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France Gave Revolution Passion; We Proved More Durable in Deed

<i> Laurence Goldstein is a professor of English at the University of Michigan, where he edits the Michigan Quarterly Review. </i>

“Something they must destroy, or they seem to themselves to exist for no purpose.” This was Edmund Burke’s severe judgment on the Jacobins of the French Revolution--a judgment pronounced even before the guillotine was put into service against the king, queen, nobles and finally many of the Jacobins themselves. Burke is not called the Father of Conservatism for nothing. He has taught readers for 200 years to suspect radicals who foment disorder, subverting civilization.

Thinking about revolution, as we customarily do on July 4, and this year again on July 14, the 200th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, has never been easy for Americans. Underneath the bravado of fireworks and patriotic speeches, there lurks a Burkean distrust of the Tom Paine or Sam Adams type of firebrand whose agitating rhetoric fuels the machinery of political change. We don’t like movies about the American Revolution; from the beginning, Hollywood has embraced Civil War sagas as depictions of the true birth of our nation. We don’t like books about it either, unless they put genial Ben Franklin right at the center. And it is certain that conservative America avoids whole chapters of our history when the insurrectionary spirit of the Declaration of Independence was heard in the mouths of long-silenced Americans--students, factory workers, blacks, Indians.

The French are different. Though their revolution was so much bloodier and more fratricidal than ours, and so much more ambiguous in its moral and political lessons, the French have always revered their glorious uprising as if it did succeed in inaugurating the new heaven and new Earth its first apostles imagined in 1789. And the rest of the world follows suit. If only for the purpose of ceremonial toasts, this month most nations will declare their fraternity not so much with the liberal ideals of the Continental Congress as with the imperial dreams of the First Republic. They will pledge their faith in the “permanent revolution” still threatening the seats of power--including their own.

Though we distrust its motives and effects, revolution exerts a permanent appeal to the psyche, it is so intoxicated with destruction of the status quo and with liberation as an absolute value. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” Wordsworth remembered of 1789, “but to be young was very heaven.” He recalled how “Europe at that time was thrilled with joy . . ./ And human nature seem(ed) born again.” Peak emotional experiences like this, passed down the generations in the form of poems and histories, shape the political sensibility of a national group for centuries. They are never entirely outgrown, any more than adolescence is extinguished in the process of achieving adulthood. In the midst of the most mature loyalty to law and order, some part of our post-revolutionary self hungers in memory for a time when we acted passionately and decisively upon the desire for a more egalitarian social order.

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In America, we preserved liberty by making a restrictive Constitution and then a Bill of Rights, while France hurtled to such brutal extremes in the name of the people that the state could be righted only by a new monarch, Napoleon. Hannah Arendt remarked, “Since the days of the French Revolution, it has been the boundlessness of their sentiments that made revolutionaries so curiously insensitive to reality in general and to the reality of persons in particular, whom they felt no compunctions in sacrificing to their ‘principles’ or to the course of history.”

Our reading of the Russian Revolution is that it followed the French model, with Stalin playing the strong-man role of Napoleon. We like to think of our Founding Fathers standing at a table signing laws into effect, not signaling a firing squad or commanding a pogrom.

So the American and French revolutions are not so easily lumped together. Each enacted a fierce Oedipal struggle with a parent power, and each won on its own declared terms. Each country perhaps envies the other a little for the unique drama of its origins. For two centuries it has been a commonplace that the American Revolution had little influence in world politics compared to the French. In poor countries especially, where bread and hope were more necessary than law, the thrilling promises of 1789 spoke more directly to the heart--so ran the conventional wisdom.

But recent events, especially in Eastern Europe and the Far East, suggest that reformers of the next decade and the next century may look for inspiration more to the sober proceedings in Philadelphia 200 years ago and less to the frenzy of Paris in the 1790s. In Tian An Men Square the people erected a statue dedicated to liberty before being massacred by the guardians of the People’s Revolution. “The shot heard ‘round the world” may be more pleasing to other peoples, as to us, because no September massacres, no Reign of Terror were needed to secure our freedom. Yes, the road has taken us through some rough and fearful times, but 200 years of democracy is an astonishing feat in the modern era. It’s an uplifting story with a happy ending, and we should be glad to tell it to ourselves more often.

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