Comparison of French and American Revolutions
Welcome to Linda’s corner. My name is Linda Bjork. Currently there is a popular tendency to disregard history or to revise it in order to support more modern ideas. There is particularly a tendency to revise the history of the founding of the United States of America. Where, at one time, the founders of our country were honored and revered, they are now belittled and condemned. Most people are no longer aware of the greatness they accomplished because they are only taught about their flaws and weaknesses. People also often assume that the way things are, is the way things have always been, and we are losing a sense of wonder and gratitude for the people and circumstances who struggled and sacrificed to create something beautiful and amazing.
In today’s episode I’m going to compare and contrast the American and French revolutions to share some insight about the wisdom and integrity of some of our founding fathers and also the connection between following god’s laws and political freedom. It is intended particularly for members of my faith, which is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but anyone is welcome to listen.
Teachings of Brigham Young
Brigham Young, who was a colonizer, statesman, first governor of the territory of Utah, and the second prophet and leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints taught that in order for a freely elected government to last it had to be based on God’s laws and it’s leaders had to be people of integrity. Chapter 36 of the book “Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young,” is dedicated entirely to the prophet’s teachings about the relationship between earthly governments and the kingdom of God. He taught that:
- Earthly governments must be based on God’s laws to endure.
- Those who govern should possess wisdom and integrity.
- Members of the Church have a duty to be responsible citizens.
- “Individual self-government” is important to the success of an earthly government.
- The righteousness of the people being governed affects the success of the government.
Comparing and contrasting
In order to test and verify these theorems that he taught, I researched and found historical examples of two groups of people who tried to accomplish the same thing at about the same time. One group used the principles taught by Brigham Young and the other tried a very different approach. By comparing and contrasting the experiences and outcomes of these two groups of people and their respective countries we learn some very interesting things.
The two groups were the people in the colonies of America and the people of France in the late 1700’s. Both groups of people were oppressed under tyrannical governments and wanted greater freedoms.
Let’s start with the situation in America. The colonists wanted independence from England; they didn’t feel heard or respected by the king and they wanted to govern themselves. The Revolutionary War officially began on July 4, 1776 with the Declaration of Independence authored by Thomas Jefferson. But before they made this huge step, the founding fathers thought very carefully about what kind of government they wanted to have if they were able to successfully free themselves from the rule of England.
A disturbing pendulum swing
They studied history and governments and recognized a very disturbing pattern. Throughout history whenever people try to overthrow a tyrannical government, it leads to the widespread chaos of anarchy which is a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority. And anarchy is so awful that the people become desperate for order and turn to a powerful person or group that can reestablish order and that leads to the transition of power to a new tyrannical government. It’s like a pendulum swinging back and forth from tyranny to anarchy back to tyranny again.
The founding fathers were searching to find some way to make the pendulum stop swinging from one extreme to the other. They wanted to create a people’s government that would be somewhere in the middle, that was neither all powerful nor void of power, that could be a government by the people and would establish freedom and would last a long time.
Finding answers in the scriptures
In his intense studies, Thomas Jefferson discovered two ancient examples of groups of people who had successfully created a government by the people, these were governments that worked and lasted a long time.
He actually found his first example by studying the bible. The first recorded nation in history to have a system of representative government was ancient Israel, then about 1500 years later, the Anglo-Saxons lived under a similar system.
In the Biblical example, a large group of Israelites had been living as slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and then Moses (through divine intervention) freed the Israelites from slavery where they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before being led to a promised land. Moses was trying to lead about 3,000,000 people by himself and he was very stressed and weary. His father in law, Jethro, suggested that he get the people to help. Moses set up a system of elected representatives based on family units. Each group of 10 families elected a representative. There were also leaders and representatives of groups of 50 families, 100 families, and 1000 families. In addition to the elected representatives there was also a council of 70 who were appointed by Moses. If you compare their system to ours, it is not unlike the original constitutional structure of our congress and senate. They had a strong local government with the family unit as the basis, and it worked well and it lasted a long time. Not many people are aware that ideas that inspired our constitution were quite literally based on God’s laws and discovered through a careful study of the scriptures.
Meanwhile in France…
Now, I’m going to change channels for a moment and look at the historical context that France was facing at about the same time that Thomas Jefferson was studying about Moses and representative government. Louis XVI was on the throne. The peasants carried most of the burden of taxes, but they had zero say in any government affairs. Economic conditions were so horrible that a person had to work all day long to earn enough for a single loaf of bread. France was nearly bankrupt because of its involvement in wars (including the American Revolution) and also because of generations of lavish extravagances of the monarchy. King Louis desperately needed to raise taxes to fill his coffers. Well, you can imagine how well that went over. The king in his luxurious palace needs more money so he’s going to raise taxes on the people who can’t even afford to buy bread… the people had had enough and they revolted.
On July 14, 1789 a large crowd stormed a prison called the Bastille; it was a hated symbol of oppression and they hoped to find weapons and gunpowder to aid in their struggle. A ruling body called the National Assembly tried to create governmental reform by proposing a constitutional monarchy, which means that we still have a king, but the king has to follow a set of written, agreed upon laws. This creates limits on the power of the king and grants more rights and freedoms for the people. Well, King Louis was absolutely opposed to that idea and conspired with leaders of other countries to reestablish what he thought was his divine right to absolute rule. He was later imprisoned for treason against his country and beheaded. His wife Marie Antoinette later followed him to the guillotine.
No more king, but what happens next?
The people of France had brutally, but successfully, overthrown what they considered to be a tyrannical government, however, things did not go well afterwards. Anarchy and mobocracy reigned. Religion, particularly Christianity, was attacked by the radical revolutionaries, and for a while the people were forbidden to worship God altogether. Then Robespierre, as leader of the government, created a new religion. The Christian God was replaced by a deity they called “The Supreme Being.” They were so intent on removing all Christian influence they even created a new calendar since the traditional one measures time from the birth of Jesus Christ.
What immediately followed is what we now call “The Reign of Terror.” Anyone suspected of opposing the current rulers were imprisoned and over 17,000 people were beheaded by the guillotine. The Reign of Terror ended when Robespierre himself was executed by his enemies, but the country was still a total mess. The new government, called the Directory, needed military support to reestablish order, so they turned to a military hero, named Napoleon Bonaparte to help them.
We need a hero
Napoleon was brilliant and his soldiers adored him. He personally directed complicated military maneuvers, however he was prideful and ambitious. His ambition showed early when he was fighting in Italy and he confessed, “When I see an empty throne, I feel the urge to sit on it.” His chance to gain power came when the French people voted in 1802 to appoint Napoleon to the title of “First Consul” for life. But Napoleon was not satisfied with this arrangement. So in 1804 the French senate voted him the title of Emperor.
Traditionally kings of Europe were crowned by the pope, which symbolizes that God is the source of the ruler’s authority. This is often called the divine right of kings, and many rulers abused that power by thinking that meant God gave them authority to do whatever they wanted rather than the idea that they were accountable to God for their action, but that’s a topic for another day.
An insatiable appetite for power
Following tradition, the plan was set for a coronation ceremony in Notre Dame cathedral where Napoleon was to be crowned by the pope. However, as the pope prepared to place the crown on Napoleon’s head, Napoleon snatched it out of the pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. He later wrote, “I will not allow another man to give me my title or my position. I earned it, I shall take it. I grasp the crown and place it firmly on my head. There. It is only right. I am the Emperor of France.”
However, being Emperor of France did not satisfy Napoleon’s lust for power. He wanted more, so he began to expand his power through conquest. Within a few years he had conquered and controlled most of Europe. He was eventually defeated at Waterloo and he later died in exile.
A classic example of the pendulum swing from tyranny to anarchy and back
It all happened exactly like the pattern that the founding fathers had noticed so many times in their study of history and governments. When people try to throw off a tyrannical government, it’s like a pendulum that swings back and forth from tyranny to anarchy and right back to tyranny again. And as bad as the tyranny was on both ends, the anarchy in the middle was even worse. The whole process was a mess.
Threat of the classic pendulum swing in America
Now, I’m going to go back in time a little and return to the story of America. Remember that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, but the Constitution wasn’t signed until September 17, 1787. For the first 11 years of its existence, the United States operated under the Articles of Confederation which had very little power and loosely banded the sovereign states. A couple of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were that there wasn’t a person who acted as the leader of the country in any form. We had a congress made up of representatives from each state, but there wasn’t a king, or prime minister, or president, ruler of any kind over the whole country.
Another problem with the Articles of Confederation was that it didn’t have any power to tax, which may sound really nice, but we were fighting the Revolutionary War at the time. Can you imagine trying to win a war with no funding and no support? General Washington’s army didn’t have military equipment except what they could scrounge up from the people themselves and by finding leftover equipment from the recent French and Indian war. The soldiers didn’t have uniforms or boots, in fact they were often in rags, and sometimes the food was so bad that it was not fit to be served as slop for pigs. There was no logical explanation for how this rag tag, underequipped, underfunded army was victorious over England which was one of the greatest military powers in the world at that time. Their victory could only be attributed to the hand of Providence and George Washington knew it and openly acknowledged it.
We need a hero – a different kind of hero
However, even though the war ended in our favor, this new little country was not doing very well. The government was weak, the economy was a mess, and they were suffering from hyperinflation. The people were angry and dissatisfied. In particular the army was angry and dissatisfied because they hadn’t been paid for their military service. Again, just like what happened in the French Revolution and practically every other time in history where the people are dissatisfied, the people turned to a military hero to step in and save them by restoring order.
Seven months after the British surrendered to Washington in Yorktown, Washington received a letter from one of his officers, Colonel Lewis Nicola. In this letter Nicola outlined the abuse and neglect that the army had received from the congress as well as the states during 7 years of continuous warfare. He inventoried a long list of complaints suffered by the men who had risked their lives many times to throw off the British yoke and were lucky enough to still be alive. They had not been paid and in all this there was neither justice nor gratitude. He went on to say there was only one man who could give the soldiers their dues and that was Washington. Nicola pleaded with his general to accept the crown and serve as King George the first of the United States. He assured Washington that the army would put him in a position of power that none would dare to challenge.
Now, remember that when Napoleon was given a chance like this he pounced on it, but Washington, on the other hand, was horrified by it and he flatly refused. He said that the Nocola letter was the worst thing that had happened to him in the whole war. He wasn’t looking for personal power. He honestly, sincerely loved his country and he loved freedom. He urged the army to be patient.
The military was going to act with or without Washington
Well more time passed and the problems weren’t solved, the military still hadn’t been paid, and things weren’t getting any better. Washington learned that the military was planning a revolt to set up a military dictator with or without Washington. He attended a meeting in Newburgh, New York to once again try to persuade the military to be patient. By this time, Congress had realized that the Articles of Confederation wasn’t a good enough form of government, and they had some ideas for something better, but they hadn’t hashed out the details yet. Washington had a letter from congress describing what was planned and Washington planned to read that letter to the assembled military leaders so they might be convinced that things were going to get better. The military leaders weren’t really interested in listening to a letter from Congress which had failed them for years, but they were interested in the fact that Washington seemed to be having a difficult time reading the letter. Something was the matter and that got their attention. Then Washington fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and pulled out something that only his closest associates had seen him wear, it was a pair of glasses. He explained, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
It was this simple statement that achieved what all his arguments had been unable to do. His officers were in tears as they remembered and realized that Washington wasn’t ignoring them or their injustices. He understood everything they had endured completely, because he had endured it too. They voted unanimously to support their leader in finding a peaceful, constructive solution to their problems.
The entire “American experiment” hung on one speech by one man
Historians have emphasized that the whole American experiment hung on this one speech in Newburg, New York. A year later Thomas Jefferson wrote a paragraph of special praise about Washington. He said, “The moderation and virtue of a single character have probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
With God’s help and because they based their efforts on God’s law, the founding fathers were able to stop the pendulum and create a new kind of government, a people’s government, a lasting government, which became a model for other governments around the world. The reason that the beginning of the American Revolution is called “the shot heard round the world,” is because the success of the American experiment affected the whole world.
It’s time to recognize and appreciate the miracle of what took place
Today, many people assume that the way things are, is the way it has always been. Freedom and a government by the people is easy and obvious. Rather than recognizing the miracle that took place and the incredible good that was accomplished, they criticize and see only flaws. But remember that the freedoms you have to criticize the founding fathers, are based on the very foundation built by the work and sacrifice of the founding fathers.
Jesus gave some pretty good advice about criticizing others when he said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”
Individual “self-government” is the key to maintaining freedom
In conclusion, I’d like to share a quote by Brigham Young. He said, “Individual self-government lies at the root of all true and effective government, whether in heaven or on earth.”
Today, I hope you choose to make the world a better place by practicing excellent self-government.
See you next time, on Linda’s Corner.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young,” Chapter 36
The Making of America by Cleon Skousen
Exploring the Past: The French Revolution
World History Series: The French Revolution by Phyllis Corzine
History Highlights: The French Revolution
Wars that Changed the World, The French Revolution
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