In 1790, the American diplomat and politician Gouverneur Morris compared the French and American Revolutions, saying that the French "have taken Genius instead of Reason for their guide, adopted Experiment instead of Experience, and wander in the Dark because they prefer Lightning to Light." Although both revolutions professed similar Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, there were dramatic differences. The Americans were content to preserve many aspects of their English heritage; the French sought a complete break with a thousand years of history. The Americans accepted nonviolent political conflict; the French valued unity above all. The Americans emphasized individual rights, while the French stressed public order and cohesion. Why did the two revolutions follow such different trajectories? What influence have the two different visions of democracy had on modern history? And what lessons do they offer us about democracy today? In a lucid narrative style, with particular emphasis on lively portraits of the major actors, Susan Dunn traces the legacies of the two great revolutions through modern history and up to the revolutionary movements of our own time. Her combination of history and political analysis will appeal to all who take an interest in the way democratic nations are governed.
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The American and French Revolutions claimed the same Enlightenment ideals: freedom, equality, justice. Still, the two events were profoundly different in method and result. The American Revolution led to a well-reasoned public dialogue on the nature of democracy and the role of the fledgling government. This dialogue culminated first in the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution, on which the country has been anchored securely ever since. The French Revolution, on the other hand, led to the height of unreasonableness: a bloodbath of recrimination followed by a fragile republic destined to yield again and again to upheaval. Williams College professor Dunn (The Deaths of Louis XVI) explores the roots of these differences, finding that they spring from differences in the basic philosophy of citizenship espoused in each embryo state. While the Americans believed individual rights to be paramount, the French insisted on the appearance of public unity. Individual liberty was no more valued in the early French Republic than it had been under the Bourbons, she explains: "Armed with the `truth,' Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics," writes Dunn. "Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people's `enemies' was obliterated." And as Dunn observes, tyranny does not good nation-building make. Dunn's comparative analysis is solid and well articulated--as far as it goes. A penultimate chapter, "Enlightenment Legacies," which treats the influence of the French and American experiences on subsequent revolutions from Russia to Africa, only begins to explore the legacies left by the sister revolutions. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.