Sunday, July 19, 2009

Part 1 — Comparing Two Revolutions: Examination of the French Revolution

"Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man's life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few."
— John Adams, An Essay on Man's Lust for Power, 1763

We should pause to reflect on two revolutions from the end of the eighteenth century — the American and French Revolution. There are many parallels of the two assertions of the rights of man and the shedding of the yoke of oppression. Both resulted in new democracies in an age of monarchy. ◊

We will briefly explore these two rebellions in nine different areas. This Part 1 explores the first five of these areas. So, Let’s get started… ◊

Q: What were the conditions of the people at the start of the revolutions? ◊

A: The two revolutions took place in very different environments: ◊

In America… The colonists were essentially in good health, well-fed and blessed with good sanitation and the relative infrequent outbreaks of disease. ◊

In France… The French people, especially outside of Paris and other large cities, were suffering from malnutrition as a result of several years of famine. The typical French citizen was starving while the upper classes (the nobility and the clerics) and, especially the Royal family, were well-fed and self-indulgent. Paris and other French cities suffered the typical sanitation nightmare of most European cities of the day. Disease swept through the populace with regularity. ◊

Q: What were the experiences of the people with the ideals and practices of democracy? ◊

A: Here, again, the two revolutions were based on very different sets of experiences with democracy: ◊

In America… The American colonists had an experience with democracy and self-governance even though they were under the rule of the British Crown. The charters for these colonies, granted by the English Kings, provided for extensive self-governance under the supervision of a British Governor. Each colony had a representative assembly that met to discuss issues of importance to the colony and establish laws and taxes. The American Revolution built upon these experiences and the transfer from a colony in the British Empire to an independent country. ◊

In France… The French people had virtually no experience with democracy, as was common in most European countries of the day, except England. In fact, most French peasants were essentially living under a feudal system in which they were serfs that served the French nobility and the Church; the Catholic Church was the largest landowner at the time of the revolution. ◊

Q: What was the nature of government at the time of these revolutions? ◊

A: The American colonists were living under the general rule of the British Constitutional Monarchy while the French people lived under Louis XVI and an Absolute Monarchy: ◊

In America… The colonies were under the British Constitutional Monarchy, although, as stated above, they were relatively self-governing under the general oversight of a British Governor. The colonists, however, had no representatives in the British Parliament, and the colonists responded to any attempt of that Parliament to impose taxes or restrictions upon the colonies. This led to the slogan: “No taxation without representation.” ◊

In France… The French King was an Absolute Monarch who ruled without being accountable to anyone but God. The Church (Clergy) and Nobility held were the landowners and were accountable to the wishes of the King. There were no representative assemblies and even the privileged classes had little say in the governance of the country; they could only hope to be granted a presence in the court where they might ‘catch the ear’ of the King. Consequently, the King was the Law. ◊

Q: What was the social class structure in each country? ◊

A: The American colonies were basically a class-less society while the French had a very structured class structure: ◊

In America… The colonists had a virtual class-less society, although there were distinctions among the different peoples. It must be remembered that all inhabitants of the colonies were immigrants, since they or their ancestors had migrated to the Americas from England and other parts of Europe. Property was the chief differentiator amongst the populace, with the ‘higher-class’ colonists being better educated and owned significant property. There was, however, a significant middle class composed of the merchants and tradesmen; most of the rural family farmers owned their own property. ◊

If your family had migrated to the colonies and were without the resources to purchase land, they could move westward to the wilderness areas of what are now Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee; here they could clear land, start a settlement, and become property owners (and defend themselves against the Native American Indians, whose land it was!) There were groups of immigrants who arrived in the colonies, especially the northern colonies, who were obligated (‘indentured’) to work out the cost of their passage before they became ‘freemen’ in society. ◊

There was an underclass in the colonies, however. These were the slaves from West Africa who were found primarily on the southern plantations where cotton and tobacco were grown. This agrarian economy was based primarily upon the cheap workforce of the slaves. There was no easy route to freedom. ◊

In France… French society was very hierarchical and structured. At the top of this structure, of course, was the King. At the bottom of the social structure were the feudal peasants, the serfs, who worked the land for the Church and the Nobility; they essentially had no rights or hope for a better life. In between these extremes, we had three classes, termed ‘Estates’, including the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Merchants and Tradesmen. These were the property owners and had status above the peasants. The Clergy and the Nobility were exempt from taxes and had rather privileged lives. ◊

Q: What was the geographical sphere of influence of the participants at the start of their revolutions? ◊

A: The American colonies and the British government were separated by the Atlantic Ocean while the participants of the French Revolution were separated by philosophies and ideas, not geography: ◊

In America… The British government, the King and the Parliament, were located in London. The American colonies were part of the British Empire and, therefore, under the oversight of a British Governor in each colony. However, as stated above, these colonies were formed under charters from the King that allowed for extensive self-government rather than the centralized rule of the British Parliament. In addition, the colonies were separated from the ruling structure by the Atlantic Ocean. ◊

In France… The situation in France was quite different from the American colonies. The power structure, as it later would be in the French Colonies, were highly centralized and under the direct control of the ruling bodies in Paris. The King had palaces in both Paris and in Versailles, a suburb of Paris. The Church had cathedrals in the primary cities of Paris and the provinces as well as churches throughout the French countryside. The Nobility had built châteaux in the French countryside, especially the Loire and Dordogne valleys; they also spent time in Paris in the King’s court to gather favor of the King. The Merchants and Tradesmen were found mainly in the cities, with those in Paris having the most power of the group. All told, Paris was the center of power in the French order of things. ◊

Well, that's the end of Part 1 of this Comparison. We have examined the first half of this comparison of the two revolutions. The next posting will complete this examination.

Next Time: We will look at the second part of this posting. Join us for that completion…

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