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

WSJ Drama Editor Terry Teachout on Jazz Greats Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington

This week on “The Learning Curve," Gerard and guest co-host Kerry McDonald continue our celebration of Black achievements with Terry Teachout, drama critic at The Wall Street Journal, and author of such books as Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.

Never Forgetting – Holocaust Remembrance Day – 25 Resources for K-12 Students

In Pioneer’s ongoing series of blogs here, on curricular resources for parents, families, and teachers during COVID-19, this one focuses on: Memorializing International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th and learning about the tragedy of the Holocaust during WWII.

Pulitzer Winner Taylor Branch on MLK, Civil Rights History, & Race in America

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara and Gerard are joined by Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a landmark trilogy on the Civil Rights era, America in the King Years. They discuss the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday the nation observed on Monday. They review Dr. King’s powerful, moving oratory, drawing on spiritual and civic ideals to promote nonviolent protest against racial injustice, and how, as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he shared leadership of the movement with organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn on His Father’s Nobel Prize-Winning Fight with Communism

/
This week on “The Learning Curve," Cara and Gerard talk with Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a pianist, conductor laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and son of the Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. They discuss his father’s legacy, his courageous work to debunk the Soviet Union’s utopian myths, and key lessons American educators and students should draw from his life, writings, and battle with Soviet communism.

Oxford & UCLA Pulitzer Winner Prof. Daniel Walker Howe on Horace Mann, Common Schools, & Educating for Democracy

/
This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara and Gerard are joined by Daniel Walker Howe, Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford University in England and Professor of History Emeritus at UCLA. Drawing from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, he provides background information on Horace Mann, the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, founder of the common school movement in public education, and a prominent abolitionist in Congress.

The 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower – 15 Resources for K-12 Students

In Pioneer’s ongoing series of blogs on curricular resources for parents, families, and teachers during COVID-19, this one focuses on: Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage.

UConn’s Prof. Wayne Franklin on James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, & American Democracy

/
This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara and Gerard are joined by Wayne Franklin, professor of English at the University of Connecticut and definitive biographer of the American literary figure James Fenimore Cooper. As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, Prof. Franklin reviews Cooper's background and major works, especially the "Leatherstocking Tales," including The Last of the Mohicans, which are distinguished for their enlightened and sympathetic portrayal of the disappearing tribes.

Nationally Recognized Author Tara Ross on the Importance of the Electoral College

This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara and Gerard are joined by Tara Ross, the nationally recognized author of Why We Need the Electoral College. On the eve of the 2020 election, they discuss the critical and controversial role of the Electoral College in determining which candidate will become the next President of the United States.

Pulitzer-Winning Author Stacy Schiff on the Salem Witch Trials

In our special Halloween edition of “The Learning Curve,” Cara and Gerard are joined by Pulitzer-Prize winner Stacy Schiff, whose most recent book is The Witches: Salem, 1692. They discuss why, in Schiff’s view, the Salem witch trials are the “the best known, least understood chapter” of American history, and why the trials, false charges, and finger pointing, remain relevant today in our Internet culture.

The Houses of Great American Writers – 25 Resources for K-12 Education

According to the Brookings Institution research, teaching great fiction is declining across America’s K-12 education system, so we’re offering resources to help parents, teachers, and schoolchildren to better appreciate great American writers and the places where they wrote.

Award-Winning Writer Brenda Wineapple on the 170th Anniv. of The Scarlet Letter & Pres. Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment

/
This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara and Gerard are joined by Brenda Wineapple, author of the award-winning Hawthorne: A Life and The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation. They discuss her definitive biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the 170th anniversary of the publication of his classic novel, The Scarlet Letter.

International Best-Seller Dr. Jung Chang On Wild Swans, Mao’s Tyranny, & Modern China

/
This week on “The Learning Curve,” Cara and Gerard are joined by Dr. Jung Chang, author of the best-selling books Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China; Mao: The Unknown Story; and Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China.

“Architecture is Frozen Music” Great Massachusetts Buildings – 25 Resources for K-12 Education

Understanding enduring public and private architecture is a key way to learn about art, ideas, and how they harmonize with our democracy. Yet, Massachusetts buildings are often never discussed in K-12 education. We’re offering a variety of links about outstanding houses and architecture across the Bay State for parents, teachers, and schoolchildren to enjoy, visit, and better appreciate, including:

“City Upon a Hill” Massachusetts Monuments & Memorials: 25 Resources for K-12 Education

In Pioneer’s ongoing series of blogs here, here, here, and here on curricular resources for parents, families, and teachers during COVID-19, this one focuses on: Introducing K-12 schoolchildren to Massachusetts monuments & memorials.

When ignorance and violence are permitted to trump justice

/
This week marks the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year old black boy from Chicago who was killed by two white Mississippians for whistling in the presence of a white woman.