The French Revolution in light of the U.S. Constitution

The signing of the Constitution by H. C. Christy

SAN JOSE, July 22, 2014 — During the hot summer months of 1787, from mid-May to mid- September, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia argued over, debated about, and hammered out a document that ultimately replaced the existing government of the infant United States of America. In essence, this was a second American revolution – an intelligent, deliberate, and peaceful revolution that transformed the law of the land upon which the nation had been founded into what Americans now recognize as the Constitution of the United States. It may be hard to believe, but it is the oldest national constitution in existence. This set of fundamental laws, ratified in 1788, continues to endure, despite its age, despite division over it, and despite attacks against the nation which evolved from its bedrock values and enduring principles.

In comparison, the recent celebration of Bastille Day conjures up the memories related to the French Revolution, which began in the hot summer of 1789, a few months after General George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States under that newly ratified Constitution. Unfortunately, the French Constitution that was crafted by the radically instituted National Assembly, did not last as long. A diligent student of history would recognize that the French Revolution ended after ten years as the French people had bankrupted their country and elected Napoleon Bonaparte as the Consul. And, although an accurate parallel is difficult to establish because of the duration and various stages of the French Revolution, similarities of a general nature exist between the French people’s rebellion and the American Revolution. But more importantly, no true comparison can be made between the two constitutions resulting from the respective revolutions.

The end result of the French Revolution was that this popular revolution devolved into confusion, chaos, rampant suspicion, and widespread accusation, condemnation and execution of individuals without much control. In short, the people’s revolution, imbued with noble ideals, deteriorated into a reprehensible bloodbath of horror during the Reign of Terror. By 1792, the people’s Legislative Assembly was composed of various political factions. One of them, the Girondists (liberal republicans), wanted to export the revolution to the rest of Europe, and eventually France went to war with several sovereign states. Toward the end of 1792, the nation had conquered several territories. Ironically, Robespierre, architect of the Reign of Terror, warned of a potential tyranny which could result from such action, but France went to war with the rest of Europe, and to get rid of a tyrant, the people executed King Louis XVI in 1793.

Upon reflecting on the French Revolution in 1790, before it took such a drastic turn for the worse, Sir Edmund Burke, the Irish politician and a member of Parliament that had praised the American War for Independence, had this to say:

[The French have rebelled] against a mild and lawful monarch, with more fury, outrage, and insult than ever any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper, or the most [bloodthirsty] tyrant…

They have found their punishment in their success. Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; …the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and …civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom…

Were all these dreadful things necessary?

During these dark days of turbulence in France, the country was beset with internal disorder as counter-revolution swept throughout the land. So, there was fighting within France and outside France to “extend the revolution.” By the time Napoleon rose to power, it was fairly easy for him to consolidate his authority into absolute power. By 1803, Napoleon proclaimed himself the Emperor of France. Ultimately, not only France, but almost all of Europe fell under the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte who cleverly seized absolute power. Napoleon’s rise to power meant the suspension of the constitution as it was lost amidst the rubble of broken dreams. Ultimately, the other European monarchs who had fought previously against the French Republic and declared peace with the fledgling nation, reconsidered their positions and actively strove to end Napoleon’s quest for the domination of Europe.

Indeed, while the realistic value of the French Revolution has been debated since that turbulent time in human history, the outcome was that the precious French constitution that the people had fought so valiantly for was essentially shredded. The French Republic that had been established in 1792 by the new constitution, which the king signed, was broken by 1799. The creation of the Republic came at the cost of much human life, but that government was done when the people elected Napoleon Bonaparte to help salvage their dreams. Not only had the people’s revolution in France failed to truly establish a stable nation of freedom and liberty, tyrants and tyranny smashed them completely. The political perceptions of the people were tragically misplaced as Napoleon not only sought to control France, but also to dominate all of Europe. Napoleon’s bold efforts then plunged most of Europe into an all-out war.

On this side of the Atlantic, prior to all of the disruptive violence in Europe, visionaries in the United States saw that this nation, under the existing government of the Articles of Confederation, could have a very short life span if the U.S. remained under the guidance that foundation of law. The new nation had been created, but it remained weak, and vulnerable to collapse. Yet, the majority of the states in 1786 would not send delegates to Annapolis, Maryland to discuss ways to improve the Articles. It was only Shays Rebellion that winter that sent a wake-up call to other patriots that the government needed to be strengthened. So, ten years after the Articles of Confederation were sent to the states for ratification, patriots met in the summer of 1787, in Philadelphia, to “fix” the infant republic. To lead them in this purpose, the delegates elected George Washington.

Sadly, it is likely that the majority of American citizens today only vaguely grasp the genuine significance of the critical difference between the foundation of the U.S. Constitution and the rapid demise of the French constitution. However, despite the fact that Americans have been through so much in the course of the nation’s history, the United States has remained strong and stable through 200+ years of history. It is because the nation and the leaders have held steadfast to the fundamental principles which were laid as the building blocks of the American government. What had happened in France just after the U.S. government was provided a rebirth through the establishment of a new Constitution, was viewed by the European monarchs as a dangerous experiment – especially dangerous to their own “enlightened despotism.” The French experiment also cast doubt upon the value of the American experiment.

Genuine Freedom was quite fragile and very precious in such a tyrannical environment. It also became quite suspect of providing needed stability in the chaotic world during that time period. Despite the treachery and intimidating power of kings and emperors in history previous to the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers rejected the oppression and tyranny of their day, and willingly gave their lives in the fight for true freedom. In actuality, the genuine outcome of the American Revolution was the establishment of independence from tyranny and the individual freedoms constructed by the Founding Fathers within the Constitution, specifically located in the Bill of Rights. While such a government is truly unique in the world, it may represent the exact opposite of what the French people permitted in allowing such a tragedy in their country.

In reality, the United States is a nation that is predicated upon the value of the rule of law, and it is based upon the concept that government is primarily necessary in order to secure the rights of the people, and it is the consent of those governed that provides the government its basis of power. The French trampled the constitution they created, and destroyed the government they created. This was done despite the example of the success attained in an intelligent, deliberate, and peaceful revolution that managed to transform the existing law of the land into what Americans now recognize as the Constitution of the United States. Our founders were blessed with great vision and great wisdom in their efforts to plow the fields, and plant the seeds of freedom in North America.

The Founders boldly established the U.S. Constitution, which has permitted a far greater foundation for the establishment, development, and the advancement of freedom for American citizens and people throughout the world than any other major government in the history of mankind. For the most part, the United States of America has been the place where freedom has had an opportunity to grow, and not just for one kind, but for all kinds of people. This much is certain: because of the Constitution, the U.S. is still a nation of freedom. It is understandable that in these turbulent times, citizens would bring down from the shelves once again, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and to refresh their minds with the words and ideals of these documents and the words of those who made the ideals real.

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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.