U.S. founders and the French Revolution

By LOU MARANO   |   June 13, 2002 at 6:46 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, June 13 (UPI) -- It's generally agreed that the War for American Independence (1775-1783) was one of the few revolutions to result in a government better than the one it overthrew.

In this respect it differed from the French Revolution of 1789, which began in anarchy, descended into terror and culminated in military dictatorship. The American struggle has been likened to the bloodless Glorious Revolution of 1688, which installed the parliamentary system that is still in place in Britain and in many other democratic countries around the world. The French Revolution has been considered the forerunner of violent upheavals that have ended in despotism.

And yet, in the 18th century, the two revolutions appeared to have many parallels. Both emerged from Enlightenment thinking, although of two different strains. Both were against royal autarchy. And a few individuals, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, were actually involved in both. (In 1792 the Jacobins denounced Lafayette as a moderate, and therefore a traitor. The marquis fled France, but spent five years in Austrian and Prussian prisons.)

At UPI headquarters in Washington, two eminent scholars discussed how the French Revolution looked to American's founders. Richard Brookhiser is author of "Founding Father" (1996), a biography of George Washington, and this year's "America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918." His 1999 biography of Alexander Hamilton reveals the complexity of the first U.S. Treasury secretary.

In his new book "Franklin: The Essential Founding Father," James Srodes argues that Benjamin Franklin's greatest invention was America, because it would be hard to imagine the United States without his contributions.

The two historians were asked about Edmund Burke, the British statesman and parliamentary orator who is considered a father of modern conservatism. Burke urged a policy of justice and conciliation with America but was highly critical of the new regime in his "Reflections on the Revolution in France." Did Burke have any contact with any of the leading figures of the American Revolution after the war? And after 1789, did he have any contact with American opponents of the French Revolution?

Brookhiser replied with an anecdote about Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816), an important if little-known American. Morris was in Europe from 1789 to 1798, much of that time in England, where he met Burke.

"There's kind of a mind-boggling moment when Morris, Burke, and Thomas Paine are working together to help American seamen who have been impressed in the British Navy," Brookhiser said. "This is just before Burke writes the 'Reflections,' because the French Revolution is still in its liberal phase. And the 'Reflections' appear as a shock to everybody. Paine was very shocked and writes 'The Rights of Man,' and then they become kind of the symbols for the ideological poles of argument.

"Morris returned to France and read both books," Brookhiser said. "And his only comment I've been able to find, which is in his diary, is that there are some good things in both. ...

"Unlike Paine, he does not ever believe that the French Revolution can work. And he knows, and is friends with, a lot of its leaders in its liberal phase. He's known Lafayette from the American Revolution. ... He just never thinks these people have what it takes to run a country. They have no experience. They don't know what they're doing. All their politics is from books. It has to fail.

"So he can't agree with Paine. What makes him different from Burke is that he has no belief in the importance of the mystique of old institutions such as nobility and royalty. Morris said French aristocrats engage in petty intrigues that would disgrace valets and chambermaids. He thinks them mean and stupid. They always do the wrong thing. He's kind of 'a pox on both their houses.'"

Srodes said that Franklin, who represented American interests in France from 1776 to 1785, did not foresee the French Revolution. "He missed it coming. In the final months of his life, he was very, very worried and upset by what was happening to his friends. He saw absolutely no parallels between what was going on in France and America's struggle," Srodes said. "And he warned his friends to get away if they could, which is something he excoriated Loyalists for doing (in America).

"It would be interesting to muse on what positions Franklin would have taken as the revolution wore on. For even though he was very radical, he was also very much a person who believed in sort of a workable, sensible, revolution," Srodes said.

Brookhiser said that the French Revolution became an issue in American politics.

"You see Americans borrowing its terminology to describe their own emerging political system in a way that's kind of naïve. .... The Federalists always call the Republicans Jacobins. The Republicans think the Federalists are monarchists or 'monocrats,' or British toadies. So there's all this importation of European ideological terms. And it doesn't quite fit, because in fact guillotines are not set up."

Srodes observed that the French Revolution changed the focus of American politics.

"In 1787 the focus was, Let's create a nation and a governmental framework," he said. "After that not only the French Revolution, but also the upheavals elsewhere in Europe -- which produced this flood of immigrants -- you got into a whole range of new issues. We've got a new nation; what do we do with it? Expand westward was one answer. Interesting to me was the burgeoning trade with Britain that sprang up almost instantly after the 1783 peace treaty. One would have thought that having had such a contentious, bloody war that the last place Americans would have wanted to do business was with the great oppressor.

"And yet Franklin was quite set on that. This is one of the points at issue with Adams and the other delegates to Europe was that they really didn't need to court other countries like Prussia and Naples. They were going to go back and do business with Britain. ... I'm wary of timeline history. There are a lot of counter-surges, and the French Revolution was one."

Brookhiser said the United States eventually was sucked into the wars triggered by the French Revolution in their Napoleonic phase. "The War of 1812 was the American theater of this 25-year-long world war," he said.

Thomas Jefferson did not like Napoleon, Brookhiser said, and the emperor ended the third president's warmth toward the French Revolution.

"He is very alarmed by Napoleonic France getting Louisiana from Spain. As are all Americans. We are terrified of that. And there's a moment when Jefferson -- who is one of the great Anglophobes of American history -- says: We will have to ally ourselves with Britain to get them out of New Orleans and off the Mississippi River. This is just before Napoleon changes his mind and decides to sell (the Louisiana territory) to us (in 1803)."

The Napoleonic threat in the New World does not materialize, Brookhiser said, because Napoleon's army "is consumed in Haiti. They all get yellow fever. Toussaint L'Ouverture. It all melts away. Napoleon was thinking of an American empire but then thought: That's not working out. Let's get rid of it."

Brookhiser and Srodes were asked what the American founders would say about the constitutional convention on the future of Europe, which convened on Feb. 28 in Strasbourg, France, under the chairmanship of former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

"I think they were realistic enough to not attend Strasbourg," Brookhiser replied. "They would say, 'This is fantastic. You guys haven't fought a revolution against anybody. The last war you all fought was against each other. What do you think you're having a country for? This is crazy! I think they would be absolutely baffled by it. Nonplussed."

Srodes said Franklin first would have acknowledged the French monarchy's essential contribution to the success of the American War for Independence. Beyond that, Srodes said, Franklin would have pointed out that one of the reasons the Americans won the Revolutionary War was that its economic community was already functioning and that prosperity was in the offing "if we could just get our act together." Srodes said Franklin would have suggested that Europe get its economic situation straightened out before decreeing political structures.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories