, 2002.
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  6. Unger, Irwin. These United States The Question of Our Past Volume One. Toronto: Little Brown and company, 1978.
  7. Who Was Who during the American Revolution. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1976