7. A Model for Europe
Europeans had long regarded American colonists as unsophisticated and uninteresting people, at best regular consumers of their exported goods. But with the Americans' victory in the Revolution—and the enlightened declarations they issued to justify their rebellion—they were deemed worthy of another look, especially in France which had risked much and spent much to support the Patriots' cause. Barely eight years after the military end of the American Revolution, France would erupt in its own revolution, overthrowing the monarch and dismantling its ancient institutions, with tragically different results. Presented here are two French perspectives on the American victory and its meaning—one written after the American Revolution, the other after the French Revolution of 1789. Both Frenchmen lauded America as a model for Europe that proved Enlightenment ideals could be realized in the body politic. Adulation is not an unfitting term for their praise, given the absolute certainty they held for the success of the United States.
Abbé Claude Robin, New Travels through North America (1781), publ. 1782, selections. A French Catholic abbot, Claude Robin served as a chaplain with the French army in America during the last year of the Revolutionary War, witnessing the surrender of Cornwallis in 1781. A year later he published a narrative of his war experiences, relating his impressions of the triumphant Americans and their "national character"—so different from the Europeans'—that would surely direct their newly won independence into stable nationhood. In his last section, Robin specified the Americans' traits that most amazed him—their self-sufficiency, ingenuity, and, "to the wonder of the world," their ability to transcend regional differences and unite in rebellion against a shared oppressor, Britain, which was oblivious to these traits in its subjects. (3 pp.)
Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, New Travels in the United States of America (1788), publ. 1791, selections. A fervent admirer of the American Revolution, the French political writer Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville fulfilled a dream by visiting the United States in 1788. For several months he travelled from Boston to Virginia, interviewing numerous Patriot leaders, evaluating the state of American slavery and abolitionist activity, and studying the Quaker lifestyle as a model for principled democracy. On his return to France he became enmeshed in the politics that led to the Revolution of 1789, and two years later removed himself from the escalating turmoil to publish Travels as a guide to independence upon the American model. His travels were intended "to study men who had just acquired their liberty," he wrote in his Preface, and to "be taught by them the secret of preserving it." The French were not able to preserve liberty from the polarizing extremism that led to the Reign of Terror of 1793-94, in which Brissot de Warville and thousands of others were guillotined as "enemies of the revolution." (4 pp.)
- According to Robin and Brissot, what made the American Revolution a model for France and the world?
- How did the creation of the United States prove that Enlightenment ideals could be realized in the body politic?
- How did it reflect the triumph of reason?
- What traits of Americans most contributed to their gaining independence, according to Robin and Brissot?
- What traits most assured Americans' ability to maintain their independence?
- What would jeopardize the French from doing the same, if and when they overthrew their monarch?
- According to Robin, what physical differences between France and the United States would assure the future of American independence? Was he right?
- Why did Robin praise Americans' ability to unify themselves as a "wonder to the world"?
- According to Brissot, how were morality and reason linked to achieve liberty under law?
- Compare his perspective on morality and nationhood with those of David Ramsay, Mercy Otis Warren, and Noah Webster (sections 2 and 3).
- Both Brissot and Benjamin Rush (section 8) predicted that America's triumph would lead to the end of warfare. Why did they think so? Why were their predictions wrong?
- Compare the Frenchmen's commentaries with the 1784 Observations of the British clergyman Richard Price, also an admirer of the American Revolution (section #2). How did Europeans' perspectives on the Revolution differ from those of Americans at the time?
- Continue this chart for an overview of the "advantages and disadvantages" of the Revolution as seen by the American and European commentators in this Theme, and to compile their recommendations for the new nation's survival and triumph. What patterns do you find? What issues were stressed as the most urgent?
- Select one pair from the list below of French and American commentators on the American Revolution, or select another pair with a shared perspective or issue. Create a dialogue between them in 1791 that reflects their shared perspective and concludes with their predictions for the new nation ten, fifty, or one hundred years in the future.
|–Robin & David Ramsay ||–emphasized American spirit of innovation|
|–Robin & Benjamin Franklin ||–emphasized differences between American and European values|
|–Brissot & Thomas Paine ||–involved in French politics after the 1789 Revolution|
|–Brissot & George Washington ||–were revolutionary leaders who met at Mount Vernon|
|–Brissot & Benjamin Rush ||–wrote commentary after the installation of the first U.S. government under the new Constitution|
- How did Americans envision independence and nationhood in the first years after the Revolutionary War?
- How did they begin to construct a national identity separate from their colonial identity as British subjects?
- In what ways was the new nation like "a child just learning to walk"? What postwar challenges most reflected this "state of infancy"?
Brissot de Warville, 1791
– Portraits courtesy of the New York Public Library: (1) Claude C. Robin, etching by Albert Rosenthal after an earlier print, Philadelphia, 1888, #424750; (2) Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, engraving, n.d., #1124758.
– French hand-colored etchings courtesy of the Library of Congress, French Political Cartoon Collection: (1) Les Anglois molestés et châtiées, 1779 (detail), LC-DIG-ppmsca-05891; (2) Le tiers état confesseur / La constitution française, 1791 (detail), LC-USZC2-3592.
Banner image: Final design for the Great Seal of the United States, 1782, by Secretary of State Charles Thomson (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
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