Consider the different outcomes of two revolutions: America’s (celebrated July 4th) and France’s (celebrated July 14th, Bastille Day). French military and financial assistance were keys to American independence. Yet, the French Revolution produced a very different result. Why?
The American Revolution largely focused on taxes and representation. France’s issues were grounded in feudalism, repeated food shortages, unemployment, high and rising prices, and out-of-control inflation.
America’s rebellion began with “the shot heard round the world” when colonial militia stood against British royal troops at Lexington and Concord. France’s revolution evolved over many years and produced much more internal upheaval.
Our Declaration of Independence proclaimed: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (i.e., property). These rights are protected by the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.
France’s 17 articles in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen included liberty, property, and safety and resistance against oppression. However, subsequent French governments assaulted these rights in the face of increasing revolutionary discontent.
The United States has had two constitutions – the latter amended 27 times. France has had at least 15. America has had one Constitutional Republic, France five. The United States Constitution has protected rights. France didn’t always follow or implement constitutions. One of the French constitutions wasn’t implemented because its legislature was invaded by a mob.
As the demands of the populace grew and violence increased, French governments worked to control the population, making the country more and more a police state. Police responded to local demands and sentiment, arresting suspects and holding them for months without trials. As the government became more centralized and powerful, anyone deemed a threat was beheaded. Public opinion became more important than the rule of law.
French citizens could be interrogated with no evidence produced against them, denied lawyers or the ability to call witnesses. And, they could only choose between two verdicts: acquittal or death – neither based upon evidence but, rather, on the moral convictions of jurors.
Property rights were attacked as the government sought to redistribute property and fill holes in public finance. Some warned: “Property is sacred, for us as for you. We are being attacked today, but do not deceive yourselves; if we are despoiled today, your turn will come.”
A major impetus for the French Revolution was lack of food. As food shortages continued to plague France, there were increasing calls to abandon the free market by imposing price controls. However, as controls were imposed, supplies dwindled and often government prices exceeded the black market. Anyone spoiling, losing, or hiding food could face death.
As violence increased, so did the number and breadth of repressive laws. Yet, the government vacillated between catering to popular demands and ordering troops to repress the people. Those who resisted were subject to the guillotine. The press was attacked, using the rationale: “that to set up the Republic, they needed for a while the jurisprudence of despots.”
Individual rights were trampled with increased pressure for conformity and unity. Efforts were made to incorporate the Church into the revolutionary government. Calendars were changed to remove all religious and royal references. Secret ballots weren’t used so as to expose voters to maximum political pressure and intimidation.
Two revolutions, two different outcomes. One remained committed to the rule of law while the other catered to the times. Something to remember whenever anyone says we need a “living constitution” to fit the times and temperament of the people.