MadamedownloadI’ve always been fascinated by the French Revolution, probably because I’ve always seen it to be the anti-American Revolution, and both revolutions have had consequences down to this very day. The former was the quintessential revolution of the left; secular, anti-tradition, anti-religion mob rule that led to a tyranny of the few. The latter a world changing for the better revolution of the right that appreciated religion, respected tradition, was skeptical of mobs and their masters, and that gave people a mediated power that led to order and good government.

I recently read Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, which looks at the thinking of two of the great voices and minds of the two revolutions, and what underlies the words we use to describe politics and culture in our day, right and left. It is not surprising that two diametrically opposite worldviews, views of human nature and power and morality, can lead to such undeniably different results. I’ve also been listening to Hillsdale College’s online courses on the Constitution, and marvel at the genius of America’s founding and Founders. The contrast to the leaders of France’s revolution could not be starker.

I’ve read a lot on America’s founding, but relatively little on the details of the French Revolution, so I did a little search and stumbled upon this historical novel, Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution. I love historical novels because I love history and novels, and this one was incredible. I knew the basic contours and outline of the French Revolution of course, but I’d never experienced the story of the gory details until I read this book, and boy was it depressing. The sheer tyranny and senselessness of it all was gut wrenching. How could these people who’d seen how a successful revolution was done in America have gotten it so very, very wrong? The fundamental presuppositions of what left and right have come to mean tell a good part of that story.

I kept thinking as I was reading about something that happened six years before our revolution that could not have been any different than what happened in France. In 1770 there was something called the Boston Massacre where British troops were accused of firing on colonial residents, killing five of them, and they were arrested. This was a mob scene, so were the soldiers justified in firing in self-defense, or did they fire simply with the intent to kill innocent civilians? If you’ve seen the wonderful HBO series “John Adams” with Paul Giamatti, you will have seen this episode and the trial dramatized in a powerful way.

The British soldiers were highly unpopular in Boston, and they could have easily been railroaded and declared guilty and executed. Trials in the French Revolution were a sham, a shallow pretext to kill someone who was declared an enemy of the state. By contrast, John Adams was determined not to let mob rule, rule the day. This was a country of laws not of men, and these soldiers needed to be given a fair trial; they were, and were declared not guilty. It is inconceivable that something like this could have happened during the French Revolution.

If you like historical novels and are curious about the sickening details of the French Revolution, and want to appreciate all the more America’s, this is a must read. You’ll also learn about the fascinating history of Madame Tussdauds and its founder’s ambivalent contribution to the revolution.