Monday, July 20, 2009

Part 2 — Comparing Two Revolutions: Examination of the French Revolution

"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere."
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Abigail Adams, February 22, 1787

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 2 explores the last four of these areas. So, Let’s get started … ◊

Q: How was the ownership of the land distributed before the revolutions?

A: Basically, land was owned by the King, Catholic Church, and Nobility in France while the colonists were the major land owners in the American colonies.

In America… There was a significant difference in the land ownership between the Northern and Southern colonies as well as between the coastal region and the unsettled interior regions. The colonies were a source of raw materials to fuel the British manufacturers. This helped maintain a positive balance of trade in favor of the British, not the colonists! ◊

In the North, society was focused about the cities, where land was owned by the Merchants and Tradesmen for the most part. Small family farms were spread throughout the rural regions; these farms were generally owned by the families that settled and maintained them. This made the Northern colonies basically self-sufficient for all but manufactured goods; the British suppressed the manufacturing operations in the colonies so as to have a market for the goods manufactured by the British industry. ◊

In the South, the agrarian lifestyles favored large plantation owners over small farmers. This economy was dependent upon cheap labor that was supplied by either the African slaves imported by the triangular trade system or by indentured immigrants who had to work for several years to pay off the cost of their passage to the colonies. Outside of the plantations, homes were owned by the merchants and tradesmen; in rural areas, there were some family farms. The cotton and tobacco produced by the plantation system provided the raw materials for the British manufacturers. ◊

In the Western frontier, property could be owned by whoever was able to clear the land and survive in the Indian lands. This provided an opportunity for the landless immigrants to own their own land. ◊

In France… The situation was very different among the French people. As with most other European countries, land was owned by the upper classes and was passed down from fathers to sons; there were no unclaimed lands in France! The largest landowner was the Catholic Church or by the Nobility who kept the bulk of the population were feudal serfs. In the cities, the merchants and tradesmen were able to own their own land, if it had been in their families or they had acquired sufficient funds to buy the expensive commodity. ◊

Q: What was the financial condition in each group before the revolution?

A: Here again, there were significant differences between the financial condition in the American colonies and the French. Both of these revolutions occurred following the ‘Seven Years War’ (the ‘French and Indian War’ in the colonies); this war had severely impacted the treasuries of both the British and the French.

In America… The British had born the major burden of the ‘Seven Years War’ while the colonies were rather peripheral to those battles. The British Parliament tried to impose a series of taxes on the colonies, especially on the goods shipped under the British monopoly of those manufactured in England. These taxes were perceived to be illegal since the colonies were not under the control of the Parliament and the colonies had no representation in that Parliament. Thus, the colonies were in relatively good standing financially while the British were suffering under the burden of the previous war. ◊

In France… The French were also suffering financially from the cost of the ‘Seven Years War’, but were also impacted by two other factors. The first was the extravagances of the Royal Family in this time of financial crisis. The second was the effects of a severe famine in the countryside that was causing starvation and malnutrition among the peasants. This created an atmosphere of unrest that made France ripe for revolution. ◊

Q: What military forces (Army, Navy, etc.) were involved in each of these revolutions?

A: During the American Revolution, the revolution was primarily a military conflict while the French Revolution was mainly a conflict between the classes and the systems of government — it was a struggle for ‘Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood.’

In America… The American colonies had declared their independence from the British when the ‘Declaration of Independence’ was signed in 1776. The battle was between the Continental Army, under George Washington, against the superior British force of ‘Red Coats’ that had been transported across the Atlantic Ocean for the conflict. On the military front, the British were better armed, better trained and had a superior group of Officers. The American army was primarily made up of volunteers who were untrained, ill-prepared, and had an inferior group of Officers. Only with the aid of the French after the treaty of 1778 did the colonial army have better trained officers, financial assistance and a navy that could confront the British; there was no love lost between the British and the French! ◊

The Continental Army scored the deciding victory over the British at Yorktown with the help of the French Navy and officers like the Baron de Lafayette. The inferior colonial forces were able to defeat the more powerful British and confirm their independence. The ‘Treaty of Paris’ which ceded the land east of the Mississippi River to the American colonies as well as giving them their independence. ◊

In France… On the other hand, the French Revolution was not primarily a battle of military forces, but a battle of philosophy. It was a quest for democracy and freedom from the absolute Monarchy of Louis XVI. Thus, this was primarily a civil war, not a military defense of an independent state. The French soldiers during the revolution were often seen to refuse to fight their brethren, changing sides to that of the revolutionaries instead. Therefore, during the popular uprising, the military was not a factor; only after the revolution had deposed the King did the military become important. ◊

The other monarchies of Europe were unsettled by the happenings in France and wanted to prevent a similar uprising from spreading to their kingdoms. They formed a coalition to attack the French revolutionaries and restore the monarchy. The French military arose to counter this attack during most of the decade of the 1790s. These French military forces would become important after the establishment of the republic in 1794. ◊

Q: Who were the major combatants during each of these revolutions?

A: Here again, the clarity of the combatants differed in the two revolutions. The American had clearly-defined opponents while the French revolution involved a constantly changing set of participants.

In America… In essence, the American Revolution was between the British and the colonies. The British Parliament attempted to exercise control over the colonies after the ‘Seven Years War’ and such control was rejected by the colonists. The American Founding Fathers, based upon the philosophy of the ‘Enlightenment,’ especially John Lock, spoke and wrote eloquently to defend the rights of the colonies. Yes there were British ‘Loyalists’ in the colonies who supported the Parliament; the British tried to mobilize the slaves and the Indians in opposition of the colonial leaders. But the colonists were defending their lands and their freedom, which gave them a very high incentive to succeed. Through this resistance to the British attempts at control tended to unite the independent colonies together more than any other event might have done. ◊

In France… The battle lines were much less defined during the French Revolution. As the past postings have indicated, the revolution went through five stages, each with a different cast of players. These players include: the Monarchy, the Church and Clergy, the Nobility, the Merchants and Tradesmen, and the Peasantry (serfs). The revolutionary leaders were primarily associated with the ‘Jacobin Club’ in Paris; these leaders were further divided into the left-center ‘Girondists’ and the radical-left followers of Robespierre. These forces and their control on the revolution changed from one stage to another. The final force had to mobilize the military to fight the coalition of European monarchs. ◊

So, what does this all have to do with our exploration of the French Revolution? Basically, it means that we, as Americans, must be cautious in our interpretation of the revolution. It was not a war between competing factions, as was our Revolutionary War, it was a struggle to bring democracy to an oppressed people and mold them into a single nation, free from the absolute monarchy of the King. This Constitutional Republic emerged from the radical violence and anarchy of the ‘Reign of Terror.’ It resulted in the fulfillment of the motto: ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.’ ◊

We are, I hope, now prepared to progress forward to explore the details of this major upheaval in European history. It would have a major impact on nineteenth century European life in the person, Napoleon. The current European Union emerged from these traditions.

Next Time: We will explore the ideas of the ‘Jacobin Club’ and their factions. Join us for that adventure…

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