American history in general is not especially interesting since it is mostly composed of political struggles between politicians with some moral relevancies here and there. Nevertheless, in reading the papers of some of the founding fathers, it is fascinating to see their differences, their likes and dislikes, but most interestingly – how they perceived current events. This is especially true of the French Revolution, which today is viewed as an unnecessary bloodbath conducted by extremists in the name of “democracy”. To many people – even today – the French Revolution was inspired by the American Revolution, but the only similarities are in the term “Revolution” and beyond that there is no similarity at all.
It is fascinating to read the papers of the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson during this period and to see how the Americans viewed the French Revolution. Jefferson, like Madison and others saw the French Revolution as a natural result of the American Revolution. The French citizens were simply exercising their right of self-determination. But Jefferson was a Francophile and continued to make excuses for the French even as their excesses grew. He ignored the real meaning of their call for Liberte`, Fraternite`, Egalite` even after Citizen Genet arrived on the scene and Americans began calling themselves “Citizen” in the French Style. He ignored Genet's attempts to undermine the Administration until they became so extreme that even he could no longer ignore them. Eventually even Jefferson had to accept the fact that Robespierre, Danton, and Marat were out of control and were conducting an unnecessary bloodbath. But to criticize the French would have been impolitic since there was such support for the French among the American public. Plus Hamilton and others were highly critical of the French Directory and how they were conducting their affairs.
We tend to forget that the American Revolution was actually just one theater in a global war that had been going on prior to 1776 and raged off and on throughout the period and only ended with the exile of Napoleon. In fact this European War had been going on during the reign of Louis XV and then under Louis XVI as well. Wars cost money and this one was no exception and France was essentially bankrupt. Louis XVI was inept at almost everything and he had simply continued the policies of his father and grandfather without regard to the cost. Consequently the population was restive at first and then moved to rebellion. Whether or not the American Revolution had any influence on this is arguable but some certainly saw that it was possible to throw off the yoke of monarchy. Nevertheless, the country of France was effectively bankrupt and turned to America for the money owed to them by the American Government. Jefferson felt that a failure to support the French Revolutionaries would be hypocritical since they were attempting the same rebellion that the Americans had just successfully accomplished. Besides the French were still enemies of Britain and Jefferson essentially saw Britain as the arch enemy of America. The result was Jefferson recognized the money owed to the French as a legitimate debt owed to a legitimate government while Hamilton saw this as an attempt by an illegitimate group of thugs to get the money they needed to maintain their control over what was clearly a bloody purge.
It is worth noting that during this entire contretemps Washington remained above the fray. Generally his attitude was “the French be damned”. He never forgot nor forgave the way the French and British aristocracy treated him. He felt the Europeans got what they deserved and that the future of America did not lie across the Atlantic but to the West. His policy was always to grow America, to exploit our resources, and to let the Europeans stew in their own juice. This essentially became the cornerstone of American Foreign Policy up to the First World War when America became a world power that overshadowed the Europeans.
The fact is that during this entire period – in fact from the fall of the Roman Empire – the French and English were at war with each other and even today they detest each other. The French have never been able to establish a stable government and the French Revolution was really just another example of that inability. Once Louis XVI was executed and the son Louis XVII disappeared (or died your choice) the rise of a military dictator was inevitable. Napoleon just happened to seize the moment and ultimately the crown as well. However, unlike Washington, Napoleon was unable to relinquish power and establish a democratic government. Instead he succumbed to the intoxication of power and launched France on wars of conquest and thus betraying the revolution.
Washington set an example that has not been duplicated since. Instead we see revolutionaries like Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and Mao Tse Tung, seizing power for themself and failing to give up their power in favor of a democratic government. Only Washington was able to give up total power and step off of the world stage. This has set an example for the world and this example is repeated with every change in administration. Today the French and most European countries are democratic and are able to change administrations without killing each other, but they owe America and George Washington a debt of gratitude. The American Revolution stands unique in history and the French Revolution was typical of all other revolutions where the outs over threw in the ins and then proceeded to continue business as usual.