The French vs. American Revolution: Why Religion Made a Lasting Difference

French Revolution

“What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evil; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without restraint.”

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”

Edmund Burke penned these words as part of his indictment of the secular French Revolution.

A core feature of this 18th century cultural revolution was an eradication of religion.

In the late 1700s, the whole world watched, including our Founding Fathers, as the French revolted to forge a secular government. One of the key features of this new political machine was a systematic persecution of pious French citizens and clergy…and eventually all who dissented against it.

Churches were shuttered, then converted into dens of “scandalous depravities.” The Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasburg was refashioned into a Temple of Reason. The clergy were executed. Church services and all religious education outlawed. Crosses were forbidden and the graves of the saints were desecrated. Christian monuments, statues and icons were torn down and removed.

The purpose of the French Revolution was to de-Christianize France and replace the mother religion with a “secular civic religion of state worship.”

The French even changed how western culture kept time and scored history. First, they abandoned the biblical 24-hour, 7-day week and adopted a new calendar. The French made 1792 the first year in their calendar. They also replaced a “seven-day” week with a 10-day “decade” week with each day composed of 10 hours (and every hour of 100 minutes and every minute of 100 seconds). Because the secular French believed “10” was the number for humanity they created an entire system for time and measurement based upon these “10s.”

And their measurements still exist to this day…as the metric system.

It’s not surprising America’s Founding Fathers watched the French Revolution closely.

And they eventually rejected its fundamental philosophical premise that a good government required a wholly secular state. At the time American culture was 98% Protestant, deeply influenced by the First Great Awakening (1730-1770). In fact, while the French Revolution raged, America was teeing up a Second Great Awakening (1795-1835) that shaped and deepened the Christian culture of the 19th century.

As our Founders observed the secular French Revolution, including the fall of the monarchy and the repercussions of a godless culture, they grew concerned. During the 1793-1794 “Reign of Terror” over 40,000 were executed (most of them Christians). Consequently, the Founders were not silent in their opinions.

One feature of the French Revolution, our Founders recognized was the flaw of a pure democracy.

Ultimately, the American Founders preferred a representational government that looked more Roman “republican” than French “democratic.” But the key to any democracy, in part or whole, to survive was with a populace committed to civility and morality. Furthermore, in their study of history, no civilized culture could be moral without religion.

Essentially, a civil citizen possessed a core morality. But morality doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the result of cultural moral codes rooted, historically, to their religious ideology. Just like it’s impossible to spell “good” without “g-0-d,” its equally unreasonable to think a godless culture can be “good” on its own.

To the contrary, whenever a religious nation (regardless of the deity) adopts a secular frame, it eventually collapses from within. The populace increasingly grows selfish, immoral, sexualized, violent and profane.

It’s why the Founders discovered little good in the secular French constitution and culture.

NOAH WEBSTER (1796): “The reason why severe laws are necessary in France is, that the people have not been educated republicans – they do not know how to govern themselves.” 

ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1799): “The praise of a civilized world is justly due to Christianity; – war, by the influence of the humane principles of that religion, has been stripped of half its horrors. The French renounce Christianity, and they relapse into barbarism…”

JOHN ADAMS (1799): “The people of the United States are still held in jeopardy by…insidious acts of a foreign nation [France], as well as by the dissemination among them of those principles subversive to the foundations of all religious, moral, and social obligations … I hereby recommend … a Day of Solemn Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.”

GOUVERNEUR MORRIS (1789): “The materials for a revolution in France are very indifferent… Everybody agrees that there is an utter prostration of morals; but this general proposition can never convey to an American mind the degree of depravity.”

Morris continued, “The great masses of the common people have no religion but their priests, no law but their superiors, no morals but their interest.

Three years later, Morris concluded: Religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man toward God. These duties are, internally, love and adoration; externally, devotion and obedience.”

Gouverneur Morris would speak more than any other delegate at the Constitutional Convention (173 times). He would pen the final draft of the U.S. Constitution. He also created the statement: “We the people of the United States.”

Historian William Federer noted: “Where secular France pulled away from God, America experienced a religios revival called the Second Great Awakening which spread across country.”

This Second Great Awakening in America imprinted American spirituality 19th century with a thoroughly Christian flavor.

From “frontier camp meetings” to college campuses to mission movements to the American West and beyond (Hawaii, China, Burma, Carribbean), America flexed its spiritual (Christian) muscles to heal, teach, serve, protect, pastor and lead countless people to Christianity.

Of course this view of America (as a Christian nation) is neither popular nor taught today.

People who point out America’s “Christian” roots–even with footnotes and clear evidence–are mocked, challenged, ignored, labeled and canceled. Their view of history is labeled as “fake” and misleading, even dangerous. They are also tagged as “Christian nationalists.”

But its this type of intolerance to true history that French secularists used to first revise, then censor, then cancel, and finally outlaw and eliminate the religious influences in its nation. It’s not unlike what we seeing in America today.

The irony? Since 1790, America has enjoyed a single constitution in its democratic-republic revolution in 1776. To contrast, secular France has had 14 constitutions, 5 republics and three revolutions.

But that may change.

Since 1960, America has slowly cut its Christian roots to grow secular wings. 

And as a result, we’ve now look like France in 1790…immoral barbarians and brutes. American cities are killing fields. Our media–television, movies, music, books, video games–promote violence, profanity and explicit sexuality. Without a moral center, our schools have devolved into propaganda zones for lifestyles once considered deviant, perverse or abominable.

Meanwhile, Christians and churches face persecution and prosecution like never before. Christianity is mocked, skewered, censored and cancelled. Who would’ve imagined any of this in 1960 (when over 70% of USAmericans attended church or synagogue)? But it’s only taken three generations to grow a crop of kids who don’t know God.

Our Founders were right. France has always been wrong (at least since 1790).

America’s greatness is rooted to its goodness.

And you still can’t, and never will, spell “good” without G-O-D.

 

 

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SOURCES CITED:

1. Edmund Burke “What is Liberty”: Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France” by edited by F.G. Selby (London: Macmillan and Company, 1890): 276. Downloadable at Google Books.

2. Edmund Burke “Men are Qualified for Liberty”: The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, Volume 4 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 186):9 51. Downloadable at Google Books.

3. Noah Webster, “Political Fanaticism, No.III,” published in The American Minerva; September 21, 1796.

4. Alexander Hamilton Quote: Henry Cabot Lodge, “The Works of Alexander Hamilton,” Vol. 8, (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1904), pg 425-426.

5. John Adams Quote: “Proclamation—Recommending a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” (March 6, 1799) https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/proclamation-recommending-national-day-humiliation-fasting-and-prayer

6. Gouverneur Morris Quote: To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 29 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0125. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 April 1789 – 15 June 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 146–148.]

7. Gouverneur Morris Quote “Religion is the only solid basis for all good morals”: The Life of Gouverneur Morris by Jared Sparks, Vol. 3 (Boston: Gray & Bowen Publishers, 1832): 483. Available for download at Google Books.

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