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Politics in Transition: Public Conflict in the 1790s

19a. Trans-Atlantic Crisis: The French Revolution

The Execution of King Louis XVI
The violent uprising that was the French Revolution claimed the lives of many, including the spokesmen and leaders of all interests. Here, the head of King Louis XVI is displayed to an approving crowd.

The French Revolution brought fundamental changes to the feudal order of monarchical and aristocratic privilege. Americans widely celebrated the French Revolution in its glorious opening in 1789, as it struck at the very heart of absolutist power. France seemed to be following the American republican example by creating a constitutional monarchy where traditional elites would be restrained by written law. Where the king had previously held absolute power, now he would have to act within clear legal boundaries.

The French Revolution soon moved beyond this already considerable assault on the traditional order. Largely pushed forward by a crisis brought on by a war that began in 1792 against Prussia and Austria, the French Revolution took a dramatic turn that climaxed with the beheading of King Louis XVI and the abandonment of Christianity in favor of a new state religion based on reason. The French Revolution became far more radical than the American Revolution. In addition to a period of extreme public violence, which became known as the Reign of Terror, the French Revolution also attempted to enhance the rights and power of poor people and women. In fact, it even went so far as to outlaw slavery in the French colonies of the Caribbean.

The profound changes set in motion by the French Revolution had an enormous impact in France as well as through the large scale European war it sparked from 1792 to 1815. It also helped to transform American politics starting in the mid-1790s. While the French Revolution had initially received broad support in the United States, its radicalization in 1792-1793 led to sharp disagreement in American opinion.

Corsican Crocodile
This cartoon, "Corsican Crocodile dissolving the Council of Frogs," depicts Napoleon's coup d'état of the French government in 1799. Five years later he proclaimed himself Emperor of France.

Domestic attitudes toward the proper future of the American republic grew even more intense as a result of the example of revolutionary France. Conservatives like Hamilton, Washington, and others who would soon organize as the Federalist political party saw the French Revolution as an example of homicidal anarchy. When Great Britain joined European allies in the war against France in 1793, Federalists supported this action as an attempt to enforce proper order.

The opposing American view, held by men like Jefferson and others who came to organize as the Democratic-Republican political party, supported French actions as an extension of a world-wide republican struggle against corrupt monarchy and aristocratic privilege. For example, some groups among the Whiskey Rebels in western Pennsylvania demonstrated their international vision when they rallied beneath a banner that copied the radical French slogan of "liberty, equality, and fraternity."

The example of the French Revolution helped convince Americans on both sides that their political opponents were motivated by dangerous and even evil forces that threatened to destroy the young republic.

On the Web
A Tale of Two Revolutions
An interesting essay comparing and contrasting the American and French Revolutions by a Libertarian (someone who believes in a political philosophy which favors free will over government rules). The author gladly points out the faults of the French mercantilist system whereby the government manipulated the economy.
The French Revolution: A Teacher's Perspective
Heavy on well selected quotes and pictures, this teacher produced homepage was created out of a personal fascination for the French Revolution. There is as much personal opinion here as straight history, but many quotes from venerable authors are included as well. "If the French revolution was the end of monarchy and aristocratic privilege and the emergence of the common man and democratic rights, it was also the beginnings of modern totalitarian government and large-scale executions of "enemies of the People" by impersonal government entities."
British Newspaper Coverage: French Revolution
A small collection of British newspaper coverage gives a highly critical perspective of the most brutal aspects of the revolution. "The REPUBLICAN TYRANTS OF FRANCE have now carried their bloody purposes to the uttermost diabolical stretch of savage cruelty. They have murdered their King without even the shadow of justice, and of course they cannot expect friendship nor intercourse with any civilized part of the world." -London Times, 1793
Internet Archives of Primary Texts and Documents
A collection of primary documents and links from Hanover College, covering East Asia, The United States, and Europe. Several categories are under construction, but the French Revolution page is alive and well. A wide range of knowledge, from The Decree Abolishing Feudalism, to Arthur Young's firsthand descriptions of pre-revolution conditions in France, await you.
The Avalon Project: 18th Century Documents
From letters and speeches, to treaties and statutes, Yale Law School hosts this megasite of primary documents. Be sure to jump to Thomas Paine's response to Edmund Burke's criticism of the French Revolution to see an example of differing views of the Revolution. Which side would you have been on?
The Rights of Man
Thomas Paine's response to criticism of the French Revolution.
The Author of Nature has bound all mortals by a boundless chain of love and happiness. Perish the tyrants who have dared to break it! -Maximilien Robespierre.
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Claude-Joseph Rouget, a royalist, composed the French national anthem during the French Revolution in 1792. He refused to take an oath to the new constitution and was nearly executed.
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