Comparing the French and American revolutions

As I write this column, sprays of popping lights are igniting across the country. For once, I am not in the US, celebrating in New York City where I typically observe the 4th and where I typically read the Declaration of Independence out loud to my kids. They have heard the story many times from their parents but largely because they are fans of Hamilton (the musical). Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

When that document was signed, the gentlemen who put their names to it understood the stakes: if they did not succeed, they would be tried as traitors and they would be hanged. I like to think about it, especially on this day. I wonder what it’s like to take a stand with implications so severe. It was not clear that they would be able to rebuff the British. In fact, by August of 1776, the British had parked over 400 ships from New York Harbor to Staten Island. If you happen to ever visit Lower Manhattan, look at the harbor and think what it was like to see that view speckled with 400 antagonistic warships. I have never seen that many boats in the harbor, nothing like that number, not even 100 boats in the upper bay at any given time.

I am writing from France on this special holiday so let me give a nod to the revolution that happened here. I am fascinated with revolutions because there was a very special one that happened close to home, at least my heart’s home. The French Revolution, though concurrent with American Independence, did not preserve the ideologies they professed—liberty, equality, and brotherhood. The ultimate problem is that it violated so many rules of humanity. The beheading of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are seminal events in world history. However, it is not at widely know that the Louis XVII, a child my son’s age, was first kept under abusive guardianship, told his mother no longer wanted him, rid of his identity (they called him Hugh Capet) and finally locked away in a sunless tower cell for the last two years of his life. His cell was infested with rats. At the age of 10, a few months younger than my son is now, he died of an infection of the lymph nodes.

When I think of the French Revolution, I think of French-on-French atrocities and nothing of the soaring ideas they wanted to pass down in history. When I think of the American Revolution, I think of a collection of intelligent bad-assess that had driven their stakes in the ground, given up tea, risked their lives and all for the intangible goal of remaking the world as it should be. And that “should be” which still seems to be gaining ground today happens to be one of the most compelling ideas in human history:

“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal….”

With that one line, the world was changed. It may not have changed instantaneously, but it has set us on a path of social change that is not likely to reverse course, not ever. Hopefully, these ideas will affect the rest of the world at their own pace.

The founding fathers, the signers of the Declaration, could have capitalized on their newly acquired powers and secured the country’s leadership fall to their descendants. Instead they chose to propagate their ideas.

If you haven’t gotten a chance yet, take a few minutes of your day to read Thomas Jefferson’s missive. He may have been a Caucasian man in a wig of white hair and we may be brown people who may or may have been born in America now. But his is our history too. These ideas are ours to nurture and implement. Those fireworks popping across the time zones are for our eyes.