For the past 162 years, France has been trying to digest the French Revolution which other nations have assimilated with less difficulty. If the decay of pre-Revolutionary France had been as deep as most 19th Century historians said it was, France's problem would not have arisen. The truth was that the Revolution was made against one of the most successful social structures the world ever saw, still near the height of its vigor at the moment it was attacked. Only the most powerful revolutionary drive could have breached that structure, only the massive vigor of the pre-Revolutionary French tradition could have survived that revolutionary thrust.
Not even the Terror could sweep the men, ideas and institutions of the French past into a forgotten dust heap. The French Revolution, unlike the American and Russian Revolutions, was not left to work out its destiny in remote solitude. France's pre-Revolutionary success had made it the center of the world. What happened at the center concerned all. Within the souls of Frenchmen, and outside the borders of their country, the counter-revolutionary pressures mounted. The tumult of the irresistible crunching against the immovable made constructive thought impossible.
Most revolutions reach a period of calm: power has been grasped, principles (or slogans) accepted. What remains is the quiet and critical work of constructing the political institutions through which the power can be exercised in accordance with the new principles. The French Revolution never reached an adequate period of calm. It was preoccupied with immediate action when it needed time for consolidation. The literature of the American Revolution is constitutional philosophy (e.g., The Federalist); the literature of the French Revolution is the oratory of action (e.g., Danton's "toujours de l'audace").
The Great Weakness. Thus in the formative years of modern France a pattern was set that persisted into the relatively calm decades; even when they had time, Frenchmen did not concentrate on political institutions. They could, and did, think seriously on the lofty level of eternal verities in the relation of man and society, tapping the springs of pre-Revolutionary French thought, both conservative and radical. Or they could, and usually did, conduct their politics in terms of the expediency of the moment, carelessly altering and confusing their political institutions to conform to fitful winds. Modern France always takes itself seriously. It sometimes takes its leaders seriously. It never takes its constitutions seriously.
This accounts for the fact that the French whowith much justiceconsider themselves the wisest and most mature exemplars of Western civilization, nevertheless appear in their political aspect as frivolous and immature. This was the great weakness of France during the Revolution, through the 19th Century, and is its great weakness today.