Friedrich Gentz on the American and French Revolutions

A profound distinction was made between the American and French revolutions in Friedrich Gentz’s essay (whose name speaks for itself), The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution.  It said that the French Revolution was based on radical change, while the American Revolution was focused on preserving the tradition that it had inherited from England which was being destroyed.

Gentz described the American revolution as “a revolution of necessity”, because revolution was the only way to avoid a far worse situation that Britain was imposing. The early Americans did not seek to create an ideal society, or to increase their own prosperity from what it had been before. They wanted to go back to the old way of doing things, not to create a new way altogether. Gentz quoted a letter that was sent by the colonists to the king in September of 1775, which stated “we most solemnly assure your majesty, that we wish nothing more ardently than the restoration of the former harmony between England and the colonies”. It is clear how Gentz viewed the American, but his views on the French revolution had a different tone.

In contrast to the American Revolution, the French Revolution was totally offensive. It did not seek to defend the old way of doing things, instead it abolished completely the old system. Gentz described the American Revolution as having a direct object to achieve, and once this was achieved then all revolutionary activity ceased. In the French Revolution there was no single object, and the revolution went “in a thousand various directions”. Afterwards there was the Reign of Terror, in which many were gruesomely killed. In contrast, the Americans did not systematically root out those who had opposed the revolution at all.

This view of the American Revolution as a very conservative event, and the opposite for the French Revolution, seems to have the influence of Edmund Burke. Edmund Burk had a dim view of the French revolution as well, and believed that tradition should be always respected. He believed that change can exist, but it should be gradual and deliberate rather than chaotic, as in the case of the French. It is quite obvious how these ideas are present in the thinking of Gentz.

Friedrich Gentz believed that the American and French Revolutions were fundamentally different. The French Revolution was concerned with bringing about radical change, while the American Revolution wanted to stave off the changes that were being imposed upon the colonies by the British government. These two events could not have been more different in the eyes of Gentz.

The French Revolution

One of the most influential events in Western Civilization, the French Revolution had its beginnings in the age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment centered around the use of reason not only to determine scientific truths, but also to formulate laws and principles that govern the way mankind functions. It was also fueled by the extravagance of Louis XIV, who engaged in war after war and depleted the economy. The condition of the French economy had deteriorated since the reign of Louis XIV. There was much spending during his many wars, and the people were taxed to the very limit. King Louis XVI inherited a country that was a ticking time bomb. Between the extravagance of Louis XIV and the ideas of the Enlightenment, something was bound to happen. The French Revolution sought to create a society organized from the ground up by pure reason, with a utter disregard for any inherited institutions.

Louis XVI was forced to call the Estates-General in 1789 for the first time 175 years. It consisted of the three Estates that comprised the French people: the nobility, the clergy, and the rest. The Third Estate, that which comprised the common people, greatly outnumbered the other two Estates. The Third Estate was upset that did not have more influence, as the First and Second Estates would likely outvote the Third in many matters. Therefore, the Third Estate demanded that Louis change the voting system, incorporating voting by head instead of by Estate. It also demanded that Louis double the number of delegates that it could send to the Estates General. Louis consented to the latter, but he refused to allow voting by head. This was the main change that the Third Estate had wanted, and without it the second one was pointless.

The Third Estate met at a tennis court in June of 1789, and refused to disband until a constitution was established, and the king consented. However, things heated up further with the famous storming of the Bastille on July 14. The people believed that many political prisoners were being held there, so they formed a mob to liberate these prisoners. As it turned out, only seven inmates were being held, and they were mostly common criminals. Then came the night of August 4, at which the nobility were persuaded to give many of their privileges, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man was adopted. The Revolution built up steam with the confiscation of all Church lands in order to pay off some of the enormous debt, and the adoption of a new constitution in 1790 that established a limited monarchy. The clergy were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the state, and about half refused. Those priests who refused are referred to as “refractory”, while the ones who obliged are referred to as “constitutional”. In 1791 another constitution was established that limited the king’s power even further, allowing him only the authority to temporarily veto a law. This period, from 1789 to 1791 is known as the moderate phase. Things heated up far more in the years to come.

The radical phase saw the slaughter of the king’s royal guard in 1792 and the capture of Paris by a more radical group of revolutionaries. There also occurred the September Massacres, in which 1100 prisoners were killed, including 200 priests and three bishops. Finally, in January of 1793, the king was placed in a sort of mock-trial, was found guilty and was executed. Thus began the infamous “Reign of Terror”, rooting out Catholicism wherever it was found and guillotining anyone who found themselves against the current tide of the revolution. Robespierre, a major figure in the revolution who became increasingly powerful, passed a law that prevented the defense of anyone who went on trial for their life. Finally things went so far out of control there was what is known as the “Thermidorian Reaction”, during which Robespierre himself was executed on the ninth of Thermidor, 1794 (the old month system was abolished by the revolution). The revolution ended with this reaction, paving the way for an emperor to rise out of the ashes and restore order, just as  Caesar Augustus had done in Rome over 18 centuries before.

The French Revolution was a period of a great uprooting of old inherited institutions. The revolution was an embodiment of the ideas of the Enlightenment. It proclaimed the use of reason in the belief that society could be organized around it. It completely reorganized the structure of everything, from the political authority to the very month system. It eventually became so radical that the main proponent was executed and the revolution ended. The way was paved for someone to take absolute authority after the unrest and destruction of the Reign of Terror, a general named Napoleon.

The Dispute Between the Colonists and Great Britain

The dispute between Great Britain and the Colonists that lead to the American Revolution at its core concerned the role of tradition in the constitution. The actions of Great Britain went against tradition in the colonists eyes, and therefore infringed upon their rights as British people. The idea of the constitution had changed in Great Britain in the 18th century. The new belief was that the Parliament had supreme authority. The Colonists, on the other hand, subscribed to the previous century’s idea of the constitution which centered on traditional restraints on the government. It was not the Colonists who were putting forth a new system in the American Revolution, but the government of Great Britain. The Stamp Act was a great example of how Britain was doing things that were new. It required that a stamp be put on various types of document, showing that a tax had been paid. This tax, along with the Sugar act, went against tradition because the Colonists had no representative in the Parliament of Great Britain. Therefore, it went against the 1689 Bill of Rights. The belief of the Colonists was that traditional practices exercised restraint on the government of Great Britain, while the Britons themselves believed that Parliament had supreme authority. The position of the Colonists was not new or revolutionary, in fact it sought to return back to the original way of doing things.

Envy in ‘Paradise Lost’

In Paradise Lost, Satan’s ambition was fueled by envy, not jealousy. There is a great difference between the two. Jealousy is the desire to have or get something someone else has that is better, while envy seeks to destroy that which is better than it, not to acquire it. Envy is far more evil than jealousy, and it was the primary motivation for Satan’s deeds.

In Paradise Lost Satan called together a council of other powerful devils to try to determine their next course of action after being thrown out of heaven. Some believed that they should bide their time, others believed they should engage in a suicidal battle with God and his angels. Still others said that they should become totally autonomous from the kingdom of God, and begin a new kingdom of their own. All of these suggestions were rejected in favor of a final one by the devil Beelzebub. He stated that they should try to hurt God by destroying his most beloved creation, man. They would achieve this by causing mankind to rebel against God for the same reason that Satan rebelled against God. This strategy was centered on envy. It was not the reclaiming of God’s kingdom, or the institution of a new kingdom, but the destruction of God’s most beloved creation.

Jealousy is bad, but envy is a far greater evil. Those who are jealous want to improve their own condition. They see the benefits of others and have a desire to achieve those things for themselves. This jealousy can fuel great ambition, which can lead to great things. However, envy does not seek to gain that which it does not have. It seeks to destroy the goods of others, and fuels hatred rather than ambition. Jealousy can be a constructive force, inciting men to better themselves, but Envy is a solely destructive force that may even go against self-interest. Satan was envious of God, because he knew he would be unable to defeat him, or gain that which he desired.

Satan did not have the ability to defeat God, but he did have the ability to destroy some of His most beloved creation. If Satan had attempted to make his kingdom autonomous, as was suggested by one of the other devils, then he would have been succumbing to envy. However, he sought instead to cause God pain by destroying what He loved. Envy was Satan’s motivating force in Paradise Lost, not jealousy.

Personal Experience in Bacon’s Essays

An English politician and successful writer, among many other things, Sir Francis Bacon has had great influence on the literary genre of the essay, taking inspiration from the pioneer of the style, Michel de Montaigne. However, he did not provide a great deal of authority in his essays. They had numerous quotes and Biblical references, but these were not regular throughout. He had great familiarity with many of the subjects he wrote about, especially those concerning money and power. Montaigne often digressed into anecdotes and stories from his own life experiences, but Bacon stayed very much away from that area entirely. The arguments that Bacon set forth in a number of his essays could have been backed by his own extensive personal experience, and could have been made far more convincing. However, Bacon failed to do so, and his credibility suffered.

An influentiafrancis_bacon_viscount_st_alban_from_npg_2l politician in England, Francis Bacon served as Lord Chancellor and Attorney General in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He ran up great debt during his career and was charged with 23 counts of corruption in 1621 by his nemesis, Edward Coke. He was forced to leave Parliament, and devoted the rest of his life to study. Luckily, he escaped degradation, the reduction of his title as Viscount. He made great contributions to the scientific method, which is alternatively referred to as the “Baconian”. His disgrace and the ending of his political career must have had an extraordinary impact on his life, and yet they are not referenced in his works.

Bacon explored the theme of personal riches and wealth in several of his essays, none of which used his valuable personal experience as evidence. His essays Of Fortune, Of Riches, and especially Of Expense do not mention Bacon’s own circumstances. He was no stranger to riches, wealth, or great expense, as he had a large income and huge debt.He had a wealth of experience in the matters he wrote about, but he did not provide examples to attest to his authority on the subject.

In the essay on fortune, Bacon described how good fortune can come to men by accident, but more often “the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” He did not describe the bad fortune he encountered in his disgrace, and he did not describe his good fortune in avoiding degradation and retaining his noble title. These relevant personal experiences would have given Bacon far more credibility and authority as an essay writer.

The essay on riches is largely critical, and it again fails to provide information from personal experience. Bacon calls riches “the baggage of virtue”, impeding the way of virtue much like baggage impedes an army: “it cannot be spared nor left behind, but it hindereth the march”. Bacon was familiar with riches. He knew what they could do to a man who had them, and no doubt he drew from the knowledge he had acquired during his position in the royal court. However,the source of this valuable knowledge was withheld from the reader, again diminishing Bacon’s credibility.

Finally, Bacon’s essay on expense focused on an extremely relevant topic to him, but like the others, it did not invoke the authority of personal experience. Bacon lost his career because of debt, no doubt brought on by too great expense. The essay is largely concerned with giving good advice for what to do with riches. He said that if money is spent in certain areas, then it must be conserved in others: “A man had need, if he be plentiful in some kind of expense, to be saving again in some other… if he be plentiful in the hall, to be saving in the stable… for he that is plentiful in expenses of all kinds will hardly be preserved from decay.” Bacon knew this, as he himself fell into great debt, which cost him his dignity, his career, and nearly his title.

If Francis Bacon had referenced the great authority of his personal experience, he would have better shown his own credibility. He experienced the effects of both good and bad fortune, the result of what great riches do to a man, and what happens when expenses are not kept in check. All of these things and more did Bacon write about, but none of them invoked the powerful authority of personal experience.