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.


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