It is no great secret that I am obsessed with the French Revolution. It may not be as well known, however, that I consider it to be the most revolutionary event in the history of democracy. Yes, that is right...THE most. Even more so than the American War of Independence. Upon sharing this notion, many people are highly incensed and usually quip something to the effect of, "Well, if it wasn't for America, France would still be under German control!" (To which I typically respond, "Yes, but if it wasn't for France, America would still be under British control...")
Then, it is mere seconds until the French jokes commence. You know, ones like: What color is the French battle flag? White. And, how can you tell the French Army? They're the ones with the sunburned armpits. Really.
I never really have the opportunity to offer any rationale to my seemingly unpatriotic and ludicrous statement. So, please indulge me a moment and let me explain...
My explanation, in its most basic form, is in the blog title: The American War of Independence vs. The French Revolution. America fought a war to become independent. France embarked on a revolution to change. We all know that America was a British colony that eventually became fed up with "taxation without representation," declared its independence from England, and fought a long and agonizing war but in the end democracy prevailed and a new nation was born. (how's that for succinct?!) Not so in France.
The difference here is that, through the French Revolution, France toppled and CHANGED a government that had been in existence for over a thousand years (aptly known as l'ancien régime, or ancient regime). And although things weren't great in the American colonies (no one likes to be taxed and unrepresented), colonists could at least own land and buy a loaf of bread at a reasonable price (unlike in France where the average citizen could not own land and there was a famine so severe that people were dying...all whilst Marie Antoinette ate her cake*)
Prior to the start of the French Revolution, traces of feudalism remained and the infamous socioeconomic hierarchy known as "The Three Estates" dictated power and privilege. The First Estate, made up predominately of the religious orders, and the Second Estate, made up of the nobility, held the real power. They were the ones with money, connections (especially to the Big Guy), rights, titles, and political power. The Third Estate was made up of everyone who wasn't a titled noble or church official. When voting would occur at the Estates General, each Estate was given one vote. Now, before you go thinking that this sounds more fair than what American colonists had, just read on...
Here was the problem with that structure. The First & Second Estates (Church & nobles) ALWAYS sided together. So, their voting block rendered the Third Estate's vote lone and useless. When you consider that the First & Second Estates made up only 3% of the population of France (in case you're not a math whiz, that meant that the Third Estate made up 97% of the population), the better part of France had no true representation.
But, you may ask, what about the taxation part? Well, let's just say that France had a looonng tradition of taxing most those with the least. In addition to taxes, there were mandatory tithes to the Church. So, while the poorest part of the population carried the burden of society, the richest carried the burden of partying like it was 1799. So, much like early Americans, the French had been living for hundreds of years under the premise of taxation without representation.
There were other long and short term causes of the French Revolution, but when you figure that the average French citizen had no rights, no liberties, no land, and no vote, things sound bad. When you factor in overtaxed, over-tithed and underpaid, things go from bad to worse. Throw in the hunger factor, and no wonder the French were so grouchy.
Disclaimer for the following paragraph: I am not condoning one sort of violence over another or minimizing the losses of early American life. I'm just illustrating my point, so do not be offended. If you are offended, well, just deal with it. I plead the First...
So what is the difference between a "war of independence" and a "revolution?" The key lies in the means by which the end is achieved. When America began its quest for independence, yes, there was bloodshed. No loss of life is ever ideal, but it was within the confines of civil, upright, good ole European-style warfare (a.k.a. line up in two rows facing each other and shoot). Not so in France.
In France, it was like extreme warfare hyped up on Red Bull and crack. In fact, I think that on Bastille Day, the saying "all hell broke loose" was born. We thought tarring and feathering Loyalists was Chuck Norris-esque? Try hacking off heads with fish knives, putting the detached head on a pike and parading it around town. That, mes amis, is extreme.
The pinnacle of violence was of course, the guillotine. And perhaps there are no two victims better known than the King and Queen of France themselves, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. With the monarchy overthrown and dead (apparently there was no way other countries could help reinstate headless royal corpses...) the door was wide open for a completely new government. The last time I checked, although despised, George III kept his head...and the English monarchy remained in tact.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not discrediting or minimizing the importance of our Founding Fathers or those who fought for independence. As a matter of fact, I am downright grateful for what they did (although I wish we could all still speak with British accents - they do sound so much better!) It's just if I was ranking the most important events in history, I would rank the French Revolution above the American War of Independence. Both ultimately resulted in democracy. However, only one, in its own extreme fashion, reversed over a thousand years of history and inequality and forged a new republic out of an ancien régime and indelibly defined the word REVOLUTION.