Why did the French Revolution turn against itself when the American Revolution didn't?

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kipling2448's profile pic

kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The French and American experiences during the decades leading up to their respective revolutions did not necessarily allow for a common outcome.  While both were rejections of monarchical regimes, the nature of those regimes was substantially different and, fortunately for Americans, the intellectual proclivities of the leaders of each country’s revolution were very disparate.  As most people understand, the British Crown, while certainly a dictatorship that imposed its will on its far-flung subjects, was relatively benign in its treatment of its North American colonies.  Certainly the conduct of British soldiers was repressive in those colonies, but the atmosphere was not so repressive that it did not allow for considerable freedom of movement and thought.  In contrast, the atmosphere in pre-revolutionary France was considerably more repressive, with social and economic divisions far more pronounced than in the American colonies.  While both revolutions were important developments for the dissolution of monarchial regimes and for their replacement by liberal democratic systems, the history of France leading up to its revolution was much more divisive than the situation separating British colonials in North America from their rulers in distant England.  Additionally, key personalities in each country were fundamentally distinct from each other.  In North America, revolutionary leaders were well-educated in and fully appreciative of the democratic philosophies of ancient Greece as well as the Roman Empire and were heavily influenced by historical developments that limited executive powers, for example, the Magna Carta.  While serious debates existed within the American revolutionary circles, mostly over the future of slavery and the proper balance of powers between branches of government, there was a strong consensus among key individuals concerning the direction in which they wanted the new country they were founding to go.  France, on the other hand, was characterized by wildly divergent perspectives and enormously disruptive personalities like Napolean Bonaparte and Maximilien Robespierre.  There was no Reign of Terror in North America because the political environment had already been shaped by more enlightened personalities and because the excesses of King George were far less than those of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinnette.  While Louis was frequently disengaged, that disengagement and the visible disdain on the part of the French Crown for the fate of the enormous amount of peasantry planted the seeds for a bloodier revolution and for a less well-defined outcome.

The principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, backed by strong-willed and democratically-oriented personalities, laid the foundation for a more sustainable political system than the chaotic environment in post-revolutionary France could support.  Yet, even in the newly-established United States of America, fundamental fissures existed that would require an extraordinarily bloody and protracted civil war to finally resolve.  The situation in France, on the other hand, was far too lacking in consensus regarding the country’s direction and far too vulnerable to abuse by powerful and autocratic personalities to settle into even a modicum of moderation for many years to come.

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robyn-bird96's profile pic

robyn-bird96 | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) Salutatorian

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The French Revolution came about from entirely different reasons than the American Revolution.  The British Empire ruled its colonies indirectly, so the Americans practiced a relative policy of self-rule.  However, after the Seven Years War (also known as The French and Indian War), the British began to practice a much stricter, more hands on policy with the American colonies, specifically in collecting taxes to help pay off the war debt.  The Americans were angered by this because they believe that they were subject to taxation without representation, with extra emphasis on representation.  This eventually led to a revolution in which the Americans decided to fight for their independence and rule themselves. 

The French Revolution, on the other hand, came from centuries of resentment, as the Third Estate (which consisted of everyone not a noble and a clergyman) became increasingly frustrated by their lack of voice and their oppressive taxes.  The French Revolution called for an overthrow of the monarch, not a declaration of independence.  Although both the French Revolution and the American Revolution were inspired by the philosophies from the Age of Reason, the French however went completely overboard, because they were that desperate for change.  The French Revolution became more of a mob rule, and it became so radical that complete change was called for, which led to Robespierre and his Reign of Terror, because he wanted to eliminate anyone that was labeled as an enemy (someone not as extreme).  Unlike the American Revolution which had Europe's support, most of Europe were afraid of the French Revolution.

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