Bastille Day: Revolutionary Zeal Turns to Tyranny in France—How America Remained Free

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Today marks the 226th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in Paris, France. The euphoria experienced by those who believed they had finally shattered monarchical tyranny and aristocratic privilege was only matched by the horror of the following ‘Reign of Terror.’

The ancient fortress of Bastille, which had long been used as a prison, stood for all the negative aspects of the Bourbon Ancien Régime: a corrupt, over-centralized government, disregard for individual rights and dignity, repressive taxation, and a byzantine and unjust legal system. Historian Jonathan Israel wrote in Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre, “ As news of the Bastille’s fall swept [Paris], a group of revolutionary intellectuals immersed in cafe discussion… broke into excited laughter and shouts of joy with much stamping of feet and jigging around tables.”

Though initially met with near-universal euphoria, the French Revolution ended in horrific violence and a reinstatement of tyranny. Once the Revolution had immolated the “oppressors” in a cornucopia of bloodletting, it turned on itself. Even simple citizens of insufficient zeal and bloodlust were caught in the nets of this remorseless collective purging. Historian M.A. Thiers wrote in the History of the French Revolution,  “We find at this period on the list of the revolutionary tribunal, tailors, shoemakers, hairdressers, butchers, farmers, publicans, nay, even laboring men, condemned for sentiments and language held to be counter-revolutionary.”

In the end, the cunning Napoleon Buonaparte took up the reigns of the Revolution and grabbed power in France. Though Napoleon betrayed many of the Revolution’s values, he maintained that its true success came from his system of “meritocracy.” He once said, “The man who is to rule France must either be born to greatness, or he must be one of those whose inborn strength enables them to distinguish themselves from the herd.” The ultimate belief in his own superiority lead to Napoleon’s ruination and the collapse of the French Republic.

Buonaparte symbolized France in its heyday, and perhaps shockingly to Americans, is still very much revered in France and in many countries across Europe. Many in Europe saw, and continue to see, the Revolution as a brief, hopeful moment of escape from the tyranny of incredibly repressive monarchies. Through most of European history the common man essentially lived in a state of serfdom, nothing but a pawn for the sake of all-powerful autocrats.

This year was also the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s final defeat, when the combined armies or Prussia and Great Britain vanquished the French Army at Waterloo, Belgium and put an end to the Corsican’s time as a head of state. It effectively concluded the French Republic’s brief experiment in liberty. Beyond the bloody battlefield and the confrontation between great powers, there is a great deal to learn from the life and downfall of Napoleon and the short-lived French First Republic—especially in relation to the success of George Washington’s over two-century old American republic.

The old, centralized feudal system under the Bourbon kings was repressive and restrictive; a privileged class of barons and aristocrats kept a tight reign over anyone who challenged their power. Many who sided with Napoleon believed they were fighting for liberty and their people rather than kings.

In the 1856 book, The Imperial Guard of Napoleon, historian J.T. Headley explained what motivated Napoleon’s Old Guard, one of the most legendary fighting units in military history that famously routed at the Battle of Waterloo.

Headley wrote:

The very fact that Napoleon cloaked his occupation of the Tuileries by calling on his Guard to wear crape for [George] Washington, “who like themselves, had fought against tyranny,” shows how strongly rooted republican principles were in their hearts. They knew that hostilities were commenced by the allied powers for the sole and undisguised purpose of destroying the French republic, and crushing the principles of freedom.

The people of France—and many throughout Europe—hoped that Napoleon would become a Washington: a benign leader who through his strength and fundamental virtue would lead them out of oppression. Despite Napoleon’s military genius, able statesmanship, and surprising legal acumen, he was no Washington. Napoleon ultimately believed it was useless to preserve liberty, while Washington believed it essential; this guided their actions as leaders.

As one author noted, Napoleon closed the chapter of “republican violence and royalist reprisal,” and he would not undo many aspects of the Revolution, “but he could not continue it, for he was hostile to the idea of liberty that inspired the revolutionists. For the idea of liberty he substituted the idea of authority.”

The French emperor would become known for his scheming and brilliance the way that Washington was celebrated for his honesty and simplicity. The famous Parson M.L. Weems story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree and saying to his father “I cannot tell a lie” may or may not be accurate, but it nevertheless exemplified how most Americans thought of the nation’s first president.

It must also be noted that while Washington was an admirably virtuous man, he lead a virtuous people. The American generation that pulled the country through its Revolution would simply not have accepted a dictator or a tyrant. Even the office of the president was controversial at the Constitutional Convention, and would likely have never been created without the knowledge that the first man to fill it would be Washington, who was universally recognized as honorable.

Washington was deeply ambitious—in some ways as much as Napoleon—but he understood the value of constraint and was always more than aware of his own limitations. He believed that he needed to become an example, a virtuous myth for future generations to aspire to. He played this role to perfection, and in doing so became a far greater man than the dynamic and manipulative Napoleon ever could have been. As historian John Ferling noted in his recent book, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon, “Fusing myth and reality, George Washington was made the template for the virtues and character that supposedly were necessary for assuring national ascendency.”

Earning the title “American Cincinnatus”, Washington stepped down as president to return to private life. He welcomed the relinquishment of power and was relieved to pass on responsibility after decades of serving his country. This is the great legacy that he left future generations of Americans: the principles, ideas, and institutions created by the new country were placed before the man, as great as that man was.

The same could not be said of Napoleon.

German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked of Buonaparte’s career and legacy: “Napoleon went forth to seek Virtue, but, since she was not to be found, he got power.”

This description is close to the mark, though it perhaps stretches Napoleon’s good intentions. However, Europe of the early 19th century could not easily accept or sustain the republican institutions that were buttressed in America. Buonaparte simply created a new kind of despotism.

Napoleon once said, “When I rose to power, people thought I was going to be a Washington. Words cost nothing! In America the role would have suited me well enough; there would have been no merit in adopting it on the western side of the Atlantic. In France I could only become a Washington as a king among kings.”

Famed French observer of the early United States Alexis de Tocqueville explained why “democracy” succeeded in America and yet failed utterly in France:

The Americans form a democratic people, which has always itself directed public affairs. The French are a democratic people, who, for a long time, could only speculate on the best manner of conducting them. The social condition of France led that people to conceive very general ideas on the subject of government, whilst its political constitution prevented it from correcting those ideas by experiment, and from gradually detecting their insufficiency; whereas in America the two things constantly balance and correct each other.

Washington was a product of a people who were jealous of their liberty and would accept nothing less. Napoleon was the creature of a nation which had suffered for generations under absolutist rule and knew little more.

It is vital for freedom-loving Americans to both honor and understand the noble inheritance passed down from the founding generation. The United States is going through a period of turmoil and division rarely seen in the country’s history; those who believe in the traditional principles of the Founding are pitted against those who desire to fundamentally transform America. Those with insufficient zeal for the transformative project will be savagely mocked and attacked. No stone, and perhaps no grave, will be left unturned.

This is why it important for Americans who believe in the founding principles to stand up and speak out about what is being lost. The Founding Fathers, Washington especially, risked everything to establish a free country based on limited, constitutional government and pass its blessings on to prosperity. Modern Americans have the same duty. Just as the famous opening words of the Declaration will always be a stumbling block to tyranny, so too will the example of Washington always be an inspiration to those who believe this nation is capable of a new birth of freedom.

Follow Jarrett Stepman on Twitter:@JarrettStepman. Reach him directly at


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