The Military Played a Smaller Role in France and the U.S. than in Egypt

tags: French Revolution, American Revolution, Egypt, revolutions, Jack Censer



Jack Censer is a professor of history at George Mason University and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The political independence that the military often displays in the midst of revolutionary situations was strikingly absent in both the American and French revolutions. Both depended on militias composed of citizen soldiers. Even as an army was constituted, this remained the case at least for a good while.

Let me consider the French case as I know it much better. In fact, the revolutionary uprising (July 12-14, 1789) that led to the capture of the Bastille already revealed that some of the royal army had, in fact, absorbed the rising tide of revolutionary spirit. The troops called up largely refused to intervene. The effective fighting force that actively favored the revolution proved to be poorly armed citizenry, but taking the Bastille was accomplished less by armed assault than persuasion. When the revolutionaries got around in succeeding months to organizing the army, they installed elections by the troops as a way of peopling the officer rank.

These elections did not last as the army professionalized. But importantly, the Army, though increasingly organized around hierarchy, did not for several years much develop politics independent from civilian politics. In fact, as society divided along various lines in 1792 , the military reflected much more than created these divisions. From the perspective of the recent past, this historical development, little discussed in the scholarly literature, deserves more attention. The revolutionary American situation might simply be a general hostility to standing armies, but the French case is more enigmatic. Napoleon’s role in this is worthy of future discussion.


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