Why Did the French Revolution Divide American Society?

Ben Fellows

3 mins

24 Jul 2018

Although the rivalries between political parties in the colonial United States were fierce and profound they were never really a threat to domestic peace.

By the end of 1792 hundreds of ordinary citizens had become engaged in the party movement, but most citizens were ‘unmoved’ by the political controversy. This was because times were prosperous and leaders of heroic stature occupied seats of power.

The proclamation of the French Republic, followed by the spread of European War, soon changed the national mood.

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American perception of the French Revolution

Through the early years of the French Revolution most American’s had perceived events in France as a product of their own revolutionary ideals, namely, promising the benefits of liberty and a written constitution to all mankind.

But as France edged closer to war with the rest of Europe, the neutrality of the United States was becoming ever more complicated as American citizens began to take sides, urging President Washington to choose between France and Britain.

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The Federalist view

The federalists saw a profound difference between the experience of the French Revolution and American Revolution. In France they saw radicalisation, social anarchy and the destruction of political and religious institutions. While in respects to Britain, they saw stable liberty that did not end in barbaric bloodshed.

The French revolution was more than just a subject of study and revile for many federalists, but a realisation of the potential problems that may one day affect the American Republic.

The continued admiration for the French Revolution and the attacks on the Washington administration raised concerns for the federalists in power that too many Americans were ready to follow in French footsteps.

The Republican counter-argument

the-liberty-leading-the-people-1830

Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix (1830) a symbolic depiction of the French revolutionary spirit.

However, Jeffersonian Republicans continued to associate the French revolution with their own cause. The Republicans had already identified the domestic conflict as an attempt to defend America against ‘corrupting English ways’.

Shortly after news had arrived of the European War, Republican writers began to connect the cause of France with the survival of liberty at home. They would claim that if the British succeeded against France, then the Federalists would, with British support, use their influence to establish a monarchy.

Neutrality declared by the Government

washington

A portrait of president George Washington who declined to commit the USA in the French Revolutionary Wars.

On 2 April 1793, when Washington declared a policy of ‘friendly and impartial’ conduct towards the two nations, the Republican press was furious. The National Gazette argued, “the cause of France is the cause of man”- “and neutrality is desertion.”

With the proclamation of neutrality, Republicans everywhere began to link their frustration of foreign policy with earlier ‘condemnations of a domestic conspiracy against liberty’. Mass protests ensued and effigies burned as citizens rallied around the French cause in opposition to the Washington administration.

Attempts to restore stability

In 1798 when John Adams was President his administration passed the Alien and Sedition laws. These were designed by the Federalists to curb the movement and rights of immigrants entering the United States in case they would eventually “swell” a French army in the event of an invasion and the sedition laws were aimed at attacking the Republican and Anti-Federalist press.

Two years later, Jefferson would defeat his old friend John Adams in the Presidential election, effectively killing off the Federalist Party and helping restore a more stable national mood.

What cannot be denied though was the level of anger and fear that existed as two great global powers with strong links to America prepared for war, whilst the United States, a tiny power at this stage, found itself caught in the middle.

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