Both the American Revolution and French Revolution were the products of Enlightenment ideals that emphasized the idea of natural rights and equality. With such an ideological basis, it becomes clear when one sets out to compare the French Revolution and American Revolution that people felt the need to be free from oppressive or tyrannical rule of absolute monarchs and have the ability to live independent from such forces. The leadership in both countries at the time of their revolutions was certainly repressive, especially in terms of taxation. Both areas suffered social and economic hardships that led to the realization that something must be done to topple the hierarchy and put power back into the hands of the people.While there are several similarities in these revolutions, there are also a few key differences. This comparison essay on the French and American Revolutions seeks to explore the parallels as well as the divisions that are present in both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The political climate in France during its revolution was quite different than that in America simply because there was not a large war that had just ended in America (while in France the Seven Years War had nearly devastated the French monarchy’s coffers). Furthermore, although the lower and middle classes were generally the majority of the rebelling populace, there was far more upper class support for the revolution in France versus the participation of loyalists in America.
One of the most important similarities between both the American Revolution and French Revolutions was that there was a growing dissent among the people aimed at the monarchy and its associated elite and aristocrats. Even though they were powerful in both France and America at the start of each revolution, their strangleholds on both the people and economies of each nation were weakening. For instance, “In 1763 Britain was on the very pinnacle of worldwide power and her old enemies were seemingly prostrate. At the same time, however, the nation was beset with political instability and was stumbling on the edge of bankruptcy" (Jensen 4). The reaction against the British monarchy in America only served to further weaken it and although it may have been strong in other parts of the world, the continued resistance exemplified by events such as the Boston Tea party and other revolutionary acts against the crown were taking their toll.By the time the American Revolution was strong and the war was beginning, Britain’s defenses were already down since they had so quickly lost the vast amount of power they had gained in the pre-revolutionary years. In France and in the case of the French Revolution, it was much the same and although some of the reasons differed for the revolution, on the whole, it was a very similar attack against the monarchy. “In the eighteenth century, the French bourgeoisie had become aware of the increasing disparity between its wealth and social usefulness, on the one hand, and its social prestige and opportunities on the other. It way was blocked and recognition of its worth was denied by a decaying class of parasitic, hereditary privileged, noble landowners. Its vitality was further jeopardized by a monarchy not only committed to antiquated aristocratic values, but also incapable of giving the country that firm yet benignly restrained direction under which the initiative of men of business might flourish" (Lucas 84). Just as in America, it was the middle and lower classes involved in the revolution and although the loyalists in America had a sound following, the demographics of the revolution were essentially the same.
As indicated in the discussion of the French Revolution, there is a logical and long-range pattern that revolutions follow. Therefore, understanding the pattern of past revolutions can help us anticipate events in current revolutions, more specifically the final stages of the process now taking place in Russia and China. One word of caution, however: these are likely trends, not absolute certainties. Outside events (e.g., a major war) and other historical forces unique to Russia and China respectively, could divert events in a very different direction from what is indicated here. Still, this pattern generally holds up and should serve as a guide in how we deal with nations still undergoing this process. That being said, following is a comparison of the French Revolution, which after 82 years finally reached a stable democratic form of government by 1871, and the Russian Revolution, which after 92 years is presumably in its final stage of evolution toward democracy.
Forces leading to revolution
Both countries shared three elements that helped lead to war:
1) Both regimes were burdened by heavy debts incurred from wars. In France’s case, this was the debt incurred by its support of the American Revolution. For Russia, this was the even higher cost in lives and money suffered during the first three years of World War I.
2) In each country, there was a growing gap between economic progress and social and political stagnation. For the French this was the continued prominence and privileges of the noble class as opposed to the more liberal ideas and progressive economic practices of the middle class. For Russia, this largely came from the peasantry, whose economic progress from Peter Stolypin’s agrarian reforms contrasted with the repressive rights and privileges of the nobles. In each case new political ideas aggravated these frustrations. In France these were the ideas of Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau and Voltaire. In Russia it was Marxism.
3) Both countries had weak leaders who let events get quickly out of control. In France and Russia respectively, these were Louis XVI and Nicholas II.
The early stages of revolution
Both revolutions started out with moderate regimes that kept one or more of the old regimes’ policies to maintain the look of continuity and legitimacy. In France, that government was the National Assembly, which kept the king as a figurehead and honored the royal debt. In Russia, it was the Duma, which kept Russia in World War I. In both cases these policies just worsened the situation, leading to more unrest. Further aggravating both situations was the fact that replacing an old system with a completely different one (whether in politics, business, or sports) typically sees things deteriorate further before they improve. Unfortunately, the high expectations for rapid improvement did not give the new regimes the time they needed to turn things around.
The crisis stage of revolution
Faced with growing unrest at home and military defeats abroad (the French having rashly declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792), the moderate governments in France and Russia saw the rise of more radical factions supported by the urban working classes, which alarmed foreign powers and spurred them to intervene before the respective revolutions got out of control. Such intervention (by the First Coalition in France’s case and Russia’ erstwhile allies in World War I) in the short run just destabilized France and Russia further, which led to more military defeats, more support for the radicals, and so on.
In each case, this was the crisis stage of the revolution, where extreme radicals seized power and imposed harsh dictatorial rule to deal with the current emergency. In France it was the Jacobins, supported by the Sans Culottes, who imposed emergency economic measures, a universal draft, and the reign of terror. Similarly, Russia saw the Bolsheviks, supported by the working class soviets who imposed war communism to deal with the economic crisis and the Red Terror, which they consciously copied from the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
Conservative retrenchment and the dictator stage
In both revolutions, final victory and exhaustion from the crisis stage led to a brief conservative retrenchment to help their respective peoples recover. In France this was the period of the somewhat loose and corrupt Directory (1785-99). In Russia, this was Lenin’s New Economic Policy that allowed a degree of free enterprise to return so the economy could recover.
However, the overthrow of the Directory by Napoleon Bonaparte and Stalin’s rise to power after Lenin’s death in 1924 led to ruthless dictators who masked their repressive regimes with the revolutionary ideals they supposedly represented. Although Napoleon was finally defeated and Stalin won World War II and kept power till his death in 1953, both dictators effectively ruined their respective countries with their harsh policies.
Gradual evolution toward stable economy & democracy
Therefore, Russia has taken longer in its evolution toward democracy than France did, because it took another thirty-five years for Russia to finally collapse beneath the weight of the Stalinist system. Despite, this, Russia has continued to follow a path similar to France’s. After Napoleon France would undergo two more revolutions (in 1830 and 1848) and abortive attempts at democracy that would lead to a second dictatorship, this time under Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III. Unlike his uncle, Napoleon III was much less aggressive in his foreign policy, focusing on France’s economic and industrial development. As a result, when Napoleon III fell from power in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, he left behind a strong economy and politically active and savvy middle class that ensured the stability of France’s Third Republic.
Likewise, Russia would see the overthrow of communism in 1991 and the establishment of a republic. However, as with France in 1830 and 1848, Russia’s economy was a shambles and it had virtually no middle class with which to sustain a viable democracy. Since then, Vladimir Putin has taken charge and, much like Napoleon III, has ruled with a firm hand while promoting economic growth. Presumably the middle class emerging from that growth will establish a stable democracy sometime in the future.