On July 14, 1789, Thomas Jefferson was serving as America’s Ambassador to France. The author of the Declaration of Independence in another July, thirteen-years earlier, was an eyewitness to the political unrest leading to the storming of a political prison called The Bastille. Though the fortress housed only seven inmates at the moment, including four forgers, it remains the iconic symbol of the beginning of The French Revolution.
Our Constitution had been ratified a year earlier, and George Washington had recently been inaugurated as our first President, so there was great interest in America about what was going on in France 225 years ago. After all, the French had been extremely helpful to us during our successful struggle to, as Jefferson phrased it, “dissolve the political bands” that connected us to the British monarchy. Americans were therefore understandably sympathetic with a movement against monarchial tyranny in France.
The American and French Revolutions are linked in history largely because of chronology, but they were vastly different affairs. One led to a new birth of freedom—the other to terror and tyranny, becoming the prototype for unspeakable horrors to come.
Most Americans are familiar with a phrase from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961—that whole “Ask not…” thing. But I think the most important thing JFK said that day was this: “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.” [Emphasis added]
But what is happening in our nation right now may resemble what happened in France in 1789 more than what happened in Philadelphia in 1776. For many Americans, especially those on the left, the cry of “Liberty – Equality – Fraternity” is much more resonant than the one about “Life – Liberty – and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
It is in the parsing of those vitally important words that we find the keys to understanding where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. One revolution was about individual rights and dreams. The other was about “the people” as a group and the highest virtue being “the greater good.”