Sister Revolutions by Susan Dunn
French Lightning, American Light

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What the two great modern revolutions can teach us about democracy today.

In 1790, the American diplomat and politician Gouverneur Morris compared the French and American Revolutions, saying that the French "have taken Genius instead of Reason for their guide, adopted Experiment instead of Experience, and wander in the Dark because they prefer Lightning to Light." Although both revolutions professed similar Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, there were dramatic differences. The Americans were content to preserve many aspects of their English heritage; the French sought a complete break with a thousand years of history. The Americans accepted nonviolent political conflict; the French valued unity above all. The Americans emphasized individual rights, while the French stressed public order and cohesion.

Why did the two revolutions follow such different trajectories? What influence have the two different visions of democracy had on modern history? And what lessons do they offer us about democracy today? In a lucid narrative style, with particular emphasis on lively portraits of the major actors, Susan Dunn traces the legacies of the two great revolutions through modern history and up to the revolutionary movements of our own time. Her combination of history and political analysis will appeal to all who take an interest in the way democratic nations are governed.


About Susan Dunn

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Susan Dunn is professor of French literature and the history of ideas at Williams College. She is the author of numerous critically acclaimed articles and books in political theory and historical literary criticism, and she has been the recipient of fellowships from the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others.
Published September 4, 2000 by Faber & Faber. 273 pages
Genres: History, Travel, Literature & Fiction. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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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.

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Publishers Weekly

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The American and French Revolutions claimed the same Enlightenment ideals: freedom, equality, justice. Still, the two events were profoundly different in method and result. The American Revolution led

Oct 04 1999 | Read Full Review of Sister Revolutions: French Li...

Publishers Weekly

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Individual liberty was no more valued in the early French Republic than it had been under the Bourbons, she explains: ""Armed with the `truth,' Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,"" writes Dunn.

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Austin Chronicle

Not only do they illuminate our political assumptions, beliefs, and ideas, but they also help us to take the temperature of our political cultures, to diagnose our political ills, and to prescribe remedies for them."

Dec 24 1999 | Read Full Review of Sister Revolutions: French Li...


What the French took from the Americans, Lord Acton once wrote, "was their theory of revolution not their theory of government — their cutting but not their sewing."

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