The American Revolution, The French Revolution, and The Enlightenment

It is interesting to note that the more moderate minds of the Enlightenment tended to be British, like John Locke and Adam Smith, whereas the more radical minds tended to be French, like René Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I bring this up because the revolutionaries in America were of British decent and borrowed heavily from there philosophies and the French revolutionaries were more inspired by the French thinkers that predated their revolution. It is clear that the American Revolution and French Revolution both stressed the idea of liberty, but that the American Revolution was certainly more tame than the chaos of the French. So with that I propose a question to all of you, is this correlation or causation? Do you think that it was that the French were overall more radical and thus were going to have both more radical thinkers and a more radical Revolution, or did the radicalism of the philosophers cause the radicalism of the French Revolution? I look forward to the answer of this question in the comments below.

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5 Responses to The American Revolution, The French Revolution, and The Enlightenment

  1. ageyelin2015 says:

    I think that it is much easier to take a rational, moderate point of view when your country/society is not directly involved in the revolution. During the French Revolution, or any revolution for that matter, somebody who is involved in the revolt, and lives in the country will often take a radical, overt stance for one side. For an “outsider”, however, such as René Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is easier to look a both sides with fresh eyes and stand somewhere in the middle, rather than being swept up by one argument and never looking back.

  2. Montgomery says:

    I very much agree with Alex. Many times when looking at revolutions from an outside perspective it is easy to see all the problems that the country has and how to fix it, but it comes down to the fact that one is not directly faced with the changes of there country that will possible change the way they live their everyday lives. When one is placed within the revolution, I believe they would take the radical view because the revolution is going to directly them more directly and they are unsure about their future and I believe that know one wants to be unsure about their future.

  3. Benjamin says:

    Sam,
    In the eternal spirit of noncommittal historical positions, I would assert that both possibilities you pose may have likely occurred. In a fascinating, albeit off the cuff, discussion with Dr. K, he [1] explained that a prominent reason espoused by historians for Britain’s generally more progressive society was its relative geographical isolation compared to much of continental Europe. For the most part and in relation to other countries, the British mainland has had to deal with a fairly small number of substantial foreign invasion. [2] France, on the other hand, is situated in an extremely vulnerable location and, through its history, has had to constantly repel numerous foreign intrusions. To return to the primitive social contract theory of Hobbes, essentially as the undesirability of a situation increases, the people’s willingness to enter a strict (though he wouldn’t label it as such) compact increases. This may be a fairly intuitive explanation of why, in the eighteenth century, Britain was emitting one “modern” thinker after the next and France was host to rampant class iniquity, an essentially feudal society, and a legislature-less monarch. Now all of this, of course, is not equivalent to the question you posed about radicalism, but I think the logical link is fairly straight forward. In the highly unstable incubator of political thought we call eighteenth century France, it can come as little surprise that what was produced was very radical, extreme, and often iconoclastic. These emissions, in my opinion, include both the philosophical works of Rousseau et al. and the Revolution(s) itself. [3]

    Now at the same time, though, I wouldn’t be too quick to discount the influence of enlightenment (and counter-enlightenment) thinkers on the French Revolution. This certainly isn’t the forum to get into an entrenched debate about the causes of the French Revolution [4], but I think most historians agree that the Enlightenment did have some impact on the Revolution and the surrounding period of chaos. In general, the application of reason and refined thought to primitive social structures seems to me to inevitably lead to a reevaluation and modern revamping of society. Note, though, my hesitance to a) draw a direct connection between the philosophes and the Revolution and b) simply label the philosophers born from the loins of the Enlightenment “radical,” as many were in fact considerably conservative regarding the application of their works. Perhaps more interesting, though, are the influences of the counter enlightenment to the French Revolution and, while I want to keep my thoughts here very brief, there is one point I want to emphasize. Namely, the principles articulated by Rousseau and others [5] may have not necessarily been instrumental in initiating the first phase of the Revolution, but rather quickly turned to by radical leaders as a sort of philosophical justification of their policies. I would mention that I personally find the possibility of Rousseau’s “after the fact radicalism” and the historiographical debate over its accuracy quite interesting. Ultimately, Sam, I admit I haven’t tried to definitively answer your question, but rather set the groundwork for a class-wide exploration and consensus of the topic at hand.

    1- This is to the best of my memory and he bears no fault for potentially following inaccuracy.

    2- I assure the anglophiles that I have forgotten about neither Claudius nor our Norman friend William the Conquerer nor the small number of other successful invasions of mainland Britain.

    3- I am slightly alarmed at how broad my brush strokes have been, but I feel that anything more detailed would have made answering the question in so contained a space nearly impossible.

    4- Unless you want to of course…

    5- Examples might include the general will, a modified version of SCT, and a generally postmodern approach to the boundaries of the application of reason.

    6- A few other miscellaneous things. First, a minor note I might bring up is my hesitance to consider Descartes either part of the Enlightenment itself or radical, in the sense of the practical implications of his philosophical work. Second, Alex, I’m still a little unclear exactly what you’re getting at. Are you referring to Rousseau’s impact/position on the American Revolution? Lastly, I’m not sold that we must necessarily be more radical about problems when they directly affect us and the opposite when we’re removed from them. For example, if something directly affects me I might be more cautious (and ergo moderate) about my approach and conversely, if I’m significantly distanced from it, I might be willing to take a more experimental, radical position because I’m treating is not as consequential to me but rather somewhat of an “experiment.” Just my initial ruminations.

  4. Krissy Bylancik says:

    I definitely think that there is a correlation between the two revolutions in that they were both influenced by the Enlightenment ideals. That said, I don’t quite understand your idea, or, rather, your question, about there being any cause for France to have been more “innately radical”. I understand that it may have been closer to the the true Enlightenment, and there may have been more philosophers or people who concurred with its ideals. I guess if we’re considering the location of France, and how it was a center for the Enlightenment, it is fair to say that France possibly had more people who supported the Enlightenment ideals that prompted the revolution, but I don’t think that one can just say that a country was more “radical”.

  5. Dr. K says:

    I see your point, Krissy, about overbroad generalizations about the “nature” of countries. But in class we’ve been talking about the French Revolution being more radical than the American Revolution, and thinking about why it was more radical (assuming, of course, that we know what that means). Perhaps Sam is wondering if we can trace the radicalness of the French Revolution to something in the intellectual and political culture of France that made it different from the US. I take it that part of Benjamin’s point is that the situation of France may have inclined thinkers to take a more radical take on things (am I right about that, Benjamin?). So perhaps the intellectual and political culture of France made them more inclined to tear down and build “from scratch” than Americans.

    By the way, that was Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French: that rather than building on what they had (say, by reforming the Estates General), they instead scrapped what they had and rebuilt from scratch. In short, they were too radical, and (according to Burke) radical changes always leads to bad outcomes. (See Reflections on the Revolution in France for details–it’s a great book).

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