Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Lightby Susan Dunn
What the two great modern revolutions can teach us about democracy today
The American and French revolutions presented the world with two very different visions of democracy. Although both professed similar Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality, and justice and set similar political agendas, there were also fundamental differences. The French sought a/b>… See more details below
What the two great modern revolutions can teach us about democracy today
The American and French revolutions presented the world with two very different visions of democracy. Although both professed similar Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality, and justice and set similar political agendas, there were also fundamental differences. The French sought a complete break with a thousand years of history; the Americans were content to preserve many aspects of their English heritage. Why did the two revolutions follow such different trajectories? And what lessons do they offer us about democracy today? In lucid narrative style, Dunn captures the personalities and lives of the great figures of both revolutions, and shows how their stories added up to make two very different events.
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For months in 1777 it was the talk of Paris: a young nobleman, the sole heir to the prestigious title and immense fortune of one of France's most ancient families, had mysteriously vanished. He was a man who possessed, they said, all that one could dream of in life. True, he had already lost his father and his mother, but he was happily married to the pretty daughter of the Duc d'Ayen, and they were expecting their second child.
Their world was one of luxury and elegance: Paris was their home, and the glittering, pleasure-filled salons of Marie Antoinette in Versailles were open to them. They dined with the queen and her young set, danced at lavish balls, placed bets at gaming tables, attended chamber concerts and plays along with the other royal guests. They were welcome in England at the court of George III, where the young woman's uncle, the Marquis de Noailles, served as the French ambassador. The young man was a captain in the Noailles regiment and could expect many promotions.
Without bidding farewell to his wife and daughter, he had surreptitiously set out for Bordeaux, where the ship he had purchased and crew he had hired were waiting for him. The king, Louis XVI, heard that hehad left his regiment without permission and signed an ominous lettre de cachet for his immediate capture and arrest.
But the nobleman made his way safely to Bordeaux and set sail. In the middle of the Atlantic, aboard the Victoire, he composed a letter to his wife, Adrienne, finally explaining why he was repudiating everything that tradition and his heritage had destined for him: "Dear Heart, It is from very far away that I am writing to you ... . Have you forgiven me by now? ... Soldier of freedom, the freedom I idolize, I come as a friend to offer my help to this very interesting republic, bringing with me only my sincerity and my good will. I have no desire for personal gain. By laboring for my glory, for my own eternal reputation, I labor for their happiness ... . The happiness of America is intimately tied to the happiness of all humanity; America will become the respected and secure haven of virtue, honesty, tolerance, equality, and a peaceful freedom."
Fearful that he might be detained on the king's orders if the ship stopped in the French West Indies, the young man insisted on sailing directly to the American mainland. In June 1777, the Victoire landed in South Carolina, and he slowly made his way to Philadelphia. He introduced himself to the members of the Continental Congress as Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. To the members of his family he was simply Gilbert. Nineteen years old, he spoke little English. The reception in Philadelphia at first was cool.
A distressed George Washington had complained a few months earlier that swarms of noble French officers were arriving from old France and the Islands, eager to enlist in the American cause. Though they spoke no English, they were all demanding commissions as officers. How could he distinguish men of merit from "mere adventurers"? He knew that some, seeking adventure, had left France out of boredom, tired of the court routine. Others, royalists loyal to their king, were motivated by hatred for England. It was not clear that any of the young noblemen were passionate about a struggle for freedom. "It is by the zeal and activity of our own people that the cause must be supported," Washington confided to a friend, "and not by a few hungry adventurers." But Lafayette seemed different. He stunned Congress by asking nothing more than to serve without pay as a volunteer. Washingtonhimself was impressed by his disinterested zeal for the revolutionary cause. Tactful and unassuming, the young man emphasized that he had come "to learn, and not to teach." His engaging manners and modesty won the Americans over. Despite Louis XVI's formal request that Lafayette not be employed in military service in America, within days the marquis received the commission of major general, becoming the youngest general in the American army.
"I do most devoutly wish that we had not a single Foreigner among us," Washington wrote to Gouverneur Morris, "except the Marquis de la Fayette who acts upon very different principles than those which govern the rest." An intimate friendship between Washington and Lafayette blossomed. For the young man whose father died when he was two, Washington had become a father, and for the childless general, the eager and chivalrous marquis had become a son; there were few others for whom Washington felt the warmth he expressed for Lafayette. Washington confided to friends that he regarded Lafayette as his child.
On the battlefield, Lafayette's ardor and courage compensated for his lack of experience. In September 1777, at the battle of Brandywine, he valiantly continued to lead his troops though seriously wounded. Two months later, he was honored with the command of a division in the Continental Army. At the battle of Monmouth, Lafayette and Washington, fighting side by side, succeeded in turning the tide and trouncing the British. The night after their victory, father and adopted son fell asleep, side by side, under a tree on the battlefield.
In the beginning of 1779, with the outcome of the war still far from certain, Lafayette returned to France to secure more aid for his American confreres. Just a few months earlier, France had recognized the United States. Lafayette found his native country deeply sympathetic to the American cause, his own letters to his wife having played a role in exciting people's interest and enthusiasm. The French had been following the dramatic events closely; they cheered at American victories, they wept over defeats. The captivating revolution provided not only an absorbing pastime but a new vocabulary as well: "freedom" was a novel and intriguing word, and in wishing it for the Americans, the French began to contemplate it for themselves.
In addition to Lafayette, one other person residing in Paris incarnated the American Revolution. Plainly dressed, bespectacled, and unpowdered, Benjamin Franklin had brought the spirit of the new nation to France in 1776. During the nine years he lived in Paris, the French responded to his warmth, humor, and simplicity by making him the toast of Paris. People came from all over France to consult with him, and soon he became the center of a new cult, the cult of freedom and revolution. Franklin himself wrote to his daughter that he had become "i-doll-ized" by the French. "Your father's face," he confessed, "is as well known as that of the moon."
Even the king was swept away by the revolutionary vogue. His advisers warned that it was a grave risk for an absolute monarch to support a colonial uprising and embrace principles of freedom and equality. Turgot, the king's finance minister, fearing that the American venture would force the king to incur more debt, tried to steer him toward domestic affairs. But the thrilling struggle of a young people against tyranny outweighed prudent counsel. Finally the king's desire to inflict upon England a humiliating defeat tipped the scale: Louis XVI decided to make a major contribution to the American cause. To finance France's donation, Necker, the new finance minister, probably borrowed even more than the 530 million livres he admitted borrowing; by 1789 the interest alone on France's debt would become staggering. But in 1779, in a country heady with the excitement of a distant revolutionary struggle, Louis XVI could not imagine that within a decade his generosity would egregiously worsen the economic crisis in France, subvert all traditional values, destabilize the monarchy, and put his own life in jeopardy. In 1789, the anguished king admitted that he never thought about the American affair "without regret."
In March 1780, Lafayette returned to America with the assurance that fleets of vessels as well as admirals, generals, sailors, and soldiers would soon follow. The arrival of the French forces in America proved indeed to be the turning point of the war. Their military and naval prowess helped make the battle of Yorktown--at which French soldiers outnumbered Americans and at which Lafayette helped prevent the escape of Cornwallis's troops--the decisive victory of the war.
Hardly four years after his arrival in Philadelphia, General Lafayette, now all of twenty-four years old, stood with General George Washington at Yorktown to witness the spectacle of the British surrender. Together they watched as Major General Benjamin Lincoln formally accepted the sword of the defeated General O'Hara, standing in for the redoubtable Lord Cornwallis, who was unwilling to attend the ceremony of capitulation. No one doubted that the Revolution had been won. The following day, Washington congratulated the army, careful to thank first Louis XVI and the French fleet and army. At a church service the next day, the sermon was dedicated to the Marquis de Lafayette, the "friend of mankind."
"The play is over," Lafayette wrote. The young nobleman had come to America in search of glory. Now it was his.
A hero's welcome greeted Lafayette when he returned to France. He was hailed by all as the French Washington. Louis XVI's minister of war, the Marquis de Ségur, showered him with compliments, raising him tothe heights of France's legendary conquerors: "Our old warriors admire you," he told the marquis, "the young ones take you as their model." The king himself bestowed laurels on the revolutionary victor.
Would the seeds of revolution sprout in France too? The French Revolution began, one French observer wrote, when Lafayette first left French shores for America. "Monsieur de La Fayette ... rushed forth from our ports and ... opened to the young soldiers of France the school of American liberty," he commented, adding that "in promoting the freedom of the thirteen United States, we prepared our own." Now a generation of returning officers, proudly wearing the blue-and-white ribbons of the elite Franco-American "Order of the Cincinnati," could share with others their experiences in the young democratic land, spreading the contagion of liberty.
General Rochambeau, the commander of the French forces in America, returned to France eager to recount his stories about the hospitable Americans, whose bold thinking he admired. Their government even reminded him of ancient Greece and Rome. Another French officer, the Count de Ségur, whose parents had prevented him from going to America with Lafayette in 1777 and who only succeeded in crossing the Atlantic in 1782, returned to France impressed by American soldiers. "I had expected to see in this democratic camp unkempt soldiers and officers without training," he later wrote. "One may imagine how surprised I was when I saw a well-disciplined army presenting in every detail the very image of order, reason, training, and experience." The dignity and self-respect of the soldiers, he concluded, sprang from their love of liberty and their feelings of equality. Ségur loved reminiscing about America with his friend the Marquis de Chastellux. Chastellux, who preferred studying American customs to fighting, returned to France with a wealth of information about the young nation. Indeed, the account of his travels and observations about America, published in 1786, attracted wide attention. Chastellux praised religious freedom, the energy of Americans, and the rapid development of the country. He was especially impressed by the great opportunities afforded to hardworking, entrepreneurial Americans to purchase land and lead independent lives.
Stories about America intoxicated the French. They found in the Revolution in the New World the most compelling intellectual subject of the times. The Boston Club, founded by the king's cousin, the Duc d'Orléans, met regularly in the elegant Palais Royal to discuss American freedom and democracy. And the Société des Amis des Noirs, founded by the future political leaders Brissot and Mirabeau, was devoted to the abolitionist cause. People applauded the Revolution across the sea as the most important event since Columbus's discovery of the New World.
The American Revolution was not only à la mode in Paris; it had become virtually a new religion. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson acted as the apostles, and Jefferson's Declaration of Independence replaced the Bible. The French needed to look no further than this lofty document, the philosopher Condorcet asserted, to find a "sublime exposition of sacred rights that have too long been forgotten." It towered, people said, as a "beacon" for humanity. Thomas Jefferson, the new American minister in Paris, could write to George Washington without exaggeration that France "has been awaked by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened." In May 1789 the Paris newspaper Mercure de France announced that America was "the hope and the model of the human race."
Indeed, there was much to admire during the 1780s and early 1790s, as the American Revolution was proceeding healthily from stage to stage, accomplishing its goals. The war of the 1770s had brought independence. The Philadelphia Convention of 1787 created stable democratic institutions and a venerated Constitution, to which the founders added a Bill of Rights in 1791. Throughout the 1790s, political parties were slowly evolving, preparing the political terrain for the watershed election of 1800, when the defeated incumbent party, the Federalists, would peacefully turn over the reins of government to their adversaries, the Jeffersonian Republicans, a transfer of power rare in the history of modern revolutions.
But could Americans reasonably expect the French to learn and profit from their example? Or were the lessons the Americans had to offer and the requirements of the French "hopelessly different" from each other, as some historians contend? The French seemed to face a far more complex challenge than had the Americans. Americans, after all, were content with their legal system; they had no feudal heritage to extirpate, no hereditary social orders to combat, no privileged leisure-class aristocracy to democratize and integrate into society, no tradition of religious intolerance to oppose, no wretched poverty to eliminate, and few domestic insurrections to quell.
According to Lord Acton, both Jefferson and Madison admitted that a few seats for the Americans in both houses of Parliament in England would have set at rest the whole question of revolution. As Jefferson made clear in the Declaration of Independence, Americans wanted to return to the rights and freedoms they had long enjoyed before Parliament and King George III violated them. In this sense, their revolution signified a return, as the literal astronomical meaning of the word "revolution" suggests--"a circuit around a central axis, ending at the point from whence the motion began."
But for some in France, revolution denoted not return but total transformation. The goal of French radicals was to reconceive andreorganize the political, legal, and social structure of the nation, to overthrow the nation's institutions, to break with a thousand years of history.
And yet, as different as the historical, military, and social circumstances were, as different as the size of their populations--24 million people in France, fewer than 4 million in the thirteen colonies--the two revolutions shared significant features. The whole Atlantic civilization, the historian R. R. Palmer commented, "was swept in the last four decades of the eighteenth century by a single revolutionary movement that shared certain common goals." In America and in France, revolutionary leaders wanted to install representative governments based on popular sovereignty and the will of the majority. They called for conventions and drafted constitutions. They composed Declarations or Bills of Rights that posited the same inalienable human rights--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--and upheld the principle of citizens' equality before the law. The purpose of government, they declared, was to protect the rights and freedom of citizens.
Leaders in both countries were convinced that they were constructing a "new order for the ages." The French created a new calendar in 1792, beginning time with the year of the abolition of the monarchy and the crowning of the people as sovereign. They were convinced that they could "regenerate" humanity. Americans too conceived their revolution as a radical beginning, not just for America but for the entire world. "Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race," Madison trumpeted in The Federalist No. 14, we "pursued a new and more noble course ... and accomplished a revolution that has no parallel in the annals of human society."
The American model was France's for the taking--after all, she had paid for it, and her officers and soldiers had fought and died for it. When the French set about drafting a constitution and establishing unfamiliar political and judicial institutions, advice and wisdom from thoughtful Americans might not have been unseasonable. Lafayette, for his part, was intent on following as closely as possible lessons from America. At one Paris dinner party in June 1789, he listened to Gouverneur Morris's suggestions. "I [took] the opportunity to tell him," Morris wrote in hisdiary, "that if the [Third Estate] are now very moderate they will probably succeed, but if violent must inevitably fail."
But mostly Lafayette listened to Jefferson. In the summer of 1789, Lafayette brought his friends to Jefferson's spacious town house on the Champs-Elysées, where, over dinner and port, they debated the makeup of the new government. Aware of the diplomatic necessity of appearing "neutral and passive," Jefferson listened, saying little. But in private Lafayette and Jefferson spent hours together discussing their ideas for a constitution and a Charter of Rights for France. Eager to assist, Jefferson sketched out his recommendations, advising the creation of a representative body that, with the consent of the king, levied taxes and made laws, and an independent judiciary. In lieu of an itemized Bill of Rights, he offered some general principles of freedom and legal process.
"I have never feared for the ultimate result," Jefferson wrote to the young marquis the following spring, "tho' I have feared for you personally. Take care of yourself, my dear friend, for tho' I think your nation would in any event work out her salvation, I am persuaded were she to lose you, it would cost her oceans of blood, & years of confusion & anarchy." Jefferson was convinced that Lafayette had a major role to play and that, more than anyone else, he was the Revolution's American anchor. Without Lafayette, the Revolution might fail. Jefferson had always admired the Frenchman's "zeal," "good sense," and "sound genius." If Lafayette had a "foible," it was his "canine" appetite for popularity and fame, but Jefferson believed that he would get over this.
Jefferson was buoyantly optimistic about the prospects for change in France. To his friend Maria Cosway he admitted that the cutting off of heads was so "à la mode" that he was happy, upon awakening, to feel his own head attached to his shoulders. Nevertheless, even mobs roaming through the streets scarcely diminished his enthusiasm for the Revolution. Agreeing with their goals, he congratulated himself on having slept quietly through the night, as peaceably as ever. "So far it seemed that your revolution has got along with a steady pace," he confidently wrote to Lafayette in the spring of 1790, though reminding him that "we are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed."
On July 15, 1789, the day after the storming of the Bastille, Lafayette was asked by the National Assembly to command the National Guard. Though his task was to assure law, order, and security in Paris, he always stressed his own view that the overriding function of the Guard was to unify the people. The oath of loyalty that he swore promised that the Guard's members would "remain united with all Frenchmen by the indissoluble bonds of brotherhood."
Lafayette proved adept at calming angry mobs, restoring order, and saving lives. His talent for finding just the right mediating gesture defused many incendiary situations. He astutely ordered the demolition of the Bastille, the hated prison that symbolized the feudal past. Once, when the king's guards were threatened by a mob, Lafayette handed one of the guardsmen the revolutionary ribbon from his own hat, appeasing and delighting the crowd. The insignia he had chosen for the National Guard was also a diplomatic masterstroke; it combined blue and red, thecolors of Paris, and the white of the Bourbons, a marriage of revolution and monarchy. Remembering the skill with which Washington had carefully created his public persona of disinterested leader, he too declined any salary.
And yet, Lafayette failed in his mission. His paramount wish had been to unite all revolutionary factions around a constitutional monarchy that embraced revolutionary values of equality and freedom. But unity proved an elusive dream. On the right, royalists condemned him for insulting the royal family and tolerating mob demonstrations. On the left, radicals attacked him for quelling popular demonstrations, defending the king, and seeking power for himself. His popularity was completely destroyed in July 1791 when he ordered the Guard to fire on demonstrators demanding the abolition of the monarchy. "I verily believe that if M. de La Fayette were to appear just now in Paris unattended by his army," Gouverneur Morris wrote to George Washington a few weeks later, "he would be torn to pieces. Thank God we have no populace in America." Resigning from the Guard, Lafayette accepted the king's appointment to head the army in the north. But when the monarchy was abolished in the fall of 1792, knowing that his situation was hopeless, Lafayette fled France. He hoped to reach the Belgian coast, from where he could sail to America, but Austrian troops refused to allow him free passage and had him arrested. Lafayette was imprisoned in Austria for five harsh years.
While Lafayette languished in one lugubrious, damp prison after another, his health steadily deteriorating, the Revolution in France was plunging into a downward spiral, devolving into Terror, devouring its children and its leaders. Devastating news of the guillotining of the pitiable monarch and Queen Marie Antoinette as well as frightening reports of summary arrests, mass drownings, and the decapitation of thousands of French men and women trickled in to him. When his wife, Adrienne, visited him in his dungeon, she recounted the hideous details of the guillotining of her cherished mother.
Americans, still grateful to Lafayette for his role in their revolution, followed his misfortunes with deep sympathy. During the decade of the 1790s, the young American government displayed considerably moreappreciation toward the valiant marquis than toward the French nation that had played a decisive role in the American victory over England--and this despite the Treaty of Amity and Commerce that the Americans and French had signed in 1778. Indeed, the treaty, which had stipulated that France and the United States would defend each other against England and that neither nation would conclude a formal truce with England without the consent of the other, had become an embarrassment. Despite the enthusiasm of many Americans for the French revolutionary cause, Washington's policy of neutrality, buttressed by his own immense prestige and by Federalists' antipathy for regicide in France and commonsensical reluctance to plunge their country back into war with England, succeeded in relegating the treaty to oblivion.
In 1793, Washington, though reluctant to intervene officially in European politics, instructed Gouverneur Morris, the minister to France, to express "informally the sentiments and the wishes of this country regarding M. de La Fayette." Again in 1796 Washington made his objections about Lafayette's imprisonment known to the Austrian ambassador in London, and finally he wrote to the emperor himself, all to no avail. Only when the new moderate Directory government in France demanded Lafayette's release was the prisoner finally freed. The fragile Directory, which had been set up in 1795, a year after the "Thermidorean" counterrevolution had finally put an end to the Revolution and the Terror, feared Lafayette's return to France but felt strongly that the world-famous French citizen should no longer be arbitrarily imprisoned in Austria. Thus the Directory asked Citizen General Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from his victory in Rivoli, to negotiate for Lafayette's freedom, on condition that he not live in France.
Forty years old, worn, drained from his suffering, most of his fortune confiscated, Monsieur Lafayette (he had given up his noble title and the aristocratic "de") and his wife waited for two more years in Prussia and Holland before it was safe for them to return to France. The great French writer Chateaubriand wrote of Lafayette, "This man has lived."
When he could finally reenter France in 1800, Lafayette found a country transformed by many of the Revolution's accomplishments. Virtually all the vestiges of feudalism had been abolished. Citizens were equal before the law; the aristocracy was no longer a privileged elite exempt from taxes; the right of all children to share equally in inheritance had replaced primogeniture; Church property had been confiscated and sold; Jews and Protestants had been granted civil rights; illegitimate children had won full legal status; married couples could divorce; a meritocracy had replaced the hegemony of the aristocracy; and the principles of the "rights of man" were universally respected.
And yet Lafayette also found an exhausted people for whom the term "republic" had become a smear word. In a plebiscite in 1799, the people of France had voted for the constitution that guaranteed the autocracy of Napoleon. The vote was 3,011,007 to 1,562. The nation wanted, first and foremost, order and the rule of law, and Napoleon and then the Restoration Bourbons would supply them in their ways. France would not know republican government until 1871.
And how had the American Revolution fared in French opinion? Preceding Lafayette's flight and the downfall of the French Revolution came the eclipse of the American "beacon." The Revolution that had been extolled by the French as the model and hope for humanity had soon lost its authority and radiance. Perhaps that model was not perfect after all, the French began to muse. Maybe they could improve upon it, maybe even surpass it. The Americans, they pointed out, had ratified in 1787 a constitution that did not contain a Bill of Rights, and they still tolerated slavery. And were they not setting the clock back by retaining a Senate that mirrored the English hereditary House of Lords? Perhaps the Americans' esteem for English tradition was the problem. The French wanted no part of a system of checks and balances that thwarted the people's will. The French representative Lanjuinais mocked "the Anglo-American Mr. Adams, the Don Quixote of nobility," asserting that American Anglophiles "have lost their influence over us; they impose upon us no longer." The philosopher Mably joined the chorus, expressing disappointment with an America preoccupied with wealth and commerce.
So would it be the French and not the Americans who were destined to dazzle the world with perfection? Duke Mathieu de Montmorency, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, acknowledged that the Americans had created a worthy precedent, but, he grandly added, "they have given a great example to the new hemisphere. Let us give it to the universe!" For Condorcet, another French philosophe, the American Revolution had merely paved the way for the French Revolution, which would be based on truer, purer, and more profound principles. "Why speak of the best that exists?" the philosophe Dupont asked in 1788. "Why not speak of the best that is possible?"
Many people dreamt of a clean sweep of tradition, a government founded solely on Enlightenment truths. "O nation of France, you are not made to receive an example, but to set it!" declared loftily the representative Rabaut Saint Etienne. The tables had quickly turned. Jacobin leaders believed that France no longer needed to look to America for guidance. Saint-Just pitied the American "federal" nation. Why, it was not even a republic, he scoffed, but a hopelessly fragmented conglomeration.Anacharsis Cloots, the self-styled "representative of humanity" from Prussia, triumphantly divulged that the Americans were secretly envious of the French system of government and reproached themselves daily for lacking the political insight of the French!
Prey to increasingly grandiose notions, the French began to claim that America should look to France for her own salvation. Whereas Jefferson, with a certain generosity of spirit, had written to his friend George Mason that he "consider[ed] the establishment and success of the [French] government as necessary to stay up our own," Robespierre chose a different tone: "And you, brave Americans, your freedom was won with our blood and is protected by your alliance with us. What would be your fate if we no longer existed? You would crumble once again under the yoke of your enemy!" The marriage of revolutions ended in divorce. The French abandoned American theories of government. Neither the institutions of the young republic nor the thoughtful ideas behind them held any attraction for revolutionaries in France.
Lord Acton wrote that "what the French took from the Americans was their theory of revolution, not their theory of government--their cutting, not their sewing." The cutting--whether colonial war or regicide, declaration of independence or tennis court oath--is the easy part. The art is in the sewing.
In 1824, Charles X, the brother of the decapitated Louis XVI, reigned in France. A superannuated monarchy had survived the guillotine. In America, an energetic republic, though stained by the abomination of slavery, was flourishing. That year, President James Monroe and both houses of Congress invited Lafayette back to America as "the Nation's Guest." He alone embodied two revolutions, the two events that had transformed modern history. At sixty-seven, his hair was thinner and he walked with a limp, but he had managed to recapture much of his early vigor. When his ship reached New York in August 1824, a flotilla of steamships in the harbor welcomed him and his son, George Washington Lafayette. A tumultuous crowd of 30,000 people onshore cheered. As Lafayette and his son journeyed through all twenty-fourstates, they were showered with honors, feted with banquets, speeches, and reenactments of revolutionary battles.
People were wild with excitement. Here was the American Revolution in flesh and blood, the general who had ridden alongside his commander-in-chief in defeat and in victory, at Brandywine, Valley Forge, Monmouth, West Point, and Yorktown. "Half a century had carried nearly all of his contemporary actors of the Revolution into the great abyss of time," wrote James Fenimore Cooper, remarking that Lafayette now stood alone, "like an imposing column" commemorating sacred deeds and principles.
It was during this year that towns, villages, and counties all over the map renamed themselves Fayette, Fayetteville, Lafayette, and La Grange, after Lafayette's estate in France. Monuments to the Revolution were erected in Boston, Camden, and Savannah; triumphal arches--constructed out of plywood and papier-mâché--quickly sprang up in towns and villages. Portraits of the hero were painted by the great artists of the day: Samuel Morse, Thomas Sully, and others. His image appeared on fans, medallions, buttons, quilts, handkerchiefs, bowls as well as furniture and banknotes. Men vied with horses for the privilege of drawing his carriage. Citizens, wrote an astounded Thomas Jefferson, were simply thrown into "delirium."
After stopping in Yorktown, Lafayette spent ten days at Monticello with Jefferson. The two old friends, who had not met since the beginning of the French Revolution, embraced warmly. At sunset, James Madison joined them for dessert, and conversation about French and American politics ran late into the night. Madison later commented that Lafayette appeared in fine health and spirits but so much increased in bulk and changed in aspect that he hardly recognized him. The following day, the three compatriots celebrated the opening of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. In Montpellier, Lafayette spent a week with James and Dolley Madison, and at Mount Vernon, he kneeled at the tomb of the man he called his "beloved General."
In Boston, he met with John Adams. At ceremonies at Bunker Hill, Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the new monument as Daniel Webster solemnly addressed him: "Heaven saw fit to ordain that the electricspark of liberty should be conducted, through you, from the New World to the Old." When Lafayette departed for France, four American Presidents, his friends, had already wished him Godspeed, and a fifth, John Quincy Adams, delivered the farewell address.
To the Americans who jubilantly feted and celebrated the hero of two revolutions it did not matter that Lafayette had not been a key leader in either. Neither a politician comfortable wielding power nor a talented orator nor a political theorist, Lafayette had been essentially a military man, not an architect of revolution. He bore little resemblance to the galaxy of American founders--Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson--who were simultaneously experienced politicians and thoughtful political theorists, or to the fiery band of radical visionaries in France--Sieyès, Robespierre, and Saint-Just.
Still, the role Lafayette was able to play to perfection during his visit to early-nineteenth-century America was the one that had alwayseluded him during the French Revolution, that of national mediator and unifier, the role of a Washington. Lafayette's travels in America coincided with a chaotic and fiercely bitter presidential campaign. Competing for the presidency were five candidates: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, John Calhoun, and Henry Clay. While these politicians waged a rancorous free-for-all, Lafayette, high above the fray in the stratosphere of immortal heroes, could remind Americans of their common past and the founding principles of the republic. As if descending from the Mount Olympus of legendary gods, he alone was powerful enough to unite, at least temporarily, a divided country.
Americans appreciated the unique gift that the Frenchman could bestow upon them. James Fenimore Cooper observed that "at the public dinners instead of caustic toasts, intended to throw ridicule and odium on some potent adversary, none were heard but healths to the guest of the nation, around whom were amicably grouped the most violent of both parties." Another observer agreed that the only surviving general from the Revolution "turns this whole people from the ... troubles and bitterness of our manifold political dissensions ... [and] carries us back to that great period in our history, about which opinions have long been tranquil and settled."
Jefferson remarked to a friend that, at a crucial time in American history, Lafayette "rall[ied] us together and strengthen[ed] the habit of considering our country as one and indivisible." Toward the end of his journey, Lafayette too spoke of the feelings of fellowship his visit had engendered, expressing "satisfaction ... that [his] presence has promoted many reconciliations between the political parties; men who have not spoken to one another for more than twenty years ... revive together their common memories of the Revolution."
Jefferson and Lafayette knew well that for the young republic, a sense of unity was essential. But what did they mean by "unity"? Neither had in mind the kind of unity that issues from a homogeneous nation, a land where citizens share a common history along with similar ethnic and religious backgrounds. John Jay's vision, in The Federalist No. 2, of Americans as "one united people--a people descended from the sameancestors, ... professing the same religion, very similar in their manners and customs," was clearly at odds with the reality of American diversity. Did "unity" evoke for Jefferson and Lafayette ideological unanimity, a community whose citizens transcend partisan conflict and find consensus? Or did they hope that citizens would experience collective, emotional feelings of fraternity and oneness?
Jefferson knew that as Americans pursued their happiness, they would disagree on all manner of social, political, and economic issues and would engage in partisan conflict. After all, he himself had been the principal leader of the earliest opposition party. And as President he had presided over a government whose checks and balances--the collision of the different branches of government--made unity all but impossible. The unity that Jefferson prized was based neither on ideological consensus nor on fraternal communion. For the third President of the United States, unity meant citizens' allegiance to the political and moral principles expressed in the nation's founding documents. Jefferson never confused this kind of shared commitment to institutions that aspired to guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for citizens with citizens' ideological unanimity.
Unity for Jefferson could only mean a shared commitment to core democratic values and to a republic that, though "indivisible," permitted political fragmentation and unruly--though moderate--ideological division. Lafayette's presence in America could enable all Americans to remember and celebrate the quasi-mythic founding epoch when those luminous political and moral principles were first declared.
And what did Lafayette mean by "unity"? The "reconciliation between the political parties" that he wished to promote may have signified a temporary respite from party war, or perhaps a sense of harmony and good feeling as people experienced the fellowship of their common participation in the American political experiment. Lafayette certainly did not harbor any hidden, nefarious motives in wishing to be a unifying national figure during the French Revolution or in relishing that same role in the United States of the 1820s.
And yet the term "unity" had earned the darkest of reputations during the French Revolution. "The republic, one and indivisible," was theshibboleth on every French citizen's lips for four years. Unity represented the Revolution's highest goal but also explained its calamitous descent into repression and terror.
The kind of unity cherished by the French was something quite alien to the American mentality. After centuries of the wrenching inequality of a rigid, elitist caste system, revolutionaries in France hungered first and foremost for equality. While the Americans' driving passion was for freedom, in France people longed for a nation of equal citizens. And was it not logical, revolutionaries reasoned, that equal citizens would share the same revolutionary ideals and goals? What would propel and guide the Revolution if not the people's oneness and unanimity? Their unity constituted the motor, the sine qua non, of radical political and social change. But unity could not be achieved as long as division and opposition persisted. Divisions of any kind became anathema, so many reminders of the prerevolutionary society deeply divided along class, or rather caste lines.
Tumult, division, and competing interest groups in the United States vs. concord, unity, and community in France. Here were the antithetical concepts of democracy and nationhood that shaped the core values of both revolutions, influencing, as we shall see, their notions of individual rights and freedoms, coloring their political discourse and style, and setting the stage for the success or failure of the two revolutionary projects. During the next two centuries, those divergent revolutionary traditions and visions would galvanize leaders of liberation movements around the world, inspiring some to install a system of adversarial political parties, imbuing in others the idea of "one-party democracy."
We live in a world shaped by--sometimes still reeling from--the political ideas of a generation of eighteenth-century revolutionary leaders. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the French revolutionary vision of the nation as a unitary and organic whole has colored French political culture. "Since the dawn of our history," Charles de Gaulle declared in 1947, "our misfortunes occur in proportion to our division; but good fortune has never betrayed a unified France." De Gaulle's message of unity never varied, not during World War II, not during the Fourth Republic, and not during the Fifth Republic. It wasalso a message with which any radical revolutionary leader in France in 1793 would have been comfortable. "There is only one duty and one law," de Gaulle proclaimed, "and that is French unity. There is only one interest that counts, that of France. There is only one duty that exists for us, and that is to unite and rally around her."
In the United States, tumult and conflict have been as American as baseball and town meetings. The American system has always worked best when stimulated by the creative tension of sharply adversarial politics. Jefferson could define and defend his vision in contrast with a Hamilton, Lincoln with a Douglas, Roosevelt with a Hoover. In 1936, FDR, railing against the businessmen, bankers, and financiers who rabidly attacked the New Deal, declared to a tumultuous Madison Square Garden crowd, "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" Conflict, not consensus, produced the meaningful change and progress that occurred in the 1930s.
But more recently, the French longing for unity has produced what many in France feel is a contentless consensus. And in the United States politicians have been extolling a centrist course, hoping to rise above political conflict, as if the French revolutionary dream of a harmonious, fraternal realm free from political strife were gaining new disciples on the other side of the Atlantic.
The sister revolutions of the eighteenth century hold invaluable lessons for our contemporary democracies. Not only do they illuminate our political assumptions, beliefs, and ideas, but they also help us to take the temperature of our political cultures, to diagnose our political ills, and to prescribe remedies for them.
Indeed, in the late 1850s, two decades after completing his famed Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, the great historian and social analyst, finally began planning another book. This time he wanted to write about his own period. "Basically, only affairs of our own times interest the public and interest me," he confessed, not unlike many writers with an eye on the marketplace. But what would be the focus of Tocqueville's new study? "When I try to find the crux of such a subject, the point where all the ideas that it generates meet and tie themselves together, I cannot find it."
Tocqueville ultimately discovered that the key to the present lay in the past. Only a book about "the long drama of the French Revolution," he realized, would provide him with a framework for his reflections on contemporary French political culture. His readers, focusing on their eighteenth-century revolution, would "reflect ... unceasingly on themselves," grasping on the one hand "the sentiments, the ideas, the mores that alone can lead to public prosperity and liberty [and] ... the vices and errors that, on the other hand, divert them irresistibly from this end." Tocqueville suggested that beneath the historian's text lies a sub text--a commentary on the present. In other words, we are always writing the history of our own times.
Copyright © 1999 by Susan Dunn
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