AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken commemorated France’s National Day this past weekend by tweeting that “The War of Independence and the French Revolution were fueled by the same aspirations for freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
While the tweet caused little controversy in France, it provoked a minor furor online in the United States. For many Americans, the statement seemed to equate America’s founding fathers with ruthless tyrants such as France’s Robespierre who oversaw the guillotine in the squares of Paris.
But Blinken’s real offense was his embrace of the modern left’s effort to reduce the American Revolution to “ideas.” With the 1619 Project charging that the men (and women) involved in our revolution, notably George Washington, were morally compromised by their era, Democrats like Blinken cannot invoke them.
Both the French and American revolutions had “ideas” like “freedom” and “democracy.” Some ideas were similar, some different, but ultimately the American Revolution succeeded and the French Revolution failed not because of ideas, but because of men.
So, Blinken is forced back on the “ideas” of the American Declaration of Independence and French Declaration of the Rights of Man, neither of which was a project of government. The result of this ahistorical worldview is that we cannot assess why one revolution succeeded or the other failed, nor can Blinken even hint that one did in his diplomatic note.
What the controversy over Blinken’s tweet reveals is the need for a history curriculum that focuses on the unique nature and success of America’s founding, rather than on modern grievance politics. Before the 1619 Project, there were generations of revisionist historians who sought to undermine the myth of America’s founding, to reduce the events to a product of great historical forces, and thus portray the founding fathers as mediocrities.
The 1619 Project stands on the shoulders of earlier historical curricula which stressed how George Washington was supposedly a dreadful general. The first problem, as will be discussed, is that this revisionism was wrong even before it merged with the grievance politics of Critical Race Theory.
Worse, however, it ignores that the field of history exists for a reason – not to settle moral scores with the dead, but to provide perspective to the living.
The American Revolution was in fact exceptional; a revolt establishing an independent republic that would last for at least two-hundred and fifty years without a coup and only one Civil War. This was something the French and Russians in 1791 and 1917 failed to manage for even a single year.
The problem with the French Revolution was not a lack of ideas, or a lack of idealism. The French revolutionaries were probably better read than their American contemporaries, and Duma politicians in Russia had little to do but engage in elaborate intellectual discourse about the sort of democratic utopia they would construct if they ever took power during the rule of the Romanovs. Sun-Yat Sen dreamed of a United States of China when he raised the flag of revolution against the Qing dynasty in 1911, and would have been horrified at the neo-imperial dystopia the Chinese Communist Party has built. They were all inspired by the American example because it succeeded.
Why then, did it succeed? The ideas were useful, but the Declaration of the Rights of Man echoes much of the Declaration of Independence, if not the more restrained and realistic tones of the Constitution.
The Declaration was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia planter whose wealth allowed him to dabble in liberal intellectual politics, much like the scions of the high nobility who initially led the French and Russian Revolutions. (The first prime minister of “democratic Russia” in 1917 was a prince.)
Jefferson would initially embrace the French Revolution, even during the Reign of Terror, only turning against it with the rise of Napoleon.
Here, if the authors of the 1619 Project wished a serious discourse about the impact of slavery on the founders, they might find an analogy with the French and Russian examples. Forced labor, whether in the form of serfs, peasants, or slaves, freed wealthy members of the upper class from the need to work, and allowed them to approach society on a purely intellectual level.
The impact of slavery was not to make Jefferson more conservative, any more than serfdom made European nobles more conservative. Rather, it made the latter blind to exactly how unpopular the economic and social order was.
Unlike the Declaration, which Jefferson drafted, the U.S. Constitution was produced by a convention presided over by George Washington. Washington may have owned slaves, as the authors of the 1619 Project are always determined to remind us, but he was no gentleman farmer. He trained as a surveyor and sought a professional military career. Politics was real to him. He would become the rock on which America was built.
America did not lack for foolish demagogues such as Thomas Paine, nor naïve would-be technocrats such as Hamilton, who like the Abbe Sieyes in France, would have handed the country over to a Bonaparte if left to their own devices. Both groups were checked by Washington.
Washington did so through establishing something no democrat in France or Russia or China ever wielded: a monopoly on force. Washington held the personal loyalty of the entire Continental Army. What that meant was that no one could use force against him. Any official or politician or even general who tried to rally disaffected soldiers would find their men desert when faced with Washington. Washington generally did not need to use this power, because everyone knew he could.
Many say Washington could have made himself king. Perhaps, but he could not have founded a kingdom. He lacked any heirs of his own blood, and even had he wished Hamilton to succeed him, Washington was aware that Hamilton could only do so over the bodies of those who would try and stop him. A monarchy promised not peace and prosperity, but terror, purges, and civil war.
Once Washington rejected using force himself, he could concentrate on creating a system in which no one else could seize power.
It is easy to spot the moments when the American experience could have gone off the rails in the way revolutions abroad did. In 1782, Continental soldiers, furious with their lack of pay, mutinied and moved to march on Congress. Had Washington chosen to lead them, he could have become a dictator. Had Washington been unable to stop them, they would have established a precedent that whenever soldiers felt underappreciated or underpaid they could mutiny and march on Congress.
Politicians within Congress on the losing end of debates could also have stepped outside and tried to appeal to the troops like a Roman Senator plotting a coup. America would have dissolved into military anarchy on the model of newly independent Latin American and African Republics before it had even achieved independence from Britain.
Washington ended that mutiny by his own personal prestige. It did not matter if the soldiers had valid complaints. He could not allow that method of redress to be legitimized. The knowledge that Washington could call upon that loyalty likely helped ensure the Constitutional Convention went off without incident.
In other nations, summoning a Constituent Assembly is dangerous. Any body empowered to create a new government will question whether it can be bound by the laws or rules of the old. The French National Assembly, by declaring itself sovereign, declared itself all-powerful. Yet its successor, the Legislative Assembly, by virtue of election, did not feel itself bound by the Constitution of its predecessor.
The National Convention which followed in turn based its legitimacy on the people. The model around the world is for constitutional assemblies to try to assume power, and either be dispersed by force or use it. Washington, as chair of the Convention, made clear to everyone its work had his endorsement, while also ensuring it would not produce anything he did not approve of.
The constitutional powers of the branches of government could be left vague because everyone knew Washington, as president, would be in charge.
Washington’s retirement too is misunderstood. It was not that he retired after two terms, which was important. Rather, it was that he allowed a successor to be elected and to take office while he was still alive, watching over him. This meant a recourse to extra-legal means by anyone was unthinkable because at the end of the day the army might have been more inclined to obey Washington’s orders than the president’s.
No such figure existed in France or Russia. Lafayette aspired to such a role, but he could not even persuade his National Guardsmen to block a march by the wives of fishmongers on Versailles or to protect the king or National Assembly from them. He was eventually forced to cross Austrian lines, fleeing his own troops.
If there is any one thing that made the American Revolution work, it is George Washington. Efforts to diminish him are not just historically inaccurate, but also damaging to any society or leader who tries to use the American experience as an example. If no “Great Man” such as George Washington was responsible for the American Revolution succeeding in establishing a stable republic, then in turn, the absence of such a figure cannot explain why the Russian and French revolutions failed to do so.
The result, ironically, is the inverse of what most of those who promote revisionism wish. Rather than undermine views of national exceptionalism, a narrative which denies the key role played by the founding fathers, it suggests that it is the fault of the French and Russians themselves that they failed.
These conclusions then appear not just in current discourse about whether the French were somehow “unready” for democracy at the time of their revolution, but that the Russians are somehow genetically or culturally incapable of it. It is one step away from making excuses for the CCP’s oppressive rule in China, which can be written up as part of a long Chinese tradition.
Blinken’s tweet was foolish—but the greater sin is committed by the historical revisionists in his party.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.