Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Thoughts Comparing the French and American Revolutions

Note from Nix: I'm feeling very keenly aware that I don't have a very professional voice yet. I'm working on it, but these are my thoughts on the contrast of the French and American Revolutions
The differences between the French and American Revolutions happened a long time before either event became conspicuous. The American's, under the English, had the Magna Carta, which had limited the power of the king, enshrined the rights of the countries free people. 1 1215 is far away from 1793. 
I think the more frightened a person, or group of persons is, the more aggressive their response to potentially life threatening situations is. The Reformation and the wars that came with it, was both physically and psychologically very threatening. Catholics and the various Protestant groups did very bad things to each other.  The physical threats were part of life. War was common. Death was common. The main psychological insulation against being overwhelmed by fear, grief, and rage responses, was the order provided by religion. Loss and fear, grief that is refreshed so frequently with war and disease, all of that is balanced by the believe in God's love and God's plan for mankind.
Deist, Atheist, Christian, explorer of the esoteric, all of them, in moments of distress could at least subconsciously fall back on society's affirmation of God's love and God's plan. It's like here in Seattle, I can find familiarity and comfort in my lights, in the endless drone of CNN, the timeliness of my buses, just the structure and order of my nice secular world with its coffee and blackberries - so many little normal things tell me that I'm okay, that I'm safe and the world is where it belongs. 
The Americans were on a different continent, far from everything their parents or grandparents had ever known. Jamestown was founded in 1606, chartered by King James, the same guy who commissioned the King's James Bible. 2  Now that would be some serious affirmation of the right to be. It was 187 years from the founding of Jamestown till Louis XVI lost his head to the guillotine.3  One hundred and eighty-seven years is a long time to flourish and see that life works just fine without a king or monarch being obvious in daily life. 
I can imagine the difference between the French and Americans like families. The Americans were teenagers from a poor family where they had to work for everything, where the parents were far away and occasionally sent home snotty letters, but really were far away and didn't look so powerful, weren't really that bad, might even be a little off their rocker. Poor King George III wasn't actually all that sane and ended up having a Regent, which gave rise to Regency England.4  George II hadn't seemed very popular and maybe not very English, in either case, he was very far from New York. 5  To me, both Georges seem like the kind of parent you go to university and complain about, but you still send home a birthday card and you don't have a whole lot of guilt about leaving home over.  That lack of guilt makes for less animosity. Less animosity means less aggression and negative emotion. They weren't that worth getting worked up over. We threw their tea in the water, told them what they could do with themselves, and we felt good about ourselves for doing it. 
The French household was different. Louis XIV would have been like having a parent that was a combination of Bill Gates and .... I can't even think of anyone who might be beautiful enough to compare to Louis XIV. He gave stability after the wars of the Reformation. He created pride and power in France. I imagine that the power of Louis XIV would be as if the adulation people gave to President Obama the day he won the American Presidency had lasted a whole reign. Louis XIV reigned for seventy-two years, longer than the life expectancy of his subjects. Life expectancy from birth in France in 1750 was 26 years.7 So you could have one generation born under XIV, to parents awed by his majesty, that generation grow, raise children, that generation have children. If you allow for breeding to start in the early teens, some families could have more than three generations under XIV.  Family members tell each other stories. Myths form. XIV was a magnificent king. I can easily see how he'd almost be a demi-god in people's imaginations. 
Under that brilliance, one will put up with a great deal of unpleasantness that one might not otherwise accept. 
Louis XV was as humble and charitable as his grandfather was brilliant and vibrant.  He was called "Louis XV le Bien-Amie" which translated to English means Louis XV the Beloved. 8 I admit that I have a bit of fear over people claiming Christianity. I'm possibly a transexual, certainly an atheist, demonstrably apostate, all things that at various times under Christian rule could have gotten me killed, sometimes in very unpleasant ways. I do truly believe that only secular rule based on reason protects both my life and my liberty. So when I say that I am utterly in awe of Louis XV's Christian morals and behavior that's a very intense admission from me. From what I've read, and I'm going to cite things much more throughly in my essay, but he cared for the sick, accepted people on their talents, not their gender or social class, forgave people who hurt him, asked people directly and gently for what he wanted, made every attempt to avoid war, put his belief in his god above his own personal pride and even his own well-being. He was promiscuous in somewhat stunning and even unsettling ways, though I have not seen anything that would have been unexpected for a wealthy and powerful man of his time, except for perhaps treating women as if they were intellectually able to be responsible for themselves. He ruled for sixty-four years. 
Then we have Louis XIV who is demonstrably more average than either the the Sun King or Louis le Bien-Amie. I can well imagine the nobles being older siblings in my imaginary family that was France. In the imaginary American family, the older siblings and the younger were both just as poor and in need of self-reliance. In my imaginary families, in France, the older siblings had been utterly depowered under the Sun King, and henpecked and even taxed under Louis le Bien-Amie. In both cases, they were overshadowed by strikingly powerful and dangerous men.  Louis XVI was neither a brilliant statesman, nor a cunning man devoted to god and the love of his people. He was a twenty-year-old man being told he was the owner of a property more powerful than Microsoft is to us now. If Bill Gates had a son, and he was told, he was now the richest man in his known world, and he could do anything he wanted, could he please try to be a new Sun King?  We won't be surprised if he failed. 
And the sibling rivalry, bent around Enlightenment ideals... having come through the reign of Louis XIV where country was his personal bonsai tree and the nobles were pretty leaves to be used as he saw fit, then a gentle and loving king who very quietly let flourish ideas of equality the Christian God's love for every person, which in itself applied a huge force to culture... bursting free of that you have both the Second and Third estate, the older and younger siblings in this imagery family of mine, bursting free. Now they have a parent that can't supply the order of either of the previous parents. He has not the devious and seemingly gentle political maneuvering of le Bien-Amie or the brilliant and ostentatious power of the Sun King. He gave it ago. He had financial reforms that what would have been good for the family planned. Louis XVI's first financial minister, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), had a plan. 9 The older sibling wasn't buying it though. He'd had enough of being told what to do. The financial reforms failed. The parent threw up his hands. He didn't know what to do.  Social order suddenly went into free fall. 
In America, when that free fall hit, people thought... "I need firewood. Who will milk the cow?" The parent had been gone for a long time. 
In France the younger sibling thought... "You beat me! You stole from me! You made fun of me! You took everything for yourself!"
And the older sibling thought, "You should be grateful for everything I have done for you!     I'm going to tell Dad! You're a stupid little kid! What do you know?"
The parent actually tried to run away.10 Probably justified as there was a serious concern that the kids were going to burn down the house!  
There had never been a Magna Carta in France.  It's all well land good for a college age person to recognize that they need to pay the rent, buy the bread, write the essay, but it's a very frightening transition from child to adult. It's frightening for an adult to let a child grow into a peer, rather than a satellite. If that dynamic is unpleasant at the family level, how frightening and terrifying would it be on a country level where there is real starvation and real death?  Suppressed rage at perceived injustice, the fight for survival roared to a voracious fire, consuming and destroying everything.  A fire, once started, burns until it runs out of fuel. It wasn't like the younger siblings in France could just thumb their nose at the older, walk off a little to the west and start a new farm. 

I also gave some thought to the differences in diet between the two populations as well. When I took the Washington State Mixologist permit, we learned that even a small amount of alcohol can affect the way the brain interprets data. If a person has a history of repressed resentments and they have wine with breakfast, they're going to be more likely to act on that resentment than if they had had tea. 
1"Magna Carta Preserved Argon Gas," Livescience,  http://www.livescience.com/history/magna-carta-preserved-argon-gas-100831.html.
2 "Rediscovery," Preservation Virginia, http://www.preservationvirginia.org/rediscovery/page.php?page_id=6
5 "George II," Royal.gov.uk, http://www.royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/ KingsandQueensoftheUnitedKingdom/TheHanoverians/GeorgeII.aspx .
6 "Louis XIV," Louis XIV.de, http://www.louis-xiv.de/.
7 Robert William Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2 http://www.cambridge.org/uk/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521808781&ss=exc
8 Delormel, La Convalescence de Louis le Bien-Aime. Ode Irreguliere  au Roy (Paris: Delormel, 1744. 1 http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5696354c.image.hl.r=louis+xv+bien-aim%C3%A9.f4.langEN
9 "Louise XVI," Washington State University, http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/REV/LOUISXVI.HTM .


  1. You hit one on my favorite subjects- the American Revolution- I have a series of books, the first one coming out soon- Patriot Secrets. I'm only now studying up on the French Revolution because I have a book I'm beginning on that period. My opinion- the American Revolution was unique. Afterwards we had a new country with a vision. The French Revolution-my stomach turns with the thought of the chaos and death it brought on. The French people were badly mistreated by those in power and when they revolted they did so in an extremely violent manner that killed many innocent people. The Americans put their foot down when they felt they were being mistreated, but it was a totally different situation. I could go on and on, but great question.

  2. @Jerri

    History is one of my favorite passions! Thank you for coming by my blog. Want to be interviewed about Southern history and your book, "Wanderings of a Southern Heart'?