Across America today there are a number of cities and towns celebrating Bastille Day, the French equivalent of America’s July 4th Independence Day holiday. Even in my neck of the woods in Greenville, South Carolina, there is a three course French dinner, complete with a live band, observing July 14th, 1789, the day that outraged French citizens overran the Bastille, a royal fortress used by the Bourbon Dynasty as a political prison. The military governor of the Bastille was murdered by a mob after the Bastille was overrun, which gave irresistible momentum to the French Revolution. The French Revolution led to the abolition of the French monarchy in 1792, and the rise of the first French Republic. As a result, many Americans view the French Revolution as the American Revolution’s equivalent, something that could not be further from the truth.
The American Revolution was a revolt against the oppressive government of King George III of Great Britain, and the American Revolutionaries appealed to Natural Law and “Nature’s God” for justification. As such, America’s founders viewed our nation’s founding as in keeping with the distinctly Western conviction that, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” In the aftermath of the American Revolution, peace and prosperity came to our country, and we are still governed by the same Constitution enacted as a result of our Revolution. None of these same things can be said of the French Revolution that commenced after the storming of the Bastille.
While King Louis XVI of France was certainly as opulent and oppressive as Britain’s King George III, the French Revolutionaries doomed their own revolution from the start. The leaders of the French Revolution sought not only to overthrow the oppressive monarchy, but the entire “ancient regime” as they deemed their system of government and religious values. In fact, one of the French philosophers who helped to foment the French Revolution, Denis Diderot, infamously stated that “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Later French revolutionary leaders like Maximilien Robespierre put feet to Diderot’s philosophy and had church properties seized, priests murdered, and Bibles burned. The result was predictable: the French Revolution that sought to set men free led to a reign of terror in which tens of thousands of political dissidents were murdered at the guillotine by the revolutionary councils. In the aftermath of such carnage, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte consolidated power and became more oppressive even than the overthrown king.
America’s Revolution succeeded where France’s failed because France ascribed to the secular-socialist ideology that would come to mark the later Russian Revolution and the rise of Vladimir Lenin. America, by contrast, implemented principles from the Protestant Reformation and the Scottish Enlightenment, which taught that Natural Law and Truth are concepts that come-forth from the Judeo-Christian Ethic and make possible the principles of freedom. Freedom provides for religious liberty, private property rights, free expression, and free-markets. These principles of freedom have protected America from the violent uprisings that France has witnessed over the past 228 years since the storming of the Bastille. France, today, is on its Fourth Republic because the ideas of its Revolution were based on secular-humanism not eternal truths.
The lesson all Americans should remember on this Bastille Day is that we should not go the way of the French Revolutionaries who believed that political freedom could only be found by freeing society from the principles of faith in God. America has remained free because we have not rejected religious virtue, individual rights, and economic liberty. While the rest of the world careens toward greater economic collectivism, secular-progressivism, and big government domination, we should strive in our country to reapply the principles of the American Revolution, not fall prey to the siren song of secular-socialism that destroyed the French Revolution.