Friedrich von Gentz

It is often said that the American Revolution resonated across the pond and inspired the French to rebel and liberate their country in a similar, heroic fashion to that of their American allies. The nature of these two revolutions, however, ran divergent intellectual courses that made their causes, and therefore their outcomes, different. The German diplomat Friedrich von Gentz wrote one of the most popular accounts that explained the disparities between the two revolutions. His is a book that few history teachers use to demonstrate that revolutions are not all created equal. The French Revolution awakened Gentz’s interest in public affairs, and, although he was first a supporter of its cause, his encounter with the writings of Edmund Burke turned his views more conservative. Since reading Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Gentz upheld the strength of British constitutionalism over the idealistic waves that rocked revolutionary France back and forth.

Gentz has been described as “a conservative and classical liberal.”[1] He was wary of the motivations behind revolutions, since he was convinced that “the social world requires continuity and tradition.”[2] He also did not believe in the use of political violence to achieve any form of social change, and he wrote an essay on this topic to explain his qualms with the French Revolution. The title of Friedrich von Gentz’s book is unambiguous about its subject matter. The sheer brevity of The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, published in 1800 (and later translated into English by John Quincy Adams) indicates that his insight is distinct from any extensive historiographical study of revolutionary origins, since he does not engage in any contextual or cultural foray between the two nations in line with de Tocqueville, to justify the plain differences between the two revolutions. A political journalist and diplomat, Gentz was no historian by training. It is, in fact, only in what regards the “essential features and originating causes and their first principles with each other” that he wishes to provide a “cursory historical recapitulation” of the American and the French Revolutions.[3] Gentz assessed both revolutions from four principal points of view: The lawfulness of their origin; the character of their conduct; the quality of their object; and their compass of resistance.[4]

Influenced by Burke, Gentz rejected the views of men like Thomas Paine and Richard Price who regarded the French Revolution as being in the tradition of the Glorious and American Revolutions.[5] This reductionist understanding of revolutions, Gentz notes, loosely strings together generalizations, assuming that what benefits one nation must necessarily have the same salutary effect on another.[6] His analysis of revolutionary origins opened with a disavowal of the “irresistible analogy” of viewing both revolutions as springing from the same seed of political discontent.[7] For Gentz, the issue of directionality in the first stages of the two revolutions was key to prove that the motive of cruel social oppression was a false presumption.[8] While America’s revolution was one that emerged from the bottom up, with concrete examples of what it was American revolutionaries were fighting against, the French Revolutionaries, by beginning with idealistic goals that they were fighting for, inverted this process. He encapsulated his argument by deeming the American a defensive revolution, and the French an offensive one.[9] In the origin and principles, Gentz asserts, the contrasts of the revolutions outweigh the parallels.[10]

Beginning with the American Revolution, Gentz deflated the traditional narrative that told the story of exploited colonies being strangled under the chains of their monarchic despot. He provides detailed facts of colonial taxation history to exhibit how it was mainly the unjust pecuniary restrictions that justified America’s revolt.[11] Gentz had a notable knowledge of the principles and practice of finance, and he discussed the commercial relationship between Britain and America—namely Britain’s overstep of levying taxes without the consent of local representatives—that had a gradual but significant influence in spurring American resistance.[12] Britain exercised legislative power over the colonies to control its exports and imports, imposing a commercial monopoly, because it had not yet adopted “a lively conviction that liberty and general competition must be the basis of all true commercial policy, and the wisest principle of trade…”[13] Americans eventually realized, moreover, that their colonial worth consisted largely in the extended market they opened up for Britain, and so, a revolution was only a matter of time according to Gentz.[14] This angle introduces a layer of economic motivation behind the revolution, making for an informative history of British colonial taxation in America which sustains that opposition towards Britain came from a reasonable need for fiscal freedom and trade, not from a wild urge for rebellion and liberty.

What remained for Gentz in the second half of the book was the self-prescribed “easy” task of exhibiting the misconducts of the French Revolution.[15] Gentz proceeded to review the revolution in an undeniably scathing tone, describing it as an “uninterrupted series of steps, the wrong of which could not, upon rigorous principles, for a moment be doubted.”[16] Gentz explained that the French Revolution began by violating public and private rights in the period between 1787-1788, when French radicals hypocritically trampled over the existing rights of people while militating for “an imaginary right of the nation” that “corrupted their reason.”[17] Gentz provided sound criticism of the valid motives behind the French Revolution by coming up with three conditions under which the French revolutionaries could have justified the right to overthrow their government: If they had observed the general forms of assembly of the states in France until they were lawfully abolished or changed; if they had waited for the assent of the monarch to place the force and weight of existing laws on their new laws; and if they had followed the instructions given to them by their constituents.[18] But Gentz reminds his readers that the French radicals broke through all of these conditions in less than six weeks, alas.[19]

It becomes evident from reading The Origin and Principles that an overarching theme of the book regards the actual “right” to revolution; that is, the specific claims by which a country can justify its defiance. This “right,” Gentz asserts, ought to be a practical one, contingent on the evidence of statutory facts—laws or sanctions to which one can point—that prove injustices, and not on illusionary ambitions based on what he calls “idle” declarations of rights.[20] Still, what was intended to be an intriguing analysis of the differing moral and political motivations between these two revolutions turns out to be largely a praise of the American Revolution with a disparaging view of the French Revolution. True as it may be that the French Revolution had flaws, it is unfortunate that Gentz’s arraignment of it resulted from a pre-determined bias that inhibited him from analyzing it with the same historical nuance with which he handled the American Revolution. Gentz’ short book is not a perfect recounting of the differences of the two revolutions, since he was, perhaps, slightly too influenced by Burke to grant the French revolutionaries any benefit of the doubt for their actions. Gentz seems to assume that his readers already know the history behind the French Revolution and proceeds solely to opine on its errors. Gentz substantiates his opinions of the United States from a deep understanding of the economic history and legal controversies leading up to Americans’ decision to revolt, but he does not afford his analysis of the French Revolution the same courtesy.[21] The book’s unique strength is how edifying it is about colonial America’s constitutional and taxation history with Great Britain. For the contextual historian, the book also demonstrates Gentz’s strong classical liberal interpretation of revolutionary history.

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Bibliography:

Burke, Edmund, & L. G. Mitchell, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford: 2009).

Gentz, Friedrich von, The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, trans. John Quincy Adams (Indianapolis, 2010).

Gentz, Friedrich von, The Origins and Principles of the American Revolution, compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, translated by John Quincy Adams, edited and with an introduction by Peter Koslowski (Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 2009). 4/4/2019.

Paine, Thomas, Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution (2nd ed.) [17 October 2017].

Price, Richard, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, delivered on Nov. 4, 1789, at the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry, to the Society for Commemorating the Revolution in Britain (2nd ed.) [17 October 2017].

Citations:

[1] See pp. xv-xvii of the Liberty Fund version of The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, with an introduction by Peter Koslowski.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Friedrich von Gentz, The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, trans. J. Q. Adams (Indianapolis, 2019) pp. 8, 35.

[4] Gentz, Origin and Principles, p. 93.

[5] Gentz was influenced by Burke’s, Reflections on the revolution in France, 1791. Cf. Gentz also provides a substantial footnote refuting Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution, 1791 [17 October 2017]; and Richard Price, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, delivered on Nov. 4, 1789, at the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry, to the Society for Commemorating the Revolution in Britain [17 October 2017].

[6] Ibid., p. 8.

[7] Ibid., p. 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 9-10.

[9] Gentz, Origin and Principles, p. 53.

[10] Ibid., p. 93.

[11] Ibid., p. 12-36.

[12] Ibid., pp. 42-43.

[13] Ibid., p. 14.

[14] Ibid., pp. 11-12.

[15] Ibid., p. 49.

[16] Ibid., p. 36.

[17] Ibid., pp. 49-52.

[18] Ibid., pp. 50-51.

[19] Ibid., p. 51.

[20] Ibid., p. 70.

[21] Ibid., p. 48.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832) by Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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