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Libraries & Culture 36.3 (2001) 480-481

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Book Review

Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light

Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light. By Susan Dunn. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999. xi, 258 pp. $26.00. ISBN 0-571-19900-3.

Susan Dunn is an elegant writer, and her Sister Revolutions is among the best introductions comparing the American and French Revolutions. Dunn has read deeply in political theory and history, and the result is both a pleasure and an education for the reader.

Dunn shows not only the links between the two revolutions but also how each invented its own notion of political liberty. While both French and American liberty stemmed from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment culture of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, the American variant stood in stark opposition to the French. French liberty followed Rousseau in emphasizing democratic rights to participation but minimized dissent and individual expression. American liberty, in contrast, emphasized the triumph of individual freedom and local government over national destiny. The French revolutionaries were obsessed, Dunn claims, with finding consensus and unanimity. The Americans recognized the futility of such political ambitions and recognized conflict among citizens as inherent in freedom itself.

Dunn's book is not a neutral analysis. Rather, these two different revolutionary tracks to democracy convince Dunn why French democracy failed during the 1790s, leading to strong men such as Napoleon and later Charles de Gaulle, whereas America's successful revolution led to its twentieth-century preeminence. Dunn's history lesson turns out to be a defense of American individualism.

Dunn's perspective is not original, but it is a lucid, if uncritical, popularization of François Furet's influential work (see especially his Interpreting the French Revolution, trans. Elborg Forster [Cambridge, 1981]). Since Furet's book is only decipherable to specialists, Dunn's contribution is especially helpful. Nonetheless, her embrace of Furet's perspective can lead her to incorporate his biases into her own work. For example, Dunn picks up from Furet Alexis de Tocqueville's influential but mistaken [End Page 480] claim that the French revolutionaries went wrong because they depended upon Enlightenment ideas produced by armchair philosophers with no practical experience. The American leaders, on the contrary, "could claim to be governed by people like . . . James Madison--intellectuals who played active political roles. But in France the sphere of government and the sphere of ideas were separate. Some men administered, others theorized in vacuum about government" (34). Really? What about Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, who served France as intendant and then as prime minister while writing articles on politics and economics for the Encyclopédie? Or the Baron de Montesquieu, whose writings were, after all, steeped in his experience as president of the Parlement of Bordeaux? Even the most famous outsider of the group--Jean Jacques Rousseau--spent a short period as a diplomat in the French embassy in Venice.

Furthermore, many so-called American principles were actually taught to our forefathers by the French masters. For example, Dunn cites Jefferson's criticism of Descartes's philosophy as an American rejection of French thought: "Thomas Jefferson commented that Descartes's theoretical 'fancies' retarded the progress of science in France for generations" (67). But here Jefferson was simply reproducing the same criticism made earlier by Voltaire in his famous lettres philosophiques (1734). Likewise, Dunn would have us believe that we Americans reject Rousseau's concept of the general will because it "is arbitrary, illusory, and coercive" (64). To the contrary, in our cry for safe drinking water and clean air standards, and especially in our overwhelming support for food and drug regulations, we daily embrace Rousseauian notions of the general will.

But the largest problem with Dunn's argument (again, derivative of Furet) is that she conflates the early years of the French Revolution (1789-92) with the radical period of the Terror (1793-94). This leads her to minimize the moderate accomplishments of the Constituent Assembly. Dunn's engaging formulations ("the two Janus faces of the Revolution, unity and exclusion, fraternity and terror" [85]) make sense only if we view 1793-94 as emblematic...


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