Sep 25·edited Sep 25Liked by Cathy Young

Well said. I find Blinken's Tweet innocuous to the point of banal. The American and French Revolutions were both manifestations of the spirit of the age, which saw political revolution not only in those two places, but in Latin America and Haiti as well, all of which were self-consciously guided by groundbreaking declarations of human rights, the great expressions of the Enlightenment era political awakening that continue to inspire, or ought to.

That age of revolution constitutes the modern invention of human rights, and that's its enduring legacy, despite the various ways revolutions of the time turned sour or failed to live up to their liberal promise. They struck a decisive blow against absolute monarchy and caste privilege, establishing liberal principles as a new normal over the long term. When Napoleon said that he was the Revolution, it was not mere self-serving grandiosity. Even as he shred democracy, he did accept the revolutionary ideals of civil equality, fair opportunity, and meritocracy.

There's a reason French patriotism to this day harkens back to the Revolution, despite the dizzying intervening regime changes. Neither France, nor Europe, nor the world was the same after the French Revolution, and France would never go all the way back. Like the American Revolution, it represented a durable assertion of (1) a national identity and character (2) grounded in universal principles of liberty and equality.

The author's point about slavery is instructive. She might have also noted that France abolished slavery in its colonies at the height of the terror (only for it to be reinstated under Napoleon). My point isn't to excuse the terror because the terrorists -- Robespierre himself -- did the right thing on slavery, any more than it is to excuse American slavery because America avoided a French-style terror, but merely to suggest that those who would condemn the French Revolution on its not insignificant specific failings sound a bit like those who argue, 1619-ishly, that America's founding is likewise little more than a massive crime scene. Both sorts of critics, I suggest, miss the forest for the trees.

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I'm not sure if the writers write the headline in Persuasion, but I really hope Young is not offering two cheers for the horror show that was the French Revolution.

The fact that the preliminary stages were more moderate, or that their task was more difficult than that of their American counterparts, hardly excuses the bloodbath that followed.

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Oct 8·edited Oct 8

A good answer to this issue, like so many others in political economy, can be found in the writings of Tom Sowell.

One of the fundamental differences between the revolutions was that the American one followed what Sowell calls the "constrained vision" of human nature whereas the French one adhered to the "unconstrained vision."

So, from the beginning, American revolutionaries and our Founding Fathers were very always alert to the inexorable and innate downsides of human nature--greed, aggression, self-seeking, partisanship, etc. So they geared an organization devoted to limiting those downsides with check & balances, and limitations on factionalism and individual power.

By contrast, the French revolutionaries, with their belief in "perfectible man" thought they could discard all of the past's restraints on human behavior, throwing out everything, right down to the calendar. By creating an ideal rational state they could do away with all the past's vices along with human nature itself and create a new virtuous sort of citizen that would be free of all that heritage. Of course, that vision was so wonderful and necessary, that no means should be spared in attaining it, e.g. mass killings of anyone deemed insufficiently revolutionary. You gotta "break a few eggs to make an omelet" as later fellow-travelers would say.

The French revolution set the path for various totalitarian regimes that followed. When stubborn people don't conform to the lofty unconstrained ideal, there's an inevitable inclination (often by frustrated intellectuals in these regimes) to make them fit, Procrustean style. That's how you get Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Guzman, et al.

In short, the French Revolution was based on a deeply flawed worldview, one which has killed hundreds of millions of people in the intervening years. To compare it to the American Revolution is like comparing a turd to tiramisu.

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I also think that the choice of title could have been more friendly to the general public who are non historians and inevitably biased. Most people would probably accept that the two revolutions were driven by the same underlying evolutionary wave for human rights. The wave itself is neither French nor American. Therefore, the cheers have no nationality. The real opportunity for humanity seems to learn from the different ways of riding the wave by the French, the American and other people in past and present. What led to sustainable improvements of the human condition?

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