The American and French Revolutions Essay

            The American and French Revolutions proposed similar ideals.  Both pushed for the freedom and equality of all men.  However, some aspects of these ideals were fulfilled, while other aspects were not.  For the Native Americans, women, slaves, and workers of both town and country, these declarations were not realized until later in both America and France.  In France, the majority of old laws returned to practice after the Revolution, while in America, old habits died hard, but they did die.

            America’s founding fathers set a goal of “liberty and justice for all.”  However, they consented to slavery, forced Native American tribes westward, and suppressed women.  This was blatant hypocrisy.  Slaves, Native Americans, and women were not included in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, according to most experts.  Others, however, argue that the founding fathers did, indeed, mean everyone.  They were known to be idealistic men, but they were also practical.  The citizens of the newly-formed country were not prepared for change of such a great magnitude.  They were not prepared to give up their slaves, they were not prepared to be fair to the Native Americans in the rivalry for lands, and they were not prepared to accept women as citizens.

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            African-Americans, Native Americans, and even women fought in the American Revolution.  About 5,000 African-Americans fought for freedom, even though they were still considered only slaves with no rights.  Native Americans fought for freedom, although white citizens eventually took over their homes.  Women also fought for freedom by running businesses and farms, making cannonballs and gunpowder, and sewing clothes for the soldiers.  Also, when husbands and fathers were killed during the war, the women of their households took over their stations on the battlefield.

            With the American Revolution at a close, many states began to allow white men to vote, regardless of ownership of land.  Before the Revolution, only white men who owned land were able to vote.  In 1824, 356,038 white, American men voted Adams into office as the country’s sixth president.  Four years later, that figure increased 224 percent.  In addition, by the time Andrew Jackson was elected president, both poor and rich men had a chance to become the President, as long as they were born in America.[1]

            Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830.  This allowed Andrew Jackson to move Native Americans west.  White men, including Andrew Jackson, considered Native Americans “savages” and “uncivilized.”  However, in 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “It may be regarded as certain that not a foot of land will ever be taken from the Indians without their consent.”[2]  This is evidence that the founding fathers meant to include not only Native Americans in the Declaration of Independence, but also possibly slaves and women.  The statement Thomas Jefferson made in 1786 is also evidence of interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration of Independence could have been interpreted as being responsible for great change, however, one could also interpret it as being responsible for great horrors.  Ultimately, the Declaration of Independence brought about great change that led America into the future, however, until American society got to that point, the Declaration of Independence stood for the freedom and equality that only a select few were able to benefit from.

            The American Revolution was ultimately a success.  Under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the slaves in the Confederacy were freed due to the Emancipation Proclamation.  However, even after slavery ended, African-Americans were denied basic rights for another one hundred years.  Today, African-Americans are a part of the fabric of America.  They now have all the rights and privileges of Caucasians.[3]

            Like the African-Americans, women have had a long and difficult road to basic rights.  In the 1920s, women gained the right to vote.  In 1964, the Civil Rights Act extended protections and rights to women.  Today, women are active in politics and women have custody rights, divorce rights, and property rights that rival men’s.[4]  Old habits did indeed die hard, however, now all Americans are considered citizens of the United States.

            The French Revolution was a different experience from the American Revolution.  The French people fought for their right to be free and equal.  Revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy, and chaos ensued.  Terror reigned over the land.  Many royals and nobles were executed, either by the guillotine or by being chained together and blasted with cannon fire.  Revolutionary leaders stated that terror without limits was justified because “For those who act in the sense of the revolution, everything is permissible.”[5]  Revolutionary leaders did believe that arresting and executing many nobles was for the happiness of the people.

            Gouverneur Morris, an American diplomat in Paris, described the slaughter of a seventy-year-old man during this unstable time.  The man’s head was paraded around on a pike and his body dragged, naked, because he accepted a place in the King’s government.[6]  Unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution was not technically a war, it was a group of men who went throughout the country to wreak havoc on those who did not agree with revolutionary ideals.

            Women played a significant role in the Revolution.  They demonstrated over issues such as bread prices.  Some women also became involved in clubs, which was not done before the Revolution.  They fought for freedom, like American women did, although French women took a more indirect approach.

            After the French Revolution, some revolutionary ideals did take hold.  For example, France’s divorce laws became the most liberal in the world, and, most notably, the educational system was improved.  The Revolution ushered in a system of primary and secondary education that was available to all children, not only those whose parents could afford it.  The revolutionaries saw two major goals of the schools: to teach revolutionary ideals, and to give all children basic skills so they would each have an equal chance in life.[7]

            The majority of revolutionary ideals, however, did not take hold.  For example, French women were denied political rights until 1944.  Women faced legal disadvantages and exclusions in favor of a patriarchy in order to preserve personal interests.[8]  Like in America, the ideal of freedom and equality for all did not apply to women.  However, in France after the Revolution, upper-class women were again allowed access to the public sphere.  Napoleon Bonaparte encouraged this in order to win the support of traditional elites.  However, Bonaparte did dislike powerful women.  Overall, women still had second-class status.[9]

            In theory, the common man was allowed to govern himself by choosing his government officials, instead of government officials being chosen by the King.  This ideal also did not take hold, at least not until much later, as in the case of women and political rights.  The Revolution did not help the rural poor at all.  Although the poor was not as low as women were on the social ladder, they still had very little rights or freedoms.  For instance, before the Revolution, the Catholic Church owned land.  When the Catholic Church was forced to sell this land by the revolutionary government, the property did not go to the poor or middle-class.  Instead, the property went to the wealthy.[10]

            After the French Revolution, the promised changes were not made a reality for most of France’s population.  People were tired and they wanted stability.  They had had enough of the chaos that was the Revolution and most supported any government that would restore order.

            It was this longing for stability that ushered in a second wave of dictatorial rule in France under Napoleon Bonaparte.  Bonaparte’s declaration that the Revolution was over that the order would return to France, and his overall presence at the head of the French government, mimicked the monarchy that was in place before the Revolution.  Under Bonaparte’s rule, a legal code, known as the Civil Code, restored order in 1804.  Some of the laws dated back to before the Revolution, but some laws came out of the Revolution.  Society was now, officially, back to being a monarchy.[11]

            Women in France, as in America, have come a long way.  Beginning in the twentieth century, women began to receive the rights and privileges that men have enjoyed for centuries.  Today, the French have adopted American aspects of society, including women’s roles.  Women in France’s workforce now make as much money, if not more, than men.  They have positions in politics.  They also know how to balance family life and their careers, much like American women do.[12]  This is a huge turn-around from a few centuries ago.

            The American and French Revolutions were a step in the right direction for the freedom and equality of all people, including Native Americans, women, slaves, and workers of both town and country.  Some ideals of both Revolutions did not take hold until the twentieth century, as was the case of women and African-Americans in America and women in France, however, both societies did eventually get to that point.  Old laws were not simply replaced with new ones in both societies; the people had to want the change for anything to work.  It was a long and difficult journey for all involved, but ultimately, the American and French Revolutions were successful.

–  Arnold, James R.  The Aftermath of the French Revolution.  Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009.

–  Barr, Gary E.  Slavery in the United States.  Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2004.

–  Hakim, Joy.  Freedom: A History of US.   New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

–  Hardwick, Julie. “Women ‘Working’ Under the Law: Gender, Authority, and Legal Process in Early Modern France.”  Journal of Women’s History  9, no. 3 (Autumn 1997): 28(22)

–  Kale, Steven D.  “Women, Salons, and the State In the Aftermath of the French Revolution.”  Journal of Women’s History  13.4 (Winter 2002): 54(28).

–  Koning, Hans.  “A French Mirror.”  The Atlantic  276, no. 6 (Dec 1995): 95(10).

–  Mountjoy, Shane.  The Women’s Rights Movement.  New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2008.

–  Nardo, Don.  The French Revolution.  New York: Gale Cengage Learning, 2008.

[1]    Joy Hakim, Freedom: A History of US (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 21-65.
[2]    Joy Hakim, Freedom: A History of US (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 70.
[3]    Gary E. Barr, Slavery in the United States (Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2004), 48-50.
[4]    Shane Mountjoy, The Women’s Rights Movement (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2008), 129, 133.
[5]    James R. Arnold, The Aftermath of the French Revolution (Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009), 58.
[6]    James R. Arnold, The Aftermath of the French Revolution (Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009), 18.
[7]    Don Nardo, The French Revolution  (New York: Gale Cengage Learning, 2008), 71-76.
[8]    Julie Hardwick, “Women ‘Working’ Under the Law: Gender, Authority, and Legal Process in Early Modern France.”  Journal of Women’s History  9, no. 3 (Autumn 1997): 28(22).
[9]    Steven D. Kale, “Women, Salons, and the State In the Aftermath of the French Revolution.”  Journal of Women’s History  13.4 (Winter 2002): 54(28).
[10]  James R. Arnold, The Aftermath of the French Revolution (Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009), 126.
[11]  James R. Arnold, The Aftermath of the French Revolution (Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009), 81-89.
[12]  Hans Koning, “A French Mirror.”  The Atlantic  276, no. 6 (Dec 1995): 95(10).