The revolutionary texts of both France and the United States focus on the injustices of the people have faced, and both appeal to the natural rights of man. One crucial difference between the two country’s texts, though, foreshadowed the ultimate success or failure of their respective revolutions: who the texts targeted as the barrier to the health of the nation. While the United States looked to the foreign, English King as the enemy of the people, France looked at members of its own citizenry as enemies of the country—a difference that proved destructive to France after its Revolution.
The Declaration of Independence paints the King as the source of all of the colonies’ problems. It is he who has refused to pass laws for the good of the people, and he who has prevented the people from receiving their proper representation. It is, in fact, one long catalogue of every way the King has wronged the American people. By targeting one single person as not only separate from, but an enemy to, the people, the Declaration of Independence was able to unite the people around a shared anger and identity; by clearly identifying the King as their common enemy, they were better able to band together as a unified nation. Indeed, the Declaration repeatedly refers to the collective “us”; it was “our most valuable Laws” that the King abolished, and the King has forced troops among “us” (p. 65). Thus, it creates a unified mass of people, banding together against the King.
France, by contrast, points its finger at its own people as the enemy. As Sieyès rallies the Third Estate together, he declares that “nineteen-twentieths” of France is burdened with the jobs that the privileged “refuse to perform” (p. 72). Thus, he creates a sharp division between 96% of the country, and the seemingly lazy remainder of the population. The First and Second Estates, he makes clear, are the enemies of the Third. Even in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, there is a division among the people; the Declaration only supplies for rights that would help the Third Estate. For instance, it provides for the freedom and equality of all men at birth, something that the First and Second Estates had no need for. Thus, even the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a document meant to protect the whole citizen body, really only belonged to the Third Estate, and was forced upon the First and Second. A document that truly belonged to the whole populace would have included provisions for not just the Third, but the First and Second Estates as well. Unlike the United States, which were able to unify around a common enemy, France was only able to have its Third Estate come together against its First and Second.
As the revolutions in both the United States and France went underway, it became clear what the consequences of this difference in enemies were. The United States was able to unite all thirteen colonies against the King, and, after winning the War, was able to unify under one confederation. France, by contrast, had a revolution where the people were unable to find an outsider against which the whole populace could unify; the people had no common cause, and so turned against each other even after the monarchy had been overthrown. Indeed, the Reign of Terror that followed the Revolution was largely caused by government officials’ own paranoia that their own people were turning against them. Thus, the inability of the country to unite in revolution caused instability and danger for years afterwards.
And so, even though both France and the United States had similar goals—to better the government’s representation of the people and to structure the government to best protect Man’s natural rights—it was not the systematic change that ultimately made the difference in the success of their governments; it was whether or not their people had ever been able to join together as one, single nation.