A Tale of Two Revolutions

Reader Kevin writes:

Hello Mr. Pastry! In your first post about Antonin Carême you wrote that the American and French revolutions were different. I’m curious: what was the difference? Would you mind explaining that a little?

Entire books have been written on that subject, Kevin! But I’ll do my best. The most succinct summary of the difference that I’m aware of goes like this: that while both revolutions were against monarchy in favor of the rule of law and individual rights, the American Revolution was fundamentally about freedom and the French Revolution was fundamentally about justice.

Which is to say that while American revolutionaries were deeply suspicious of state power and sought to minimize it so individuals could be free to pursue their own destinies, French revolutionaries sought to take over the state and use its power to make peoples’ lives more just and equitable.

Both are worthy goals and each comes with its own set of upsides and pitfalls. In fact trying to decide just how much freedom and how much justice we need to create the perfect society is what most of our modern political fights are about!

Of course I’m grossly over-simplifying two very complicated and interesting events. I highly encourage you to read up on the subject. If you’d like me to recommend some good books, I can! Cheers and that was one heck of a great — and difficult — question!

10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Revolutions”

  1. If anyone is interested in some early writings on the subject of French and American politics (and how they might relate to one another) I can recommend the early-19th century writer, Alexis de Toqueville’s work Democracy in America is an intriguing proto-sociological study of American culture and his latter work The Old Regime and the Revolution is one of the earliest historical inquiries into the politics and social conditions of the French Revolution.

    They should both be freely available through Project Gutenberg.

    1. GREAT recommendations, Hellyweg! Tocqueville had a profound understanding of what we were up to over here. It’s thick book but a great read!


      – Joe

  2. I enjoyed Simon Schama’s book Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution very much.

    1. Hey Ellen! I don’t have that and I confess its girth has always intimidated me. Perhaps I’ll get up the courage to read it now!


      – Joe

  3. I think another differentiation is the fact French revolutionaries weren’t above using terrorism. It started with royalty,and from there a sliding scale of acceptable targets for the guillotine included wealthy people,moderately wealthy land owners,clerics,down to people who criticised the free use of the guillotine were marched to it. It wasn’t called the Reign of Terror for nothing. Another big difference is our revolution was about protecting our nation’s sovereignty from England,whereas France’s Revolution’s promise of liberty,egalitarianism and fraternity(I probably got the phrase wrong)devolved into the Reign of Terror eventually setting France up for Napoleon’s reign.

    1. Hey John!

      Ah yes, there was that, wasn’t there? The mass executions were of course the Jacobins’ way of meeting out “justice” to their class enemies. To them of course it all seemed perfectly reasonable. To everyone else it was a nightmare. Indeed it was the excesses of The Terror that turned probably our most prominent fire-breathing revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson, against a revolution he initially supported. Another fascinating topic. Thanks, John!

      – Joe

  4. What an interesting topic! Are there any other books people might recommend for a history neophyte? I must confess my high school history classes usually put me to sleep so I don’t remember much, but this blog got me hooked on the Civil War through the post on rice pudding 🙂 As good a place to start as any I guess, and I find that I am most interested when individual people and their personalities are emphasized.

    1. Hey Nemo!

      I’m deeply gratified by that! If personalities are your thing, there’s a great new book called The Great Debate by Yuval Levin that examines both revolutions through the eyes of Edmund Burke — a Brit and the father of what we now call “conservatism” — and Thomas Paine, our own great pamphleteer and wild-eyed revolutionary. Paine is one of my favorite characters from history in that he was such a weirdo. He wrote some of America’s most important pieces revolutionary literature (Common Sense among others) but was a failure at pretty much everything else. Eventually he made his way to France in hopes of continuing the revolutionary movement. He participated actively in the French Revolution but when the Jacobins determined he wasn’t radical enough for them, he was nearly guillotined. Indeed had a guard not put the execution mark on the wrong side of his prison door, he would have been. Very fortunately for him, Robespierre fell a day or so later and he was freed. Amazing. Levin is politically conservative but the book is remarkably even-handed in its portrayal of the two ideologies that have given us our modern “left” and “right”. I highly recommend it.

      Otherwise I’m a big fan or primers, because I like to get a basic knowledge of an event or period down before I go exploring details. For that I suggest The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by Doyle. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Ellis is a great one for the American Revolution. You’ll love all the portraits of the various characters. Have fun and let me know what you decide to read, Nemo! Thanks again for a very inspiring comment!


      – Joe

  5. Thanks for the recommendations! I have checked out all three books you mentioned, and I will definitely be starting out with the primers 🙂 I am very excited about all of them.

    1. Have fun and let me know what you think, Nemo! For the ultimate history primer, try A Little History of the World by Gombrich. It was written in 1935 by a 25-year-old German doctoral student as a history overview for kids. Though I suppose the language is a little kid-like, I’m mostly still a kid and I find that it’s a very handy general reference for tracing some of the main currents of history. In this day and age where no one has much interest in History as a subject, it’s a very handy thing to have around!


      – Joe

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