To Keep Our Republic, American Students Must Study The French Revolution

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on
LinkedIn
+

By Jamie Gass and Will Fitzhugh

This op-ed appeared in The Federalist, The Berkshire Eagle, and The Springfield Republican.

The French Revolution began with optimistic Age of Enlightenment slogans about ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,’ before quickly degenerating into the darkened recesses of human nature.

“In this period, the head and body of Monsieur Foulon are introduced in triumph, the head on a pike, the body dragged naked on the earth,” reads the diary of Gouverneur Morris, later the U.S. minister to France, after witnessing mob violence in 1789 Paris. “[T]his horrible exhibition is carried through the different streets… Gracious God! What a people!”

May marks the French Revolution’s 230th anniversary. It began with optimistic Age of Enlightenment slogans about “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” before quickly degenerating into the darkened recesses of human nature. Tens of thousands of public beheadings and Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror delivered the imperial military dictatorship of Napoléon Bonaparte.

Grounded in an understanding of humanity’s vices and virtues, Morris, his friend Alexander Hamilton, and America’s Founding Fathers were all conscientious students of history. Their generation’s 18th-century liberal arts educations taught them volumes about ancient and modern lawgiving and leading a successful revolution for ordered liberty.

American schoolchildren today need to know their nation’s history. For more than 30 years, the national contest “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” has instructed high school students about U.S. political principles. Anyone who believes American history is the civic wellspring of our country should applaud this program’s indispensable teachers and students for promoting the ideals of constitutionalism and self-government.

Only a couple years before heading to France, Morris was the most vocal participant at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, during which he drafted the language for the U.S. Constitution, including its world-renowned Preamble. The Framers built our national architecture upon the enduring foundations of the rule of law, separation of powers, federalism, and natural rights to perpetuate America’s great experiment in republican government.

Our current political landscape, combined with decades of dismal national testing data showing K-12 students’ dearth of civic knowledge, should make us shudder. Politicians across the spectrum shamelessly use widespread ignorance about our past to tap into dangerous popular passions. History forewarns us where this can lead.

The principal French revolutionaries who led furious mobs preached sunny ideological theories about remaking human nature. Direct democracy, they claimed, would allow France to break into a new age, demolishing lawful government, private property, and established religion, and liberating the country from history. Even France’s most sacred cathedrals and abbeys, including Notre Dame and Mont-Saint-Michel, were desecrated and vandalized.

The French Revolution’s rationale did have roots in a deeply hierarchical, stratified, and corrupt civil society. For generations, incompetent monarchs and decadent aristocrats strolled the Palace of Versailles surrounded by extravagance, while the hungry, uneducated masses were mired in feudalism. Regime change was necessary, but 1789 France ignored the rational, self-restraining lessons from 1776 America.

“The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the law of God,” our own John Adams cautioned, “and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”

Students should know that even before America secured its independence from Great Britain, Adams’ 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the world’s oldest functioning written constitution, established a bicameral legislature to check the popular will of the people.

In 1787-88, ahead of the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s famous 1790 essay on the horrors of the French Revolution, Adams published a three-volume book on the virtues of American constitutions. Historian Zoltán Haraszti’s scholarship shows how Adams rebuked the wild-eyed French thinkers, who believed unbridled democracy would deliver heaven on earth.

These days, schools need to focus more on historical knowledge and reasoned civic deliberation, as the “We the People” contest students do. Before they graduate, high schoolers should read at least one major history book, and write longer research papers on significant historical events.

“The political and literary world are much indebted for the invention of the new word IDEOLOGY,” wrote John Adams. “It is presumed its proper definition is the science of idiocy… taught in the [French] school of folly.”

American K-12 education must rededicate itself to teaching civics with a firm reliance on U.S. constitutionalism and the enduring lessons of history. In teaching the terrifying destructiveness of the French Revolution, schools could well be preventing students from becoming the next fanatical mob carrying torches and pitchforks.

Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. Will Fitzhugh is founder of The Concord Review, a Massachusetts-based journal that has published students’ history essays for 30 years.

Get Updates On Our US History Initiative

Related Posts

Award-Winner Nathaniel Philbrick on the Mayflower and the First Thanksgiving

This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara and Gerard talk with Nathaniel Philbrick, historian, winner of the National Book Award, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and author of Mayflower: Voyage, Community, and War. Mr. Philbrick shares what we should know about the actual historical events of the First Thanksgiving in 1621.

Stanford’s Pulitzer-Winning Prof. Jack Rakove on James Madison, The Federalist Papers, & U.S. Constitutionalism

This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara and Gerard talk with Dr. Jack Rakove, Coe Professor of History and American Studies and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Stanford University, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. Professor Rakove reviews the biography of James Madison, often called the "Father of the Constitution," and the influence of classical and Enlightenment learning on his farsighted political thought and leadership.

NYT Best Seller Laurence Bergreen on 530th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus Discovering the New World

On this special Columbus Day edition of “The Learning Curve," guest host Pioneer Institute's Mary Z. Connaughton talks with Laurence Bergreen, a prize-winning biographer, historian, chronicler of exploration, and the author of Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504. Mr. Bergreen discusses what people should know about the life, career, and myths around Christopher Columbus, the courageous, ruthless, and complicated explorer and navigator, on the 530th anniversary of his history-changing and ever-controversial discovery of the New World.

Oxford’s Prof. Timothy Garton Ash on Poland’s Solidarity, Lech Walesa, & Cold War Lessons for Ukraine

https://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/chtbl.com/track/G45992/mp3.ricochet.com/2022/09/TheLearningCurve_TimothyGartonAsh.mp3

UVA’s Two-Time Pulitzer Winner Prof. Alan Taylor on Thomas Jefferson & Education

This week on “The Learning Curve," co-hosts Cara Candal and Gerard Robinson talk with Alan Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of the book, Thomas Jefferson's Education. Professor Taylor shares some highlights of Jefferson’s career, his views on the importance of primary and higher public education in serving the political aspirations of his state and region, and Jefferson's role as the architect of the University of Virginia,

William & Mary’s Dr. Charles Hobson on Chief Justice John Marshall, SCOTUS, & Judicial Review

This week on “The Learning Curve," co-hosts Cara Candal and Gerard Robinson talk with Dr. Charles Hobson, a retired resident scholar at the William & Mary Law School, 26-year editor of The Papers of John Marshall, and author of The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law. Dr. Hobson shares what students should know about the longest-serving, most important chief justice in the history of the Supreme Court, and his influence on our understanding of the U.S. Constitution.

NYU Law Prof. Richard Epstein on the Founders’ Constitution & Federalism

This week on “The Learning Curve," co-hosts Gerard Robinson and Cara Candal talk with Richard Epstein, the inaugural Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at NYU School of Law, and author of The Classical Liberal Constitution: The Uncertain Quest for Limited Government. He describes the influence of 17th and 18th-century English ideas on our Founding Fathers’ views of ordered liberty and self-government.

Jean Strouse on J.P. Morgan & the Rise of American Finance

This week on “The Learning Curve,” Gerard Robinson and guest co-host Kerry McDonald talk with Jean Strouse, author of the award-winning biography of J.P. Morgan, Morgan: American Financier. They discuss why the general public and students alike should know more about the life and accomplishments of the controversial, late 19th- and early 20th-century American banker.

Mt. Holyoke’s Pulitzer-Winning Prof. Joseph Ellis on John Adams & American Independence

This Fourth of July week on “The Learning Curve," co-hosts Gerard Robinson and Cara Candal talk with Dr. Joseph Ellis, Professor Emeritus of History at Mount Holyoke College and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

AEI’s Robert Pondiscio on E.D. Hirsch, Civic Education, & Charter Public Schools

This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard Robinson and guest co-host Kerry McDonald talk with Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He shares his background working with curriculum expert E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who has emphasized the importance of academic content knowledge in K-12 education as well as civic education to develop active participants in our democracy. Pondiscio explains some of the findings of his book, How the Other Half Learns, on New York’s Success Academy charter schools network.

Smith College Prof. Paula Giddings on Ida B. Wells and Her Anti-Lynching Crusade

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara Candal and guest co-host Derrell Bradford talk with Prof. Paula Giddings, Elizabeth A. Woodson Professor Emerita of Africana Studies at Smith College, and author of A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching.

Columbia’s Prof. Nicholas Lemann on the Great Migration, the SAT, & Meritocracy

This week on “The Learning Curve," guest co-host Kerry McDonald talks with Nicholas Lemann, Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus of the Columbia School of Journalism, and author of the books, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, and The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.

UVA Law Prof. G. Edward White on Law, Race, & the U.S. Supreme Court in American History

This week on “The Learning Curve," as the nation prepares for the likely confirmation of its first Black female U.S. Supreme Court justice, Cara Candal and Gerard Robinson talk with Dr. G. Edward White, David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, and author of the three-volume book, Law in American History.

Ascending Justice: Where Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson Will Fit in New Court

Hubwonk host Joe Selvaggi talks with constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination hearings and what her background and responses reveal about her views on the Constitution, the role of the Supreme Court, and her likely judicial positions relative to her fellow justices.

Yale’s Pulitzer-Winning Prof. John Lewis Gaddis on Cold War Lessons for Russia’s Hot War in Ukraine

This week on “The Learning Curve," co-host Cara Candal talks with John Lewis Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of George F. Kennan: An American Life. He shares some of the wider background knowledge, major historical themes, and key events that today's students should know about the Cold War and its impact.