Revolutions in America and France

Article excerpt

The American and French Revolutions, separated by eight years, invoked similar principles of human rights, yet the two were radically different.

When Parliament tried to impose taxes on the colonies after they had enjoyed 150 years of freedom from parliamentary rule, the colonials resisted, denying Parliament's authority to govern America without American representation. At first the colonials demanded their rights as English subjects, but when their "British brethren" repeatedly rejected every appeal, the colonies declared independence from Britain and the birth of a new nation based on the natural right of all men to govern themselves by consent under "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

Unlike that in America, the French Revolution did not separate one people from another in a different land. Social and political equality existed from America's beginning, but France was divided between a cruel, absolute aristocracy and a powerless, servile peasantry. Thus the French middle and lower classes carried out a civil war against their king, nobles, and clergy in the name of the "fights of man." Acts of totalitarian terror including show trials and mass murders that foreshadowed the Holocaust and Soviet terrorism were committed against the wealthy, priests, and cloistered nuns for real or imagined crimes against "the people."

French apologists justified the violence on an egalitarian philosophy that resembled the principles of America's Declaration of Independence. But the colonies were reluctant to appeal to their natural rights, long hoping that England would restore the policy Edmund Burke called "benign neglect" and the status quo ante. …