Independence Day (July 4) and Bastille Day (July 14) share more than a month. From the beginning, our two revolutions were linked by a diplomatic and military alliance, by personal friendships, and a common philosophy.
On July 2, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail: “This day will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.” In the company of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, among others, the man who would become the second president of the United States had just signed the Declaration of Independence. He would be proven wrong by just two days, since Americans celebrate their independence on July 4. The text actually appears to have been signed on May 4, but historians are not sure. Uncertainty also surrounds France’s national celebration, which Americans call Bastille Day. While the Bastille prison, which was almost empty, was stormed and destroyed on July 14 by a rabble as tipsy as they were enthusiastic, the event was of little importance at the time. King Louis XVI did not even mention it in his diary.
The truly founding moment of what would lead to the French Revolution was June 17, 1789. Delegates from the provinces, convoked by the king to examine the state’s financial crisis, decided to set themselves up as a national assembly, putting an end to the absolute monarchy by replacing it with a representative government. Another more significant event than July 14 was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on August 26, drafted by the Abbé Sieyès after consulting with Thomas Jefferson through the intermediary of the Marquis de Lafayette. From the beginning, our two revolutions were thus linked by a diplomatic and military alliance, by personal friendships, and by a common source: the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which had arisen in France and Great Britain.
Returning to the subject of celebrations, the uncertainty concerning what exactly is to be celebrated is even more poignant in France than in the United States. When, in 1880, French legislators decided to proclaim July 14 as a national celebration, they failed to decide between July 14, 1789, the Storming of the Bastille, and July 14, 1790, Federation Day. The latter was an attempt at general reconciliation between the king and the church, when a mass was said on the Champ-de-Mars where the Eiffel Tower now stands. The left-leaning representatives who supported ’89 and the right-leaning partisans of ’90 both left without reaching a conclusion. And so the ambiguity remains: On July 14, everyone celebrates what they want to celebrate, revolution or reconciliation.
Beyond this ambiguity concerning dates, the founding texts — the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen — provide lasting evidence of what unites and distinguishes our nations. Both drew from the philosophy of the Enlightenment the principle of natural freedom, which was particularly dear to Rousseau. It was therefore considered contrary to nature that Americans be subject to the British crown or the French to their sovereign. Freedom was a basic assumption in both cases, but it was quick to exclude women and slaves. This did not go unnoticed: Olympe de Gouges published a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in Paris in 1791. She saw women as forgotten by the national celebration, just as abolitionist Frederick Douglas would declare much later that the Fourth of July did not exist for black Americans. Black men had to wait for the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 to be able to vote, and women could not vote until 1919 in the United States and 1944 in France.
Further examining the founding texts, another essential similarity is what is borrowed from Montesquieu and John Locke. These two philosophers emphasize institutions as the ultimate guarantor of freedom, including the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers as the cornerstone of the republican edifice. Americans immediately rallied around this quasi-mathematical proposal, all the more so because they had no king and definitely did not want one. The French, with their monarchical leanings and tendency to worship great men, have been repeatedly unfaithful to their constitution: The Americans have just one, while the French are on their fifteenth.
There is another significant difference between our revolutionary experiences: God. He was present in the United States from 1776, though the God in question is a theoretical one who owes more to Voltaire than to the Christian faith. The tradition continued, amplified after “In God we trust” became the American nation’s motto thanks to President Eisenhower. The French, on the contrary, built a republic in opposition to the Catholic Church. In contrast to American deism, the French established laïcité, a concept hard to translate into English. Stricter than the separation of religions and the state, this form of secularism manifests profound distrust towards all religions, to the point of becoming a substitute religion itself.
And where is happiness in all this? The “pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental right is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence; this can be seen as evidence of a fundamental optimism anchored in American civilization. There is nothing of the kind in France, apart from a famous speech by the representative Saint-Just in which he proclaims before the Assembly in 1794: “Happiness is a new idea in Europe.” This lyrical flourish led its author to guillotine those who did not share his conception of happiness. Following this quite unhappy precedent, happiness in France has been strictly confined to the private sphere.
What, then, shall we celebrate during our shared month of July? A special alliance that has stood the test of centuries. And a common quest, an infinite project, that of an ideal republic constantly seeking improvement. It took some time for women and black people to become citizens; how do things stand today for the poor, for immigrants, for the undocumented, for those who live and work alongside us but who are not fully citizens? Let us celebrate the past and imagine the future, with the audacity of Olympe de Gouges and of Frederick Douglas.
Op-ed published in the July 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.