Thursday, September 23, 2010

American & French Revolutions Compared

A blog entry on my book blog of a year ago covered books comparing the American and French Revolutions. This entry stemmed from a question left by a viewer.
The question was as follows:
Do you know of any books that compare/contrast those nations that embraced Calvinism and Protestantism (Scotland, America, etc) v. those that did not (France)? The comment continued, "I wonder if the two revolutions differed because of contrasting theological underpinnings."

The impact of Protestant and Reformed thinking on nations in history and the differences between the American and French Revolutions are incredibly interesting questions for students of American and world history. Quite a few of the books listed in my previous blog include references to differences between the American and French Revolutions. Others emphasize the historical impact of Calvinism on the maritime powers of Britain (England and Scotland), the Netherlands, and the United States in contrast with the beliefs and events in France.

Let me re-cap some books from the list of studies of Calvinism in America:

R. J. Rushdoony's This Independent Republic devotes several chapters to contrasting the French experience with that of America.

Abraham Kuyper made quite a few remarks in Lectures on Calvinism on the cultural and political impact of Calvinism on particular countries, especially the U.S. and the Netherlands. Kuyper delivered those lectures in 1898, so the French Revolution was not all that far in the distant past. He would have known people who had lived during the French Revolution (which began in 1789) and the age of Napoleon.

I cannot remember exactly, but I think Arnold Dallimore credits (and rightly so) George Whitefield and the Wesleys with having staved off revolution in England through their preaching. Dallimore wrote a powerful 2 volume biography of George Whitefield and also a useful biography of Charles Wesley.
Francis Schaeffer echoes the same idea as Dallimore and attributes it to Cambridge historian J.H. Plumb in his How Should We Then Live? Speaking of Francis Schaeffer, his chapter on The Enlightenment in How Should We Then Live? covers way too much ground--from Voltaire to the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution and beyond, yet he is right on target in understanding the basic secular humanist underpinnings of the French

Also, Paul Johnson's short biography of Napoleon contrasts the Emperor with George Washington. That comparison of results--Napoleon and Washington--is quite a study in contrasts.

Let me list and briefly comment on a few other books:

One of Abraham Kuyper's predecessors, Groen van Prinsterer gave a series of lectures in his home that were later published under the title Revolution and Unbelief. This is a classic work detailing the impact of unbelief which then spawned the French Revolution.

An outstanding book that describes the changes and challenges in America, France, and Russia during the late 1700s is The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World by Jay Winik. America won its independence and developed a republican form of government while France was experiencing the horrors of a bloody revolution. At the same time, revolutionary impulses in Russia, under the control of Catherine the Great, were squenched. (Winik's book has been on the bargain shelves at Books-A-Million for quite a while. It is a treasure at any price.)

With a healthy dose of discernment, you might read God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World by Walter Russell Mead This is an amazing analysis of how Britain and America, the maritime powers (which historically includes the Netherlands) have dominated history and defeated their rivals militarily, culturally, and economically. Discernment is called for because Mead gets so much so right, but he totally botches his discussion of Calvinism.

Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: The British. French, and American Enlightenment is also a wonderful coverage of these issues. She does not focus all that much on Protestantism, but does credit the Methodist Revival with preventing revolution in Britain.

Other books to consider when reading on the French Revolution are
Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke is often viewed as one of the best minds of his time who really understood both what the American colonies were doing in the 1770s and what the French were doing in the 1780s and beyond.

Friedrich Gentz's The French and American Revolutions Compared (which was translated into English by John Quincy Adams).

Christopher Dawson's The Gods of Revolution. Some of Dawson's other works also deal with the French Revolution.

Crane Brinton's The Anatomy of Revolution.

Simon Schama's Citizens.

Otto Scott's Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (sometimes subtitled--The Fool as Revolutionary).

James Billington's Fire in the Minds of Men. This is a weighty and powerful tome.

Of course, one can do no better than beginning on the French Revolution by reading Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (which we read in class) and Baroness Emuska Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel.

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