The American Revolution could not be more different from the French Revolution:
‘Revolution is revolution,’ some people might think. But in reality, while many can be quite similar, some can be quite different. Here I wish to speak about two very important revolutions, the French and the American. Although both took place very close to each other (1789 vs 1775–1783), they really were worlds apart. They differed greatly in a number of respects, including their ideological origins, how they were carried out, and their lasting fruit or legacy.
It is claimed that both were the product of Enlightenment thought. While that is quite true of the French Revolution, it is only partly true of the American, which is also referred to as the American War of Independence. In his book Conservatism, English philosopher Roger Scruton explains:
The Enlightenment, with its impious view of human perfectibility, was a collective manifestation of the sin of pride – an ‘insurrection against God’. The violence of the Revolution was entirely what must be expected, when people attempt to deny the reality of original sin and take their destiny into their own hands. The events of the terror were literally satanic, re-enacting the revolt of the fallen angels, and displaying what ensues when human beings reject the idea of authority, and imagine themselves capable of discovering a new form of government in the freedom from government.
Or as Robert Reilly put it: “It should be clear that the American Revolution was not an exclusive product of the Enlightenment but had its roots in the deeper natural law and natural rights tradition. This becomes even clearer in contrast to the real product of the radical Enlightenment— the French Revolution, which was rootless regarding that same tradition.”
Moreover, Enlightenment thought that did persist in America was a decidedly Christianised version. As historian Mark Noll puts it:
Changes associated with the American Revolution led to the establishment of a Christianized form of the Enlightenment as the dominant intellectual force in the country. Almost all Americans, to be sure, repudiated skeptical or radical forms of the European Enlightenment. The philosophical doubts of Scotland’s David Hume and the sneers at religion from the French savant Voltaire found little sympathy in the new nation. Yet important principles of the Enlightenment, as these had been refined by other Europeans of the eighteenth century, came to exert a near-universal domination in America. The form of the Enlightenment that prevailed in the United States was derived from an important school of Scottish thinkers known as “common sense” philosophers….
Americans found the Scottish philosophy useful in three ways: (1) for justifying the Revolution against Britain, (2) for outlining new principles of social order in the absence of the stability of British rule, and (3) for reestablishing the truths of Christianity in the absence of an established church.
The place of religion
Simply stated, the French Revolution was a war against Christianity, while the American Revolution was based on and a promotion of Christianity. The attempt to fully de-Christianise France was a major stated goal of the revolutionaries. Historian Paul Johnson puts it this way:
The new rulers of France set about the removal and replacement of Catholic Christianity. One eye-witness, Mercier, later recorded in his memoirs that if Robespierre had only appeared with an old Bible under his arm, and firmly told the French to become Protestant, he might have succeeded. But the Revolution was not reformist, it was millenarian. It was, in fact, the first modern millenarian revolt. It looked backwards to the Munster of the 1520s, and the Middle Ages, and forward to Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung. . . . Should not the Revolution, creating a new society, give it a new religion? Many of the revolutionaries were deists. They believed in nature; or, like Rousseau, in direct communication with God without intermediaries. Other elements in their belief were patriotism and the cult of sensibilite – hence Saint-Just’s Temple of Friendship, where every adult was to record the names of his friends once a year, and explain to the magistrates why any had been dropped.
I quoted a number of experts on this anti-Christian drive in some recent articles on this matter. As I said in one of these pieces:
The Revolution itself was decidedly anti-Christian, especially during the Reign of Terror of September 1793 to July 1794. A full-scale program of de-christianisation was unleashed. Countless churches were closed and church properties were confiscated; thousands of priests were killed; a new revolutionary calendar replaced the old Christian Gregorian calendar; education was taken away from the churches and handed over to the state; streets were renamed to eliminate references to saints and kings; a “goddess of Reason” was set up in the Notre Dame Cathedral, and so on. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/10/22/on-political-religion/
That the Christian religion was a major driver in the American Revolution makes it quite different from what would happen a few years later in France. As Paul Johnson reminds us, the Great Awakening played a key role in this.: “The Great Awakening was thus the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment in American history, preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible. It crossed all religious and sectarian boundaries, made light of them indeed, and turned what had been a series of European-style churches into American ones.”
As John Adams was to put it, long afterwards: ‘The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the mind and hearts of the people: and change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.’ It was the marriage between the rationalism of the American elites touched by the Enlightenment with the spirit of the Great Awakening among the masses which enabled the popular enthusiasm thus aroused to be channeled into the political aims of the Revolution-itself soon identified as the coming eschatological event. Neither force could have succeeded without the other. The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background. The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event. That fact was to shape the American Revolution from start to finish and determine the nature of the independent state it brought into being.
Bloodshed and violence
The way the two revolutions were carried out also stands in marked contrast. Yes, bloodshed was involved in both, but with major differences. Ann Coulter says this:
In the blink of an eye, a great civilization was reduced to rubble, its most valuable citizens dead or living elsewhere. In the course of France’s short revolution, 600,000 French citizens were killed and another 145,000 fled the country. . . . In the American Revolution, fewer than 10,000 died in battle and another 10,000 died of disease or exposure during the war. And our king was fighting back! France’s king capitulated immediately, but the revolutionaries proceeded to liquidate more than half a million of their fellow citizens anyway, in what revolutionary leaders themselves called the Terror.” Tories fled America during our Revolution, but no one tried to massacre their remaining relatives….
The inheritors of the French revolutionary tradition always adhere to the same basic program. Psychopaths from Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong to Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, and Fidel Castro have used the rabble to grab power, with essentially the same justification, the same objectives, and the same bloody results.
And Stephen Strehle reminds us of how communist violence followed on from that found in France:
The revolutionaries had few willing subjects and ended up creating a civil Leviathan of coercive forces and agents interfering in the lives of the people in order to develop purity of thought – much like the infamous case of Lenin and Stalin in the former Soviet Union, who used the French Revolution as their fundamental paradigm in conducting a continuous civil war against their own people. The Jacobins and Bolsheviks were impatient revolutionaries, unwilling to wait for the culture to develop at its own pace and more than willing to use violence and to force the issue, bringing much suffering and misery on their own people.
Things were quite different in America. As Reilly writes:
Although Tory loyalists were not treated with kid gloves, there was no Reign of Terror in the American Revolution. No churches were transformed into temples of reason; no crosses were removed from cemeteries; and no clergy were executed. The differences can be defined by the primacy of reason in the one and primacy of will in the other, which led the American revolutionaries on the whole reasonably and the French revolutionaries to behave on the whole unreasonably. What the latter left in their wake was political instability in France that persists to this day, while in the United States the Founders left what has become the world’s longest-lived democracy.
And that leads us to consider further the fruit of these revolutions. This topic has already been discussed here, but Roger Scruton offers the following helpful assessment:
The French Revolution is a vivid illustration of the way in which the fallacies of optimism renew themselves. This great event, which ought to have refuted the born free fallacy for all future generations, has been ever since reinterpreted as heralding the liberation of humanity from its oppressors. The very same fallacy can be read in subsequent calls to revolution by the Marxists, by Lenin and Mao, Sartre and Pol Pot, for all of whom the French Revolution was one step on the way to the goal of emancipation. And although Marx was intellectual heir to Hegel, and had the benefit of a philosophy that respected institutions and laws as the resolution, rather than the cause, of human conflict, he never ceased to believe in an original freedom – a freedom that was to be recaptured at the end of history, in the state of ‘full communism’ that would come about, when institutions are no longer necessary and the state would wither away.
The French Revolution is only one of the many historical events that show us that liberation movements, when they succeed in destroying the state, lead first to anarchy, then to tyranny, and in due course to totalitarian terror. But history has no lessons for unscrupulous optimists.
By way of summary some words from the feisty but perceptive Ann Coulter are worth sharing. Her 2011 book Demonic is all about the left and its mob mentality. She writes:
Liberals don’t like to talk about the French Revolution because it is the history of them. They lyingly portray the American Revolution as if it too were a revolution of the mob, but merely to list the signposts of each reveals their different character. The American Revolution had the Minutemen, the ride of Paul Revere, the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and the Liberty Bell.
The markers of the French Revolution were the Great Fear, the storming of the Bastille, the food riots, the march on Versailles, the Day of the Daggers, the de-Christianization campaign, the storming of the Tuileries, the September Massacres, the beheading of Louis XVI, the beheading of Marie Antoinette, the reign of terror, and then the guillotining of one revolutionary after another, until finally the mob’s leader, Robespierre, got the “national razor.” That’s not including random insurrections, lynchings, and assassinations that occurred throughout the four-year period known as the “French Revolution.”
She continues with these words: American history
is the exact opposite of the French Revolution and their wretched masses guillotining the aristocracy and clergy. It has become fashionable to equate the two revolutions, but they share absolutely nothing beyond the word “revolution.” The American Revolution was a movement based on ideas, painstakingly argued by serious men in the process of creating what would become the freest, most prosperous nation in world history. The French Revolution was a revolt of the mob. It was the progenitor of the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler’s Nazi party, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s slaughter, and America’s periodic mob uprisings. . . . The French Revolution is the godless antithesis to the founding of America.
Coulter, Ann, Demonic. Crown Forum, 2011.
Johnson, Paul, A History of the American People. HarperCollins, 1997.
Johnson, Paul, A History of Christianity. Atheneum, 1976.
Noll, Mark, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Eerdmans, 1992.
Reilly, Robert, America on Trial. Ignatius Press, 2020.
Scruton, Roger, Conservatism. All Points Books, 2017.
Scruton, Roger, The Uses of Pessimism. Atlantic Books, 2010.
Stephen Strehle, The Dark Side of Church/State Separation: The French Revolution, Nazi Germany, and International Communism. Routledge, 2014, 2017.