There is an extensive literature that compares and contrasts the American and French Revolutions, but a recent article by Patrick Estebe titled “A tale of Two Revolutions” made me think of the influence of those revolutions on the Cuban Revolution of 1959. As an adolescent in pre-1959 Cuba, I remember studying extensively the French Revolution and the influence thereof on Enlightenment Era philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, I do not recall my teachers discussing the American Revolution or the corresponding inspirational role of John Locke in the thinking of the Founders.
I was puzzled as to whether this teaching disparity was due to my faulty memory, so I consulted with Dr. Eugenio Yañez and other learned colleagues. They reassured me that my memories were correct. In Cuban education, the French Revolution was emphasized and the American Revolution was not studied as a revolution at all. It was mostly considered a war for independence of little worldwide sociopolitical intellectual consequence.
Following the Cuban Revolution this neglect became more pronounced. In that “revolutionary” mindset, it became incongruous to refer to the American Revolution as a revolution. The Yankees were imperialists and could not be studied as revolutionaries.
It is impossible, in a short journalistic article, to do justice to the differences and similarities of the American and French Revolutions, but I will highlight some topics that serve my present purposes. Both of these revolutions were the product of Enlightenment ideals that emphasized natural rights and equality. Both were responses to oppressive monarchies that taxed heavily and sought to subjugate. Yet, they had very different outcomes.
The French Revolution started as the United States Constitution was adopted in 1789 and leaders like the Marquis de Lafayette, who participated in both revolutions, probably had a similar model of government for France in mind.
The American Revolution was led by practical concerns for representation. But it was anger, resulting from abuses by the ruling nobility and the clergy, which gave rise to the French Revolution. This anger quickly turned to a government by terror and ultimately to Napoleon’s rule.
Consider what happened respectively to the organizers of the revolutions. Leaders of the French Revolution, like Maximilian Robespierre, instigated thousands of executions by guillotine including that of King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette during the “Reign of Terror.” Robespierre himself was later guillotined without trial.
As for the leaders of the American Revolution, only one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence died a violent death. That death, totally unrelated to the Revolution, was Alexander Hamilton who died in a duel with Aaron Burr. In fact, most of the American revolutionaries were honored after the revolution and some, like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, lived long lives of public service.
The American Revolution was philosophically grounded on rights to “life, liberty, and property.” It promoted Constitutionalism and limited government as articulated by John Locke. On the other hand, the French Revolution was influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau. Rousseau’s ideas ultimately led to a government of absolute power and complete control over society. The French struggle for “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” is self-contradictory. Government-imposed equality is inconsistent with liberty.
The American Revolution engendered a “Bill of Rights” to protect individual freedoms. The French Revolution produced a very different document in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” which, although advancing basic rights, conceives the absolute power of the state. Its third article reads: “The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No group, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it.”
Now, the Cuban Revolution has nothing to do with the civility, democratic values, and defense of private property of the American Revolution. The Cuban Revolution has much more in common with the anger of the French Revolution as exemplified by the thousands of firing squad executions following 1959, and its single-party totalitarian rule.
And I am left to wonder if there is a cause and effect relationship in the governments we end up with, and the tales we tell of these three revolutions.
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”