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The Great Divide: The Ideological Legacies of

the American and French Revolutions

As far as the West is concerned, the principal legacy of the French
Revolution is not the violence of the Terror but the social democratic
welfare state and definitions of positive social and economic rights as
matters of equality: ideas that are commonplace in all liberal
democracies. What is the legacy of the American Revolution? Every
liberal democracy respects the negative rights as we first envisioned
them; the notion that there are certain things the government should
not be permitted to do to us is nearly universal in Western
democracies. So, too, is the notion of the rule of law. The French
revolutionaries had no use for an independent judiciary. Today, the
very idea that a republic cannot exist without restraint is a
fundamental premise of modern democracy.

Two different stories. Two different national holidays. Two very

different revolutions.
The event as it is today celebrated in France by the name of La Fte
Nationale or Bastille Day was at its origins an uprising of the people of Paris
against their Government. There was no such thing as a speech or merely a vote of
those of a certain authority, it was a great upheaval of the people against
domination. Thus the French revolution.
13 years earlier, the independence from Britain of the 13 colonies on the
American continent was established not by civilian protests, but by long term legal
and political procedures, at the end of a bloody war. The American Revolution
came to reflect the discrimination and the unfair way in which the Americans were
at first governed by the British.

Two Different Revolutions Inspired by the Same Ideas

Despite the obvious differences which characterize the two revolutions, they were
based on the same ideology of liberty equality and the rights of people.
They are like windows into the souls of the revolutionsspotlights on their hopes
and dreams. They also explain why, to this day, so many of us in the West dispute
and argue over what is meant by freedom, equality, and human rights.

While the Americans felt the need to protect their freedom and put the basis
of a Government that would protect their rights and liberties, the French, inspired by
the famous writer Jean Jacques Rousseau, believed in living in the social harmony
resulted from a state of nature of individual sovereign.
As for the idea of equality, the Americans considered it from the point of view
of the law, while for the French that was a version of freedom, but as freedom was
only collective, for them being free and equal meant being in sync with the masses.

Radically Different Ideas of Government

The Government was envisioned differently by the two nations. The French
Government was supposed to deliver a set of rights, each of them accompanied by
a responsibility, in order for the population to live in harmony. In other words, in
France, rights were regarded as ideals imposed by the Government and French
people expected their leader to govern in a positive way, meaning to create and
For the French revolutionaries, there was no separation between the people
and the government. They were united infraternit, which meant that the
government was, like the people, absolutely sovereign.
In America, people declared their independence from the Government,
seeking to impose a set of protections against its ruling and a set of restraints which
would enhance that protection.
To them, the government was not the people, but the servant of the people.
The people were the subject, while the government was the object. Sovereignty
resided in the people separately from the object of its desires, the government.
Legacy of the French Revolution: The Loss of Restraint
There is one dark side of this legacy, meaning that after the revolution the
evil acts committed in the name of the common good became in themselves good.
This was best reflected by Communism.
Nonetheless, France as it is today consists of a nation that got over its
darkest periods and is based on an entirely different system. But the French
Republic today is a liberal democracy. As far as the West is concerned, its main
legacy is not the violence of the Terror but the social democratic welfare state and
definitions of positive social and economic rights as matters of equalityideas we
debate but which nonetheless are commonplace in all liberal democracies

Legacy of the American Revolution: Ordered Liberty and Rule of Law

Firstly, there are the civil rights, which in essence consist of what Government
is not allow to do to the people, and which can be found in most democratic nations.
Secondly, the idea of an independent judiciary and the notion of the rule of
law are of utmost importance in America and in every organization that protects
and fights for the human rights worldwide.
Finally, todays modern democracy is purely based on the restraints debated
and established ever since the Revolution and the instauration of a new form of
Government in America.
Truth be told, liberal democracies today are hybrid legacies of both
revolutions. () From the French we got the welfare state and the propensity to
centralization found in social democracy; and in America, we got our progressive
(communitarian) style of liberalism. () This AmericanFrench hybrid exists even at
the United Nations. The first 20 or so articles of the U.N.s Universal Declaration of
Human Rights are like our Bill of Rights. They are largely negative rightsthings we
want to protect people from, like slavery and torture. Nevertheless, at about article
number 22 and beyond, the U.N. Declaration slips over into positive rights that
could be, in spirit at least, taken directly from the French Declaration of the Rights
of Man. They include things like the right to work and the right to just remuneration.

These were among the most important events in human history. Every time
we grapple with a public issue, whether its how far the NSA should go in spying or
whether the welfare state should be larger or smaller, we are still debating the
fundamental concepts that first exploded on the world scene over 200 years ago.
To sum up, the spirit of the two Revolutions is still an important influence on a
lot of different levels. People not only commemorate those who fought for their
countries and who became extraordinary leaders, but look back on this events with
celebration. In my view, that is a sign of progress and prosperity, even though it
may not be obvious due to present-day difficulties (poverty, bad leadership from the
part of some presidents or governments). I reckon this prosperity find its evidence
on a more ideological level rather than practical one. For instance, the legal systems
may suffer changes and improvements, but the aim behind every change is
correlating the ideologies that date back to these revolutions with the reality of the
modern society and needs.