It may be the seasonal heat that incubates revolutionary sentiments, since both Independence Day and Bastille Day occurred in the feverish days of July. One admires the temperance of our Founding Fathers, who met in Philadelphia in un-airconditioned rooms.
The other revolution unleashed more violent passions against a devout monarch who, like Charles I and later Nicholas II, inherited the consequences of less benign forebears. There were excesses in the American colonies, but pulling down the statue of George III was unlike the French actually beheading their king and queen.
Inasmuch as the “infamy” that excited the tarring and feathering by Americans was a matter of parliamentary representation and taxation, it was genteel compared to the “infâme” in Paris, which meant destruction of the Christian social order. In Philadelphia, no Goddess of Reason was enthroned on the communion table of Christ Church, nor was George Washington drenched in blood when he prayed in Saint Paul’s Chapel before his inauguration.
I say this not in a pejorative spirit, for I think many Frenchmen would agree with me, and I have been exhilarated by several Bastille Day celebrations in Paris, with their unsurpassed elegance, albeit absent the concomitant enormities of the Reign of Terror.
What differentiates the two revolutions is the invocation versus the rejection of God. In one sense, the American Revolution was not a revolution at all, for it asserted the historic claims of citizens as Englishmen mantled with the protestations of the Magna Carta, which had been neglected by more recent German occupiers of the throne. My prejudices are compromised by the fact that my French paternal antecedents were compatriots with Rochambeau and Lafayette, and my English maternal ancestors in their Cheshire regiment may even have taken aim at the Massachusetts militiaman who fired the shot heard ’round the world.
In America, there were fanatics like Sam Adams, whose eponymous beer should be a caution to Godfearing men, and Tom Paine, who disdained religion. But many more thoughtful American patriots invoked John Locke and, with a few unmeasured exceptions, would have found zealots like the Jacobins ridiculous.
French Revolutionaries tried to substitute the Catholic Church with a mockery of it, rather like what is going on in today’s China. The Constitutional Church would have no pope and its clergy would be compliant state agents, and so forth. The Devil knows how to choreograph religious anarchy. Because Washington did not contradict divine order, he did not end up on the chopping block like Robespierre.
The Devil knows how to choreograph religious anarchy.
All of that pales in comparison with the only revolution that truly counts, for it changed the world permanently: When Christ rose from the dead, He set free vital germs of human rights, social progress, philanthropy, the philosophical matrix for science, universities, the consciousness of a Creator who made the world a channel of grace strengthened by moral order, and, finally — shown by a mercy divine — the prospect of life eternal.
Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article from his parish church bulletin is used by permission.
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