The French Overdid It
Smithsonian, 2000

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Susan Dunn
Faber & Faber; $26; $14 paper

WHAT EVERYONE likes to remember about the French Revolution is that it proclaimed the rights of man, including equality for all under the law. By comparison, its slightly older and wiser sister, the American Revolution, is often dismissed as a mere war of independence. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, the words of its famous motto, have a more populist ring than "we hold these truths to be self-evident." Besides, the infant French republic swiftly abolished slavery, gave women the vote, legalized divorce and granted civil rights to Jews, Protestants, and illegitimate children.

What everyone would like to forget is what happened next. The king was executed. Le peuple - as in power to the people - took over. During the following frenzy of radical reform, Gallic paranoia and political correctness, at least 25,000 French citizens were put to death. Citizen Robespierre, chief theorist and energizer of the bloodbath, described the Terror as "nothing other than prompt, severe and inflexible justice."

"Mercy had become treason," author Susan Dunn comments, "democracy had become tyranny." And so, in its 1799 plebiscite, "the exhausted people of France" chose order and the rule of law. By an overwhelming vote (3,011,007 to just 1,562) they adopted a constitution that made the country a virtual dictatorship. Enter the emperor Napoleon from stage right. France did not have republican government again until 1871.

Needless to say, the American Revolution fared much better. Americans had many advantages, of course. Fewer people (4 million to France's 24 million), no oppressed urban mob, and political experience in both the short-lived Continental Congress and long-established colonial legislatures. In the realm of ideas and political solutions, which are the author's main concern here, the American success was (as it still is) largely due to James Madison's understanding of the limitations of human nature. "If men were angels," he wrote," there would be no need for government."

Only under a political system where many conflicting interests kept any single group from taking power could political freedom survive. Whence all those famous checks and balances, the two houses of Congress, the trio of separate powers, executive, legislative and judicial.

The political thought and experience of America's Founding Fathers, available to French leaders, were scornfully rejected as unambitious. French delegates voted overwhelmingly to invest all the powers of the new government in a single, legislative body, the National Assembly.

How could they have done such a thing? Americans, then and now, tend to agree with John Adams, who felt that on their way to the Revolution, French leaders simply checked their common sense at the door. Of course it was more complicated than that, as Susan Dunn, a French-born American who teaches history at Williams College, gracefully demonstrates, comparing and contrasting the men, the manners, and the political convictions that shaped the sister revolutions. Dunn is admirably evenhanded as she dissects the political and intellectual folly of French leaders. Nevertheless, she clearly feels that to know all is not to forgive all. The real problem, Dunn says, was ideas run amok. French intellectuals were much taken with abstract and absolutist theories and utopian notions about government and human nature.

That spirit of the French Revolution, Dunn sadly observes, not only ruined France at the time but has laid its dread mark on every revolution since - the precedent for purging all opponents and stifling dissent. It was no coincidence that in 1918 Lenin ordered up a statue of Robespierre as decoration for the Kremlin.

For modern Americans, this tragic story makes a useful point: proclaiming rights is essentially meaningless unless the government proclaiming them is stable, broadly supported and powerful enough to protect the few from the many, as well as the many from the few.

Late in the book, Dunn herself displays a certain, dare one say Gallic? weakness for never-thwart-the-will­of-the-people theorizing. Projecting past upon present, Dunn says that Madison's "horse and buggy" constitution will no longer do for the United States. She feels that its pesky checks and balances keep the majority from making enlightened reforms. There are cases in point, but to date most of the enlightened reforms in recent years, racial integration most notably, have been made by the Supreme Court - precisely because the will of the majority had rejected them.

Everybody should read this book.  It offers a lively education in a small package. Then, if there's time, reread Federalist 10 and 51, as well as Simon Schama's book Citizens. What the French took from the Americans, Lord Acton once wrote, "was their theory of revolution not their theory of government - their cutting but not their sewing.