The United States vs. France: contrasting two revolutions

The closeness in dates of the American and French national revolutionary celebrations, July 4, Independence Day in America, and July 14, Bastille Day in France, seems particularly relevant this year. For as long as the U.S. has been in existence, people have been trying to understand the similarities and differences between those revolutions. In studying the period for a while, a few points jump out at me. 

We are so used to celebrating our revolution that we don’t acknowledge that the French Revolution was a lot more cataclysmic.  We think we threw off a huge load of British oppression, but the oppression wasn’t all that bad: taxes were incredibly low; supervision was fairly lax; American Colonists had more independence than any other colonists in the world and, some Brits said, a lot more than they had at home. The average white Colonial American’s income was higher than that of the average Brit, and according to Adam Smith, no less, it bought more than the average Brit’s did.  Overthrowing George III and the British government and with them, the Church of England, was quite an accomplishment, and we did it with style. Here’s Robert Morris, summing it up after Yorktown to Benjamin Franklin: “What else could be expected of us? A Revolution, a War, the Dissolution of Government, the creating of it anew, Cruelty Rapine and Devastation in the midst of our very Bowels …. The Wonder then is that we have done so much, that we have borne so much, and the candid world will add that we have dared so much.” 

Right on!

But when compared with what the French had to get rid of, symbolized by the poor’s storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the American revolt was much less fundamental. The French had to throw over a king whose line had ruled France for a thousand years, and whose court at Versailles and its very large contingent of nobility was spending the country into the poorhouse, not to speak of getting rid of an omnipresent and demanding church. Thomas Jefferson, then our representative in France, had been writing home to James Madison for years about the “enormous inequality” between the rich and the poor (and the unemployed) in France that produced “so much misery to the bulk of mankind,” lamenting that “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.” 

To rid France of all that was a huge accomplishment. Yet, as we know, the French Revolution’s center did not hold, and within a few years it dissolved into “the terror” that not only lopped off the heads of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette but thousands of others, and carried on bloody, senseless wars against France’s neighbors that led to the crowning of Napoleon and further oppression. 

What permitted the nascent United States not to experience a similar descent into chaos and tyranny? There are multiple answers, of course, but I’ll tackle one that seem to me to be particularly relevant today: the media.    

Something unique occurred in America, beginning in the mid-1760s after the passage of the Stamp Act. Committees of Correspondence formed, almost simultaneously, in communities from Boston to Williamsburg, Virginia. There was only a rudimentary postal service then, and very few newspapers, but Samuel Adams in Boston, Patrick Henry in Virginia and other like-minded radicals took to corresponding with one another and with their friends and relatives in smaller cities about what was going on, and what they thought about it, and what each local group was doing to resist that other local groups might copy. These Committees of Correspondence drew people together, kept them up-to-date on the news — no easy task in those days — and transmitted their ideas to one another.   

To be polite about it, they enlightened the public on the nature of the enemy and on the potential power that the American populace could have if it was united. “There are not five Men of Sense in America who wou’d accept of Independence if it was offered,” Virginia planter George Mason wrote to a friend in early 1770, yet Mason and his neighbor, George Washington, got together and introduced a bill in the Virginia House of Burgesses pledging the colony’s populace to nonviolent resistance in the form of ceasing to buy any British products. It was passed, and Virginia became aligned with the firebrand Patrick Henry.      

These Committees of Correspondence fulfilled the requirements of what the Greeks had called a polis, a body of informed citizens whose consensus was absolutely necessary to any government that aspired to being of the people, by the people, and for the people. 

One of the things that underlay the Committees of Correspondence was that Americans were, ahem, more literate than the Brits, and also than the French. Communications sent to a town were read by many people, and then spoken aloud for those who could not read.  That didn’t happen in France.  The French had had newspapers for over a century, but what they did not have, in the run-up to the storming of the Bastille, was a great deal of communication and consultation among many groups in disparate places about What Needs To Be Done. 

By my lights, the French didn’t have consensus, and no true republic can last long without it.

Rather, in France, handfuls of intellectuals and high-maintenance egotists grabbed the reins of the revolution and ran with them.  Oh, they communicated with the people of Paris by posters and town criers, but the results were more like convening flash mobs than organized resistance and targeted revolution.  It took nearly another hundred years to sort out the chaos, and during most of that time France continued as an empire. The Third Republic, the forerunner of modern, democratic France, only began in 1870. 


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.