Lessons America can Learn from the French Revolution

This summer marks the 130th anniversary of the cataclysm known as the French Revolution. Specifically, the revolution began on 14 July 1789 when a mob stormed the royal prison known as the Bastille.

That simple act sparked a series of events that brought down one of Europe’s oldest monarchies, transformed France, and completely disrupted almost every country in Europe. The Revolution, also triggered nearly 25 years of war on several continents.

Interestingly, there is much that 21st Century America could learn from that 18th Century upheaval. Disturbingly, there are some similarities between modern America and France of the Ancient Regime; before the Revolution.

Lessons Modern America can Learn from the French Revolution

Lesson One: Reviving old and unfamiliar political institutions can be fatal

Strangely, French King Louis XVI himself triggered the French Revolution by holding the first session of France’s parliament or Estates General in 175 years.

The Estates General had not met since 1614, but Louis and his advisers thought it could push through needed financial reforms. However, the Parlement of Paris; a court, was blocking the King’s reform program with legal technicalities. The hope was the Estates General could end the gridlock and pass the reforms.

Instead, when it met in May 1789 the three houses; or estates, of the Estates representing clergy, people, and nobles could not agree on anything. Eventually, the third estate representing the people rebranded itself as the National Assembly and started making law

The King’s clumsy efforts to suppress the National Assembly failed and it eventually seized of all of his powers. After a few years of upheaval, the radical Jacobins took over the National Assembly and began the Reign of Terror.

The Reign of Terror was a purge of all enemies of the Jacobins and members of the Ancient Regime. The Reign’s most famous victims were Louis XVI and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette.

Today in America, there is large but fringe political movement to hold a Second Constitutional Convention; or Con-Con, and rewrite the Constitution. Since, America has not held a national Constitutional Convention since 1787 nobody knows how one could play out.

However, today’s Con-Con advocates believe they can control the Convention. Much as Louis XVI thought he could control the Estates General.

Lesson Two: gridlock can lead to revolution

Louis XVI’s Estates General revival was an attempt to overcome political gridlock. In the 1780s, conservative elements in French courts could easily block any effort at reform.

Today, American political commentary is nothing but a steady stream of complaints about political gridlock in Washington DC. Notably, one of President Donald J. Trump’s (R-New York) most popular campaign pledges was to end the terrible gridlock in Washington. Today, however, many people see Trump as a cause of gridlock.

Not surprisingly, calls for radical solutions are increasing. Tellingly, The Week pundit Ryan Cooper wrote “America’s Constitution is terrible. Let’s throw it out and start over” in 2018. Meanwhile, several Democratic presidential candidates want to pack the US Supreme Court.

To clarify packing means to add new justices to the court to overturn rulings a group disagrees with. Politico reports, four Democratic presidential contenders; US Senator Liz (D-Massachusetts), Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Minnesota), and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-Indiana), want to pack the Supreme Court.

In fact, left-wing pressure groups; such as Demand Justice and Indivisible, are actively promoting court packing. Meanwhile, on the right, “the king of gridlock US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) says there is “historical precedent for a Supreme Court with fewer justices.” However, there is also historical precedent for a Supreme Court with more justices.

Other plans to “fix” the Supreme Court include term limits for justices, and impeaching Supreme Court Justices. Supreme Court term limits is part of at least one Democratic Presidential Candidate’s, Andrew Yang (D-New York’s) platform.

Tinkering with the Supreme Court is so popular, left-wing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is speaking out against it. In a rare interview with National Public Radio, Ginsburg calls court packing a “bad idea.” Given what happened in France, RBG could be right.

Another radical cure for gridlock being floated in Washington is the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) for purely political reasons. Frighteningly, 100 of 235 Democratic members of the US of Representatives support impeachment, Vox estimates.

Such radical solutions are more popular than you might think. A 16 June 2018 Fox News poll found 43% of Americans support impeachment, Mediaite.com reports. Moreover, some Congressional Democrats are afraid of losing primary elections if they oppose impeachment.

Like the Con-Con, a presidential impeachment has never succeeded. Consequently, nobody knows what could happen after a successful presidential impeachment. However, like the Estates General revival, impeachment could lead to chaos if the president refuses to leave, or Congress tries to force the chief executive out.

Americans like the French in the 1780s are demanding increasingly radical “solutions” to gridlock and ineffective government. Hopefully, Americans wishing for radical solutions to divided government will not get want they want. The French got what they wished for and came to regret it.

Lesson Three: political upheaval never stays in one country

The French Revolution began as a political squabble in one nation, but exploded into a series of European Wars that lasted over for over 20 years. Eventually, those wars spilled over to other continents including Africa, and North America.

Fighting in the wars of the French Revolution; and the Napoleonic Wars, occurred in Haiti, Africa (specifically Egypt), and oceans around the world. French armies marched as far east as Moscow. Eventually, everybody forgot the political causes of the wars, yet, the fighting dragged on, and on and on.  The bloodshed continued even after France became an absolute monarchy again under Napoleon I. 

Notably, by 1815 Americans and British soldiers; who did not care about France, were killing each other in a related conflict called the War of 1812. That war broke out because of British assaults on American ships. The assaults were part of Britain’s naval war on Napoleon.

Lesson Four: Efforts to contain political upheaval will lead to more political upheaval

Interestingly, efforts by other powers to suppress and contain the French Revolution made the situation far worse. For instance, the Jacobins seized total control and launched the Reign of Terror during a foreign invasion.

The purpose of the invasion by the First Coalition was to crush the Revolution and restore Louis XVI to the throne. Instead, the Jacobins executed Louis XVI and instituted a far more radical political program. One pretext for the radical program was total mobilization of French manpower and resources to protect the Revolution.

One result of those wars was the export of the Revolution to other Europe countries and the Caribbean by French soldiers at bayonet point.

Lesson Five Political and Income Inequality can lead to Revolution

A primary cause of France’s Revolution was the royal government’s failure to address vast political and economic inequality. Inequality bred frustration and jealousy which eventually fueled revolutionary violence.

For instance, much of the land in France in 1789 belonged to the nobility who made up 1.6% of the population, Jacobin estimates. Comparatively, in 2017 economist Eward N. Woolf Estimated 1% of American households controlled 40% of the nation’s wealth, The Seattle Times reports.

Alarmingly, 39% of Americans admit they lack the cash to cover an unexpected $400 expense, The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System estimates. Coincidentally, writers fill historical accounts of 18th Century France with descriptions of peasants so poor they lacked such basic amenities as shoes.

Notably, anger at the 1% has already fueled upheaval in America. That upheaval includes the presidential campaigns of U.S. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Donald J. Trump (R-New York), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and the Occupy protests.

The French government added insult to inequality with a wide variety of legal restrictions on the poor. Poor laborers needed a special passport to live in and work in Paris, for instance. Meanwhile, poor Americans face a growing number of restrictions, and rights violations often by local governments.

The New York Times Magazine claims governments fine or jail poor people for sleeping in the public library, unpaid utility bills, losing a drivers’ license, and having kids who skip school. Tellingly, many observers blame anger at fines imposed by a municipal government for a destructive 2015 race riot in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ultimately, it was political reforms that aimed to fix the French government’s lack of money at the expense of the poor and middle class by raising taxes that triggered revolution. Failure, to address growing inequality made the situation worse because average people who got nothing from government were more likely to revolt. Another reason the French poor revolted was that government undertook radical reforms while doing nothing for them.

In the final analysis, America in 2019 and France in 1789 have a lot in common. Both countries were big, powerful, and technologically advanced nations with great income inequality and ineffective governments. France’s inability to fix its problems led to revolution.

Hopefully, America can learn some lessons from the French Revolution before it is too late. If not, we could see a Second American Revolution with very a different outcome from the original.