A German Reflection on the American Revolution

Battles over origins are nothing new. Today, the American Founding is attacked by both the left and the right. Conservatives like Patrick Deneen find fault with the Founding as readily as the 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones. Lest you think this is a merely contemporary phenomenon, a letter written by John Quincy Adams reminds us that critics of America’s beginnings have been around for at least 222 years.

Penned on June 16, 1800, Quincy Adams lavishes gratitude upon European diplomat and intellectual Friedrich von Gentz for his essay vindicating the American Revolution “from the imputation of [it] having originated, or been conducted upon the same principles as that of France.” Gentz’s essay is fittingly entitled, The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution Compared with the Origins and Principles of the French Revolution. Mere months after reading it in German, Adams, then Prussian ambassador, would translate and publish Gentz’s work into English for an American audience.

Writing from Europe in the wake of the Jacobin Reign of Terror, Gentz’s memory is freshly seared with the “melancholy experience of ten disastrous years,” that followed the 1789 French Revolution. The bloody experience led him to see the stark contrast between the two revolutions in question and also informed his criticism of America’s founding.

As a prelude to comparing the two revolutions, Gentz offers readers an overview of the circumstances leading to the American Revolution. In retelling the events surrounding the American cause for liberty, his timeline surveys the typical historical terrain—the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 leading to Grenville’s Stamp Tax in 1765, Parliament’s 1766 Declaratory Act asserting its right to legislate on behalf of the colonists, Townsend’s 1767 Impost Taxes, the 1770 Boston Massacre, the 1773 Boston Tea Party, the First Continental Congress of 1774, the outbreak of war at the Battle of Lexington in 1775, and the subsequent Second Continental Congresses followed by the battle of Bunker Hill. Gentz’s overview of the origin of the American Revolution is not just a historical recapitulation. It houses an implicit criticism of the American Founding, which he later makes explicit.

Namely, by recounting the main historical circumstances and features of the American Revolution, Gentz argues that the Founders erred in grounding their revolution upon the principles spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. According to Gentz, the American Revolution was completely justified on legal or constitutional grounds, and therefore lawful. There was no need to justify it by appealing to abstract categories of natural and unalienable rights, nor by using “revolutionary language” and concepts like sovereignty of the people. For Gentz, the Founders “erroneously believed [these speculative ideas] necessary to justify their first steps.”

On this point, Gentz finds some company with defenders of the Declaration, such as Abraham Lincoln. In his 1857 Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, Lincoln noted, “[t]he assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” Unlike Gentz, however, Lincoln still found such principles necessary, albeit “for future use” that The Great Emancipator would rely upon in the Civil War era.

But Lincoln’s constant approximation of the Declaration’s “standard maxim” is just the thing Gentz fears. Gentz is apprehensive over principles like equality of unalienable rights because he views them as open to great misconstruction, liable to abuse, and therefore politically dangerous. While Gentz finds the American Founders innocent in this regard, he charges the French Revolution with being guilty of applying “abstract and fictive” principles in such a way as to bring devastation upon Europe and misery to the civilized world. According to Gentz, in France, “the rights of man” destroyed the rights of citizens, as well as the harmony and good order of society, whereas “the sovereignty of the people” undermined the rule of law and led to anarchy. In the French version of revolution, these American principles were utilized to wield an arbitrary will and exercise a power accountable only to itself.

While Gentz takes issue with what he considers unnecessary rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence, Americans, like Quincy Adams, have long considered these principles essential to our identity as a People and our arrangement of political powers. Throughout his career, Quincy Adams consistently fought to uphold the principles of the Declaration. In his 1839 oration entitled, Jubilee of the Constitution, Quincy Adams enumerates five central principles in the Declaration: (1) the natural equality of mankind, (2) unalienable rights, (3) the people as the only legitimate source of power, (4) the consent of the governed as the source of all just power, and (5) responsibility to God in exercising that power. Interestingly, while Gentz takes specific issue with the “sickle of equality,” with unalienable rights, and with the sovereignty of the people, he never mentions responsibility to God, which, for Quincy Adams, is the antidote to the poison of arbitrary law and arbitrary will that Gentz so fears.

According to Adams, the Declaration posits that power must be responsible to something beyond itself. Specifically, Adams argues that the sovereignty of the people, rightly exercised, is done “under the tie of conscience, binding them to the retributive justice of Heaven.” In grounding rights upon the laws of nature and of nature’s God, the principles of the Declaration reveal a conception of justice that not only secures rights, but also is based on right. Without that there is only power, tethered to nothing but its own desires, and ripe to be exercised in an arbitrary fashion.

Through the eyes of a foreigner like Fredrich von Gentz, Americans once again have the opportunity to grow in appreciation for their Founding and esteem it rightly.

Gentz would seem to share such a conception of justice, for he indicates that revolutions ought to be tried at the bar of “uncorrupted reason and the eternal [emphasis mine] prescriptions of real right.” Despite this Gentz fails to find or discuss any such American principle, as Quincy Adams does, residing within the Declaration. This omission is surprising, for not only does the Declaration make four distinct references to God, but employing this principle would have provided Gentz with another sharp point of contrast between the French and American Revolutions. Unlike in America, the French Revolution did not appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of its intentions, but rather sought to dechristianize France with the cult of the goddess Reason and Robespierre’s Supreme Being.

For Adams in the Jubilee, the foundation of government was either grounded in something transcendent or something merely human. In the former, responsibility to conscience and God, as found in the law of nature and of nature’s God, prevailed. In the latter, mere positive law held sway, in which power is unfettered to any standard of judgment beyond itself. Or as Gentz notes of the French, “all was right which they resolved upon in the name of the people.” Gentz acknowledges that the American Founding proceeded according to transcendent principles, which he alludes to as real right and nature. “The Americans were wise enough to circumscribe themselves within the bounds, which right, on one side, and the nature of things, on the other, had drawn round them.” Unlike Adams, he does not locate these principles within the Declaration, though it speaks of the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

After a prefatory elucidation of the historical origins of America’s independence, Gentz shifts to unfolding a schema for evaluating the essay’s central political phenomenon: revolution. He utilizes this schema and its criteria to form a judgment, which clarifies the differences between the French and American Revolutions. His schema consists of four essential elements and questions:

(I) Origins – Was the origin of the revolution lawful, or right?

(II) Progress or Prosecution – What was the character of the revolution’s conduct as it progressed from beginning to end? In other words, was the revolution defensive or offensive in nature?

(III) Object or Goal – How clearly defined was the revolution’s goal or purpose? Did it have a fixed objective or was it vague and constantly shifting?

(IV) Resistance – How much resistance did the revolution generate in the population, whether acted upon or not?

What is Gentz’s verdict upon applying these criteria? The American Revolution was lawful and defensive, operated within narrow boundaries defined by a precise goal, and met with relatively little resistance. The French Revolution, on the other hand, was—from start to finish—lawless, offensive in nature, unbounded by ends or means, and met with massive resistance from all levels of society due to its excessive and insatiable violence.

This is not to say America is given a full pass. Just as he criticizes the American Founding for indefinite principles espoused by the Declaration of Independence, Gentz likewise faults aspects of the origin of the American Revolution as well as some of the measures levied against resistance to it.

As to the origins and the rightness of the American Revolution, Gentz notes that of all the principles under which the revolution operated, some were obviously right, others were most likely right, and none were clearly wrong. For example, while Gentz finds the colonies to be perfectly within the realm of right with respect to resisting the British Parliament, he finds the question of resistance to the king a little more difficult, but not impossible, to justify. Thus his criticism here is very moderate, for while he does not deem their resistance “clearly right” neither does he call it unlawful or wrong. Rather, this is a situation in which he holds that it is hard to say the Americans were not right. He argues that in resisting the king, the unlawfulness of the colonists “could not be clearly proved,” but then subsequently goes on to argue that the revolution, upon closer examination, was justified both legally and constitutionally.

As to resistance, Gentz finds that “injustice and violence” were not entirely absent from the American Revolution. This is to be expected though, for Gentz indicates that injustice is par for the course in revolutions. Though the scope of resistance was relatively small in the American context, Gentz nonetheless finds several examples worthy of mention. He points to the manifestation of a “spirit of persecution” aimed at those suspected of indifference to the American cause or of conniving with the English government. Likewise, he notes the existence of hatred amongst the American Whigs and Tories that broke out in violent scenes and in “reciprocal cruelties” inflicted upon prisoners. Finally, property rights were violated, with the “benevolent” William Penn’s descendants being a case in point.

These faults, whether relating to the lawfulness of the revolution’s origins or to injustice and violence perpetrated against resistance to it, are, for Gentz, mere trifles in comparison to the French on these points. Gentz is not wanting for a few choice words to describe the latter’s outrages. The French Revolution was “by long habit dead to every sentiment of right,” plunged into “the lowest depth of criminal fool-hardiness,” and “murdered justice herself.” All during its bloody frenzy it maintained a “thirst for destruction,” with cruelties so severe and widespread that it would have had to “[destroy] human nature herself to secure . . . forgiveness.” Gentz is impartial in assessing both the American and French Revolutions, but his abhorrence of only one of them is unabashedly on display.

As an American “attached to the honor of his country,” Quincy Adams expressed gratitude to Gentz for his essay. It was also for the honor of America’s founding that Adams decided to translate Gentz’s work for his fellow citizens and American posterity. Yet today, many iconoclasts seek to tear down monuments to America’s founding and its revolutionary heroes, heaping not honor, but shame, upon them. Such is the French-like revolutionary spirit that is alive in America today and which seeks to completely overthrow her past. As Gentz reminds us, without active resistance such revolutionary fervor has an appetite for destruction that is never sated.

To speak of the American Revolution is to speak of its founding. To say America was “founded” has implications for her identity and her destiny. The American Founding provided future generations both an end and a means for achieving that end within the Declaration and Constitution. Thus, posterity possesses a standard by which to measure and judge whether or not it has stayed true to America’s first principles and the purpose for which she was created. How we conceive of our origins, therefore, informs our identity as a People.

A founding is a mirror and a map to evaluate who we are and where we are as a People. It implies that we ought to be looking back in order to know ourselves, to know where we are going, and to know if we are using the appropriate means to get there. As Quincy Adams and Gentz demonstrate, impartial criticism is always welcome. However, if America dishonors and disowns her founding and her revolution, we lose the sense of our origins. We lose our roots. And a tree without roots dies. Thankfully, through the eyes of a foreigner like Fredrich von Gentz, Americans once again have the opportunity to grow in appreciation for their Founding and esteem it rightly.