When American colonists won independence from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War, the French, who participated in the war themselves, were both close allies and key participants. Several years after the revolt in America, French reformists faced political, social and economic hardships that mirrored the colonists’ struggles. While the French Revolution was a complex conflict with numerous triggers and causes, the American Revolution set the stage for an effective uprising that the French had observed firsthand.
There were similar causes for both revolutions.
Although the French and American people had several distinct and differing motives for revolting against their ruling governments, some similar causes led to both revolutions, including the following:
Economic struggles: Both the Americans and French dealt with a taxation system they found discriminating and unfair. Additionally, France’s involvement in the American Revolution, along with extravagant spending practices by King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, left the country on the verge of bankruptcy.
Royal absolutism: While colonists revolted against the British monarchy, the French aimed to reform the absolute rule of Louis XVI.
Unequal rights: Like the American colonists, the French felt that specific rights were only granted to certain segments of society, namely the elite and aristocrats.
Enlightenment philosophy was a major influence.
Many experts believe that the same ideologies that sparked the American Revolution penetrated their way into French culture.
During the war in America, allied Frenchmen fought side by side with American soldiers, which, in some cases, meant exchanging values, ideas and philosophies.
One key ideological movement, known as Enlightenment, was central to the American uprising. Enlightenment stressed the idea of natural rights and equality for all citizens.
Although the Enlightenment movement started in Europe and wasn’t new to the French, it shaped the American Revolution, and many believe, went on to inspire the French Revolution as well.
The Declaration of Independence was a template for the French.
The French who had direct contact with the Americans were able to successfully implement Enlightenment ideas into a new political system.
The National Assembly in France even used the American Declaration of Independence as a model when drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789. Much like the American document, the French declaration included Enlightenment philosophies, such as equal rights and popular sovereignty.
Nothing succeeds like success.
The Americans’ victory over the British may have been the single greatest impact on the French Revolution.
The French people saw that a revolt could be successful – even against a major military power – and lasting change was possible. Many experts argue that this gave them the motivation to rebel.
The newly-formed government of the United States also became a model for French reformers.
Ideas that were once just abstract thoughts – such as popular sovereignty, natural rights, constitutional checks and balances and separation of powers – were now part of an actual political system that worked.
But what was the extent of America’s influence?
Though most historians agree that the American Revolution impacted the French Revolution, which lasted from 1789-1799, some scholars debate the significance and extent of this effect.
France, a country on the verge of financial collapse with an outdated feudal system and a wildly unpopular monarchy, was a powder keg waiting to explode, with or without the American war to serve as an example.
Other political, social and religious factors also activated the French people’s appetite for change.
Though there were clear differences between the motives for each revolt and how the two wars were fought, most experts believe that the war in America at least partly paved the way for France’s uprising. The Americans provided a working model of revolutionary success that wasn’t lost on the French.