Standard 10.2: “Students compare and contrast the Glorious Revolution of England, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution and their enduring effects worldwide on the political expectations for self-government and individual liberty.”

A Lesson Comparing the French and American Revolutions.

Explanation and Teacher Notes:

The French Revolution that exploded in 1789 became the dividing line in the Western world between the modern era and all that came before. What began as an attempt of the French government to raise taxes in 1788 became an increasingly violent explosion that abolished the feudal orders of nobility, the monarchy, and the Church within France. None of these would ever be fully or permanently restored in French society. In 1792, France went to war against Prussia and the Holy Roman Empire to preserve its revolution. In the following year, England and Spain joined the alliance against France. The alliance would still later be joined by Russia, and Europe was at war most of the time until 1815. Estimates are that upwards of five million died in these wars. Europe's national boundries changed radically, the Holy Roman Empire collapsed, having existed for one thousand years. And out of the Revolution came modern nationalism, the belief and feeling that one's country or nation was the most important group to which a person belonged.

Contemporaries then and historians now continue to debate the causes of the French Revolution. The Revolution then and now has both defenders and critics. Some French revolutionary leaders felt inspired by the American Revolution, which occured a decade earlier. Some Americans saw in the French Revolution the creation in Europe of the new American-style society. Other Americans cringed at the images of mass execution and civil violence.

This activity has students examine the causes, issues, and many key events of the French and American Revolutions and make comparisons among them. Students will be challenged as they get into source documents and create generalizations about the two revolutions. The lesson is designed to fit in the high school world history class and as written takes place in France; the lesson can be re-oriented to examine France from an American viewpoint as well. The date of the lesson in January 1793, so documents and events later than cannot in all fairness be used or referenced. Even though the ‘Terror’ is usually dated August 1793 to August 1794, the shape of things to come was quite clear in January, and opinion in Europe and the United States about the revolution was divided along lines that would not and have not changed very much since.

The lesson centers around the diplomatic mission sent by France to the United States in early 1793. War in Europe started in April 1792, and France wanted the United States to honor its treaty of alliance of 1778 and join the side of France in its war against what would soon be most of the major countries of Europe. French representative ‘Citizen Genet’ arrived in South Carolina and began a whirlwind speaking tour in various cities and towns, working his way to Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States. He had meetings with President Washington and his cabinet. Genet was counting on public opinion to win his case. Large crowds gathered in support of Genet whenever he spoke. Newspaper columns mostly called for war in support of France. In the American government, Cabinet member Thomas Jefferson, supporter of the French Revolution, argued violently with Cabinet member Alexander Hamilton, fierce opponent of the direction he thought the Revolution was moving. After several months, President Washington took a risky political step and issued a ‘Declaration of Neutrality” (which, though not part of this lesson, can be viewed at

It will be essential for students to realize that all documents, letters, and statements, beginning with the 'authentic communication' in this lesson, are written from a particular viewpoint, and therefore are biased in some way.

It will be crucial for students to avoid over generalizing. The historian Crane Brinton in his 1937 Anatomy of Revolution argued that major socio-economic-political revolutions go through similar 'stages', caused by similar social class issues. He compared the French, Russian, and Mexican revolutions, noting that the American case was unique. He argued that revolutions are started by the upper middle classes in times of economic peril that follow prosperity, and that as lower classes take over the revolutions they become more violent. Eventually revolutions 'cool off', the most violent of the leaders are themselves removed from power, and after order is restored by a dictatorial leader, the revolutions move back into middle class control. Once the revolution is over, some parts of the old power structure return, but mostly in form only. This is the oft told and very over-generalized story of the French Revolution.

Considerable research, much of it econometric in that huge quantities of economic data are analyzed in computer databases, has shown that class lines before 1789 in France were much more fluid than Brinton had known. For example, many of the French aristocracy as it was composed in 1789 had purchased their titles in the century prior. During the revolution, many middle class people opposed much of the revolution, and many nobles supported it. While some of the urban poor, especially in Paris, supported some of the most extreme measures of the Revolution, others just as strongly opposed it. Victims of execution were more often middle and lower class than nobility. So, students need to be encouraged not to go too far in generalizing socio-economic groups in their analyses.

Student assignments include directions that guide the students into sources, documents, and suggest perspectives of which students should be aware. Students will compare documents from the American and French Revolutions, first in teams dealing with two or three documents, afterwards they come together for a de-briefing discussion in which all the comparisions are brought together.

It is possible to do this lesson from the American point of view, and have a debate in President Washington’s Cabinet (imagine Jefferson and Hamilton’s strong and violently opposed feelings about the French Revolution and the arguments that would have ensued) over the question of how the President should react to Genet. Such an approach would be more focused on American perspectives than French, and would more fit an American history course than a world history course.

A major part of the comparison must include discussion of Haiti, or San Domingo as it was called, during the French Revolution. A huge slave revolt, by all accounts the largest slave revolt in history, exploded in 1791. This was very much a response to the revolutionary ‘Rights of Man’ and abolition of feudal privilege issued and enacted by the National Assembly in 1789. The revolt was bloody. Many plantation owners were killed, plantations destroyed and burned, and the response was equally brutal. The revolution in Haiti became a three-sided civil war, the whites, the creoles (mixed race people who owned 1/4 of the plantation), and the black slaves. Thousands of owners, some sources claim as many as 25,000, fled to all parts of the United States. American newspapers in all cities carried stories of the violence and atrocities committed by the slaves (often giving less coverage to the atrocities committed by the slave owners). For many Americans, Haiti became the image of what might happen if slaves were freed in the United States. The enormity of the numbers killed and injured came from the bitterness instilled by some of the most difficult living and working conditions for slaves anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, and the fact that almost as many slaves lived in Haiti in the 1790’s (upwards of 500,000) as lived in the whole United States at the same time (approaching 600,000). The situation in Haiti was one that would continue to keep American slave owners awake nights, and that strengthened their resolve to prevent any emancipation. At the moment Genet landed in the United States, the newly reconstructed government in Paris, the Convention, was looking to free the Haitian slaves, which they did in late August 1793, well after President Washington issued his Proclamation of Neutrality. Up until August 1793, both the American and the French revolutionary leaders did not move toward emancipation of slaves.

In the French case, trade with their colony of Haiti, direct and indirect, was two thirds of France's foreign trade, and the livelihood of literally millions of French citizens relied on that trade. Only the most radical of French revolutionaries would support freedom for the slaves; the people who set up the guillotines and almost gleefully launched the ‘Terror’ would free the slaves of Haiti. Some years later, Napoleon would send a large army to Haiti to reestablish slavery. His 60,000 troops would mostly die, and as a result of the defeat Napoleon would give up any plans for a North American empire and to sell his newly acquired Louisiana territory to the United States.

The significance of the slave revolt in Haiti then needs to be kept in mind as students compare the revolutions. How was it that the ‘inalienable rights’ of the Declaration of Independence and the ‘’rights of man’ of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in neither case was applied to the enslaved of both countries?

Particularly useful resources for any part of this lesson include:

The Oxford History of the French Revolution, by William Doyle. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, by Jack R Censer and Lynn Hunt. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. [Includes a CD-ROM for both PCs and MACs with over 400 documents, pictures, maps, timelines, songs. Includes its own search engine for use of key revolutionary terms and phrases.] is a new (late 2001) website edited by Jack R Censer and Lynn Hunt that has most of the material on the CD-ROM listed for the book above. It has its own search engine for documents, and contains several hundred items, including maps, a detailed timeline, overview essays on a variety of subjects, and pictures. To search for a document, or documents grouped by topic, go to:

For a map of Europe in 1789, go to:

For a detailed timeline of events leading up to the revolution as well as the events of the revolution itself, go to:

The wide range of documents available at the ‘’ site allows expansion of this unit to look at a broader set of issues about the French Revolution. Documents regarding topics such as long term economic causes of revolution, the emergence of more extreme revolutionaries in the early 1790’s, the roll of women in the revolution, various personal accounts from all social classes about the personal impact of revolution, are all readily available.

Documents about the American revolution are listed in 25 year clumps at: Again, many topics outside the scope of this lesson are available there.

A broad range of documents in European history, including the French Revolution but including the whole range of European history, are at:

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