Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

Although the Enlightenment was not identified on the eve of the American Revolution with individuals or groups in selected countries, but rather with a particular class in each country which was in continual intellectual contact, there is no doubt that the philosophes in France had firmly seized the leadership which provided "the particular light of the age" as Washington phrased it. Such figures as Voltaire and Rousseau were now the giants in the renewed barrage of Enlightenment speculation. Indeed, the popularity of a Voltaire was, perhaps, due less to innovation than to a fresh expression of old ideas and concepts. Above all they provided a new terminology with which to articulate the principles of the American Revolution.

And no one articulated these principles better in Europe than America's great ambassador of revolution, Benjamin Franklin, who so masterfully created a climate of sympathetic interest in the events taking place in the colonies. Aside from his reputation as the exponent of the pristine grandeur of the American Enlightenment, Franklin made it possible for the philosophes not only in France, but all Europe, to identify the cause of America as nothing less than the embodiment of an old dream -- the dream of substituting the concept of the heavenly city of man for the heavenly city of God. Appearing to fuse the l'esprit humain of a Voltaire with the sensibilité of a Rousseau, Franklin was quickly embraced in the salons of Paris as the perfect philosophe. As the inscription on the program announcing Franklin's election to the Royal Academy summed up the European reaction:

L'Amérique le place à la tête des Sages
La Gréce l'aurait mis au nombre de ses Dieux.

As "Father Abraham" Franklin appeared to be the embodiment of the 18th century dream of the Golden Age, an age which would have its birth in the virgin soil of America. Indeed Franklin, in dress and demeanor, even appeared to embody the virtues of that uncorrupted land. As the Courier de Avignon editorialized upon the arrival of a group of travelers from New England: "The Bostonians that we see here are dressed with a simplicity . . . and sincerity. . . . This new, free people is a spectacle as touching as it is rare."

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