Sister Revolutions French Lightning, American Light

Susan Dunn

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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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, even if it meant by violent means. 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 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.


Praise for Sister Revolutions

"Dunn . . . finds some fresh things to say about this old but rich topic."—Richard Brookhiser, New York Times Book Review

"Sister Revolutions is a keen and judicious meditation on the two great revolutions that created the modern world—what they had in common and where and why they diverged."—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., author of The Disuniting of America

"Susan Dunn's Sister Revolutions is a pioneering study of the relations between the two great revolutions of the late eighteenth century. Her arguement is so complex as to resist summary but she shows, in my opinion, that the example of the American Revolution has been much steadier and more fruitful in its historical consequences than has the example of the French Revolution."—Conor Cruise O'Brien, author of The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution

"Sister Revolutions is an important book on an important subject—an absorbing, original, deft, graceful, and impeccably researched exploration of why the French and American revolutions unfolded—and continue to affect us all—in such surprisingly different ways."—Michael Beschloss, author of Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes

"In this lively and perceptive book, Susan Dunn raises issues that are very alive today. Sister Revolutions focuses sharply on what distinguishes theories of revolution from theories of government. By contrasting the American and the French experiments, the author encourages the reader to rethink the concept of democracy."—Victor Brombert, author of In Praise of Antiheroes

"By reconstructing the interactive dynamics of the American and French Revolutions, Susan Dunn has created an intellectual feast with the complex cuisine of the French and hardy ingredients from America."—Joyce Appleby, author of Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination

"Stimulating and provocative . . . Sister Revolutions shows not only how the French and American experiments developed but also why their differing examples have continued to beguile leaders."—Paul Gray, Time

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Sister Revolutions

Sister Revolutions
For months in 1777 it was the talk of Paris: a young nobleman, the sole heir to the prestigious title and immense fortune of one of France's most ancient families,...

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  • Susan Dunn

  • 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.