Revolutionary Era

Causes of Revolution: A Comparison of the American and French Conflicts

In May 1754, a young George Washington led the rapidly created Virginia Regiment against a group of French soldiers occupying a desirable area near the forks of the Ohio River. The surprised Frenchmen were forced to surrender, several later being massacred by the Indians accompanying the Regiment.[1] Over the next nine years, Britain fought for control over important land holdings in its North American colonies, attempting to drive out the French and to establish dominance. Peace and a British victory came with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, but the financial damage had been done.

Britain had already been in financial trouble prior to 1754, but the French and Indian War had nearly doubled its debt.[2] France would find itself in a similar situation in 1774 when Louis XVI ascended to the throne. With growing war debts came mounting tensions. Britain’s answer to the financial crisis was a series of Acts imposed on its American colonies. The government issued the Proclamation of 1763 in an attempt to avoid war with the Native Americans by closing the western regions to settlement. The Currency Act of 1764 “restricted the issuance of paper money by the colonies” forcing the money “to be based on gold and silver” and having “the same value as the pound.” To end the smuggling of “heavily consumed products,” Parliament passed the Sugar Act. The Mutiny or Quartering Act of 1765 required the colonists to pay for the provisions of the British troops remaining in America.[3]

France’s response to its own debt came from a series of ineffective finance ministers. Plans for sweeping reform never made it past the 1787 Assembly of Notables and calls for a meeting of the nationally representative Estates General surfaced.[4] When Louis XVI issued the May Edicts in 1788, in an attempt to prevent Parlement from having the right to verify taxes, the situation in France grew even more tense.[5]

In America, it was the British Parliament’s enactment of the Stamp Act in 1765, which “imposed duties on most court-sanctioned documents, licenses, contracts, commissions, wills, and mortgages,” that finally upset the balance.[6] Protests against the legislation began almost immediately, culminating in Boston’s Stamp Act Riot. Rioters targeted royal officials and stamp distributors, creating and burning effigies and destroying the officials’ homes and offices. Congress responded by claiming that it was the “right of Englishmen to be taxed only by their representatives” and by petitioning Parliament to repeal the Act. Though it was repealed in 1766, King George III continued to claim sovereignty by issuing further proclamations against the colonies.[7]

Lack of representation was also at the heart of the rising crisis in late eighteenth-century France. Clergy and nobility held dominate power alongside an absolute monarchy. The Third Estate, comprising of the majority of France’s citizens, requested that all three existing orders sit as a single house at the 1789 Estates General, allowing for a more balanced representation. When these demands were denied, the Third Estate, locked out of the proceedings, formed the National Assembly and determined to create a new constitution, granting rights to the underrepresented and stripping absolute power from the aristocracy.[8]

 With each new Act handed down from the British Parliament, American desires for independence grew. The Revenue Act of 1766 lowered taxes on imported molasses, while the Townshend Duties of 1767 placed taxes on a variety of commodities, including tea, and created the American Board of Customs.[9] Massachusetts, under the leadership of Samuel Adams, called out parliamentary taxation and promoted a colonial union.[10] The mood toward the Crown continued to sour. When British troops were placed in Boston, rumors of occupation spread, resulting in the Boston Massacre on the evening of March 5, 1770.[11] The following three years were relatively quiet as tensions appeared to have lessened.

Scenes in 1789 France were similar to America’s outcry against unfair taxation. Revolutionaries ransacked Paris and stormed the Bastille in the symbolic act of destroying the old order. At Versailles, a group of women broke into the palace and threatened the life of Queen Marie-Antoinette. In both cases, the riots were the results of fears induced by Louis XVI’s decision to place troops in the cities to control the unrest.[12]

Parliament’s passage of the Tea Act in 1773 once again stirred up the American colonists. In Boston, town leaders met with royal officials to request that the ships bearing tea be sent away from Boston Harbor in a boycott of the Act. When the officials repeatedly refused to compromise, thousands of people proceeded to Griffin’s Wharf where thirty men disguised as Indians boarded three ships, broke open 342 chests, and dumped the nearly 10,000 pounds of tea into the harbor. Britain’s response was legislation known as the Coercive Acts. The Acts closed the Boston port, shuttered town meetings, and gave unprecedented power to the royal governor.[13]

The colonies’ answer to these Intolerable Acts was the meeting of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The Congress petitioned the King for a repeal of the Acts, which was ultimately denied, and created a nonimportation agreement to slash British imports. Knowing that war was imminent, they also called for the colonies to ready their militias for the coming revolution.[14] In France, numerous reforms throughout the course of its Revolution helped to establish equal rights, balanced representation, and religious freedoms. It also allowed a military hero in General Napoleon Bonaparte to rise to power as emperor in 1804.[15] In America, eight years of war, beginning at Lexington and Concord, resulted in a peace treaty with Britain in 1783 and the establishment of an independent democracy with representation in a centralized bicameral legislature. As in France, it was a general, George Washington, who emerged from the Revolution as a hero and was elected as America’s first President in 1789.[16] While the lasting impacts of the French Revolution continue to be debated, the American Revolution “brought written constitutions, declarations of rights, and constituent conventions into the realm of the possible” for “those seeking a better world.”[17]

[1] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 6-7,

[2] Ferling, 30.

[3] Ferling, 30-31.

[4] William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 34-36,

[5] R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 340.

[6] Ferling, 31.

[7] Palmer, 121-123.

[8] Palmer, 355-356.

[9] Ferling, 56.

[10] Ferling, 67.

[11] Ferling, 73-76.

[12] Doyle, 42, 45-46.

[13] Ferling, 104-107.

[14] Ferling, 120-122.

[15] Doyle, 63-64.

[16] Ferling, 309.

[17] Palmer, 212.

* Featured image courtesy of Tom via Flickr