The American and French Revolutions provide a contrast between principle and ideology; between prudence and fanaticism; between prescriptive rights and extravagant ambitions; between historical wisdom and utopianism; between free government and democratic despotism…
A little book forgotten for a century and a half, Friedrich Gentz’s Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, has recently been reprinted in the United States. For the revolutions of our own century have given it renewed meaning. In the first year of the nineteenth century John Quincy Adams, only thirty-three years old, was Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to Prussia. Adams educated himself the whole of his life; and, perfecting his German during his residence at Berlin, he translated from the Berlin Historisches Journal (April and May, 1800) a long article on the French and American Revolutions by Friedrich Gentz, a rising Prussian man of letters, three years older than the precocious Adams. Gentz was the founder, editor, and sole contributor to this remarkable magazine of ideas. These were men of mark: Adams would become President of the United States, and Gentz, with Metternich, the architect of European conservatism. “It cannot but afford a gratification to every American attached to his country,” Adams wrote to Gentz, “to see its revolution so ably vindicated from the imputation of having originated, or been conducted upon the same principles, as that of France.”
Gentz had studied under Kant, but Burke’s Reflections had converted the young man to conservative principles, and, abhorring the theories and consequences of the French Revolution, he had translated the Reflections into German, thus exerting his first influence upon European politics and making his reputation. Like Gentz, the younger Adams had been profoundly influenced by Burke; and though he tried to act the role of arbiter between Burke and Paine, Adams really was persuaded by all Burke’s principal arguments. His Letters of Publicola, published in 1791, had demolished Paine’s Rights of Man and had cudgeled the French revolutionaries, enraging Jefferson. The Americans, young Adams had written, had not fallen into the pit of radical abstract doctrine: “Happy, thrice happy the people of America, whose gentleness of manners and habits of virtue are still sufficient to reconcile the enjoyment of their natural rights with the peace and tranquillity of their country; whose principles of religious liberty did not result from an indiscriminate contempt of all religion whatever, and whose equal representation in their legislative councils was founded upon an equality really existing among them, and not upon the metaphysical speculations of fanciful politicians, vainly contending against the unalterable course of events and the established order of nature.”
Thus Adams was of one mind with Gentz, and saw in Gentz’s essay the most succinct and forceful contrast between the moderate polity of the American colonies, founded upon a respect for prescriptive rights and custom, and the leveling theories of French radicalism. Only the word “Republic” was common to the two new dominations, Adams perceived; and the French Republic already had ceased to contain any element of true representative government. Adams’ translation of Gentz was published anonymously at Philadelphia in the same year, and was not reprinted until 1955. This little book has Adams’ style strongly imprinted upon it in translation; but in thought and structure, Gentz’s writing bears the mark of Burke’s Reflections and Schiller’s Thirty Years’ War—books which, by a curious coincidence, incalculably influenced both Gentz and the present editor in their early years. The folly of true and thoroughgoing revolution—which the American War of Independence was not—was the great theme of Gentz’s thought and action from 1791 until the end of his life. In 1827, defending his career against the strictures of a woman he loved, he summarized with a high sincerity the principles that had moved him:
I made my choice in my twenty-fifth year. Fascinated before that by the new German philosophy and also, no doubt, by some supposedly new disclosures in the field of political science, which in those days, however, was still very unfamiliar to me, I recognized my mission clearly and distinctly with the outbreak of the French Revolution. At first I felt, and later knew, that by virtue of the talents and abilities that nature had reposed in me I had been called as a champion of the established, and a foe to innovations. Neither my station in life, my circumstances and expectations at the time, my manner of living, nor any sort of inborn or acquired prejudice, nor any worldly interest, determined this choice. All my earlier political articles were written at a time when, wholly confined to reading and study, I had not the slightest connection with any important political figure, either within or without the country where I lived. That some of these articles should have made my name familiar in higher circles was only natural.
By the power of his pen, the obscure Gentz rose to be the associate of kings and the designer of the Concert of Europe. In the end, he did not prevail against the titanic powers of revolution, but he chose, like Cato at Utica, to defy destiny for the sake of truth.
I have always been conscious that despite the majesty and power of my superiors, despite all the lonely victories that we achieved, the spirit of the age would prove mightier in the end than we; that thoroughly as I have despised the press for its extravagances, it would not lose its dread ascendancy over all our wisdom; and that guile, no more than force, would be able to stay the great wheel of time, as you have written with equal truth and beauty. But that was no reason for me not to carry out the task faithfully and persistently, once it had fallen to me; only an unworthy soldier deserts his flag when fate seems inimical, and I have enough pride to say to myself in darker moments, Victrix causa this placuit, sed vista Catoni.
Yet the battle is not always to the strong; and as the dead Cato in some sense conquered Caesar, so Gentz’s ideas have had their vindication in the twentieth century. The dominant liberal school of nineteenth-century historians embraced the view that the French Revolution had been a noble and irrevocable stride forward toward a universal domination of peace and enlightenment and brotherhood, and they confounded the American and French revolutions as virtually identical manifestations of the same progressive movement. Even Gladstone, who read Burke through and through, concluded that Burke and his school had been utterly mistaken about the nature of the French Revolution. The Napoleonic interlude, the liberals maintained, had been only a passing reaction against the forces of charity and light which found their expression in French Revolutionary doctrines. It required the catastrophes of the twentieth century, and the grim recurrence of what Professor Talmon calls “totalitarian democracy” and Lord Percy of Newcastle calls “totalist democracy,” to convince the liberal mind that possibly something was wrong with the first principles of the French innovators.
With Burke, and with the Adams Presidents, Gentz perceived that disaster would come inevitably from the fallacies of Turgot and Condorcet and Rousseau and Paine. This little tract contains the essence of Gentz’s whole lifelong argument. The American Revolution, he contends, was—as Burke had said of the Glorious Revolution of 1688—“a revolution not made, but prevented.” The American colonists stood up for their prescriptive rights; their claims and expectations were moderate, and founded upon a true apprehension of human nature and natural rights; their constitutions were conservative. But the French revolutionaries, hoping to make human nature and society afresh, broke with the past, defied history, embraced theoretic dogma, and so fell under the cruel domination of Giant Ideology. Prudence and prescription guided the steps of the Americans, who simply preserved and continued the English tradition of representative government and private rights; fanaticism and vain expectations led the French to their own destruction. Burke, at the beginning of the American Revolution, had declared that the colonists were trying to conserve, not to destroy; they sought to keep liberties gained through historical experience, not to claim fanciful liberties conjured up by closet-philosophers; they were “not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and English principles. Abstract liberty like other mere abstractions is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object.”
Again and again, Gentz touches upon the profound differences between American and French principles which the course of history, since 1776, has now made clear to the scholars of the twentieth century. He contrasts, for instance, the Americans’ sound understanding of natural rights with the French illusion of the abstract “rights of man,” “a sort of magic spell, with which all the ties of nations and of humanity were insensibly dissolved.” This is the French heresy of vox populi, vox Dei, recently analyzed by Lord Percy of Newcastle in his Heresy of Democracy. The pretended right of the “people” to do whatever they liked, Gentz insisted, would swallow up all the ancient and precious and hard-earned rights of groups and individuals. And so it came to pass. The Americans sought security; the French, through their armed doctrine, irresponsible power. “As the American revolution was a defensive revolution, it was of course finished at the moment when it had overcome the attack, by which it had been occasioned. The French revolution, true to the character of a most violent offensive revolution, could not but proceed so long as there remained objects for it to attack and it retained strength for the assault.”
The verdict of the historians, liberal or conservative in their assumptions, now veers round to Gentz’s position. “The Americans of 1776,” Mr. Clinton Rossiter writes, “were among the first men in modern history to defend rather than to seek an open society and constitutional liberty; their political faith, like the appeal to arms it supported, was therefore surprisingly sober… Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of this political theory was its deep-seated conservatism. However radical the principles of the Revolution may have seemed to the rest of the world, in the minds of the colonists they were thoroughly preservative and respectful of the past…. The political theory of the American Revolution, in contrast to that of the French Revolution, was not a theory designed to make the world over.” Mr. Louis Hartz, though differing from Professor Rossiter in much, concurs here: “Symbols of a world revolution, the Americans were not in truth world revolutionaries…. The past had been good to the Americans and they knew it. Instead of inspiring them to the fury of Bentham and Voltaire, it often produced a mystical sense of Providential guidance akin to that of Maistre.”
With the French the whole attitude toward history, continuity, and the contract of eternal society was ruinously different. “So France, exhausted by fasting under the monarchy,” Paine puts it, “made drunk by the bad drug of the Social Contract, and countless other adulterated or fiery beverages, is suddenly struck with paralysis of the brain; at once she is convulsed in every limb through the incoherent play and contradictory twitchings of her discordent organs. At this time she has traversed the period of joyous madness, and is about to enter upon the period of sombre delirium; behold her capable of daring, suffering, and doing all, capable of incredible exploits and abominable barbarities, the moment her guides, as erratic as herself, indicate an enemy or an obstacle to her fury.” A penetrating modern critic of history and politics, Mr. Daniel Boorstin, in The Genius of American Politics, comes to a conclusion identical with Gentz’s: “The American Revolution was in a very special way conceived as both a vindication of the British past and an affirmation of an American future. The British past was contained in ancient and living institutions rather than in doctrines; and the American future was never to be contained in a theory. The Revolution was thus a prudential decision taken by men of principle rather than the affirmation of a theory.” But the French, as Tocqueville wrote, halfway down the stairs, threw themselves out of the window in order to reach the ground more quickly.
By seeming to tend rather to the regeneration of the human race than to the reform of France alone, it roused passions such as the most violent political revolutions had been incapable of awakening. It inspired proselytism, and gave birth to propagandism; and hence assumed that quasi-religious character which so terrified those who saw it, or, rather, became a sort of new religion, imperfect, it is true, without God, worship, or future life, but still able, like Islamism, to cover the earth with its soldiers, its apostles, and its martyrs.
It is the contrast between principle and ideology that Gentz gives us; between prudence and fanaticism; between prescriptive rights and extravagant ambitions; between historical wisdom and utopianism; between free government and democratic despotism. These confIicting forces are at war in the world still, and the prescriptive authority of English and American politics confronts the leveling frenzy of ideology and the ferocity of the enraptured Jacobin.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published in Contemporary Review (November 1956) and is republished here with gracious permission from The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.