Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Lightby Susan Dunn
What the two great modern revolutions can teach us about democracy today.
In 1790, the American diplomat and politician Gouverneur Morris compared the French and American Revolutions, saying that the French "have taken Genius instead of Reason for their guide, adopted Experiment instead of Experience, and wander in the Dark because they prefer Lightning to/p>
What the two great modern revolutions can teach us about democracy today.
In 1790, the American diplomat and politician Gouverneur Morris compared the French and American Revolutions, saying that the French "have taken Genius instead of Reason for their guide, adopted Experiment instead of Experience, and wander in the Dark because they prefer Lightning to Light." Although both revolutions professed similar Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, there were dramatic differences. The Americans were content to preserve many aspects of their English heritage; the French sought a complete break with a thousand years of history. The Americans accepted nonviolent political conflict; the French valued unity above all. The Americans emphasized individual rights, while the French stressed public order and cohesion.
Why did the two revolutions follow such different trajectories? What influence have the two different visions of democracy had on modern history? And what lessons do they offer us about democracy today? In a lucid narrative style, with particular emphasis on lively portraits of the major actors, Susan Dunn traces the legacies of the two great revolutions through modern history and up to the revolutionary movements of our own time. Her combination of history and political analysis will appeal to all who take an interest in the way democratic nations are governed.
The question is old but still stimulating and provocative, as historian Susan Dunn demonstrates anew in Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light. In presenting her lively analysis, Dunn, a history professor at Williams College, relies heavily on the words, both public utterances and private correspondence, of the participants in the two revolutions.
“Stimulating and provocative . . . Sister Revolutions shows not only how the French and American experiments developed but also why their differing examples have continued to beguile leaders.” Paul Gray, Time
“Dunn . . . finds some fresh things to say about this old but rich topic.” Richard Brookhiser, New York Times Book Review
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French Lightning, American Light
By Susan Dunn
Faber and Faber, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Susan Dunn
All rights reserved.
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 he had 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. Washington himself 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-dollized" 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 to the 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 and reorganize 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."
Excerpted from Sister Revolutions by Susan Dunn. Copyright © 1999 Susan Dunn. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
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Meet the Author
Susan Dunn is professor of French literature and the history of ideas at Williams College. She is the author of numerous critically acclaimed articles and books in political theory and historical literary criticism, and she has been the recipient of fellowships from the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others.
Susan Dunn is a professor of literature at Williams College and is the author of many books, including The Three Roosevelts (with James MacGregor Burns). She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
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