Quid Pro No: Explaining the Lack of American Support for the French Revolution
French support played a key role in the American Revolution. One might say that France won the American Revolution for us—and one might be right, since without France, American troops would not have had gunpowder.
Likely, American support would have played a similar role in the French Revolution, if the United States had chosen to support the coup. Unfortunately for France, they did not.
It would be unfair to assert that France supported American Independence only to obligate the newly-United States to support the brewing French Revolution. Though it was understood that American support would be a quid pro quo for French guns and ships, France considered Britain an enemy because of the devastating losses it incurred at Britain’s hand during the French and Indian War — losses that escalated the growing financial crisis in France and culminated in a coup. France also suffered losses at the hands of Britain during the Seven Years War, making them doubly eager for revenge on the British, even if only by proxy.
Additionally, French revolutionaries were as emboldened by the Enlightenment as Americans were, particularly by John Locke’s Two Treatise of Civil Government. Of particular fascination to both French and American citizens was Locke’s belief that civil government operates at the consent of the governed.
To the American founders, this meant legally establishing home rule, creating a structure of government where citizens, localities, and states have federal representation, and codifying civil rights and liberties in a contract between the citizens and the federal government. To the French revolutionaries, this meant social and political upheaval and, ultimately, the beheading of the king in 1793.
Of course, beheading the king was not the ultimate goal of the French Revolution—that was the result of political, social, and economic turmoil. The ultimate goal was, in fact, quite similar to the goal of the American revolution — that is, to establish a government that served the interests of its citizens rather than one that starved them. So what kept the U.S. from supporting the French Revolution?
As a General, President Washington understood the necessity of clearly defined goals for effective military operations. Alexander Hamilton wrote to Washington in 1794, “a further assimilation of our principles with those of France may prove to be a threshold of disorganization and anarchy.” In other words, a major flaw in the French Revolution was not only its radicalism — even to the Americans, who had just created a new form of government—but its lack of long-term planning. It seemed that the French were unprepared to win their own revolution.
Though Thomas Jefferson and like-minded others voiced support for the coup, George Washington maintained a strict policy of neutrality and refused to get involved. Ultimately, the French rebels’ lack of planning meant that the initial, pyrrhic victory began the birth-pains of political conflict that would culminate bloodily in the June Rebellion of 1832.
Common sense also played a role. George Washington considered his victory in the American Revolution “little short of a standing miracle” and, as a result, was hesitant to get involved in another war that didn’t concern America’s interests.
Instead, his main goal was stabilizing the United States politically and economically, not fighting someone else’s war—even if we did promise we would fight it. A rudimentary cost benefit analysis made it clear that American troops and interests would suffer if they entangled themselves in a French civil war.
In the political arena, Federalists and the newly-created Democratic-Republicans were already divided over the issue and, soon, all parties realized that it was in their best political interest to distance themselves from the increasingly radical French Revolutionaries. While most, if not all, Americans supported the French Revolution in an abstract, ideological way, they did not want France’s most radical changes enacted within the U.S. and worried that Thomas Jefferson — the Democratic-Republican presidential candidate — would bring those changes upon the U.S. As a result, Jefferson distanced himself from France, where he had previously been an ambassador, to win over political moderates.
Of course, reneging on the our promises to France was not without its potential consequences. Relations between the U.S. and France threatened to become hostile, but Alexander Hamilton’s consistent efforts to repay France for its aid in the American Revolution helped keep the relationship functional. Because Washington’s successors did not share his hard isolationist and neutral stances, the U.S. eventually acquired both France and Britain, as well as much of the rest of the world, as trade and security partners. After decades of political turmoil, France’s government stabilized and U.S.-French relations are now warm and strong.