Today, July 14th is Bastille Day. On that day in 1789 the French people stormed the Bastille, thus igniting the spark that led to the French Revolution.
1789 is a mere 13 years after the American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 – and many contemporaries thought that they were essentially the same revolution, including Thomas Jefferson. They were wrong.
While there may have been superficial similarities, the enormous philosophical differences soon become apparent to all.
In a relatively short time, the French Revolution led to a horrendous and bloody reign of terror and a Napoleonic dictatorship that became the model for modern totalitarianism. The American Revolution led to the longest, sustained democracy in world history – the United States of America.
The essential and defining difference in the two revolutions can be identified in their foundational statements. The American Revolution declared to the world on July 4, 1776, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
The French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and its assertion of "liberty, equality, and fraternity," were based purely on the human assertion of this truth, as opposed to the American Revolution's basis of the "Creator" and natural law. The Americans appealed "to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions" and affirmed their "firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence."
The American Revolution did not declare its independence from God – the French Revolution did. In fact, the French Revolution consciously attempted to go back to the pre-Christian roots of Greco-Roman civilization. Napoleon declared himself "Emperor," as in the Roman Empire, not "King." Some early devotees of the revolution dressed a famous French actor as the goddess of reason, placed her on the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral, and worshipped her.
The Judeo-Christian roots of the American Revolution laid the foundations that recognized and protected human rights instead of sacrificing them to the glory of the totalitarian secular state.
As President John F. Kennedy observed in his presidential inaugural address on January 20, 1961,
And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forbearers fought are still at issue
around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the
state, but from the hand of God.
Thank God our forefathers were American, not French, and they worshipped the one true God, rather than themselves.