The American Revolution vs. the French Revolution


by Brian Maher, Daily Reckoning:

The setting: Beijing, 1971. The characters: United States National Security Advisor Hank Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

They are discussing diplomacy.

At one point a pause broke their conversation. Mr. Kissinger then solicited his host’s estimate of the French Revolution’s impact upon the world.

“Too early to say,” came the response.


Premier Zhou was likely referring to the 1968 student agitations in Paris. But let us proceed under the cover of myth… and report on the progress of the 1789 revolution.

Is it too early yet to pronounce verdict upon the French Revolution? That is the question we take up today — and tomorrow.

Today is July 14 — Bastille Day — Fete Nationale in the French parlance.

That is when the Paris rabble besieged the Bastille fortress-prison… in quest of arms to raise against King Louis XVI.

The French Revolution tailed the American Revolution — so called. Each revolution undid a king.

The French revolutionaries pulled old Louis from his throne at Versailles. They later introduced him to Monsieur Guillotin’s toy.

An ocean spared George III the blade or the noose, yes. But the American colonists struck the trans-Atlantic chains that had previously bound them.

Each revolution represented a blow against kingship, it is true. Yet each drew from different aspirations.

Was the American Revolution Really a Revolution?

Before proceeding, a note:

We paint today in bright colors, with a brush that is necessarily wide. That is, we omit much of the subtlety, much of the shade and shadow of the full historical portrait.

Yet in the overall view… the French revolutionists were out to end the Ancient Regime that sat upon themThat was the old throne and altar social and political system of the Bourbon kings.

The American revolutionists — meantime — were out to reclaim the ancient rights of Englishmen. It was these rights that George III was chewing into and molesting… as they saw it.

The American revolutionists were not out for revolution — but a sort of reset, as a man resets an erring grandfather clock, or a wayward thermostat.

They did not seek change, that is — but to stay largely the same.

Did they qualify then as revolutionaries?

Enlightenment statesman Edmund Burke labeled England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688-89  “a revolution not made but prevented.”

The same may be said — the same has been said — of the American Revolution.

It was in many respects a revolution not made but a revolution prevented.

You Need Form in Order to Reform

The American revolutionists pursued reform, it is true. Yet reform has no existence without preexisting form.

The form is first, there in its three dimensions. It has bulk. It is solid.

Reform chisels it, sands it, paints it, renews it.

Importantly, reform does not wreck it. It is true to the underlying form.

The Americans had their preexisting form: their British cultural and political heritage.

They clung to the Magna Carta and the ancient rights of Englishmen. They modified, updated and molded the existing form into a new American shape.

That is, they kept the old and good. They cut away the old and diseased.

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