Dinner Topics for Wednesday
Bastille Day: Revolutionary Zeal Turns to Tyranny in France
The euphoria experienced by those who believed they had finally shattered monarchical tyranny and aristocratic privilege was only matched by the horror of the following ‘Reign of Terror.’
This year was also the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s final defeat, when the combined armies or Prussia and Great Britain vanquished the French Army at Waterloo, Belgium and put an end to the Corsican’s time as a head of state. It effectively concluded the French Republic’s brief experiment in liberty. Beyond the bloody battlefield and the confrontation between great powers, there is a great deal to learn from the life and downfall of Napoleon and the short-lived French First Republic—especially in relation to the success of George Washington’s over two-century old American republic.
A Tale of Two Nations
Charles Dickens’ powerful novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is set during the French Revolution, involving characters in the cities of London and Paris. This moving tale gives one pause to consider a tale of two nations—the differences between the French Revolution and the American Revolution.
Only a few years before the French Revolution, colonial America had rebelled, not against poverty, but against the increasingly tyrannical rule of the British. In America, it was men of property and education, not the poor, who rebelled. For liberty, they invested their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Ironically, it was the French nobility who stepped in with naval support and saved the American Revolution from the brink of failure.
The purpose of the American Revolution was to change the ruling laws, not to kill the king. Many colonists, including Benjamin Franklin, had close ties with England. Franklin was the leader in trying all possible avenues of diplomacy; revolution was the last resort. George Washington scrupulously avoided abusing military power by consistently deferring to the directives of the civilian government, and he always put the needs of his men before his own. He refused to be king. Noble of character he was; greedy and power-hungry he was not. American leaders did all they could to avoid anarchy. They sought the help of God in their endeavor, and received miraculous help when it was needed.
The French Revolution, on the other hand, appears to have been driven by vengeance and hatred. Without a doubt, terrible injustices existed, as vividly depicted by Dickens and in Victor Hugo’s magnificent novel, Les Miserables. The French peasants were at a great disadvantage, because their poverty seemed insurmountable, and they lacked education and money; therefore they had no power to exercise influence on their oppressors. It is unfortunate that they resorted to terror. The mass murder of innocents resembled the ethnic cleansing of evil regimes in the twentieth century.
The French revolutionary participants were certainly godless. The mindless killing thoroughly disqualified them from any divine assistance. By killing the upper class, and their families, and their servants, and anyone remotely related, they also purged the society of education, law, culture, and other refinements necessary to civilized society. Only anarchy resulted from their efforts. The old oppressors were merely replaced by a new tyrannical regime, more brutal than ever. It was bad enough that some even looked to figures like Napoleon to save them, but that really didn’t work well, either.
The Americans went on to create a Constitution that is a model of liberty for the rest of the world. This Constitution provides maximum freedom, limited power in the national government, and the majority of the power to the states and people. The success of the nation has been in proportion to the degree of fiscal responsibility and law-abiding character manifest by the elected government officials. Because America was free, she became prosperous. Like many other European countries, France learned the best governing principles from the United States Constitution, only after long years of struggle.
Copyright 2011 © by Christine Davidson