The French Revolution

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The French Revolution

Between 1789 and 1792, the French Revolution seemed like the natural successor to the American Revolution. When news arrived that the French National Assembly had declared, on 26 August 1789, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights," Americans offered celebratory toasts, wrote sentimental poems, and congratulated themselves on having inspired a global movement for liberty. Polite praise for the French continued through the winter of 1791–1792, when Americans learned that the French had established a constitutional monarchy. A select number of Americans, like Vice President John Adams, denounced the French Revolution from the beginning. In Adams's mind, the French Revolution was a dangerous utopian experiment. But in general Americans applauded the French and their attempts to secure revolutionary liberty and equality.

the radicalization of the french revolution

The radicalization of the French Revolution in late 1792 and early 1793 changed everything, because it forced Americans to reconsider the meaning of transatlantic revolution. In particular, three events—the establishment of the French Republic on 22 September 1792, the execution of King Louis XVI on 21 January 1793, and the emergence of a British-led European military alliance united in opposition to France—dramatically transformed the environment in which Americans interpreted news of the French Revolution. Those events altered the terms of debate by shifting public attention away from a relatively moderate dispute over different versions of constitutional monarchy and toward a more brutal clash between monarchy and democracy. They also spawned a series of interconnected developments that directly impinged on the lives of common Americans. British raids on American maritime vessels disrupted commerce and infuriated ship captains and merchants. French minister Citizen Genet's attempts to recruit Americans as military agents for French-commissioned privateers and French-sponsored expeditions against Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Florida incited civic unrest and diplomatic intrigue. Violent scuffles between French and British sailors stationed in Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York became legal nightmares for municipal officials. All the while, political refugees from Britain, Ireland, France, and Haiti spilled into American ports, requesting material assistance and demanding a public voice.

By affecting so many areas of American life, the radicalization of the French Revolution confronted residents of the United States with a number of difficult questions. Should the United States support revolutionary France in its military clash against Great Britain and its counterrevolutionary allies? If so, how? If a policy of neutrality was the most appropriate course, what did neutrality mean in practical terms? Moreover, did the United States need to institute internal reforms to more closely approximate the example set by revolutionary France? If so, what role should the average citizen play in promoting and establishing those reforms? All of these questions revolved around basic concepts—liberty, equality, popular sovereignty, and the role of the United States in spreading revolution—that had first been raised during the American Revolution. But the French Revolution amplified them and recast them. Whereas the United States in 1776 stood alone as a beacon of revolutionary freedom, from 1793 onward it stood alongside a more noticeable and more powerful beacon, France. Determining exactly how the American Revolutionary tradition resembled or differed from its more influential French revolutionary counterpart became a concern of pressing immediacy.

the polarization and popularization of american politics

The need to define the Revolutionary American republic against France and its archenemy, Britain, divided the American populace and served as the catalyst for a decade of vicious political conflict. Democratic Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, campaigned to reassert or extend the social and political reforms of the American Revolution. They also argued that the United States should do what it could—short of war—to assist Revolutionary France in its military clash with the British-led European military alliance. Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, derided the egalitarian excesses of the French Revolution and viewed the public fervor associated with it as a portent of social disorder. They simultaneously sought to curtail American involvement in French military affairs, even if it meant closer cooperation with Great Britain.

The political clash between Democratic Republicans and Federalists in the 1790s was the most heated internal dispute in the United States before the American Civil War. Friendships broke apart, fistfights erupted in government halls, newspaper writers spewed forth invective, and talk of civil war and anarchy pervaded public arenas. Passions were so intense that zealots on both sides advocated partisan organization, even though many educated individuals at the time considered political parties illegitimate and dangerous. Advocacy of partisanship, in turn, sparked an amazingly high degree of popular participation in national politics; voter participation rates in many areas surged, and common citizens ran for political office with a surprising degree of boldness and success.

Popular political activity was generally more noticeable and aggressive among those who steadfastly supported the French Revolution. Thousands of individuals participated in large parades and elaborate "civic festivals" celebrating French military victories and revolutionary anniversaries. Members of Democratic Republican societies wrote resolutions, offered toasts, and agitated for political reform. A person could make a public political statement simply by donning a cockade (a ribbon worn on a hat or shirt) as a badge of party loyalty.

the significance of popular political activity

Pro–French Revolution zealots took part in popular political activity for a variety of reasons. Some were inspired by the abstract ideological claims of the French Revolution and the chance to repay France for assistance during the American Revolution. Others, remembering British atrocities during the American Revolutionary War, viewed the current Anglo-French struggle as an opportunity to humble Great Britain. African Americans considered the French Revolution—and the slave rebellion on Haiti associated with it—as an opportunity to push for emancipation or revolutionary rebellion. Local activists and artisans, meanwhile, frequently used French revolutionary rhetoric to agitate for a number of goals: to destroy vestiges of social hierarchy and political privilege, to exact revenge against resented elites, and to stake their claim to a prominent role in the American political system.

No matter the individual reasons, what is striking in the hullabaloo over the French Revolution is the degree of persistence with which many Americans promoted the French cause. It is tempting to think that the horrors of the French revolution's Reign of Terror—mass executions on the guillotine, arbitrary trials, and the centralization of power in the Committee of Public Safety—uniformly alienated Americans, but that is not the case. Many residents of the United States expended a good deal of energy justifying the excesses of the French Revolution. The scale and rigidity of the Old Regime in France, they argued, necessitated a tumultuous and violent revolution. In addition, Great Britain—revolutionary France's current enemy—had a long history of crimes against its own citizens and others', so any criticism of political practices should begin with Americans' former antagonist. Accounts of French revolutionary crimes, furthermore, could not always be trusted because Americans received much of their news through British sources, and many Americans believed—indeed, were certain—that British writers were generally untrustworthy, especially when it came to descriptions of the French. Some Americans not only justified French revolutionary horrors, they also appropriated the rhetoric of violence to intimidate opponents and rally supporters. Toasts to "the guillotine" were not uncommon, and a pamphlet circulating in Philadelphia reveled in the possibility of President George Washington's execution by guillotine.

The fervor and stubbornness of American enthusiasm for the French Revolution indicates that much more than politics and ideology was at stake. Indeed, support for the French Revolution frequently took on religious overtones. Preachers related apocalyptic biblical passages to French revolutionary developments, while newspaper authors emphasized the overthrow of the Catholic Church. Just as common, ordinary citizens rejoiced because they believed the French Revolution represented a critical step in the coming of a secular millennium. The new age these enthusiasts hoped for revolved around the spread of universal rights, global peace, and republican government, rather than the second coming of Christ. The specific doctrines of secular millennialism mattered less, however, than the hopeful exuberance associated with the French Revolution. The cultural movement known as the Enlightenment rested on the assumption of progress, but the type of progress usually described before the American and French Revolutions was a slow, evolutionary change. In the 1790s, the pace of change seemed to accelerate and a utopian age appeared imminent.


That the French Revolution, despite its lofty rhetoric, did not usher in a golden age is evident in white elites' inconsistent approach toward the issue of slavery. For while disputes over issues like representation, liberty, and equality clearly precipitated the onset of the slave revolt in Saint Domingue (the early name for Haiti), the vast majority of white Americans failed to see a connection between the French and Haitian Revolutions (1791). They saw the former as an indication of freedom's progress in the civilized world and the latter as an unwarranted descent into anarchy.

When genteel Americans did take notice of the connection between the French and Haitian Revolutions, they did so in a rather peculiar manner. In the spring and summer of 1793, elite and middling residents of seaport towns opened their homes to French slaveholders fleeing the devastation of the Haitian Revolution in the belief that hospitality directed toward these refugees equated to practical support for the French Revolution. In actuality, white Americans befriending slaveholders from Saint Domingue provided sustenance for a group of aristocratic elites determined to preserve European forms of hierarchy. In addition, by siding with those who opposed the efforts of Haitian revolutionaries, genteel Americans denied Caribbean slaves the opportunity to determine their own political destiny. Most important, white Americans aiding slaveholding refugees belied their own public professions about gradual emancipation in the United States; universal abolition might be a nice idea in the abstract, but it simply could not be endorsed at the present time.

Sensing an opportunity to undermine the credibility of their opponents, Federalists mocked Democratic Republicans in the South who espoused French revolutionary ideology even while holding African Americans in bondage. If Jefferson and his followers were really sincere in their protestations about tyranny, why did they not shed their own tyrannical practices and emancipate their slaves? As powerful as this argument was, Federalists did not employ it to full advantage for two basic reasons. First, Southern slaveholders represented an important segment of the Federalist Party and an undue emphasis on the tension between support for revolutionary liberty and toleration of chattel slavery might damage partisan unity across sectional lines. Second, Federalist propagandists in the North deployed the slavery issue in crosscutting ways. Even as they criticized Democratic Republican slaveholders' unwillingness to live up to the ideals of the French Revolution, they raised the specter of racial disorder in northern communities as a means of convincing people of the dangers of the French Revolution. In that sense, Federalist critics of Democratic Republicans' stance on slavery were by no means idealistic humanitarians determined to promote the interests of African Americans. Rather, they were political opportunists who twisted the issue of slavery to fit their particular goals. In some cases it suited their needs to provoke their opponents about emancipation, but in other cases they found it useful to warn of the upheavals racial equality might cause. Partisan politics at the national level thus trumped a more sustained ideological and sectional debate over slavery.

It was African Americans themselves who most fervently and consistently took up the task of exposing the possibilities and limitations embedded within the relationship between French revolutionary ideology and American slavery. In the mid-1790s, free blacks in the North signaled their approval of French revolutionary ideals by participating in street parades and civic feasts. Southern slaves enjoyed fewer opportunities for open expression of their beliefs, but they were no less aware of and exhilarated by the international revolutionary movement. Gleaning bits and pieces of knowledge from a variety of sources—including talkative masters, sympathetic white artisans, and Afro-Caribbean sailors temporarily stationed in port—American slaves developed a sophisticated, albeit unstable, network for relaying information. Indeed, the extent of shared intelligence among slaves in the revolutionary Atlantic world demonstrates how transnational upheaval captivated African Americans. Not satisfied simply to learn about French revolutionary affairs and the contest over its meaning in the United States, a number of slaves decided to take action. Some set fire to white Americans' buildings, sparking a wave of paranoia among slaveholders. Others mocked white rhetoric about revolution by proclaiming "Freedom to Africans." At least one slave, Prosser's Gabriel of Richmond, Virginia, used the opportunity created by partisan conflict over the French Revolution to initiate a slave rebellion. No ordinary uprising, Gabriel's Rebellion reached out to various Frenchmen in the United States and had as its goal the overthrow of Federalist merchants and their slaveholding allies. Unfortunately for Gabriel and his co-conspirators, the plot was discovered before it was launched, and the brutal repression that followed made it clear to any observer that Democratic Republican support for the French Revolution did not translate into sympathy for the plight of enslaved Americans.

the development and conclusion of the french revolution

As the French Revolution proceeded from the Reign of Terror to the Thermidorean reaction, and from the Directory to Napoleon's coup d'état in November 1799, diplomatic events continued to affect the American interpretation of transnational revolutionary struggle. In 1795 the Senate authorized and President Washington signed into law a pact, Jay's Treaty, establishing peaceful relations with the United Kingdom. The announcement of this Anglo-American accord sparked a series of massive popular protests, because pro-French individuals felt it catered to the British and betrayed American obligations to revolutionary France. Yet in the long run Jay's Treaty tempered American attitudes toward the French Revolution by resolving the Anglo-American war crisis of 1794–1795 and by facilitating commercial growth.

Three years later, the XYZ Affair again brought the United States to the brink of war, but this time the crisis was a Franco-American one. On 3 April 1798, President John Adams, who was elected in 1796, disclosed a packet of diplomatic materials—some of which referred to mysterious French officials "X," "Y," and "Z"—documenting a pattern of French belligerence and intrigue. Almost immediately, Democratic Republicans renounced their claims about the interconnectedness of the French Revolution and the progress of American freedom. They also declared their willingness to serve the United States in a war against France. Bombastic displays of popular support for President Adams persisted through the spring and summer, and Congress actually authorized the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war against France.

The most important response to the XYZ Affair, however, occurred when a cohort of "high" Federalists succeeded in getting congressional approval for two controversial legislative measures, the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts extended the length of time it took for immigrants to become naturalized citizens with full voting rights and gave the federal government power to punish individuals who spoke or printed anything thought to be slanderous against the Federalist administration. Accurately asserting that the Alien and Sedition Acts were implemented as partisan weapons designed to eviscerate Federalists' opponents, Jeffersonian politicians began reasserting themselves in public by portraying themselves as the defenders of American civil liberties. Democratic Republicans also took a more moderate position on the issue of transnational revolution. The principles of the French Revolution were still praiseworthy in the abstract, and the French Republic merited good wishes in its ongoing military struggle against Britain and its tyrant, King George III, but the cause of American freedom was carefully distanced from practical developments in Europe. Napoleon's rise to power, as a result, did not undermine or retard Jefferson's rise to power because most citizens in the United States had already begun thinking of their nation as the only home for revolutionary republicanism. In a similar vein, Jefferson's victory in the election of 1800 assumed significance not simply as a seminal achievement for the Democratic Republican Party, but also as a great triumph for the American political system. Whereas the peoples of Europe continued to struggle against tyranny, social degradation, and material devastation, white Americans could revel in their freedom, equality before the law, and prosperity.

Although the French Revolution did not produce the same degree of violence and upheaval in the United States as it did in Europe, it had a tremendous impact on American life. Transatlantic turmoil spawned by the French Revolution prompted a wave of millennial yearning and an unprecedented amount of partisan organizing and conflict. It brought into relief the contradictions at the heart of the popular commitment to liberty and slavery. Indeed, though the American Republic was technically independent, events across the Atlantic constituted the frame within which Americans sketched the broad contours of their political and cultural identity. In that sense, the French Revolution decisively shaped the maturation of the United States.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Election of 1800; Haitian Revolution; Jay's Treaty; Quasi-War with France; XYZ Affair .


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Matthew Rainbow Hale

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The French Revolution

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