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French Lightning, American Light

by Susan Dunn

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-571-19900-3
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Dunn (Williams Coll.; The Deaths of Louis XVI: Regicide and the French Political Imagination, not reviewed) compares the American and French revolutionary traditions and, not surprisingly in this presentist extended essay, finds the latter deficient. Comparisons of the intent, form, and style of these two great 18th-century revolutions are not new. And unfortunately, Dunn, relying heavily on previous scholarly work, adds few fresh perspectives to what has already been written. Nevertheless, her expressive and reflective work reminds us of the profound differences between these roughly contemporaneous revolutions and of their “invaluable lessons” for our own democracies. If its tone is excessively triumphalist, the book soundly insists that the American revolutionary tradition gave birth to a healthy emphasis upon the values of diversity and conflict, while the thrust of its Continental variant was more dangerously toward unity. The generation of the Framers sought to constitutionalize rights against their government, while the French revolutionaries sought to protect the rights of the community against individuals. One sought limited, the other embracing, government; one accepted the ambiguities of democracy, the other reached for clarity of principle. Dunn’s freshest chapter, befitting a scholar of literature and ideas, compares the American and French styles of revolutionary expression and action and finds the former marked by courtesy and fairness, the latter all ardor and vigor. She is surely on strong, if well-trodden, ground in depicting a line running from revolutionary France into Bolshevism and the Viet Cong, but she strikes out on a new path in arguing for an American lineage to the recent peaceful revolution led by Nelson Mandela in South Africa. A thoughtful reconsideration of the never-ending, grave challenges of governance and power vouchsafed to the modern world by revolutions two centuries ago. (20 b&w illustrations, not seen.)