How Did the American Revolution Influence the French Revolution?
The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution due to its philosophical ideas on the rights of individuals and the division of power. Additionally, French involvement in the American Revolution caused financial problems in France.
Inspiration from America Much of the ideology behind the French Revolution had its roots outside of France. Enlightenment intellectuals, such as John Locke, were influential all over the western world, and their ideas began seeping into political views at the time. Locke, an English philosopher, believed that the right of the monarchy to rule by descent was invalid and that the primary role of government was to make and enforce laws for the greater good of the public. Locke’s work was a source of inspiration during the American Revolution. When the Continental Congress convened and eventually formed the United States government after the American Revolution, many people in France began to believe that these ideas could be put into practice. These ideas came to the forefront in the early phases of the revolution, when the National Constituent Assembly replaced the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Regime with a constitutional monarchy, Montesquieu’s favored system of government. In 1789, the same assembly passed “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” a document that draws deeply from the works of John Locke and from Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence.” Of course, there were some differences in the ways America and France interpreted these new concepts of freedom. The American revolutionaries believed strongly in the concept of freedom as it applies to the individual. In contrast, the French revolutionaries believed in the concept of collective freedom. This led to different systems of government after each respective Revolution.
Supporting the American Revolution at All Costs The influence of the American Revolution was not only philosophical but also economic. France supported the American side in the American Revolution, which drove the country into debt. This coupled with years of bad harvests, disease and drought plunged France deep into an economic crisis. To avoid bankruptcy, French officials attempted to pass a land tax that the aristocratic and religious classes, who had formerly been exempt from such taxes, would have to pay. Unsurprisingly, these financial reforms were unpopular and brought the aristocracy close to revolt. High bread prices also caused massive unrest among the country’s poorer citizens. In an attempt to maintain the peace, King Louis XVI brought the nobility, middle classes and clergy together in Estates-General to air out their grievances. The general public began to assert more influence in the middle-class Third Estate portion of the third estate, but the aristocracy and the clergy constantly vetoed its complaints and suggestions. The other two groups in the Estates-General were unwilling to give up their status and power, which caused hostility within the assembly. To resolve the conflict, the king fully integrated the Third Assembly into the National Assembly, but the damage was already done. Chaos broke out on the streets of Paris and spread through the country. The peasant classes, who felt used and exploited by their landlords and tax collectors, took revenge throughout the countryside. In response, the National Assembly passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which drew inspiration from the ideals behind the American Revolution and from Enlightenment philosophers, such as John Locke. Although this declaration essentially abolished feudalism and set up France as a constitutional monarchy, it did not stem the tide of the revolution.