The French Connection

The influence of France upon the United States Constitution and establishment of the republic is generally confined to the philosophers of the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. Few would consider French Protestants (Huguenots) and the history of the Edict of Nantes as a serious influence on American liberty. The Huguenots are literally a part of the American genetic code, as many of them settled in the colonies to escape religious persecution. As for the Edict of Nantes, many of the freedoms enacted therein would be considered distinctly American today.

The Huguenots were a Reformed branch of Protestantism in France, born from the teachings of John Calvin. They rejected the majority faith in the country—Catholicism—and were thus perceived as a threat to church and state. For this reason they became subject to frequent persecution; which, at times, broke out into civil war. Since these conflicts weakened France, there was considerable interest for both Catholics and Protestants to find a means of peace. This led to the development of the Edict of Nantes, a charter for the civil and religious liberties for the minority Protestants in France.

The edict was conceived in France after the bloody Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, wherein the French monarchy conspired, alongside the Catholic clergy, to wipe out—in a single night—all the Protestants in Paris. Once the slaughter began in Paris, it permeated throughout the nation. After about two months, approximately 50,000 Huguenots were eliminated. Finding no safety in the crown, the French Protestants retreated into walled cities and prepared themselves for battle.

To unite France and secure peace within her borders, King Henry IV set out to pass the edict, which would secure freedom of conscience for the religious-minority Huguenots. Many liberal-minded Catholics supported this measure. This act would come up short of modern standards of religious freedom, yet it was quite avant-garde for its time.

Enacted in 1598, the Edict of Nantes allowed the Protestant minority the freedom to worship God according to their conscience. To secure this freedom, the edict provided roughly 200 fortified cities of refuge for the French Protestants. Each city was permitted to have canons and a cache of arms to defend themselves—even against their own government.

After providing for the safety of its Huguenot citizens, the edict authorized public and private worship in cities where Protestantism was established. Moreover, it enabled limited use of the press so that this religious minority could publish their own literature. The edict also allowed the Huguenots to hold office, educate their children as they saw fit, and provided a state subsidy for their pastors.

Since Huguenots were the artisans, merchants, and the burgeoning middle class of French society, these freedoms stimulated the economic, military, and cultural advancement of France. Yet for all the benefits the edict bestowed upon the nation and her Protestant children, granting French Protestants religious freedom was too grave a sin, in eyes of some, to allow Henry IV to live. In 1610 the liberty-minded monarch was assassinated by a fanatical monk. This dastardly act, motivated by bigotry and intolerance, presaged the impending death of the pioneering edict.

The next king, Louis XIII, was not disposed toward religious toleration. Similarly, his most trusted advisor, Cardinal Richelieu, found the Edict of Nantes an unfortunate impediment to his political machinations. If the ability for Huguenots to defend themselves and having cities of refuge with arms secured their religious freedom and independence, then taking those provisions away would bring cessation of freedom and subservience to centralized authority. This Cardinal Richelieu set out to do.

Summing up Richelieu’s policy, one historian mused: “He had two aims: first to make the will of the king supreme in France; second, to make France the most powerful country in Europe. To bring about the first, he crushed the Huguenots, who then held considerable power; and broke down the pride and independence of the nobles.” In order to “crush the Huguenots,” the estimated 200 towns or cities furnished by the Edict of Nantes had to be destroyed. From 1621 to 1628 Cardinal Richelieu directed war against his own people to demolish the independent cities, disarm the Protestants, and nullify their political power. The last city to fall was La Rochelle in 1628. The city was the site of their national synods and a safe haven during the various massacres and wars against Protestants. After a prolonged siege La Rochelle was overcome. Before the sack the city had a population of approximately 25,000. Of this, only a mere 5,400 remained—most of the deaths resulted from starvation.To maintain the theory of an absolute monarchy, the king and the prime minister of France willfully murdered thousands upon thousands of their own countrymen who were conscientious objectors to the national will and faith. This policy was justified on the account that “France would never be safe and enjoy peace until this community was prostrated, and deprived of its fortifications, castles, strong towns, and high privileges.” According to Mosheim, after the destruction of La Rochelle, “the Reformed community in France, being deprived of its fortresses, could depend upon nothing but the king’s clemency and good pleasure.” 

The Huguenots would soon learn just how much they could depend on the “king’s clemency” for their freedoms. Despite losing their fortified towns and arms and being barred from holding state office—unless of course they abjured their faith—the Huguenots enjoyed a few years of peace. Yet persecution did not remain dormant for long. Louis XIV, the next king, followed in his father’s footsteps. Although the edict was not revoked, the freedoms mandated therein were stripped away. Louis XIV was not desirous of shedding the blood of his own countrymen for the sake of religious zeal. He wanted to convert all of France to a single faith—Catholicism—by enticements or misery. To entice Protestants, he set aside state funds to pay new converts for rejoining the Catholic Church. When this failed to have the desired effect, he turned the screws of misery upon the Huguenots.

Laws were quickly passed to suppress the rights of Protestants, forbidding them to hold synods, to be employed on large estates, and from attending worship at their own churches. They could no longer print books deemed offensive to papists. Protestant ministers were exiled from France, and if some returned or were suspected of holding services, a price was set on their head and a generous reward given to informants. Spies would sit in their services to inform the crown of any words uttered disparaging Catholicism. The laws against Protestant families were particularly draconian. For example, the crown decided that children growing up in Protestant homes could be baptized as Catholics—against the will of their parents—and, once baptized, it was illegal for the child to revert to Protestantism. Children born of any union between a Catholic and Protestant were declared illegitimate. In some instances the state—in an attempt to “protect” Huguenot

children from the religion of their parents—took them away and ordered the children be raised by their nearest Catholic kin. Protestant children aspiring toward an education were prohibited from attending university. Worst of all, when Huguenot families sent their children away to be raised by their Protestant kin in other countries, the government made it illegal to do so, penalizing the offenders with service in the French galleys. Shockingly, all of this took place while the Edict of Nantes stood on the law books!

Unfortunately, Louis XIV decided that his evangelistic efforts heretofore were not enough, so he enlisted the aid of the military. Calling them his “missionaries,” Louis forced Protestant families to quarter his soldiers. Known as the dragonnades, by those forced to endure it, it may have been a factor for the Founders of the United States to add the Third Amendment to the Bill of Rights, protecting citizens from quartering troops. Describing the operation of the dragonnades, historian William Gammel writes:

“Chosen squadrons of these terrible troopers lighted like filthy birds of prey on the homes of the Huguenots alike in cities and provinces, wherever they were found. They carried with them the whole machinery of agony and despair—insult, outrage, degradation, the destruction of estates, the wanton violation of every sanctity, the inhuman practice of every atrocity, save murder alone. It was probably the most appalling form of wholesale persecution ever visited upon a civilized people.”Unable to defend themselves and unable to flee, many poor souls went insane, committed suicide, or abjured their faith. So terrible was the reputation of the dragonnades that whole towns of Protestants would convert to Catholicism at its approach. Though the borders were guarded to prevent escape, many enterprising Huguenot families found ways of egress, and it is estimated that more than 50,000 Protestant families left France to seek freedom of conscience in other countries.

Finally, after four years of initiating the quartering of troops upon a defenseless population, the Edict of Nantes, essentially a dead letter, was officially revoked in 1685. Stripped of their arms and cities of defense, the Huguenots were unable to exercise the rights supplied to them in the Edict of Nantes—they could not protest, they could not participate in public policy, and they could not worship God according to the dictates of the heart. The history of the Huguenots probably had a greater impact on the United States than we imagine. These immigrants served as tangible examples of what happens when the absolute authority of the state collides with conscientious believers. Though we cannot know the precise impact these Protestant refugees had upon this nation and the development of the Bill of Rights, suffice to say the memory of their plight and their voice was more than palpable in the formative years of this nation.Thomas Paine, writing to demoralized patriots of the Revolutionary War, concerning liberty, warned: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” For the Huguenot emigrants, liberty was neither attained cheaply nor esteemed lightly. They could recount their horrific experience, tracing the tangible result of losing the liberties promised to them. Today, however, such a memory is reserved for the dusty pages of history. Contemporary society has no inkling of how the freedoms they know so little about came to fruition or the heroic struggle to achieve them. Such freedoms have been passed on cheaply and, subsequently, are esteemed lightly. It is strange to think that American liberty may find its greatest foe, not from an invading army, but from the ignorance and ambivalence of its citizens who know not what they have inherited. Perhaps we need to reacquaint ourselves with the past in order to prevent its future.


“The Huguenot Fathers,” New York Times, October 12, 1884. “The Huguenot-Walloon Third Centennial to Be Held Sunday,” Tampa Bay Tribune, April 27, 1924.

LeRoy Edwin Froom, Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1948), vol. 2,p. 480.

Noel Gerson, The Edict of Nantes (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969), p. 112.

J. A. Wylie, History of Protestantism (Illustrated) (London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, 1894), vol. 2, book 17, p. 622.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “Cardinal Richelieu and His Enemy,” in The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story Song and Art, ed. Eva March Tappan (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), vol. 5, p. 241.

John Lawrence Von Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1861), vol. 3, p. 395.

Judith P. Meyer, “La Rochelle and the Failure of the French Reformation,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 15, no. 2 (1984): 169-183, doI:10.2307/2541436.

Johann Lorenz Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, 5th ed. (London: William Tegg, 1867), p. 395.

Ibid.

William Gammell, “The Huguenots and the Edict of Nantes,” The Rhode Island Historical Society (Providence, R.I.: Providence Press Company, 1886), p. 21.

Voltaire, “The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes,” in The World’s Great Events: An Indexed History of the World From Earliest Times to the Present Day by Great Historians, ed. Esther Singleton (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1913), vol. 5, p. 1416.

Wylie, vol. 3, book 22, p. 328.

Gammell, pp. 21, 22.

Voltaire, pp. 1419, 1420.

Gammell, p. 22.

Ibid., p. 23.

Voltaire, p. 1418.

Thomas Paine, The Crisis (December 23, 1776).


Article Author: Timothy Perenich

Timothy Perenich writes from New Port Richey, Florida.