French and American Revolutions

The American Revolution and the French Revolution may have been at separate times, but the societies of both influenced the genesis of their respective revolutions. The relations of the revolutions to each other can be described as symbiotic. French philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Montesquieu and English thinkers that influenced American revolutionary thought such as John Locke all drew from each other to spur revolution. Because of the different situations of oppressive rule in their respective countries, however, their declarations are notably different. While the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man were different documents in terms of structure and language, the reason for writing was the same: namely to remedy the violation of the rights the writers believed were inalienable. The differences in these natural rights between the two declarations are a foreshadowing of the future success of these revolutions.

The revolutionaries in the American colonies did not need to worry about immediate retaliation from their King; he was overseas. In addition, the concerns of the people were mostly political and not social. Over all, the Declaration emphasized the violation of certain natural rights and the need to regain these rights: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Blaisdell 64). The Declaration also mentions the importance of prudence in the upheaval of government. These rights are concerned with stability and the overall happiness of the country as a whole; it is clear that the American revolutionary thinkers proposed the Declaration of Independence with the intention to eventually create a stable, functioning, and independent country that attempts to address the concerns of its citizens to a reasonable degree.

The Third Estate of the French, or the entire population of France save the clergy and nobility, faced a different dilemma: they lived in close proximity to their ruling class. However, the discontent of their audience from the wrongdoings of the ruling class was much more widespread than in the colonies. As a result, revolution was possible at the cost of social upheaval with no insurance of stability. Natural rights are also addressed first and foremost in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. However, these rights differ from the Declaration of Independence because of the writers’ contrasting priorities. By emphasizing “Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance of Oppression,” it becomes obvious that the French are more concerned with social upheaval through the elimination of the First and Second Estates than with political change (Blaisdell 80).

These differences in priority can be thought of as a foreshadowing of the success of these revolutions. In focusing on outright social upheaval without thinking about the political consequences, the French failed to create a stable basis for government the first time. On the other hand, the American, future-oriented approach to revolution created a secure starting point to create a new government.