This article is a follow-up to an article by Curt Smothers, “The American and French Revolutions — Their Similarities and Differences“, which you should read first. (It’s a great article; you’ll enjoy it!)
It also takes it for granted that a relatively peaceful, stable society, and a form of government which lasted largely unchallenged for 80 years or so, (until the American Civil War, after which is was modified, but not abandoned), is preferable to life under a maniac like Napoleon.
So then … why was the American “Revolution” so much more successful than the French Revolution?
Most importantly, I believe, was the fact that the American “Revolution” wasn’t truly a revolution, but rather a war for independence. For the most part, the war did not lead to an upheaval in society. Rich, influential people, (society’s elite, so to speak), before the war remained rich and influential after the war, and even more importantly, those in positions of power were mostly the same after the war as before the war.
Contrast this to the situation in France. The French Revolution was a true revolution, in that once privileged people were seized by mobs, imprisoned, and executed. The very structure of government, and societal control, was destroyed. It was a time of madness, and the inmates were securely in charge of the asylum.
It’s a sad fact of human nature that once the restraints on violent behavior are removed, certain ethically challenged individuals will take full advantage of the situation and seek to force their vision of utopia on the rest of us. Revolutions unfortunately rarely bring about the goal that the majority of those participating in them most desire, namely freedom, but rather usually usher in a militaristic, tyrannical regime. Just like the Russian Revolution provided an opportunity for Lenin to set in motion his “workers’ paradise”, which culminated in the tyrant Stalin, so too the French Revolution provided an opportunity for the sadistic Robespierre to attempt to implement his vision of “paradise”, which resulted in the disastrous rise to power of Napoleon.
Robespierre, Napoleon, and the seemingly inevitable rise of tyrants brings us to the second key feature of the success of the American “Revolution”, namely, the overwhelming strength of character of the key people involved in it, particularly George Washington. I think it is practically impossible to overestimate the importance of Washington to the establishment of the rule of law in the early days of the American Republic. This was a beloved military leader who WILLINGLY refused to establish himself as King or Emperor, and who chose to step down after two terms as president and peacefully turn power over to his successor.
A simple comparison of Washington to Robespierre shows how lucky we Americans were, and how unlucky were the French, for only a simpleton or wanna-be lapdog of a tyrant could possibly consider Robespierre anything other than a self-righteous monster. (Lovely how he plotted his atrocities while heading a committee for “public safety”, huh?) Robespierre’s main goal in life seemed to be the execution of all who disagreed with him in any way, shape, or form. Wikipedia has a contemporary cartoon showing Robespierre “guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France“, which I think nicely sums up his character.
So here, in drastically simplified form, are the two reasons I believe the Americans fared better with their “revolution” than the French:
1. The American “Revolution” wasn’t really a revolution.
2. The Americans just happened to have extraordinarily good people in positions of power after their war, while the French suffered with just the opposite, namely an insane, sadistic demagogue running the show.
I guess the moral of this story is never underestimate the influence of good, (or bad), men on history.
Originally published by us on FullofKnowledge.