Revolution Republics and Romanticism
How it works
During the eighteenth century, there were numerous significant movements and events causing many social, cultural, and political developments. Two of the most influential events were the American and French Revolutions. Like many other events throughout history, these revolutions stemmed from profound ideology which strongly influenced the surrounding culture and events, continuing the reoccurring theme of the intersection of ideas with culture.
At first glance, it appears that the American and French Revolutions had a lot in common. After all, both took place around the eighteenth century. Both championed the desire for republican government and the principles of liberty. Both called for removal or separation from aristocracy. Furthermore, many Americans promoted the French Revolution, and the Americans were indebted to the French who advanced their revolution by providing both money and material to the cause.
How it works
Although it has become common in academia to treat the revolutions as being more alike than different, the historical record bears out that these two revolutions began with different premises and their results were even more divergent than their premises. In reality, they were very different events. Although founded on different ideology and resulted in very outcomes, both the American and French Revolution strongly influenced western civilization.
The ideas of the American Revolution came largely from the European Enlightenment, the Great Awakening, and traditional British legal and political values. Continuing on with intellectual trends begun during the Renaissance, Enlightenment thinkers challenged old views, values, and traditions that had previously been accepted as fact (“American Revolution Ideas”). One Enlightenment thinker who had a profound effect on the American Revolution was English philosopher John Locke, who encouraged constitutionalism and a government with limited power. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke believed that in any society, people are endowed with certain natural rights, such as “life, liberty, and property” (“John Locke in Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”).
He also argued that revolution in some circumstances is not only a right but an obligation, which also clearly influenced the Founding Fathers (“John Locke in Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”). Additionally, the American Revolution was impacted by the Great Awakening, which swept through the British colonies in the 1730s and 1740s (Gullotta). Championed by Jonathan Edwards and typified by the preaching tours of George Whitefield, Theodore Frelinghugusen, James Davenport, Samuel Davies, John Winthrop, and Gilbert Tennent, the revivals stressed the individual and spiritual experiences of conversion brought about by the workings of the Holy Spirit.
The revivals developed unity among the thousands of citizens, the Protestant faith, and an enthusiasm for liberty (Gullotta). However, not all revolutionary ideas were new. Many revolutionary ideas originated from previous British documents and movements, such as the Magna Carta, Petition of Rights, and the English Bill of Rights (Bowen). These documents sought to reassert the rights of subjects against the tyrannical rule of the monarchy and to outline specific rights which the monarchies had violated. Many rights are very similar, if not identical, to those included in the later American Bill of Rights.
A hundred years later, many British citizens living the American colonies opposed the tyranny of the monarchy and passionately desired a republican form of government. Among other things, the citizens sought representation, natural rights, commercial freedom, and religious freedom. Through the negotiation of numerous political leaders, the colonies attempted to peacefully settle their disagreements, but when no action was taken by Parliament or the tyrannical British government, resistance and revolution was therefore justified in order to purify the American corner of the empire, uphold the high principles of the British political and legal systems, and form a new government founded upon the ideas of John Locke and the Protestant faith.
Without a doubt, the American revolution had strong societal, cultural, and political effects. On September 3, 1783, the Peace of Paris was signed, officially ending the War of Independence and recognizing the independence of the United States. In Britain, it also effectively ended any hopes of Britain regaining control of her colonies. However, this was not the end. Instead, it was only the beginning of the forming a new nation. As Alexis de Tocqueville accurately noted in his book Democracy in America, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom” (“A Quote from Democracy in America”).
America’s first attempt at organized government led to the Articles of Confederation, which ultimately gave the states too much power and was insufficient as a means of governing a nation. It was replaced by the later U.S. Constitution, which established the United States as constitutional federal republic, provided rights for citizens, and served as the framework for the new government. It organized the American government into the executive, legislative, and judicial branch and provided representation and a balance of powers. In Britain, the aftermath of the revolution led to political and economic upheaval.
Multiple leaders resigned, died, or were replaced from office (Sailus). Furthermore, the British government was nearly ruined by the enormous expenses of the war, and British debt skyrocketed, forcing it to impose higher taxes (Sailus). The American Revolution and new government system also set the example for other nations, including France and Poland (Sailus). The revolution also had profound societal and cultural effects. Through the rights provided by the Constitution, religious freedom led to a growth in Christianity, separation of church and state, and the development of thousands of churches.
The Constitution also provided for economic freedom. In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith – the father of modern economics – proposed and supported laissez-faire economic policies, and his writing strongly impacted the development of a free market in the United States (Sharma). Over time, the freedoms provided in America have led to a new English dialect, incredible literature, innovative art, countless inventions, and much more. Thus, the American revolution had strong societal, cultural, and political effects which can still be seen today.
Only a few years after the end of the American Revolution, the French Revolution wreaked havoc and bloodshed. Unlike the diplomacy and order of the American Revolution, the French Revolution was one of the most senseless bloodlettings ever to occur in the name of freedom. From the time the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille until the rise of Napoleon, thousands in France were senselessly murdered. The French Revolution was motivated and shaped by several distinct ideas. Three of these ideas were encapsulated in the revolutionary slogan “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” (“The Ideas of the French Revolution”).
French revolutionary ideas drew heavily on the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and the writings of the philosophes like Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Like the American colonies, the French citizens desired freedom from tyrannical monarchies, but they also desired social equality, fraternity – which is best translated as “brotherhood,” and popular sovereignty. Rousseau, in particular, was extremely impactful (“The Ideas of the French Revolution”).
His ideas strongly influenced the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens, which was developed by the National Constituent Assembly and became a cornerstone of the French Revolution. The document offered generalizations about rights, liberty, and sovereignty, and prompted the statement that “law is the expression of the General Will” (Popiel, Jennifer J, et al. 29).
Rousseau also encouraged individualism and articulated the concept of popular sovereignty, suggesting that the true power of government was derived from the consent of the people. This idea was based in part on the idea of a ‘social contract’ between individuals and their government and became a critical idea that was used to justify the French Revolution (“The Ideas of the French Revolution”).
The fact is that there are many contrasts that can be made between these the American and French revolutions. The Americans were trying to preserve their traditions of representative government and self-imposed taxation whereas the French desired to uproot everything that had to do with the ancien regime, which refers to the previous French government. The French Revolution was a conflict rooted in envy with the desperate whipped into a frenzy (Bowen).
The Americans, in contrast, did not envy the British, but they rather wanted to be left alone to chart their own political destiny. In contrast to the American symbol of liberty, the Liberty Bell, the French symbol of liberty is the guillotine. Although it failed to achieve all of its goals and at times degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, the French Revolution played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people (“French Revolution”).
In the end, over 40,000 French citizens were killed, but the French Revolution did also have societal, cultural, and political effects (Lynn). Unlike the American Revolution, which was peacefully resolved and brought the end to military conflict, there was no peaceful agreement or resolution in France. Rather, the unsuccessful Reign of Terror and upheaval lead to successive revolts and eventually Napoleon’s dictatorship. For the start of the nineteenth century, Napoleon rose in prominence from counsel to emperor in 1804 and led multiple military campaigns around Europe and Northern Africa, building a large empire that ruled over continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815.
The French Revolution subsequently led to the development of classical liberalism and the desire for a constitution rather than absolute monarchy. Furthermore, the ideas of Rousseau inspired increasing nationalism throughout France. The French Revolution also played a huge role in Romanticism, which focuses on nature and individualism and was strongly inspired by the writings on Rousseau, Kant, and Goethe (Den Hartog). The revolution strongly impacted numerous writers, such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelly, and Lordy Byron (Den Hartog).
A common theme among some of the most widely known romantic poets is their acceptance and approval of the French Revolution. According to Albert Hancock, in his book The French Revolution and the English Poets, “The French Revolution came, bringing with it the promise of a brighter day, the promise of regenerated man and regenerated earth. It was hailed with joy and acclamation by the oppressed, by the ardent lovers of humanity, by the poets, whose task it is to voice the human spirit” (Hancock 7). Romanticism also characterized many composers, including Ludwig Von Beethoven, Franz Shubert, Fredric Chopin, and Felix Mendelsohn, and artists – such as Eugene Delacroix, Gericault, William Blake, and J.M.W. Turner (Den Hartog). Despite failing to achieve all of its goals, the French Revolution had a profound effect on the growth and development of France and all of Europe during the nineteenth century.
Although very costly and devastating, the American and French Revolutions both had a very strong impact on all of western civilization. The American Revolution lead to the creation and development of the United States, which has over the years grown into a global superpower and influenced culture around the world. In France, the revolution was based on very different premises and had a very different outcome. Nonetheless, the French Revolution impacted the events and culture of Europe for many years. However, before the French Revolution was a physical revolution, it was revolution of the mind, and it played a huge role in Romanticism, which spread into all forms of literature and art. The American and French Revolutions occurred over two hundred years ago, but the societal, cultural, and political effects of the revolutions are still apparent today.
- “A Quote from Democracy in America.” Goodreads, Goodreads.
- “American Revolution Ideas.” Alpha History, 25 Oct. 2015.
Bowen, William R. “The American and French Revolutions: Comparison and Contrast.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 12 Jan. 2018,
- Den Hartog, Jonathan. “Romanticism” Honors History of Western Civilization, 27 Nov. 2018. University of Northwestern – St. Paul. Lecture.
“French Revolution.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 28 Aug. 2018, www.history.com/topics/france/french-revolution.
Gullotta, Daniel N. “The Great Awakening and the American Revolution.” Journal of the American Revolution, 28 Aug. 2016.
- Hancock, Albert Elmer. The French Revolution and the English Poets: A Study in Historical Criticism. Henry Holt and Company, 1899.
“John Locke in Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008.
- Lynn, Michael R. “Executions, the Guillotine and the French Revolution.” The Ultimate History Project.
- Popiel, Jennifer J, et al. Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
- Sailus, Christopher. “Effects of the American Revolution: Summary & History.” Study.com, Study.com.
- Sharma, Rakesh. “Adam Smith: The Father of Economics.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 19 Nov. 2018.