On the surface, the American and French Revolutions appear to have much in common. Both took place in the last quarter of the 18th century. Both were cloaked in the language of The Enlightenment. In both, common people sought to throw off the bonds of tyranny and embrace freedom.
Why, then, did the American Revolution result in decades of relative peace and prosperity while the French Revolution devolved into mass violence and depravity. While Americans secured, at least for a time, a significant amount of liberty, why did the French deal with numerous revolutions and counterrevolutions?
While the answer to that question is nuanced, there was one significant difference. In their respective revolutions, Americans fought to preserve their time-honored right of self government, while the French fought for a vague ideal of liberty and to give government the power to define and enforce ideas such as equality and fraternity. As historian Sean Busick explains,
“…unlike the French, Americans did not fight for an abstraction. Americans initially took up arms against the British to defend and preserve…their traditional rights rather than to overturn an established social order. Ours was a revolution more about home rule than about who should rule at home.”
Because local self-government was the goal, most members of America’s founding generation understood that the centralizing impulse of government was dangerous and needed to be checked. It was for this reason that the so-called anti-federalists opposed the ratification of the Constitution. They feared that, in its unamended form, it would permit the federal government to seize too much power and undo what was gained in the Revolutionary War. James Lincoln, a delegate to South Carolina’s ratification convention, raised this concern in 1788 by saying,
“What have you been contending for these ten years past? Liberty! What is liberty? The power of governing yourselves. Let the people but once trust their liberties out of their own hands, and what will be the consequences? First, a haughty, imperious aristocracy; and ultimately, a tyrannical monarchy.”
Whereas early Americans jealously guarded their political independence, the French embraced centralized power. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas formed much of the basis for the French Revolution, believed that total devotion to the centralized state was essential to the attainment of the state’s goals. Rousseau wrote,
“If, for example, the people were early accustomed to conceive their individuality only in its connection with the body of the state, and to be aware of their own existence merely as parts of that of the state, they might in time come to identify themselves in some degree with the greater whole.”
In this political philosophy the central state is necessarily supreme. Thus the leaders of the French Revolution denounced the federalist ideas that defined the American Revolution. Emannuel Joseph Sieyes, one of the French Revolution’s primary political theorists, wrote that
“France must not be an assemblage of small nations each with its own democratic government. She is not a collection of states; she is a single whole, made up of integral parts; these parts must not have each a complete existence of its own, for they are…but parts forming a single whole.”
The idea of centralization is so strongly associated with the French Revolution that sociologist Robert Nisbet stated, ”All serious students of nationalism are agreed that, in its contemporary form, nationalism is the child of the French Revolution.”
Given what we know about the tendencies of centralized power, it is no surprise that while the decentralized United States prospered, centrally-ruled France devolved into tyranny and totalitarianism. Frenchman Frederic Bastiat, writing 60 years after the original French Revolution, regretted that, ”Frenchmen (have become)…the most governed, the most regulated, the most imposed upon, the most harnessed, and the most exploited people in Europe.”
Bastiat conversely held that, with the exceptions of slavery and tariffs, “there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation (than in the United States).”
Today it is fashionable for Americans to embrace centralized power in the form of the federal government. This is true even of those who like to claim devotion to the Constitution. This hypocritical tendency is embodied in politicians like Ted Cruz. The senator from Texas once stated, “My touchstone for every question is the Constitution,” and yet he has openly opposed allowing states to ignore the federal government’s unconstitutional drug laws on the grounds that doing so would set “a dangerous precedent.”
Cruz must not understand that while he may rhetorically embrace the principles of America’s revolution, his actions reflect a devotion to those of France’s. And this is true of every single person who advocates a strong central government with the power to rule over the states.
If Americans truly want to preserve liberty, they will first return to the decentralist principles of the American Revolution. This is the only way that liberty can grow and it is the reason why the rediscovery of our federalist heritage is so vital. Nisbet wrote in The Quest for Community that,
“A sense of the past is far more basic to the maintenance of freedom than hope for the future. The former is concrete and real; the latter is necessarily amorphous and more easily guided by those who can manipulate human actions and beliefs. Hence the relentless effort by totalitarian governments to destroy memory. And hence the ingenious techniques for abolishing the social allegiances within which individual memory is given strength and power of resistance.”
The next time you see a politician at the federal, state or local level make the case for unchecked federal supremacy, ask him why he’s selling out the fundamental principles of our country’s founding. Or, more to the point, ask him why he’s willing to trade our revolution for France’s.