Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Revolutionary Principles

Keeping with Brian Tubbs' latest post at American Creation on the American and French Revolutions, I note that we (myself, co-bloggers, readers) have uncovered some interesting not too well known facts on these sister events.

For instance, there's a quotation by John Adams that speaks of 1/3 of the American population being in favor, 1/3 being on the fence, and 1/3 being against "the event." Most folks familiar with the quotation think it refers to the American Revolution. But a closer reading of the context of the quotation reveals Adams may well have been speaking of Americans' view of the French Revolution.  (Somewhere in American Creation's archives exists the evidence for this assertion.)

Perhap we should take Adams' thoughts with a grain of salt.  All human beings have selective memories that support their agendas.  And Adams had an anti-French Revolution (and pro-unitarian) agenda.  (On his pro-unitarian agenda, the quotation below shows Adams claiming theological unitarianism was ramptant in Massachussettes by 1750; I've seen one source claim at least one of the figures below was improperly put in the unitarian box; though I take Adams at his word that most of these names are properly categorized:
I thank you for your favour of the 10th and the pamphlet enclosed, "American Unitarianism." I have turned over its leaves and have found nothing that was not familiarly known to me.

In the preface Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New England. I can testify as a Witness to its old age. Sixty five years ago my own minister the Reverend Samuel Bryant, Dr. Johnathan Mayhew of the west Church in Boston, the Reverend Mr. Shute of Hingham, the Reverend John Brown of Cohasset & perhaps equal to all if not above all the Reverend Mr. Gay of Hingham were Unitarians. Among the Laity how many could I name, Lawyers, Physicians, Tradesman, farmers!

-- John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, May 15, 1815. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress.)
We all know how the French Revolution turned out (historical hindsight is 20/20).  What is interesting is how Americans, especially America's Founders, viewed the event before it went wrong.  (Similar to public opinion on America's second Iraqi War before the invasion and 10 years after).

After meticulously reading the record, I would take Adams' 1/3 sentiment as a self serving lowball against the French Revolution.  Though, admittedly, I'm more familiar with what the Founding Fathers said about the French Revolution than the average American man in the streets during the Founding era.

John Adams, with his suspicion of the revolution before it began, was the unoptimistic outlier.  From what I have seen, most Founders, with their Enlightenment optimism, supported the French Revolution at the beginning and had great hopes for its success.  This makes sense given France was a key ally in the American Revolution.

Also, the political theology of the French Revolution also was not atheistic as some mistakenly believe.  As I noted here, like the American Revolution, it was a theistic event.  For a while, perhaps being blinded by their anti-Roman Catholic bigotry, Protestant Christians in America viewed the French Revolution as a "Protestant Christian" event.  See for instance, this post and this page on the notable orthodox Protestant minister Ezra Stiles (President of Yale) and his support for the miltiancy of the French Revolution until his death in 1795.

Over time, though, it did become clear that the theistic or deistic policial theology of the French Revolution with its worship of the "Supreme Being" was less compatible with traditional notions of Christianity.

Unlike the American, perhaps it was a case of trying to do too much too soon.

1 comment:

Jim51 said...


The quote comes from a letter to James Lloyd dated January 1815. This letter can be found in “The Life and Works of John Adams” Volume 10, page 108- edited by Charles Francis Adams, Little Brown and Company-1856.

It does seem clear enough from the entire letter that, as you suggested, he was referring to the American public split regarding the French Revolution. This was in the context of a discussion regarding his missions to France during his administration which did get a small but temporary boost during the time that the French Navy was preying upon our shipping.

I agree with you that Adam’s memory of the political balance is kinder to himself than the reality seems to have been.