Power to The People

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They were both rooted in the same Enlightenment ideals of universal human rights, and they both erupted during the waning decades of the 18th century. Why then did the American and the French revolutions produce such radically different results: a contentious but stable democracy on one side of the Atlantic, the Terror and the triumph of Napoleon on the other?

The question is old but still stimulating and provocative, as historian Susan Dunn demonstrates anew in Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light (Faber and Faber; 258 pages; $26). In presenting her lively analysis, Dunn, a history professor at Williams College, relies heavily on the words, both public utterances and private correspondence, of the participants in the two revolutions. They, of course, did not enjoy the hindsight afforded by history, and it is fascinating to watch them proceeding through trial and error along the unmapped paths toward democracy.

The book's subtitle comes from a 1790 letter written by Gouverneur Morris, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who in 1792 would become the U.S. minister to France. The French, he noted, "have taken Genius instead of Reason for their Guide, adopted Experiment instead of Experience, and wander in the dark because they prefer Lightning to Light." Morris' remark underscores a growing rift between the two nations on the matter of the proper way to run a revolution.

The French had handsomely supported the Americans in their struggle against the English. Dunn writes, "The American model was France's for the taking--after all, she had paid for it, and her officers and soldiers had fought and died for it." Said a French veteran of the American Revolutionary War: "They have given a great example to the new hemisphere. Let us give it to the universe!" But as their own revolutionary fervor increased during the 1780s, the French began to believe that the Americans had not gone far enough in shucking off the bad old ways. Did not, say, the creation of a Senate allowing representation by land--the states--rather than by people amount to a servile imitation of the House of Lords?

The French, Dunn acknowledges, faced a broader revolutionary challenge than the Americans had a few years earlier. Wresting political autonomy from a power across an ocean was not the same as toppling a thousand-year-old home-grown feudal system. But, the author argues, the French could have learned one lesson from America and thereby avoided a bloody philosophical blunder. Instead of following the Founding Fathers' careful protections of individual liberties, the French made the unity of their people the highest goal. "Curiously," Dunn writes, "all the qualities that had traditionally been attributed to the quasi-divine king--oneness, indivisibility, infallibility--were transferred to the revolutionary 'people.'" This formulation outlawed dissent--how could one body disagree with itself?--and led, by conservative estimates, some 17,000 French men and women to the guillotine. Near the end of the Terror, Robespierre told the National Assembly that the majority of the population might have to be executed for treason.

It should surprise no one that, as Dunn notes, Lenin had a statue of Robespierre erected in Moscow in 1918. (Made of cheap stone, it soon crumbled, as the Soviet Union would some 70 years later.) Sister Revolutions shows not only how the French and American experiments developed, but also why their differing examples have continued to beguile ambitious leaders.