French and American Political Theory in 1789

by James Robb

The American and French Revolutions were driven by very similar circumstances. Citizens of both nations were being over-burdened by heavy taxes imposed by governments that did not allow for the representation of the citizenry. These revolutions resulted not only in the emancipation of two nations, but also in the composition of some of the most important documents in the history of government: the Declaration of Independence written in 1776, the American Bill of Rights introduced in 1789, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen drafted that year.

The mood in Paris, and France in general, during Thomas Jefferson’s tenure as ambassador was troubled to say the least. The nation suffered from crippling debt and an ineffectual monarch. The people, inspired by the citizens of the former American Colonies, wanted a new government that would be more representative of the lower and middle classes. Similar to the American Revolutionaries, the French people were eager to rid themselves of their oppressors and form a government representative of the general will. The events of 1789 are well known; the calling of the Estates General for the first time since 1614 led to the dismissal of the representatives of the Third Estate. These representatives then went to a nearby tennis court and swore the famous oath to meet every day until they had agreed upon a constitution for France.

The Declaration of Independence, written mostly by Thomas Jefferson and then signed by representatives of the thirteen Colonies, was influenced significantly by the French political philosophers Montesquieu and Rousseau. Both these men espoused the ideas of new government and political rights for all men. According to Joseph Ellis, Jefferson saw a serious opportunity to assist the French people with their state-making and he was keen to assist them (126). The Marquis de Lafayette was one such man, a very influential figure in both the American and French Revolutions. A member of the National Assembly, the responsibility fell to him to draft a proto-constitution to be voted on by the Assembly. Lafayette had developed a friendship with Thomas Jefferson during his stay in North America and the Virginian read the Declaration of Rights and offered Lafayette his criticism. A consensus among historians cites this collaboration as an important source of congruity between both the documents and the general political philosophies of the two countries (Van Kley 154). Although they were written by different men on different continents the similarity between the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Bill of Rights is quite apparent. These similarities exhibit the strong intellectual and philosophical link that existed between the United States and France. The citizens and state-makers of both these countries held an enlightened view of individual liberty that was unique in the Western World at this time.

The fundamental principles of the Bill of Rights are expounded in ten amendments and the Declaration of the Rights of Man contains seventeen articles. These documents display the comparability of their ideals in many ways but one of the most striking is the similarity of language and phrasing. The phrase “inalienable rights” appears in Jefferson’s introduction to the Declaration of Independence, and it is also found in the second article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, another example of the influence Jefferson and his Declaration had on Lafayette’s work. The content of these documents is almost parallel. Articles four through nine closely resemble the Amendments in the Bill of Rights concerning the rights of the individual. French political scientist Émile Boutmy referred to a “matrix” between the two countries regarding political thought and ideals (Van Kley 155). The interaction between Jefferson, Lafayette, and other French statesmen can be viewed as part of this “matrix.”

As the political motivations for both these Revolutions were so alike, it would seem probable that they would yield comparable political results. The U.S. Government took only thirteen years to settle on a suitable form of government. Unfortunately, the French government made several missteps, both with monarchies and dictatorships before it became a true democracy with political freedoms extended to all. This did not weaken the political bond between these two nations and they have remained firm allies for large parts of the last two centuries. The ideas that drew Lafayette and Jefferson together and produced these extremely influential documents are the building blocks of our nation and this shared history, and philosophy help to link the French and Americans today.

Works Cited

Janis, Mark W. “The Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the Bill of Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly, 14. 4 (1992): 478-484. Print.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.

Van Kley, Dale. The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994. Print.

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