Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Bit More on America's Historical Amnesia

I am currently reading a book by Susan Jacoby entitled, The Age of American Unreason (which, by the way, I would reccommend to you all), which deals primarily with America's lack of historical knowledge and its apathy towards sincere learning. I bring this up on our blog because one of the central claims in her books is that the ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment have been replaced with modern ignorance and narcissism, which she claims is self-inflicted. In her introduction, Jacoby writes:

During the past four decades, America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation's heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics.
Jacoby then goes on to quote Thomas Jefferson, who stated "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

Jacoby's claims, comined with what we have discussed earlier, have caused me to wonder if our post-modern civilization is better off than that of our 18th century ancestors. Is it possible that we have actually lost more than we've gained? Is this problem of America's collective "amnesia" really that serious, or are we just blowing things out of proportion?

Your thoughts...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Conclusion of John Adams

The conclusion of HBO's hit miniseries, John Adams took place last night with its 7th and final installment. Last night's episode, entitled "Peacefield," covered the history of John & Abigail Adams during their retirement years. Yet again, HBO did a remarkable job of personalizing the history. The portrayal of Nabby's breast removal and her subsequent death, along with the portrayal of the death of Abigail Adams were stirring scenes, which gave the audience an intimate view of the "humanity" of these characters. I commend HBO for successfully bringing a human element into the equation. The study of history can often neglect the human reality of the past.

With that said, I would like to mention a few of my overall impressions of the miniseries.

The "Good Stuff"
1.) As mentioned above, HBO brought a human element to the history, and did so in a very effective manner.
2.) The miniseries did a great job of eliminating many of the myths that surround our nation's founding. For example, the Founding Fathers regularly disagreed, and often disliked one another. The establishment of the United States was anything but a smooth and unanimous consensus. This miniseries brings this to light.
3.) The recreation of the various cities, homes, clothing, etc. was well-researched and very accurate. The viewer gained as genuine a recreation of colonial America that is humanly possible.

The "Wrong Stuff"
1.) I realize that I have mentioned this on numerous occasions, but I absolutely detest the fact that this miniseries "skims" across the surface of the history of this time period. There is little to no "deep" history that is developed throughout the story. I also feel that HBO cruised through roughly 60 years of history in the blink of an eye. Essentially, I am saying that HBO bit off more than it could chew. I think the series would have been better if HBO had chosen to focus on a specific time period (say, the war period of 1775-1783, or the Washington/Adams presidencies) instead of breezing through the entire life of John Adams. There simply was not enough time to do all of that history justice.

2.) HBO seemed to "overplay" the role of John Adams in many instances. Don't get me wrong, I realize that Adams is of paramount importance to the American Revolution. I also recognize the fact that this is a miniseries devoted to Adams specifically. With that said, I still feel that there could have been more time devoted to the war itself, along with the important contributions that were made by Washington, Franklin and Jefferson. I was disappointed to see that the contributions of these men were essentially omitted from the storyline.

In conclusion, I think HBO did justice to a story that is almost completely ignored by the movie and television industry. It is wonderful that the story of the American Revolution was finally attempted by the film industry. Kudos to Tom Hanks & Co. for going out on a limb and pulling it off!

My overall grade for the miniseries: B+

The award for best performance: Laura Linney for her portrayal of Abigail Adams. I thought it was spot on!

The award for best episode: Episode #2 (Independence).

The award for best scene: The death of Abigail Adams. It was extremely powerful and brought home the reality of her death and its impact on John Adams. We watched these two characters over 7 weeks, and to see her die was a powerful moment in the series. I almost felt like I was there!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Was Lexington and Concord the Beginning?

On this day in 1775, the British Army under the command of Lt. Colonel Francis Smith ordered his army of some 700+ to attack and seize the colonial armaments being stored at Concord. In response, the Boston Minutemen rallied in defence of their "nation," claiming that the British had finally crossed the proverbial line in the sand. The brave rabble of American militiamen who bravely stood against the British have been hailed for their bravery as they stood against the might of the British Army. As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated in his epic poem that has forever immortalized this battle:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Though nobody can doubt the boldness of this British advancement, several historians have begun to question whether or not the battles of Lexington & Concord have received too much attention and credit. While nobody will deny that the battle was both vicious and brave for the colonials, one has to question why this battle is given the unique distinction as being the "beginning battle" to the American Revolution.

First off, I want to make it clear that I am in no way trying to discredit the heroism or significance of the Battle of Lexington & Concord. Instead, I believe that we should strive to put it into the context in the manner that its contemporaries understood it. By doing so, we can learn and appreciate the TRUE nature and importance of this battle.

As far as our Founding Fathers were concerned, the Battle of Lexington and Concord was but another British atrocity that demanded a response. The measure and severity of that response, however, was a topic of great debate between the several delegates to the Continental Congress. Understandably, the Massachusetts delegates demanded war, while many others demanded a peaceful response. War was never officially declared by the Congress, though they did manage to officially appoint George Washington to be the General of the newly established Continental Army. This, however, came AFTER the battle.

It is also important to note that very few of Massachusetts's sister colonies were making preparations for war. As far as they saw it, peace was still very much a possibility and hope. There was also no official declaration for independence, nor any new form of government established. Clearly, our Founding Fathers understood the atrocity of Lexington and Concord to be a serious problem, but not necessarily an act of war.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Flags of the Revolution

If you've been watching HBO's hit miniseries, John Adams, chances are you have noticed the assortment of flags during its opening credits. One of the neat things about the American Revolution is the fact that the colonists created and flew a number of banners, which are now used to commemorate specific events in this all-important era of American history. Unfortunately, the majority of these flags are unknown to the American public today. It's a shame because these flags provide an interesting insight into the history of the American Revolution, which is why I think they are worthy of recognition. With this in mind, here are a handful of America's earliest flags:

The first flag portrayed in the opening credits is the "Join or Die" banner. This flag, which has its origins in the French and Indian War and not the American Revolution, was actually derived from none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin designed the flag to suggest that unity between the British colonies was essential in securing a British victory over the French. For obvious reasons, the banner was brought back during the American Revolution. Here is a link to a previous posting on Franklin's "Join or Die" slogan.

Another flag that has received a lot of attention is the "Appeal to Heaven" flag. This flag's origin is also before the American Revolution. Settlers in Massachusetts used the green tree as a symbol of peace roughly 100 years before the American Revolution. When war broke out, the flag was naturally adopted as a rallying banner for their cause. General George Washington even adopted the flag and used it as the official banner for his navy (a navy he funded himself). Here is a link to an older posting on this flag.

The British Ensign was the official banner of the British Navy, and was flown at every major seaport within the empire. Many historians speculate that this flag's design was the inspiration for the design of the current United States flag.

The "Sons of Liberty" flag as it was commonly called by the Americans was created in 1765 during the protests over the Stamp Act. The flag's nine stripes represent the nine colonies that stood in defiance to Great Britain. Interestingly enough, the flag became known in Great Britain as, "The Rebellious Stripes." Naturally, the flag had to be retired and replaced once the remaining four colonies joined in open rebellion to Britain. In the John Adams miniseries, this flag can be seen in various scenes that include Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty.

The yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag (officially known as the Gadsden Flag) is arguably the most famous and popular flag of the American Revolution. This flag was presented to the Continental Congress by South Carolinian Christopher Gadsden. The flag was used for a time by the Continental Navy, but was later replaced. The interesting thing about the Gadsden Flag is that it provides us with an insight into the popularity of the rattlesnake in colonial America. During this era, many Americans embraced the myth that a rattlesnake, if chopped into pieces, would come back to life if the snake were buried before sundown. This is why Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" snake was so popular. The idea of national unity when combined with snake folklore was a powerful symbol. In fact, the rattlesnake was so popular that it was seriously considered for the national emblem. Benjamin Franklin became its most ardent proponent, claiming that the rattlesnake would make the perfect symbol of the new American republic. Te reasons for embracing the rattlesnake as the national emblem were:

*The rattlesnake has no eyelids and is therefore eternally vigilant.
*Colonial Americans believed that the rattlesnake would never attack first, and that it never retreated from a fight.
*Colonial American society believed that a rattlesnake never slept, suggesting that the animal never tired.
*The rattlesnake is indigenous to North America


Benjamin Franklin was so passionate about making the rattlesnake the national emblem that he adorned his home with the Gadsden Flag. When the eagle was finally accepted as the new national emblem, Franklin protested by proclaiming the eagle, "a despicable vulture of the sky."

The "Grand Union Flag," which is often considered by historians to be the first "official" American flag, was used between 1775 and 1777. The flag was an adaptation of the British Naval flag, which was altered by the inclusion of the thirteen alternating red and white stripes (which represented the thirteen colonies). The flag kept the original red cross of St. George and white cross of St. Andrew, which represented American devotion to Great Britain. It is important to remember that in 1775 the majority of American colonists were still opposed to a complete break with Britain. This flag symbolizes their hope for reconciliation and loyalty to the motherland.

This was the personal flag of General George Washington during the American Revolution. As strange as it may sound today, generals carried flags into battle for identification. This allowed couriers and other staff to be able to locate the general on the battlefield. This flag always accompanied George Washington and his "life guard" (a select group of men that served as Washington's security detail). This flag can be seen in HBO's John Adams series when the General makes a stop at the home of Abigail Adams and during the siege of Boston from Dorchester Heights.

As the British commenced their attack up Breed's Hill on the morning of June 17, 1775, this flag could be seen flying from the top of nearby Bunker Hill. This flag would forever commemorate that encounter and give Bunker Hill the distinction over Breed's Hill (where the fighting actually took place).

This flag, which is known as the American Naval Jack, was flown on several American naval ships during the American Revolution. The current United States Navy is still using this flag. In fact, it is tradition that the ship with the longest total period of active service be given the distinction of flying this flag. Currently the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk carries this distinction. It is also worth noting that the Secretary of the Navy ordered all Navy vessels to fly this Navy Jack for the duration of the war on terrorism. Here is an interesting link for more information on the Navy Jack.

This flag, which is often referred to as the "Vermont Flag" or the "Green Mountain" flag was first flown by Ethan Allen during his raid of Fort Ticonderoga. The flag was later adopted as the official flag of the Republic of Vermont, since Vermont did not join the union until 1791.

Of course we cannot forget the legendary "Betsy Ross" flag. Though its origins are a source of intense historical debate (click here for more on the Betsy Ross flag), the banner has remained a traditional emblem of the American Revolution. The "Betsy Ross" flag was used by the army, while the flag to the right was the most widely accepted and distributed flag of the infant United States during the yearly years of the republic


Some other interesting flags of early American history:
The earliest known Viking flag, which depicts a raven. Ravens were important birds for the earliest seafaring voyages, since they naturally flew in the direction of land. It is thought that the Vikings under Leif Ericson could have flown this flag during their voyages around the American coast.

This was the flag carried by Christopher Columbus to the "New World." The flag represents the rule of King Ferdinand and Isabel (in Spanish spelled Ysabel). Upon his arrival, Columbus is said to have posted this flag as an act of claiming the lands for the Spanish crown.

This flag represented England as far back as the Crusades. It also accompanied John Cabot during his exploration of the American coast, and was carried by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620.

You could make the argument that this is the first flag of New York. Known as the Dutch East India Flag, this banner flew proudly over the Dutch fortresses of New Amsterdam (the "A" in the flag represents Amsterdam, the motherland's capital). It would take several years before the city of New Amsterdam would fall to the British and be renamed New York.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

2008 Pulitzer Prize Winner

The 2008 winners of the Pulitzer Prize were announced to the public yesterday, and though this year's winner in the history category is not a historian of the American Revolution, I still believe that his book is worth mentioning here. Historian Daniel Walker Howe is this year's recipient for his work, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. In recent years, Howe has become one of the foremost historians of the Jacksonian Era, which is essentially an extension of the American Revolutionary era. You could easily make the claim that the study of the American Revolution extends into the early parts of the 19th century, which would make Howe's work a valuable resource for those that are interested in this time period.

Howe's book was published by Oxford University and is part of the Oxford series on American history (which is arguably the most respected multi-volume series of American history ever published). Mark Noll, one of the most respected religious scholars of our day, stated that Howe's book is, "probably the most culturally sensitive political history as well as the best politically informed social history ever written for this transformative period in American history." The publishers for Oxford University had this to say about Howe's breakthrough work:

The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. The series includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, two New York Times bestsellers, and winners of the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. Now, in What Hath God Wrought, historian Daniel Walker Howe illuminates the period from the Battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, an era when the United States expanded to the Pacific and won control over the richest part of the North American continent.

Howe's panoramic narrative portrays revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated the extension of the American empire. Railroads, canals, newspapers, and the telegraph dramatically lowered travel times and spurred the spread of information. These innovations prompted the emergence of mass political parties and stimulated America's economic development from an overwhelmingly rural country to a diversified economy in which commerce and industry took their place alongside agriculture. In his story, the author weaves together political and military events with social, economic, and cultural history. He examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party, but contends that John Quincy Adams and other Whigs — advocates of public education and economic integration, defenders of the rights of Indians, women, and African-Americans — were the true prophets of America's future. He reveals the power of religion to shape many aspects of American life during this period, including slavery and antislavery, women's rights and other reform movements, politics, education, and literature. Howe's story of American expansion culminates in the bitterly controversial but brilliantly executed war waged against Mexico to gain California and Texas for the United States.

By 1848 America had been transformed. What Hath God Wrought provides a monumental narrative of this formative period in United States history.

Though lengthy in his prose, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought is, without question, a must-read for those interested in the history and development of early America. The book deserves a resounding five stars!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The United States of Amnesia: America's Historical Illiteracy

I've been wanting to bring up this topic for a long time but decided not to, being that this blog is dedicated primarily to the history of the American Revolution. After recent events, however, I have had a change of heart. While this posting may not have a lot to do with the American Revolution in particular, it does have a great deal to do with the study of history in general. I hope you will all take the time to read this posting because I believe it is an issue of supreme significance to us all.

A recent survey conducted by the Nation's Report Card 2001: U.S. History indicated that more than half of American high school seniors lack a "basic" understanding of American history ("basic" meaning questions like "What was the Holocaust," and, "Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?"). To make matters worse, a 2003 Roper Survey of Americans found that only 38% of Adults and 53% of students knew the meaning of the word Holocaust. Another 68% of Americans were unable to name at least three signers of the Constitution. In Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn's 1997 report, What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know?: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature, it was found that the answer was little: One out of five students thought Watergate occurred before 1900 and only one-third could place the Civil War within the correct half-century (click here for a link to these sources).

In an excellent piece written for the National Review, William J. Bennett points out the fact that current high school and college students are performing far worse in American history than in reading or math. Bennett continues his argument by alluding to the fact that funding for historical education is virtually non-existent, and that current historical resources are both outdated and biased:

Many of our history books are either too tendentious — disseminating a one-sided, politically correct view of the history of the greatest nation that ever existed; or, worse, they are boring — providing a watered down, anemic version of a people who have fought wars at home and abroad for the purposes of liberty and equality, conquered deadly diseases, and placed men on the moon...What a shame that great men and women like George Washington, Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Jesse Owens, Martin Luther King Jr, and so many others should be consigned to brief mentions only, and then to the sighs of uninterested study. Their stories are just not told.

Historian David McCullough, who in recent years has become the most outspoken proponent for the advancement of historical education, has stated on numerous occasions that we are facing the prospect of national amnesia. “Amnesia of society is just as detrimental as amnesia for the individual. We are running a terrible risk. Our very freedom depends on education, and we are failing our children in not providing that education.” McCullough also adds that we cannot single out our youth exclusively, but that we should take note of the historical ignorance of the Adult population as well. Since the overwhelming majority of Americans obtain their historical knowledge from Hollywood, The History Channel, and other forms of pop culture, McCullough suggests that we are facing a crisis of national identity.

Skeptics within the education community insist that the study of history carries less importance in the modern world than do topics such as math, science and computers. In fact the Department of Education for the State of California has determined that the study of American history should emphasize more "relevant" issues. As a result, California is currently phasing out its American Revolution and Civil War curriculums, claiming that they are of less importance to the "modern" student. In fact, the overwhelming majority of high school students nationwide are required to take only 2 semesters of history in order to graduate. Since history is included in the larger genre of Social Studies, less emphasis is placed on its importance. At the college level, history classes and professors are but a small part of what most universities call, The Department of Humanities. As a result, most college student are able to breeze through their collegiate careers without ever being required to take a single course of history.

I find it both strange and hypocritical that the study of history has become a mere subcategory in the larger arenas of Social Studies and Humanities. After all, Math, Science, English, etc. are still esteemed as unique and separate fields of study. So why not history? Historian George Lipsitz sums up this historical crisis best when he writes:

The crisis in historical thinking is certainly real. The dislocations of the past two centuries, the propaganda apparatuses of totalitarian powers, disillusionment with the paradigms of the Enlightenment, and popular culture itself have all served to make the search for a precious and communicable past one of the most pressing problems of our time.
I for one find it amazing that Americans are so quick to profess their love, admiration and patriotism for this nation, yet remain ignorant of its history and development. In many ways, this phenomenon is similar to the professing Christian that knows little or nothing about his/her religion's doctrine. How can one profess loyalty or patriotism to a nation or cause if he/she knows nothing of its history? As Cicero stated so many years ago, "History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity...one cannot become a true citizen without first gaining an understanding of history."

In a series of seminars, historian David McCullough has stressed the "historical crisis" that this nation currently faces. His words are far better than mine, so I will conclude by attaching a few of McCullough's video clips. I hope you will enjoy.


Part 2:

Monday, April 7, 2008

HBO's John Adams: Episode 5

Episode #5, "Unite or Die" is in the books! As hard as it may be to believe, HBO's hit miniseries John Adams has almost reached its conclusion. I guess that the old saying, "all good things must come to an end" is true after all. It has been an absolute joy to not only watch this miniseries, but to engage in a meaningful discussion on the film's historical accuracies/inaccuracies with all of you. Speaking for myself, the series has become quite the learning experience, thanks in large part to your input.

Like most of you, I watched episode #5 last night with great anticipation. Going into this week's episode I knew that the miniseries would be covering the early years of the American republic, which is a time period I greatly enjoy learning about. Overall, I think that HBO did an excellent job at capturing the true nature on America's infant years as a republic. The series brought out the convoluted nature of America's political atmosphere, which eventually drove a rift between many of our Founding Fathers. Episode #5 also helped to put a personal spin on the Adams family's domestic quarrels, which were anything but peaceful.

I only have a few critiques of this week's installment. Most of them center on the portrayal of various political issues that came up in episode #5. First off, I want to YET AGAIN stress the fact that this miniseries is only skimming the historical surface of the American Revolution. It is impossible to give a detailed portrayal of George Washington's eight-year administration in only one hour. I lament the fact that so many viewers will miss so much history that is critical in gaining an understanding of the early American republic.

My main problem with last night's episode centers on its depiction of the Jay Treaty. There can be no doubt that the French/British conflict propelled the infant United States into a very difficult dilemma. There is also no doubt that a large part of the American population favored an alliance with France, and that the announcement of the Jay Treaty angered many across the continent. With that said, however, it is also important to remember that a large part of the nation defended Washington's decision to make a treaty with Britain. HBO's portrayal of George Washington being hated by the masses is grossly overdone. Of course there were protests against Washington for the Jay Treaty, but there were also protests against France as well. As historian James Sharp points out in his book, American Politics in the Early Republic, "The treaty that Jay negotiated, and that Washington sent to the Senate divided the country like no other issue in the history of the young republic." Washington's decision was controversial to say the least, but it did not cause the majority of Americans to hate him (as is suggested in the film).

In fact, Washington's decision to accept a treaty with Britain was an ingenious move to say the least. As Joseph Ellis writes in his book, Founding Brothers:

It bet, in effect, on England rather than France as the hegemonic European power of the future, which proved prophetic. It recognized the massive dependence of the American economy on trade with England…it linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century. Mostly, it postponed war with England until America was economically and politically more capable of fighting one.
Washington's decision to avoid war at all costs and to align America's economic future with England instead of France was arguably the most important decision of his presidency.

In addition, it would have been a huge plus if the miniseries did a better job of portraying George Washington's departure from the presidency as the illustrious event that it was. Washington's ability to willingly give up power set a precedence that no president dared to break in almost 200 years. That was an event that deserved more attention.

Another historical event that could have used further development was Alexander Hamilton's plan of economic assumption. The miniseries only devotes a small segment to this all-important issue. In fact, Hamilton seems to be somewhat demonized in the film's portrayal of his economic policies. We would be wise, however, to remember that Alexander Hamilton's plan of assumption did more to set America on the road to prosperity than any other act of government policy.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Martin Luther King: Remembering 40 Years

I realize that this blog is about the American Revolution, but I thought this posting would be appropriate. In many ways, the story of Martin Luther King is a story of America's founding, since he did so much to help fulfill its true meaning.

Forty years ago on this day, Martin Luther King was shot and killed outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old. King's assassination, which is deeply clouded in controversy, became a major turning point in the American Civil Right's movement. In 1964, King was instrumental in lobbying for the passage of the Civil Right's Act, but the act was still greatly unpopular across the American landscape. King's death marked a change in sentiment that propelled the Civil Right's Act to the forefront of American affairs. As King biographer Taylor Branch has appropriately stated, "Marin Luther King has done more to fulfill the legacy of America's founding than any other man...he's a modern equivalent of our Founding Fathers."

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Ron Chernow's Newest Project

The highly acclaimed historian/biographer, Ron Chernow, has announced his newest project. Chernow has decided to write an unprecedented biography of George Washington, which should be one of the most comprehensive biographies of "the father of America" ever written. With the impending completion of the Papers of George Washington, to which Chernow has been given unprecedented access, this book will be one to remember.

Chernow is best known for his biography of Alexander Hamilton, which is arguably the most comprehensive biography ever written on the man. Chernow is very well-known and respected for his detail-oriented approach to writing. "Chernow spares no expence and cut not corners when it comes to his research," stated David McCullough. "When it comes to the nitty-gritty of doing research, nobody is better than Ron [Chernow]."

The date for this soon-to-be masterpiece is still yet to be determined (which is common of Chernow, due to his intense research style). I for one am willing to wait. If this book is anything like Alexander Hamilton, the wait will be well worth it!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

American Revolution v. French Revolution

The eighteenth-century was a time of wide-spread enlightenment and phenomenal political advancement. To be certain, the culminating events of that century were the American and French Revolutions. Both saw the overthrow of traditional monarchical rule, followed by the establishment of republican law. But which revolution had the bigger impact?

To be certain, both citizens of America and France defend their respective revolution as being most important, and with good reason. I don't expect Americans in today's society to proclaim the French Revolution as more important to world history, nor do I expect the French to think of America's revolution in the same light either. The growth of nationalism in the 20th century would make such an inquiry virtually impossible.

Instead, I would like us to understand these revolutions from the perspective of the participants. If we were to travel back in time to 1789, there can be NO QUESTION that the citizens of America and France (along with most of Europe) would be hailing the French Revolution as THE MOST IMPORTANT movement of their era. Virtually nobody would think to include the Constitutional Convention in such an argument. After all, America was a frontier nation, not the sophisticated world of France!

With this said, however, as the French Revolution wore on, more and more Americans began to see the American Revolution through a different lens. As the events of "The Terror" and other violent outbreaks began to ravage the French countryside, the differences between the motivating factors for revolution in America v. France became much more clear. As one historian put it:

Unlike the American Revolution, whose philosophical ancestors were the English liberals, the French Revolution was fundamentally fathered by the French radical philosophers, especially Jean Jacques Rousseau, and inherited the faith in reason engendered by The Enlightenment. RenĊ½ Descartes' trust in geometric like reasoning and Rousseau's belief in the common will and sovereignty of the people framed the conception guiding the French Revolution. This conception is mechanical. Government is a machine, fueled by coercive power, and driven by reason; and its destination is Social Justice. Government is thus a tool to reach a future goal -- improving man. Those in charge of the State would therefore use reason to apply government to further and create Social Justice.

This conception is clearly different from that of the American revolutionaries. For the Americans, interests were the guiding force; for the French, reason. For the Americans, Freedom was to be preserved against the State; for the French, the State was used by reason to achieve Social Justice. For the Americans, individual rights were essential to protect interests; for the French, the collective, the sovereignty of the people, the general will stood above rights. Finally, for the Americans, no one interest could be entrusted with the State -- all interests had to be limited and balanced by their opposition; for the French, the State was a tool that should have no limit so long as Social Justice was pursued according to the common will.
Despite the motivations for instigating revolution, there can be no mistaking the fact that these two revolutions, both of extreme importance to world history, had very different conceptions.