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The American War of Independence and the French Revolution

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The American War of Independence and the French Revolution

Postby Mark » October 27th, 2011, 12:22 pm

The following thread is intended to help start and stimulate debate in this area so please feel free to take this one anywhere within the heading above...

I have always wondered if the American War of Independence had an influence on the French Revolution and the later Napoleonic Wars. What are the opinions of members?

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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » December 24th, 2011, 5:42 pm

Another good question, Mark. This American remembers being taught in history lessons that enlightened thinkers on both sides of Atlantic influenced each other in the late 18th century. Wars and revolutions often arise from other motives.

American and French thinkers/writers have continued to influence each other since then. The French realists influenced Henry James. William Faulkner is perhaps better read in France today than in the US.

Thomas Jefferson was often in Paris and the ideas of enlightenment inspired people around the world, even in isolated Japan.

I think that a greater distinction should be made between Napoleon and the French Revolution. Interesting that what Europeans call the Napoleonic Code has had it's name changed back and forth by the French and is now, once again, called the Code civil des français.

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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby sbasdeo1 » February 9th, 2012, 8:26 pm

Hi guys, this was a short essay I wrote for university on the ways in which the American Revolution influenced the French. I was quite proud of this as I got a 1st class mark.

HIS210: Atlantic Revolutions
Assignment One
24th November 2011

To what extent was the French Revolution influenced by the American Revolution?

Skocpol stated that ‘the price to be paid for American independence was the French Revolution’ (Skocpol, 1975; in Green & Troup eds. 1999, p.136). The study of how the French Revolution was influenced by the American Revolution can be approached thematically. These themes are those in the realm of politics, economics, and ideology. Thus by taking a thematic approach, this essay will demonstrate that the American Revolution did have a direct influence upon the French Revolution.

The Seven Years War lasted from 1756 until 1763. The war had pitted Britain and France on opposite sides. The British victory, and the Treaty of Paris (1763) which had ended the war, imposed humiliating terms upon France. The French lost most of their North American colonies leaving them ‘only a toehold in the Atlantic’ (Simms, 2007, p.502). Subsequently, when the American colonies began to aspire to independence from Britain, their diplomats arrived in Paris and found that their cause ‘[was] in high favour’ (Carlyle, 1837, p.378). Once independence was declared, France enthusiastically became involved in the American Revolution. This was because the French were ‘anxious to obtain revenge for the humiliations of the Seven Years War’ (Holmes, 2011). As Klooster noted, revolutions throughout this period;
…cannot be understood outside the realm of international politics. Inter-imperial warfare called for reforms which exposed the foundations of empires and jeopardized their existence by revealing and exacerbating enduring social, political, and ethnic inequities (Klooster, 2009, p.2).
Thus France’s political involvement in the American war would have economic consequences, and these will be discussed below.

An economic crisis precipitated the French Revolution and its cause was French participation in the American War of Independence. The French war budget in the latter half of the American War of Independence, between 1781 and 1783, amounted to a costly 12,730,760 livres (Sturgill, 1984, p.183). This created a large budget deficit in France’s public finances. In previous wars the French government had usually combined tax increases and borrowing to finance military operations (Klooster, 2009, p.47). Any tax increases in France had always required the approval of the French parlements. However, having hoped to avoid a clash with the parlements, the French finance minister, Jacques Necker (1732-1804), ‘broke with precedent by not raising taxes during the war with England over the Thirteen Colonies’ and relied solely on borrowing (Ibid p.46). This was an emulation of the British method of financing government spending. Yet in Britain the ruling body, Parliament, was able to raise and lower taxes as it saw fit without having to consult another legislative body. The British government, therefore, was able to afford to take on more debt (White, 1995, p.228-229). Thus France’s large borrowing costs strained its inefficient government machinery.

Subsequently, any attempted reforms of the French tax system by Louis XVI (1754-1793) had simply failed because the parlements resisted them. It was in the year 1789, therefore, that the French Revolution was triggered by the parlements. This was because the parlements ‘[rallied] support against now indispensable administrative fiscal reforms, and by issuing the call for the convening of the Estates General’ (Skocpol, 1975, in Green and Troup, 1999, p.136). Hence the consequences of the attempted implementation of fiscal reforms, which were necessary to cover the military costs of the American War of Independence, caused the convening of the Estates General. It was the convening of the Estates General which was arguably the most important factor ‘in the subsequent course of events that eventually led to the French Revolution’ (Klooster, 2009, p.47).

Consequently, the government of Louis XVI disintegrated. It broke down because of ‘concerted upper class defiance, popular demonstrations, and the unwillingness of army officers to direct forcible suppression of popular resistance’ (Skocpol, 1975, in Green and Troup, 1999, p.136). As Skocpol observed, the complete breakdown of central administration is one of the identifying features of full social revolutions (Ibid p.124). It is clear, therefore, that ‘victory over England was gained at the cost of financial bankruptcy, and thus the American Revolution can claim to be the direct cause of the French’ (Hobsbawm, 1962, 78).

Additionally, Enlightenment ideas regarding government were influential in both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. What French intellectuals were inspired by most was the fact that the American revolutionaries had put Enlightenment philosophy into practice. As Bourne had observed in 1903;
The spectacle of colonial farmers in arms against their king and organizing self-governing communities first appealed to intelligent Frenchmen because it seemed to offer so many illustrations of their new themes of man, of society, and of government. It undoubtedly still further loosened the supports of the already weakened monarchy (Bourne, 1903, p.466).
Thus as Bourne observed, French intellectuals clearly took inspiration from the American Revolution for their own ideas of government.

In 1776 Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote Common Sense. This work ‘helped to steer the revolutionary movement [in America] on the path to independence’ (Klooster, 2009, p.27). However, Paine recognised the contradictions inherent in an aspiring republic receiving assistance from an absolute monarchy such as France. He stated that it would be dangerous to the internal peace of those realms if they were ‘to unite resistance and subjection’ (Paine, 1776, p.93). Thus one of the most dangerous aspects for France of rendering assistance to the American revolutionaries was that the ideas of the Americans would filter through to Frenchmen.

There were two key documents produced during both revolutions. The first one was the American Declaration of Independence (1776) drafted by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Secondly, during the French Revolution, there was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1791). When the French National Assembly drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, advice was sought from the U.S. Ambassador in Paris at the time. The Ambassador was none other than Jefferson himself (Klooster, 2009, p.57). The influence of Jefferson in the French document was noticeable. For example, both documents speak of man as having ‘unalienable rights’ (Jefferson, 1776 & French National Assembly, 1791). Furthermore, both documents stressed the word ‘liberty’. ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ formed part of man’s ‘unalienable rights’ according to the Americans (Jefferson, 1776). Similarly, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen listed man’s rights as being ‘liberty, security, and resistance to oppression’ (French National Assembly, 1791). These ideas of rights for men – men only, it should be noted – were found earlier in the century in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and his work on the social contract (Klooster, 2009, p.57). The influence of the American document upon the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, therefore, are clearly apparent.

However, there were some ideological differences in both of the revolutions and these are apparent in both of the documents cited above. The aim of the American revolutionaries was total independence from ‘the Royal Brute of Britain’ (Paine, 1776, p.72). This was because the Americans believed that they were suffering under the ‘absolute tyranny’ of the British (Jefferson, 1776). In contrast, the French aimed, at least in the early years of the French Revolution, for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. For example, after 1791 Louis XVI ceased to be styled, ‘Louis, by the Grace of God, King of France…but Louis, by the Grace of God and the Constitutional Law of the State, King of the French (Italics mine)’ (Hobsbawm, 1962, p.80). In fact it was only after the attempted flight to Varennes that Louis XVI’s popularity seriously declined (Klooster, 2009, p.66). Despite the above, however, one similarity can be drawn. In both revolutions sovereignty had shifted away from the monarch to the nation.

Whilst Hobsbawm acknowledged that the French Revolution was influenced by the American Revolution in some ways, he was not fully convinced. Hobsbawm stated that to study the French Revolution as part of an ‘age of democratic revolutions…is to miss the point’ (Hobsbawm, 1962, p.74). This was because Hobsbawm viewed the French Revolution as being more fundamental than anything which had gone before, having influenced risings and reform movements from Latin America to Bengal (Ibid p.76). Thus for Hobsbawm the French revolution remained ‘the revolution of its time, and not merely one, though the most prominent, of its kind’ (Ibid p.75). Hobsbawm did raise a valid point. Studying the French Revolution as a mere offshoot of the American Revolution, therefore, is insufficient.

In conclusion, the American Revolution did clearly influence the French Revolution. In short, France’s need for revenge for the humiliations the country endured in the aftermath of the Seven Years War encouraged them to assist in the American War of Independence. The cost of the American Revolution caused an economic crisis in France and urgent reforms were needed. The reforms, which were resisted by the privileged classes, led to the convening of the Estates General, thereby triggering the French Revolution. Finally, the ideology of the American Revolution, which had been influenced by ideas from the Enlightenment movement, had filtered through into France. Thus politically, economically, and ideologically, therefore, the American Revolution clearly influenced the French Revolution.

Word Limit: 1500
Actual Word Count: 1502

Bibliography

Bourne, H.E. (1903). ‘American Constitutional Precedents in the National Assembly’. The American Historical Review. 8 (3) pp.466-486

Carlyle, T. (1837). The French Revolution. London: Chapman and Hall

French National Assembly (1791) ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’. In Gomez, Greensides & Hyland eds. (2003). The Enlightenment: A Sourcebook and Reader. Adingdon: Routledge

Hobsbawm, E. (1962). The Age of Revolution 1789-1848. London: Abacus

Holmes, R. (2011). ‘The American War of Independence: The Rebels and the Redcoats’. [Internet] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/em ... edcoats_01 [Accessed: 17/11/2011]

Jefferson, T. (1776). ‘The Declaration of Independence’ [Internet] http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document [Date Accessed: 17/11/2011]

Klooster, W. (2009). Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History. New York: New York University Press

Paine, T. (1776), ‘Common Sense’. In Ross, L. ed. (2011). Common Sense and Rights of Man. New York: Sterling.

Simms, B. (2007). Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire. New York: Basic Books

Skocpol, T. (1975). ‘France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions’. In Green, A & Troup, K. (1999). The Houses of History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sturgill, C.C. (1984). ‘Observations of the French War Budget’ 1781-1790’. Military Affairs. 48 (4) pp.180-187
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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby Mark » February 9th, 2012, 9:40 pm

Great essay, sbasdeo1! Well done on getting a first for it - a job well done! :D

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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby OXFORDMON » February 9th, 2012, 10:29 pm

A fascinating read, thanks for posting :) .

Andy.
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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby TheBibliophile » February 10th, 2012, 10:16 pm

Hi Guys...
I have two books on the subject.... a good one which gives a background is J C Millers "Origins of the american revolution" which was published in the 40s.... the other is a massive biography of Benjamin Franklin....
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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby MayFirst » February 10th, 2012, 11:32 pm

An insightful post! The bit explaining just how serious the repercussions of American War debt were for the French was particularly interesting, especially considering how reluctant the Americans were to get their hands dirty with them after the Revolution.

I did a short study on sort of the same subject from the British point of view, about how certain themes that emerged when fighting the American War were seen two decades later during the fight against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. With such a (relatively) short period of time between the two conflicts, it is indeed difficult not to see the American War as a sort of stepping stone for both France and Great Britain towards the later clash. I was most interested to learn about the contemporary concern for the moral health of the nation, as if the "wickedness" (George III's favourite word) of the 18th century was somehow to be blamed for the hiccup in the Colonies; though the British emerged victorious in 1815, it was arguably a long time coming, and that same moral panic was able to get enough traction to produce those darn Victorians.

Cheers,
Ashley
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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » August 5th, 2012, 11:35 am

Excellent paper. Thank you for this insight.

When we visited Varennes, we were told that the fine people of the town never meant the king, or anyone, harm. It was the horses! If the king and queen, on their way to the Hapsburg Netherlands [now Belgium] and the safety of her family, had used a more discreet number of horses, they wouldn't have been stopped. None of the men on the street in Varenne that night had ever seen such a team of handsome horses; the carriage was slowed by the crowd and then stopped out of curiosity. But by then less well-meaning townsmen had arrived and the couple was seized.

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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby jf42 » May 29th, 2015, 7:30 am

I would like to share this thoughtful blog post relating to the machinations that may have been responsible for provoking the first military encounter- 'The shot heard round the world' -in the American War of Independence. It suggests intriguing links with the French Revolution. There are also interesting implications regarding notions of British military discipline and the later exploits of the 'Lightbobs.'

http://www.redcoat.me.uk/Secrets.htm
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Re: The American War of Independence and the French Revoluti

Postby Senarmont198 » June 8th, 2015, 12:58 pm

Although both revolutions were either inspired or referenced to the Age of Enlighenment, they were quite different in results and methods.

And excellent book on the American Revolution is Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the
American Revolution. It is highly recommended as is Charles Royster's A Revolutionary People At War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.

The Revolutions differed in many ways, not only the level of civil violence but in what was done. In the United States, the colonies were not united until the Declaration of Independence and the object was independence. The head of state and his government was to be replaced, but the internal institutions such as representative government, the court system, etc., were largely retained. And there was a tradition of self-government on the state and local level.

France was completely different. The entire governmental system was thrown out, even though some attempted the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, which was not acceptable. And the French had no tradition of any type of 'democratic' (and that term is used very loosely) self-government on the province and local level. They basically started from scratch. And it got dirty and bloody very quickly internally.

In the United States (dating from the Declaration of Independence in July 1776) there was civil war in the South and the Hudson Valley between rebels and Loyalists, but that was localized and the 'national government' (Continental Congress) did not unleash the type of 'terror' that happened in France.

Both were republics, the US beginning in 1789 with the adoption of the US Constitutution, and ending in France in 1804 with Napoleon becoming Emperor, and the roads to those governmental conclusions were quite different.

And whatever influence the American Revolution exerted over the French revolutionaries, relatively few Frenchmen had served in North America during the War of the Revolution, so the influence was from 3,000 miles away and not local.
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