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Prof. Boerner's Explorations

Thoughts and Essays that explore the world of Technology, Computers, Photography, History and Family.


Category: English Version

(Originally posted on Friday, July 31, 2009)

by Gerald Boerner

“Vanity made the [French] Revolution; liberty was only a pretext.”
— Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

“We need the real, nation-wide terror which reinvigorates the country and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory”
— Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been examining the French Revolution. We have looked at what triggered it, the stages through which it progressed, the major participants and groups, and the different legislative bodies associated with it. This revolution was a major civil war that saw the people of France stand up to their oppressors — the Monarchy, the Church and Clergy, and the Nobility.

Our task today is to try to sum up what results this Revolution produced and how they affected different groups (classes) in France at the beginning of the conflict. We will also look at the state of the country at the end of the conflict. Overall, it did make a difference, but in what ways? Let’s take a closer look…

What form of government existed before and after the Revolution?

The Revolution saw a transition from an absolute Monarchy to a Republic. This evolution was not simple and included a phase of radical democracy that led to the anarchy of the ‘Reign of Terror.’ But ultimately, a constitutional republic emerged from this bloodbath. This transition occurred within the ten year period from 1789 to 1799.

This change in régime necessitated a change in the Monarchy as well. The King, Louis XVI, started out as an Absolute Monarch. He was, as it were, ‘downgraded’ to a Constitutional Monarch during the initial phase of the Revolution; he agreed to this change to prevent anarchy, but did not really accept his change in status. He called upon his fellow Monarchs in Europe to ‘rescue’ his domain. When he and his family attempted to flee from Paris and France in 1792, he was identified, captured, and returned to Paris to be placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Eventually, he was removed from the monarchy and executed on the guillotine in January, 1793.

Probably the main causes of these changes centered about the state of the people at the end of the 1780’s. There was droughts throughout the countryside, the people were malnourished, and they were taxed beyond their ability to pay; the country was in financial crisis due to recent war expenses. Complicating these factors was the lavish lifestyle of the court’s extravagant lifestyle that ignored the plight of the people. The King was out-of-touch with the people because he lived in the opulent of the Palace of Versailles and was shielded from the people by those surrounding him. Also complicating the problem was the two liberal influences of the day: the liberal ideals of the American Revolution and the philosophies of the ‘Enlightenment’ Philosophers (Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu).

What happened to the rest of the population?

At the beginning of the Revolution, the populace of France was divided into three classes, or ‘Estates’. These were:

  1. The First Estate… The Clergy
  2. The Second Estate… The Nobility
  3. The Third Estate… The rest of the population, including the merchants and craftsmen and the farmers of the countryside

While the first two Estates held virtually all the power in France’s feudal economy, about 95% of the population fell into the ‘Third Estate’. Furthermore, the first two estates were exempt from taxation and owned most of the land. The ‘Third Estate’, therefore, felt the ‘brunt’ of the country’s taxes AND still had to pay the Church its ‘tithe’, or 10%. The people were ripe for change.

During the initial phases of the Revolution, the Church and Clergy were stripped of their special status. No longer were they exempt from taxes and the Clergy were brought under the governance of the state if they were to remain in France. In later phases, the ultra-radical ‘Hébertists’ sought to replace the Catholic Church entirely, replacing it with the ‘Worship of Reason’ during the ‘de-christianization’ movement. By the end of the Revolution, the Church had been reinstated, but without its earlier prerogatives.

Likewise, the Nobility, the major feudal overlords, was hated by virtually all elements of the Revolution. They were stripped of their tax exemption and other rights under the feudal contracts held with their tenants. Many of this Nobility class escaped, or attempted to escape, from France and became ‘émigrés’. Those that remained were in for harsh treatment by the people; a good many of them were executed on the guillotine during the ‘Reign of Terror’. After the formation of the Republic after the adoption of the Constitution of 1794, many returned, but did not regain their previous power or privileges.

The people of France were the ultimate winners from the Revolution. However, as stated by George Orwell, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" (Animal Farm, 1945). Initially, the Intellectuals were in charge of the Revolution, the ‘Girondists’, did away with the feudal system and gave the people, especially those in the countryside, hope for a better life. When that promise did not result in concrete improvements, the people, especially the poor of Paris, switched their support to the more radical ‘Montagnards’ under the leadership of Robespierre. As the people rose up in revolt, the ‘Reign of Terror’ brought many of these poor to the guillotine. Eventually, the people emerged with Rights and a voice during the Republic. They were represented in the new government by the ‘Council of Five-Hundred’.

So, in the end, the people did triumph over the Clerics and the Nobility classes. They had emerged from an extended famine that was causing starvation and malnutrition prior to 1789, but they were still poor, especially if they lived in the countryside or the different ‘Departements’ (Provinces).

What were the overall outcomes of this Revolution?

In the end, from 1795 to 1799, France operated as a Republic. The wars with the coalition of European armies under control of Austria continued. Like the American colonies, they were fighting for the new form of government they had established — a Republic. Since most other European states were still Monarchies, the French Revolution posed a threat to the internal security of these other European countries.

Many generals fought valiantly for their country, but one that emerged above the others was Napoleon. His victories coupled with continued dissatisfaction with the corruption within the governance of the Republic set the stage for the next upheaval in France, the creation of the French Empire with Napoleon as its head. But that is another story for another day.

This concludes this series. Check back for other series on themes like these will be addressed in the future…

(Originally posted on Wednesday, July 29, 2009)

image “Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.”
— Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791

This installment of our examination of the events, people, and groups involved with the French Revolution will focus upon the evolution of the legislative bodies that were associated with the different stages discussed previously. We will use these stages, or ‘Acts’, as in previous posting to organize our presentation. Different deliberative bodies met to move through these stages. The current presentation will focus on the formal legislative structures in effect during each of these stages.

At this point in our exploration, you should have a reasonable understanding of the stages of the French Revolution, the factions within it, and a basic understanding of what form the government should become. So, let’s get started…

Act One… The Absolute Monarchy

image Before the revolution, King Louis XVI was the sole government of France. This is termed the ‘ancien régime’ and the king was the absolute ruler, accountable to no other group, including the Church. He was descended of the line of Bourbon Kings. The only deliberative body during this period was the ‘Assembly of Notables’ which met to advise the King; it met during two periods before the Revolution: from February to May, 1787 and again during November and December, 1788. This group was convened to circumvent the decisions of the Supreme Court, the ‘parlement.’ This Assembly was composed of the highest-ranking nobles, clergy, and some public officials. The failure of this Assembly to bring order to the people reacting to the imposition of overwhelming taxes led to the convening of the ‘Estates-General’ in the Spring of 1789.

Act Two… The Transition from Absolute Monarchy to a Constitutional Monarchy

This period saw the end to the Absolute Monarchy of Louis XVI and the establishment of a series of assemblies that represented the various classes of the population. These assemblies were not purely advisory; they could act independently of the wishes of the King. Therefore, the representative assemblies imposed limits upon the rule of the King and his prerogatives.

The Estates-General (May through June, 1789)… This was a transition from the ‘ancien régime’; it descended from a group that last met in 1614. It was composed of representatives of the three classes, or ‘Estates,’ that formed French society of the time. These groups were: the ‘First Estate’ representing the Clergy, the ‘Second Estate’ representing the Nobility, and the ‘Third Estate’ representing the rest of the people including the merchants and tradesmen as well as the rural population who were basically feudal serfs. In this structure, both the ‘First Estate’ and ‘Second Estate’ were exempted from taxes; the ‘First Estate’ was also the largest landowner in France and extracted a ‘tithe’ tax from the people as well. Since the major problem in 1789 was the depletion of the treasury, the tax burden fell upon the ‘Third Estate.’

The major conflict during this session of the ‘Estates-General’ was how to vote on measures considered. The traditional view was to vote by ‘Estate’ which would always allow the Clergy and Nobility to impose their views upon the ‘Third Estate.’ The latter group sought to have the voting conducted ‘by head,’ meaning that each delegate would have a vote; this would give the people a fair chance to see some of its proposals approved. This debate was settled when the King dictated that the voting would be ‘by Estate.’ While this debate continued, no deliberations were held on substantive issues. Finally, the King’s ruling led the members of the ‘Third Estate’ to declare them as the ‘National Assembly.’ They invited the more liberal members of the Clergy and the Nobility to join them.

image The National [Constituent] Assembly (June, 1789 – September, 1791)… This newly formed group continued to meet at the Palace of Versailles until the King locked them out from their meeting chambers. The ‘Assembly’ declared themselves independent of the sovereignty of the King. The people of Paris marched upon Versailles to protest the lockout, led by Olympe de Gouges; the King declined to remove the ‘Assembly’ by force and the ‘Assembly’ removed themselves to a public tennis court in Paris. At this time, each member swore the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ to support the aims of the ‘Assembly.’ Following this, the populace of Paris took to the streets to protest the arbitrary actions of the King and ended up storming and taking the Bastille Fortress in Paris.

What was the task of this ‘Assembly’? Well, it was two-fold. The first task was to deal with the fiscal crisis of the country more equitably than the King’s advisors had suggested. This included removing the tax exemption of the Clergy and the Nobility. The major difficulty was to manage a country that did not have an effective bureaucracy. This task fell to Comte de Mirabeau and a group of republicans called the ‘Girondists.’ Thus, a ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ was created.

The second task was to draft a Constitution to guide the new government. During this process, the ‘Assembly’ created “The Rights of Man and the Citizen” which was based heavily on the thinking of Thomas Paine, who had also helped to promote the American Revolution with his pamphlet “Common Sense”. The constitution for a Constitutional Monarchy was ready in September, 1791.

Act Three… The Constitutional Monarchy

image The Legislative Assembly (October, 1791 – September, 1792)… Following the completion of the Constitution the new government took over. They were still faced by the severe fiscal crisis that had precipitated.

King Louis XVI was still the executive and was still capricious. He would appoint his favorites to ministerial positions and frequently cast a ‘suspensive veto,’ a veto that could delay but not negate the implementation of a law. This led to the formation of factions within the ‘Legislative Assembly’ and the formation of the ‘clubs’; the most powerful club was the ‘Jacobin Club’ of which both ‘Girondists’ and ‘Montagnards’ were members. In the face of this loss of power, Louis XVI hoped that other European Monarchs would come to his rescue and restore him to his former status and destroy the revolutionaries.

Another obstacle was the poor fiscal situation of the country along with the general unrest among the poor. In Paris, the poor people, the ‘sans-culottes,’ and the merchants and tradesmen formed the ‘Commune of Paris’ under the oversight of the ‘Girondists,’ but the poor in the countryside were still treated as serfs even though feudalism was banned by the new constitution.

In 1792, the King and his family basically changed the dynamics of the situation and sealed their fates. They attempted to flee the Tuileries Palace in Paris for Belgium, but were caught in Varennes. They were taken back to Paris and placed under house arrest. In August, 1792, the royal family was attacked in the Tuileries Palace and the Monarchy was terminated. Louis XVI was executed on the guillotine in January, 1793 and Marie Antoinette met the same fate in September of the same year.

Thus, the setup of a Constitutional Monarchy was successfully, but ended with the execution of the King for his non-cooperation. This event also marked the end of the bureaucratic dominance of the ‘Girondists’ in the Assembly. The stage was set for anarchy…

Act Four… The National Convention and the ‘Reign of Terror’

Once the King was removed and executed, a republican form of government was instituted. After the execution of the Queen, the crowds of the ‘Commune of Paris’ and the extremely poor, the ‘sans-culottes,’ took to the streets to demand immediate changes to their status. The new National Convention, more commonly referred to as the ‘Convention,’ was formed to draw up a republican constitution to guide the country. Robespierre and his ‘Montagnards’ rose to prominence.

image The National Convention (October, 1792 – September, 1794)… The delegates for this Convention were elected by the people, but under a more restricted set of voters. Only those who paid taxes were allowed to vote. The other half of the male population was disenfranchised as were the poor throughout the country.

After the ‘Montagnards,’ under Robespierre rose to power, the other groups in the ‘Convention’ were expelled from the ‘Jacobin Club’. The royalists retreated to the ‘Monarchist Club,’ the older leaders retreated and formed the ‘Club des Feuillants’ and the ‘Girondists’ were removed from their positions of leadership and persecuted. These changes brought on a more radical phase of the Revolution — the ‘Reign of Terror.’ This radicalism was triggered by the rise of militancy within the ‘Commune of Paris,’ the threat of insurrection in the countryside, and the approach of the Austrian coalition army that was approaching Paris.

image The Committee of Public Safety (1793-1794)… In light of this unrest, the Constitution was suspended and martial law was imposed upon the country. The ‘Reign of Terror’ began; those accused of treason, disloyalty, subversion, etc. were tried without a defense and promptly executed on the guillotine. Any threats of public disorder were dealt with swiftly and without mercy. Approximately 50,000 people were executed during this period of anarchy, including most of the ‘Girondists’ and ‘Hébertists’. The primary goal was to eliminate the internal threats to the Convention rather than waging war against the Austrian coalition. This was not the reign of law, but the raw imposition of personal power in the person of Robespierre.

By the middle of 1794, the tolerance of the people had reached its limit. The radical ‘Montagnards,’ including Robespierre, were now considered the targets of the more moderate delegates of the Convention; these radicals were executed on the guillotine. The republicans worked to finish the Constitution and control the fractional fighting. When the Constitution was passed, the Revolution was once again put on a path to a stable republic.

Act Five… The First Republic

image The new Constitution called for a republican form of government on the model defined by Montesquieu. There was to be a separation of executive from legislative powers and the representatives were to be elected by popular vote. This form of government was entirely new to not only the French, but all Europeans. It was a model similar to that of the new American nation in the United States Constitution of 1787.

The Directory (October, 1794 – 1799)… This new form of government had separate legislative and executive branches, based more like the model of the United Kingdom rather the United States.

◊ The Legislature… The new constitution defined a bicameral (two house) legislature made up of a lower house, the ‘Council of Five-Hundred,’ 500 representatives that were elected by the people and the upper house, the ‘Council of Elders,’ 250 representatives indirectly appointed by the ‘departements’ (‘states’). These representatives were elected for three year terms.

◊ The Executive… There were five ‘Directors’ named for one year terms that provided the administrative needs of the new republic. These ‘Directors’ were selected by the ‘Council of Elders’ from a list drawn up by the ‘Council of Five-Hundred.’ In theory, this should have worked, but in practice these ‘Directors’ tended to become corrupted by their power and remained in office beyond the one year term specified by the Constitution.

This process was successful in directing the French army in their battles against the Austrian coalition, but it was only partially successful in the internal governance of France. In 1797, the remnants of the nobility attempted to return the Monarchy, but failed. In 1798, the remaining ‘Girondists’ reasserted their power and employed their administrative skills to bring order from the chaos. This only lasted a year before there would be another change in government…

Napoleon and his armies were successful in obtaining a truce after their successful conquest of Italy. As a result, most of Italy came under the control of France and the Austrian coalition gained Venice. Another crisis was in store when the armies returned to France and wanted to receive their pay; the country was still in a fiscal crisis and could not make the payment… This whole incident led to the creation of the Empire and naming a military leader, Napoleon, as its head.

We will stop here, but the adventure does continue. The Empire continued, but stability was hard to come by in France. In the 1820’s, the Monarchy was restored only to be followed by the Revolution of 1848 and again in 1872. But that is a study for another series.

Summary and Conclusions

In a period of only ten years, from 1789 to 1799, France had progressed from an Absolute Monarchy to a Republic. The nobility and the clerics no longer were exempt from taxes. The people had learned that they could exercise the power of their numbers. This was not a linear progression, however. The country had to survive the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the anarchy of the people out of control. Many lives were lost to the guillotine. But in the end, they emerged from this process as a Republic, the first in Europe.

Was this the end of tyranny? Not be any means! But it started Europe on a journey towards liberty from oppression. The French Revolution was an example of many nations, but was seen especially in its effects on the Russian Revolution of the twentieth century.

Next Time: We will wrap up our study of the French Revolution by looking at some of the changes that occurred during this period of upheaval. Join us for that continuing adventure…

(Originally posted on Saturday, July 25, 2009)

[Note: This is Part 3 of 3 of this posting… Other parts have appeared over the last few days.]

image “We wish, in a word, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of man, realize the promises of philosophy, and acquit providence of a long reign of crime and tyranny. That France, once illustrious among enslaved nations, may, by eclipsing the glory of all free countries that ever existed, become a model to nations, a terror to oppressors, a consolation to the oppressed, an ornament of the universe and that, by sealing the work with our blood, we may at least witness the dawn of the bright day of universal happiness. This is our ambition, – this is the end of our efforts.”
— M. Robespierre, “On the Principles of Political Morality” (1794)


Radical Leaders and the ‘Reign of Terror’

Today’s exploration focuses on the ascendency of the radical and ultra-radical leaders of the French Revolution. These leaders oversaw the suppression of their perceived enemies through to their execution on the guillotine. Most of the leaders of the center-left members of the ‘Girondists’ fell to these radicals during the anarchical ‘Reign of Terror’ that took place between 1792 and 1794. In their attempt to set up a republic required the imposition of extreme violence, and relied more on Rousseau’s concept of government than that of Montesquieu’s concept. ◊


The leaders of these groups include:

The leaders during the ‘Reign of Terror’ (the ‘Montagnards’):

image ◊ Robespierre (Best Known and Most Influential Figure of the Revolution, Head of the ‘Montagnard’s’)… Robespierre was a dedicated follower of Rousseau’s ideals of the ‘virtuous self,’ one who stands alone with his conscience. He heartedly endorsed Thomas Paine’s ideas incorporated into the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.” He was a deist who opposed the Catholic Church. From the beginning, he opposed Mirabeau because of the latter’s support of a Constitutional Monarchy; this also applied to his fellow members of the ‘Jacobin Club,’ the ‘Girondists,’ who also supported the modified monarchy until the King’s attempt to flee France. He believed that the King should be removed and executed, which was accomplished in January, 1793. ◊

He was a leader in the ‘Jacobin Club’ and was known to sit in the high seats in the meeting chamber of the Constitutional Assembly, called the ‘Mountain,’ with his group of ‘Montagnards.’ While the ‘Girondists’ were in power, he carefully saw to the ouster of the right wing deputies (to the ‘Club of 1789’) and the old leaders of the ‘Jacobin Club’ (to the ‘Club of the Fuillants’). He believed that the internal stability of France was more important than fighting a war with the Austrian coalition’s army; above all, he feared that traitors and counter-revolutionaries were hidden among the people of Paris and sought to eliminate them. ◊

After expelling and executing large numbers of ‘Girondists,’ he served on the ‘Committee of Public Safety’ from which he led the ‘Reign of Terror,’ with all of its excesses. He believed that terror was necessary to maintain the Revolution. He also turned on his formal allies, the ultra-radical “Hébestists’ when they commenced their pursuit of the atheistic worship of Reason and the de-christianization of the Church. With these actions, the group had become dangerous and must be eliminated; they were tried, convicted, and executed on the guillotine. Eventually, the tide also turned against Robespierre and his followers — they were executed on the guillotine in 1794. ◊

image ◊ Marat (Radical Journalist and Politician)… Marat was uncompromising in his stand against the ‘enemies of the Revolution.’ He was a member of the ‘Cordeliers Club’ before joining the ‘Jacobin Club’. He strived for reform, as mayor of Paris, where he sought aide for the poorest members of society, the ‘sans-culottes.’ He was viewed, along with Robespierre and Danton, as the most powerful men in France in 1793. He was constantly battling the ‘Girondists’ and condoned the violence that was sweeping Paris, such as the 10 August Insurrection during which the royal family were attacked in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. After he retired from active participation for health reasons, he was assassinated in his bath tub by Charlotte Corday, a ‘Girondist’ sympathizer in 1793. ◊

image ◊ Desmoulins (Journalist and Politician)… Desmoulins was a journalist who covered and documented the major events during the Revolution from the lockout at Versailles in 1789 through the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the ‘Reign of Terror’ between 1792 and 1794. He advocated a republican form of government and a member of the ‘Cordeliers Club.’ He was constantly attacking Brissot and the ‘Girondists.’ After opposing some of Robespierre’s programs, both he and Danton were tried, convicted, and executed on the guillotine. ◊

image ◊ Danton (Leading Figure during the Early Stages of the Revolution and a Moderating Influence among the ‘Jacobins’)… Danton was a major force in the overthrow of the Monarchy and helped to establish the first Republic. He believed that France should be under popular sovereignty (the so-called ‘popular principle’) and pushed for radical action. He was involved in the storming of the Bastille and the transfer of the royal family from the Versailles Palace to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. At the time of the King’s dethronement and the ascendency of the ‘Montagnards’ to power, Danton switched to the ‘Montagnards’ from the ‘Girondists.’ He believed that only a radical Paris could defend France from the Austrian coalition’s army. As a member of the ‘Committee of Public Safety,’ he supported the suppression and eventually effected the execution of the ‘Girondists’. When he ceased to support the excesses the ‘Reign of Terror,’ he was targeted by Robespierre and was executed on the guillotine. ◊

The leaders of the ultra-radical, anti-church movement (the ‘Hebraists’):

image ◊ Hébert (Editor of Extreme Radical Newspaper)… Hébest published Le Père Duchesne which printed articles that were filled with wit, violence, abusive tirades and foul language. From 1790-1791, he supported a Constitutional Monarchy. However, after the royal family attempted to flee France and was caught at Varennes, he changed his position to support the dissolution of the monarchy. Being a member of the ‘Commune of Paris,’ the city government, he became more radical than even Robespierre. ◊

He went on to impose his atheist beliefs on France and tried to establish the worship of Reason. He sought to de-christianize the Catholic Church in France; he was joined on the crusade by Chaumette, and together they became known as the ‘Hébertists’ and the ‘enragés.’ They supported the poor people of Paris, the ‘sans-culottes,’ and sought to set a low, fixed price for bread. Both of these actions alienated them from Robespierre who was a deist and feared the ‘sans-culottes.’ They were finally judged as too radical and, after the expulsion and execution of the ‘Girondists,’ suffered the same fate in 1794 on the guillotine. ◊

image ◊ Chaumette (French Politician)… As an associate of Hébest, Chaumette became a spokesman for the poor people of Paris. He became the head of the ‘Commune of Paris’ and was accused of promoting the ‘September Massacres.’ He took a radical position in the Convention by calling for the execution of the King before the rest of the members followed suit; he urged the group to form a Revolutionary Army to defend the Convention from the Paris mobs as well as support Hébest’s move to de-christianize the Catholic Church and replace it with the worship of Reason. These activities and actions were rejected by Robespierre and the Convention. This led to his haring Hébest’s fate on the guillotine. ◊

This completes our overview of the twelve key personalities who led the French Revolution. All but one of these were men; Madame Roland being the sole exception. The other two women mentioned filled specific niches in the progress of the Revolution. ◊

Summary and Conclusions

So, what did these dozen brave patriots accomplish? They freed the French population from the absolute monarchy of the King. Through a series of stages, the French nation survived threats from both within and from outside; the clerics and nobility kept most of the population as feudal serfs. As the Revolution progressed, the Austrian coalition attempted to restore the monarchy to absolute power. Both of these threats were thwarted by the new government. The country even survived the ‘Reign of Terror’ unleashed by Robespierre. ◊

Finally, in 1795, the new constitution was put into effect and the First Republic was born. The Directory replaced the Constitutional Assembly as the ruling body; it had a bicameral legislature (‘Council of Five Hundred’ and the ‘Council of Elders’) and an executive of five Directors. The rule of law was finally put into place and the country settled into a period of relative stability. This lasted until 1799 when chaos emerged again. The rise of Napoleon arose from this chaos. ◊

Next Time: We will examine the Assemblies and Conventions that ended in a Constitutional Republic. Join us for that adventure…

(Originally posted on Friday, July 24, 2009)

[Note: This is Part 2 of 3 of this posting… Other parts will appear over the next few days.]

bastille-day-pic-10 “You have broken the scepter of despotism, you have pronounced the beautiful axiom [that] … the French are a free people. Yet still you allow thirteen million slaves shamefully to wear the irons of thirteen million despots! You have devined the true equality of rights—and you still unjustly withhold them from the sweetest and most interesting half among you! …”
— Olympe de Gouges, “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen

The leaders during the Constitutional Monarchy (the ‘Girondists’):

In Part 1 of this discussion, we looked at the background factors and political groupings of the key participants in the French Revolution of 1789. We continue our presentation in this installment of the ‘Girondists’ who were the intellectuals and learned leaders under the Constitutional Monarchy that prevailed in the period of 1789 to 1792. In that time, these men and women provided the concrete bureaucratic leadership required by the new form of government. They also provided the conceptual and theoretical grounds for the first Republic. Their influenced waved when two events transpired — the King and his family attempted to flee from Paris in 1792, the aftermath of which the more radical members of the ‘Jacobin Club’ and the Constitution, especially Robespierre and the ‘Mountain’ (‘Montagnards’), who were calling for the execution of the King.

These ‘Girondists’ leaders included:

image ◊ Brissot (Leader of the ‘Girondists’)… Brissot was a leader of the left-center group from the Girond province (the area that included Bordeaux) and was a dedicated follower of the ethical teachings of Montesquieu and Rousseau. Above all, he was an accomplished pamphleteer and believed that the ideals of the American Revolution could improve the French government. He was famous for his speeches and was in charge of most of the foreign policy during this initial stage of the Revolution. He was very much opposed to the radical factor, the ‘Montagnards’, in the ‘Jacobin Club’. He met his death on the Guillotine.

image ◊ Pétiôn (Writer and Politician)… Pétiôn was a lawyer and a bold reformer. He attacked the Old Regime (‘ancien regimé’), especially in the traditional hereditary rights of the nobility and the feudal system that kept most of the French population as serfs of their landlords. He became the second mayor of Paris and supported a republican form of government. He permitted the attacks on the Royal family while they were held in the Tuilerie Palace as well as the September Massacres as the Austrian coalition army approached Paris. He became a member of the initial ‘Committee of Public Safety’ but opposed the ‘Reign of Terror.’ When Robespierre and his ‘Montagnards’ took control of the ‘Jacobin Club’ and the Constitutional Assembly, he escaped to Caen, in the Normandy region of Northern France. While there, he attempted to stir up insurrection among the populace. When that failed, he escaped to the Bordeaux region where he committed suicide in 1794.

image ◊ Roland (Manufacturer and Leader of the ‘Girondists’)… Roland was a spokesman for the ‘Girondist’ faction in the ‘Jacobin Club’. While his group was in power, he served both as the Minister of the Interior and, later, as the Minister of Justice. He wrote the “Manifesto of Disaffectation” in protest of the King’s attempted veto of the decrees passed by the assembly to sanction the nobility fleeing Paris, the ‘émigrés’, and the clerics; he was dismissed from his ministry position along with other protesting ministers. The Assembly reinstated these ministers in an effort to limit the King’s interference with government operations. Like other ‘Girondists’, he opposed Robespierre and the ‘Montagnards’ who were trying to move the Revolution into a more radical stage. He also felt that the ‘Commune of Paris’ was too radical as well. He opposed the execution of the King and Royal family unless confirmed by a vote of the people. When these ‘Montagnards’ tried to bring Roland to trial, his wife, Madame Manon Roland, helped him escape to Normandy. After his wife was convicted and executed on the guillotine, he committed suicide.

image ◊ Madame Roland (Writer and Supporter of the ‘Girondists’)… Madame Roland was the only woman involved in the ongoing activities of the Revolution. She helped edit her husband’s correspondence and wrote many of his speeches. In Paris, she opened a salon that hosted meetings of many members of the ‘Jacobin Club’, including Brissot, Pétiôn, Robespierre and other leaders of the movement. She was an avid reader and was a follower of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. She believed that a proper government was one that included: “enlightened and well-meaning…” She was imprisoned after opposing the excesses of the Revolution and helping her husband to escape from Paris; during this time, she wrote her memoirs. After her trial, she was convicted and sentence to be executed on the guillotine.

image ◊ Buzat (Politician and Leader of the Revolution)… Buzat was a man of radical opinions, especially against the Catholic Church. He sought to have the Church’s property nationalized; he also believed in the right of the people to bear arms. As a ‘Girondist’, he wanted to protect the people, the ‘sans-culottes’, of Paris from the invading Austrian coalition armies by raising an army. Unlike other ‘Girondists’, he supported the execution of the King and the Royalist ‘émigrés’. When the Assembly started to prosecute the ‘Girondists’, he fled to Calvados (in Normandy) and then to Bordeaux where he committed suicide with Pétiôn.

Women of note for specific contributions during the ‘Reign of Terror’:

image ◊ Corday (Assassin of Jean-Paul Marat)… Corday was self-educated and a follower of Plutarch, Rousseau, and Voltaire. She was repulsed by the excesses of the September Massacres and feared that Marat was a threat to the republic. She assassinated Marat in his bathtub; she was tried, convicted and executed on the guillotine.


image ◊ Olympe de Gouges (Playwright, Political Activist, and Feminist)… Olympe led the women’s march on the Versailles Palace when the Assembly was locked out of their meeting space. In addition, she is probably most remembered for her “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen” (1791) that attempted to win for women the same rights that the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens” had for the men of France. For her activism and attempts to force the Assembly to admit women to the deliberations, Olympe was tried, convicted and executed on the guillotine.

This set of centrist liberals helped to transition the Revolution from an absolute Monarchy to a Constitutional Monarchy. They were guided by the philosophy of government of Montesquieu more than that of Rousseau. They sought a government that ‘worked,’ but did not necessarily address the critical needs or wishes of the poor, the ‘sans-culottes.’ It was this latter failure that precipitated the plunge of the Revolution into the ‘Reign of Terror’ under Robespierre and the ‘Montagnards’. The King and most of the leaders of the ‘Girondists’ met their death by execution on the guillotine. Those that escaped committed suicide.

Next Time: We will continue our exploration in Part 3 by an examination of the radicals and ultra-radicals of the Revolution. Join us for that adventure…

(Originally posted on Thursday, July 23, 2009)

[Note: This is Part 1 of 3 of this posting… Other parts will appear over the next few days.]

image “Justice has its anger, my lord Bishop, and the wrath of justice is an element of progress. Whatever else may be said of it, the French Revolution was the greatest step forward by mankind since the coming of Christ. It was unfinished, I agree, but still it was sublime. It released the untapped springs of society; it softened hearts, appeased, tranquilized, enlightened, and set flowing through the world the tides of civilization. It was good. The French Revolution was the anointing of humanity.”
— Victor Hugo

The French Revolution was the result of not only the immediate societal needs in the latter eighteenth century but of the spirit of freedom that was awash following the successful revolt of the American colonies against British rule. This struggle was the time when the ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers’ thinking was put into action, especially John Locke and Montesquieu. The French philosophers Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu served as guides for the French intellectuals who were the leaders of the early phases of the French Revolution. In the previous posting, we examined a comparison between the two revolutions; the key difference has been clearly stated as: ◊

While the American Revolution was a rebellion of a group of colonists seeking independence of their King, the French Revolution was more of a civil war that sought to define the form of government that should provide the needs of the French population. ◊

Who were the Personalities that led the French Revolution?

The answer is complex when we consider that there were at least a dozen reformers that sought a change in the structure of the French government. These men and women were not seeking only a change in the structure of government, but also a major shift in the structure of French society. The French King, Louis XVI, started the process as an absolute monarch who was accountable to no one but God; he was supported by the clerics of the Catholic Church (the First Estate) and the nobility (the Second Estate). Ninety-five percent of the population, the Third Estate was powerless in this structure. The rural peasants and tradesmen, especially, were essentially feudal serfs to the clerics and nobility who owned the land. These people held few rights and basically no property. They survived at the pleasure of their overlords. There was only a small middle class and they lived in the large cities. The times were ripe for a change in this society. ◊

So, these dozen key reformers arose to the occasion. They were not, however, a cohesive group struggling against the King as was the case in the American colonies. They had very different ideas of how to restructure government, ranging from a Constitutional Monarchy (like the United Kingdom) to a communist-like rule of the people. The one uniting concept was this: there needed to be freedom from the absolute control of the King (Liberté), to provide each of the groups in the population with an equal say in their governance (Egalité), and the need for all sectors of society to ‘get along’ with each other (Fraternité). The first two goals were generally achieved, but the latter goal was only partially achieved for men and not at all for women. ◊

The personalities that led this Revolution were generally not from the aristocracy or noble classes, nor were they clerics — they were from the third class: the regular population. The King was in the middle of this process, with a majority of the population wanting to at least remove the King from the throne if not execute him. Briefly, the major participants in the various stages included: ◊

The leaders during the transition from Absolute Monarchy:

  • Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791… Natural Causes)

The leaders during the Constitutional Monarchy (the ‘Girondists’):

  • Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793… Natural Causes)
  • Jérome Pétiôn de Villaneuve (1756-1794… Suicide)
  • Jean-Marie Roland, vicomte de la Plateière (1734-1793… Suicide)
  • Madame Manon (Marie-Jeanne) Roland (1754-1793… Guillotine)
  • François Nicolas Léonard Buzat (1760-1794… Suicide)

Women of note for specific contributions (‘Girondist’ Supporters):

  • Olympe de Gouges (1755-1793… Guillotine)
  • Charlotte Corday (1760-1793… Guillotine)

The leaders during the ‘Reign of Terror’ (the ‘Montagnards’):

  • Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758-1794… Guillotine)
  • Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793… Assassination)
  • Camille Descoulins (1760-1794… Guillotine)
  • Georges Danton (1759-1794… Guillotine)

The leaders of the ultra-radical, de-christianization (the ‘Hébertists’):

  • Jacques Hébert (1757-1794… Guillotine)
  • Pierre Gaspard Chaumette (1763-1794… Guillotine)

These leaders of the Revolution ‘ebbed and flowed’ throughout this period, with each having their time in the spotlight of history. The fate of each of each of these are listed behind the date of their death in the listing above, with only Mirabeau and Brissot dying of natural causes. A majority of them met their fate with the ‘Widow Maker’, Madame Guillotine! Most of these men were members of the ‘Jacobin Club’ where the ‘real’ debates occurred before being taken to the Convention for action; Mirabeau did not associate with any club while others were members of the ‘Cordelier Club’. The ‘Jacobin Club’ was actually made up of two other groups, the ‘Girondist Club’ and the ‘Montagnards’ as well as an uncommitted mass called the ‘Plain’. The support of the latter group was necessary to obtain passage of any legislation in the Convention. We will deal with the details of the various assemblies that were formed and superseded as the Revolution continued to evolve. The participants listed above were involved in many of those assemblies. ◊

So, let’s take a closer look at the men (and women) that carried the French Revolution forward. By necessity, these profiles are summaries. ◊

Just who were these principal participants in the French Revolution?

The leaders during the transition from Absolute Monarchy:

image ◊ Mirabeau (Writer, Orator and Statesman)… Mirabeau sought to instill a Constitutional Monarchy, patterned after the one in the United Kingdom, in France. He was much more moderate than the other men covered here, but was known for his broad historical knowledge, philosophical insights, and his eloquence in speech. He was committed to the notion that: “government exists to allow the population to pursue its daily work in peace, and, to do that, the government must be strong. The government must conform to the wishes of a majority of the people.” He was against a civil war that would come if more radical ideas were to prevail. He was, above all, a statesman and wanted to see a new government, but one that was more congruent with the ideas of Montesquieu than of Rousseau. He died of pericarditis in 1791. ◊

This completes the first part of this coverage of the major participants in the French Revolution. Join us over the next several days for the remaining parts. ◊

Next Time: Part 2 of 3 will be available tomorrow. Join us then…

(Originally posted on Monday, July 20, 2009)

image “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Abigail Adams, February 22, 1787

We should pause to reflect on two revolutions from the end of the eighteenth century — the American and French Revolution. There are many parallels of the two assertions of the rights of man and the shedding of the yoke of oppression. Both resulted in new democracies in an age of monarchy. ◊

We will briefly explore these two rebellions in nine different areas. This Part 2 explores the last four of these areas. So, Let’s get started … ◊

Q: How was the ownership of the land distributed before the revolutions? ◊

A: Basically, land was owned by the King, Catholic Church, and Nobility in France while the colonists were the major land owners in the American colonies. ◊

In America… There was a significant difference in the land ownership between the Northern and Southern colonies as well as between the coastal region and the unsettled interior regions. The colonies were a source of raw materials to fuel the British manufacturers. This helped maintain a positive balance of trade in favor of the British, not the colonists! ◊

In the North, society was focused about the cities, where land was owned by the Merchants and Tradesmen for the most part. Small family farms were spread throughout the rural regions; these farms were generally owned by the families that settled and maintained them. This made the Northern colonies basically self-sufficient for all but manufactured goods; the British suppressed the manufacturing operations in the colonies so as to have a market for the goods manufactured by the British industry. ◊

In the South, the agrarian lifestyles favored large plantation owners over small farmers. This economy was dependent upon cheap labor that was supplied by either the African slaves imported by the triangular trade system or by indentured immigrants who had to work for several years to pay off the cost of their passage to the colonies. Outside of the plantations, homes were owned by the merchants and tradesmen; in rural areas, there were some family farms. The cotton and tobacco produced by the plantation system provided the raw materials for the British manufacturers. ◊

On the Western frontier, property could be owned by whoever was able to clear the land and survive in the Indian lands. This provided an opportunity for the landless immigrants to own their own land. ◊

In France… The situation was very different among the French people. As with most other European countries, land was owned by the upper classes and was passed down from fathers to sons; there were no unclaimed lands in France! The largest landowner was the Catholic Church or by the Nobility who kept the bulk of the population were feudal serfs. In the cities, the merchants and tradesmen were able to own their own land, if it had been in their families or they had acquired sufficient funds to buy the expensive commodity. ◊

Q: What was the financial condition in each group before the revolution? ◊

A: Here again, there were significant differences between the financial condition in the American colonies and the French. Both of these revolutions occurred following the ‘Seven Years War’ (the ‘French and Indian War’ in the colonies); this war had severely impacted the treasuries of both the British and the French. ◊

In America… The British had born the major burden of the ‘Seven Years War’ while the colonies were rather peripheral to those battles. The British Parliament tried to impose a series of taxes on the colonies, especially on the goods shipped under the British monopoly of those manufactured in England. These taxes were perceived to be illegal since the colonies were not under the control of the Parliament and the colonies had no representation in that Parliament. Thus, the colonies were in relatively good standing financially while the British were suffering under the burden of the previous war. ◊

In France… The French were also suffering financially from the cost of the ‘Seven Years War’, but were also impacted by two other factors. The first was the extravagances of the Royal Family in this time of financial crisis. The second was the effects of a severe famine in the countryside that was causing starvation and malnutrition among the peasants. This created an atmosphere of unrest that made France ripe for revolution. ◊

Q: What military forces (Army, Navy, etc.) were involved in each of these revolutions? ◊

A: During the American Revolution, the revolution was primarily a military conflict while the French Revolution was mainly a conflict between the classes and the systems of government — it was a struggle for ‘Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood.’ ◊

In America… The American colonies had declared their independence from the British when the ‘Declaration of Independence’ was signed in 1776. The battle was between the Continental Army, under George Washington, against the superior British force of ‘Red Coats’ that had been transported across the Atlantic Ocean for the conflict. On the military front, the British were better armed, better trained and had a superior group of Officers. The American army was primarily made up of volunteers who were untrained, ill-prepared, and had an inferior group of Officers. Only with the aid of the French after the treaty of 1778 did the colonial army have better trained officers, financial assistance and a navy that could confront the British; there was no love lost between the British and the French! ◊

The Continental Army scored the deciding victory over the British at Yorktown with the help of the French Navy and officers like the Baron de Lafayette. The inferior colonial forces were able to defeat the more powerful British and confirm their independence. The ‘Treaty of Paris’ which ceded the land east of the Mississippi River to the American colonies as well as giving them their independence. ◊

In France… On the other hand, the French Revolution was not primarily a battle of military forces, but a battle of philosophy. It was a quest for democracy and freedom from the absolute Monarchy of Louis XVI. Thus, this was primarily a civil war, not a military defense of an independent state. The French soldiers during the revolution were often seen to refuse to fight their brethren, changing sides to that of the revolutionaries instead. Therefore, during the popular uprising, the military was not a factor; only after the revolution had deposed the King did the military become important. ◊

The other monarchies of Europe were unsettled by the happenings in France and wanted to prevent a similar uprising from spreading to their kingdoms. They formed a coalition to attack the French revolutionaries and restore the monarchy. The French military arose to counter this attack during most of the decade of the 1790s. These French military forces would become important after the establishment of the republic in 1794. ◊

Q: Who were the major combatants during each of these revolutions? ◊

A: Here again, the clarity of the combatants differed in the two revolutions. The American had clearly-defined opponents while the French revolution involved a constantly changing set of participants. ◊

In America… In essence, the American Revolution was between the British and the colonies. The British Parliament attempted to exercise control over the colonies after the ‘Seven Years War’ and such control was rejected by the colonists. The American Founding Fathers, based upon the philosophy of the ‘Enlightenment,’ especially John Lock, spoke and wrote eloquently to defend the rights of the colonies. Yes there were British ‘Loyalists’ in the colonies who supported the Parliament; the British tried to mobilize the slaves and the Indians in opposition of the colonial leaders. But the colonists were defending their lands and their freedom, which gave them a very high incentive to succeed. Through this resistance to the British attempts at control tended to unite the independent colonies together more than any other event might have done. ◊

In France… The battle lines were much less defined during the French Revolution. As the past postings have indicated, the revolution went through five stages, each with a different cast of players. These players include: the Monarchy, the Church and Clergy, the Nobility, the Merchants and Tradesmen, and the Peasantry (serfs). The revolutionary leaders were primarily associated with the ‘Jacobin Club’ in Paris; these leaders were further divided into the left-center ‘Girondists’ and the radical-left followers of Robespierre. These forces and their control on the revolution changed from one stage to another. The final force had to mobilize the military to fight the coalition of European monarchs. ◊

So, what does this all have to do with our exploration of the French Revolution? Basically, it means that we, as Americans, must be cautious in our interpretation of the revolution. It was not a war between competing factions, as was our Revolutionary War, it was a struggle to bring democracy to an oppressed people and mold them into a single nation, free from the absolute monarchy of the King. This Constitutional Republic emerged from the radical violence and anarchy of the ‘Reign of Terror.’ It resulted in the fulfillment of the motto: ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.’ ◊

We are, I hope, now prepared to progress forward to explore the details of this major upheaval in European history. It would have a major impact on nineteenth century European life in the person, Napoleon. The current European Union emerged from these traditions.

Next Time: We will explore the ideas of the ‘Jacobin Club’ and their factions. Join us for that adventure…

(Originally posted on Sunday, July 19, 2009)

image “Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few.”
— John Adams, An Essay on Man’s Lust for Power, 1763

We should pause to reflect on two revolutions from the end of the eighteenth century — the American and French Revolution. There are many parallels of the two assertions of the rights of man and the shedding of the yoke of oppression. Both resulted in new democracies in an age of monarchy. ◊

We will briefly explore these two rebellions in nine different areas. This Part 1 explores the first five of these areas. So, Let’s get started… ◊

Q: What were the conditions of the people at the start of the revolutions? ◊

A: The two revolutions took place in very different environments: ◊

In America… The colonists were essentially in good health, well-fed and blessed with good sanitation and the relative infrequent outbreaks of disease. ◊

In France… The French people, especially outside of Paris and other large cities, were suffering from malnutrition as a result of several years of famine. The typical French citizen was starving while the upper classes (the nobility and the clerics) and, especially the Royal family, were well-fed and self-indulgent. Paris and other French cities suffered the typical sanitation nightmare of most European cities of the day. Disease swept through the populace with regularity. ◊

Q: What were the experiences of the people with the ideals and practices of democracy? ◊

A: Here, again, the two revolutions were based on very different sets of experiences with democracy: ◊

In America… The American colonists had an experience with democracy and self-governance even though they were under the rule of the British Crown. The charters for these colonies, granted by the English Kings, provided for extensive self-governance under the supervision of a British Governor. Each colony had a representative assembly that met to discuss issues of importance to the colony and establish laws and taxes. The American Revolution built upon these experiences and the transfer from a colony in the British Empire to an independent country. ◊

In France… The French people had virtually no experience with democracy, as was common in most European countries of the day, except England. In fact, most French peasants were essentially living under a feudal system in which they were serfs that served the French nobility and the Church; the Catholic Church was the largest landowner at the time of the revolution. ◊

Q: What was the nature of government at the time of these revolutions? ◊

A: The American colonists were living under the general rule of the British Constitutional Monarchy while the French people lived under Louis XVI and an Absolute Monarchy: ◊

In America… The colonies were under the British Constitutional Monarchy, although, as stated above, they were relatively self-governing under the general oversight of a British Governor. The colonists, however, had no representatives in the British Parliament, and the colonists responded to any attempt of that Parliament to impose taxes or restrictions upon the colonies. This led to the slogan: “No taxation without representation.” ◊

In France… The French King was an Absolute Monarch who ruled without being accountable to anyone but God. The Church (Clergy) and Nobility held were the landowners and were accountable to the wishes of the King. There were no representative assemblies and even the privileged classes had little say in the governance of the country; they could only hope to be granted a presence in the court where they might ‘catch the ear’ of the King. Consequently, the King was the Law. ◊

Q: What was the social class structure in each country? ◊

A: The American colonies were basically a class-less society while the French had a very structured class structure: ◊

In America… The colonists had a virtual class-less society, although there were distinctions among the different peoples. It must be remembered that all inhabitants of the colonies were immigrants, since they or their ancestors had migrated to the Americas from England and other parts of Europe. Property was the chief differentiator amongst the populace, with the ‘higher-class’ colonists being better educated and owned significant property. There was, however, a significant middle class composed of the merchants and tradesmen; most of the rural family farmers owned their own property. ◊

If your family had migrated to the colonies and were without the resources to purchase land, they could move westward to the wilderness areas of what are now Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee; here they could clear land, start a settlement, and become property owners (and defend themselves against the Native American Indians, whose land it was!) There were groups of immigrants who arrived in the colonies, especially the northern colonies, who were obligated (‘indentured’) to work out the cost of their passage before they became ‘freemen’ in society. ◊

There was an underclass in the colonies, however. These were the slaves from West Africa who were found primarily on the southern plantations where cotton and tobacco were grown. This agrarian economy was based primarily upon the cheap workforce of the slaves. There was no easy route to freedom. ◊

In France… French society was very hierarchical and structured. At the top of this structure, of course, was the King. At the bottom of the social structure were the feudal peasants, the serfs, who worked the land for the Church and the Nobility; they essentially had no rights or hope for a better life. In between these extremes, we had three classes, termed ‘Estates’, including the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Merchants and Tradesmen. These were the property owners and had status above the peasants. The Clergy and the Nobility were exempt from taxes and had rather privileged lives. ◊

Q: What was the geographical sphere of influence of the participants at the start of their revolutions? ◊

A: The American colonies and the British government were separated by the Atlantic Ocean while the participants of the French Revolution were separated by philosophies and ideas, not geography: ◊

In America… The British government, the King and the Parliament, were located in London. The American colonies were part of the British Empire and, therefore, under the oversight of a British Governor in each colony. However, as stated above, these colonies were formed under charters from the King that allowed for extensive self-government rather than the centralized rule of the British Parliament. In addition, the colonies were separated from the ruling structure by the Atlantic Ocean. ◊

In France… The situation in France was quite different from the American colonies. The power structure, as it later would be in the French Colonies, were highly centralized and under the direct control of the ruling bodies in Paris. The King had palaces in both Paris and in Versailles, a suburb of Paris. The Church had cathedrals in the primary cities of Paris and the provinces as well as churches throughout the French countryside. The Nobility had built châteaux in the French countryside, especially the Loire and Dordogne valleys; they also spent time in Paris in the King’s court to gather favor of the King. The Merchants and Tradesmen were found mainly in the cities, with those in Paris having the most power of the group. All told, Paris was the center of power in the French order of things. ◊

Well, that’s the end of Part 1 of this Comparison. We have examined the first half of this comparison of the two revolutions. The next posting will complete this examination. ◊

Next Time: We will look at the second part of this posting. Join us for that completion…

(Original posted on Friday, July 17, 2009)

image “It was not reason that besieged Troy; it was not reason that sent forth the Saracen from the desert to conquer the world; that inspired the crusades; that instituted the monastic orders; it was not reason that produced the Jesuits; above all, it was not reason that created the French Revolution. Man is only great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination.”
— Benjamin Disraeli quotes (1804-1881), British Prime Minister & Novelist.

The French Revolution played itself out in much the same way a Moliére comedy would — with a progression of character development from one act to the next. Likewise, the star will appear in each act and will develop as the play progresses supported by a cast of sometimes changing lesser actors. The goal of the writer is to develop the main theme and bring the main character to a mature, if somewhat flawed, character. So, what is the theme and cast of characters in the French Revolution?

Well, the theme could be summed up as a child raised by a domineering father who rules the home with absolute authority. This child then starts an exploration of the ideals of the ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers and learns about the ideas of history by a group of ‘uncles’ who act his teachers. Following that act, the young man is taken ‘under the wing’ of a big brother who fills his heart and soul with the passions and excesses of youth. He then enters into the final act, young adulthood, finds him giving up some of his freedom for the lawful marriage with his sweetheart. And then he proceeds into adulthood looking to ‘live happily ever after.’

OK, this is an interesting analogy, but who is this youth? How will this young man romp through this play as if he was running through fields of sunflowers in the spring in the rural countryside? This is FRANCE, the country. Who, then, are these supporting characters who assist him in his journey in each of the acts? Well, in Act One, the stern father figure is that of King Louis XVI, the last absolute monarch of France. In Act Two, the Girondist lawyers and thinkers work to instill in the fledgling democratic nation with the wisdom of the ages through the study and laws of the philosophies of ‘freedom, liberty, and brotherhood.’ The big brother of Act Three is no less Robespierre and his colleagues in the Jacobin Club that executed the king and queen and loosed the ‘Reign of Terror’ with their passion and radicalism. This wildness is soon replaced, in Act Four, with a romance of the republic under the laws of the new French Constitution; his excesses and self-destructive behaviors are brought under control through this marriage within the republican framework. In Act Five, France emerges as a legitimate nation in the stable relationship of a family man amongst the nations of Europe.

I hope that this analogy will help you visualize the complex set of scenarios through which the French Revolution coursed. The remainder of this posting will focus on the timeline of the French Revolution and the chief players in each act. So, here we go…

The Stages of the French Revolution…

image “What is the end of our revolution? The tranquil enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice, the laws of which are graven, not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of men, even in the heart of the slave who has forgotten them, and in that of the tyrant who disowns them.”
— M. Robespierre (1794), “On the Principles of Political Morality”

As discussed above, the French Revolution went through several stages. These stages have been variously defined by historian during the past two centuries, with events reinterpreted by several points of view, especially by the Marxists who modeled the 1917 overthrow of the Czar on the French Revolution. We will take a rather traditional view of these stages by focusing upon which of the major groups were dominant at each stage. We will deal with the events and groups in more detail in future postings to this blog.

Act One… The Absolute Monarchy (Through 1789) During the classic period of the French monarchy, the French King reigned as an absolute ruler of the country. Society consisted of three classes (known as ‘Estates’) — the Clergy (the ‘First Estate’), the Nobility (the ‘Second Estate’) and the General Populace (the ‘Third Estate’). The first two estates were exempt from taxes and were the property owners, with the consent of the King; the people of the ‘Third Estate’ were essentially feudal serfs under the yoke of the first two estates. This situation persisted along with the famine leading to the starvation and malnutrition among the ‘Third Estate’ prior to the fall of the Bastille.

Act Two… National Constitutional Assembly (1789-1791) The beginning of democracy was marked by the breaking of the King’s absolute power over the ‘Estates.’ This was initiated by the convening of the ‘Estates-General’ and, later, the ‘National Constitutional Assembly.’ The people, in the face of the inaction on the part of these two legislative bodies, took to the Paris streets and stormed the Bastille fortress on that fateful July 14th which became known as ‘Bastille Day’ (or ‘La Fête Nationale’). During this time, a variety of factions were formed within these assemblies, especially the ‘Royalists’ group (the nobles and clerics) and the ‘Jacobins’ (the representatives of the merchant and peasant classes).

Also, during this period, a number of changes were imposed upon the ‘Royalists’ (the clergy, the Catholic Church, and the nobility.) These were the major landowners prior to the revolution and exempt from taxation. They were well-fed despite the current famine and the masters over the people. The ‘Jacobins’, on the other hand, were composed of two subgroups: the center-left ‘Girondists’ and the radical left followers of Robespierre. These latter groups met at the Jacobin Club after the fall of the Bastille, hence their name, the ‘Jacobins.’ During this period, the ‘Girondists’ were basically in charge of the government and its bureaucracy.

Two events ended this stage of the revolution. The first was the attempts of the nobility to flee from Paris in particular and France in general to the safer confines of the other European monarchies. Those who successfully escaped were called the ‘emigré’; however, when they were unsuccessful, they were brought back to Paris as prisoners. The royal family also attempted to flee the country to escape the limitations of the revolution and the limits on their power and freedom. In Varennes, they were identified and detained until they were returned to Paris and placed under house arrest. The monarchy ‘hung on’ in name only.

Act Three… Legislative Assembly (1791-1792) Following the Varennes incident, Louis XVI was returned to Paris and became the titular head of a Constitutional Monarchy; the ‘Girondists’ basically controlled the day to day operation of the government. The Legislative Assembly still operated and was the legal governing body of the French. Concurrently, the other monarchies in Europe, under the leadership of the Austrians, formed a coalition and formed an army to attempt to restore the monarchy and Louis XVI to the unfettered throne in France. Also, the people in the countryside were still suffering under the heavy burden of taxation of both the central government and the Church. Those nobles who had escaped Paris for the countryside were attempting to incite a civil uprising against the centralized government. Thus, the armies marching from the east and the peasants getting out of control in the countryside precipitated a crisis in Paris. The ‘Girondists’ were charged with trying to reestablish a non-democratic, tyrannical central government by Robespierre in the Assembly. Another change was in the works!

Act Four… Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror (1792-1794) In this unsettled situation, the radical faction of the ‘Jacobins’ asserted control of the Assembly and began their ‘grab for power’. Their leader, Robespierre, called for the elimination of the monarchy; this led to the execution of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, by the dreaded guillotine. This started the mass execution of many of the ‘Girondists’ as well as anyone perceived as opposing the unfettered reign of the people bordering on anarchy. This ‘Reign of Terror’ was mediated by a new governing group: the ‘Committee of Public Safety.’ Anyone accused of ‘non-democratic’ activities or attitudes were quickly dispatched by the ‘Widow Maker’, the guillotine.

This ‘Reign of Terror’ is the period of the revolution portrayed in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which colors most of the English and American perceptions of the French Revolution. When this ‘Reign of Terror’ and its indiscriminate violence reached its apex, sanity began to return to the French. Robespierre, the architect of the ‘Committee of Public Safety’ and the ‘Reign of Terror’ was deposed, tried and sent to the guillotine himself. The fall of that blade began to restore a more centrist rule to France and many of the surviving ‘Girondists’ were returned to the Assembly.

Act Five… The Directorate (1794-1799) Following the end of the ‘Reign of Terror,’ the Republic was formally put into effect under the new Constitution. This new structure was based upon a structure that included a Legislative and Executive branches. There was a bicameral Legislature composed of a ‘Council of Five Hundred’ (‘Le Consiel des Cinq-Cents’) and the ‘Council of Elders’ (‘Le Consiel des Anciens’). The Executive was composed of five ‘Directors’ selected by the ‘Council of Elders’ from a list of recommendations from the ‘Council of Five Hundred’. Therefore, this became known as the time of the ‘Directory.’ Whereas in previous periods, voting rights were given to all men, during the ‘Directorate’ period gave the voting rights to those with property.

This ‘Directory’ was a republic and operated under the rule of law, not with the anarchy of the previous ‘Reign of Terror.’ Unfortunately, many of the Directors were corrupt and tended to become dictatorial, tyrants in their own right! But that was not the greatest challenge of the period. During the war with the European coalition, under the leadership of the Austrians, the French had raised an army to defend the country against invasion and the reinstatement of the monarchy of Louis XV. The end of the war with this coalition threatened France with the return of the armies, precipitating their demand for back salaries. Since the country’s treasury was still depleted from the earlier crisis, the return of the armies was a major threat to the economic well-being of the country. Another crisis was looming; the marriage might not last ‘til death do us part!’

What happened next? We would see, if we pursued it past 1799, the rise of the ‘Little Corporal,’ Napoleon Bonaparte, to military leadership and eventually to the status of ‘Emperor’ of the French people. That study will need to wait for another series!

Well, we have completed an essential overview of the stages of the French Revolution. As you have seen, it was not a single, continuous process and it was not altogether like the American Revolution of 1776. We have seen that the control of France during this revolution shifted from one group to another.

Next Time: Before we continue to explore the key groups and men who participated in the French Revolution, we are going to catch our breath and look at a comparison of the French and American Revolutions. Join us for that adventure…

(Originally posted on Thursday, July 16, 2009)

I would like to step back a bit from our journey of exploration to inform you of some excellent resources out there in cyberspace. So, please bear with me in this special posting. I hope it will better enable you to maximizing your experience with what I’m trying to present here…

I approached our study of the ideas and key figures of the American Revolution from the perspective of an intellectual analysis rather than learning about this fact or that fact. Many of those facts are taught in our public school curriculums. In California schools, students are supposed to study United States history in the fifth and eighth grades; they study civics in the eleventh grade. Other states, no doubt, follow some sort of similar cycle. The net outcome should be that, by the end of high school, all students should have a basic grasp of key dates and people who made a difference in our country’s history as well as a basic understanding of how our government works.

Today our kids are growing up in a global community. Events no longer take weeks to receive news of battles (and outcomes), as was common in colonial times. Even the advent of radio and (later) television, news coverage of wars in the first half of the twentieth century took sometimes days before they were covered by radio or newsreels. In the latter half of that century, news of Vietnam took hours to reach us, usually during the evening news. This was shortened to hours during the first gulf war in Kuwait and Iraq. News of the fall of the Berlin wall or the conflict in Tiananmen Square in Beijing took some time to transverse the world via fax. Today, with our social media networks like Facebook and Twitter deliver news almost instantaneously, as evidenced by the accounts of the uprisings following the recent elections in Iran!

So what, you might ask? Well we need to obtain an appreciation of important events in today’s world within the context of the histories and cultural traditions in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Our present exploration of the French Revolution is a start of our entry into that need to understand past events within their context. We are trying to bridge our own cultural understanding with that of a set of events in a different historical and cultural context. We are examining those dramatic changes that occurred within one of our traditional allies — France in the latter eighteenth century.

English and French Versions of these Postings…

You might have noticed that I am posting each discussion in both English and French. The French postings are made for two reasons: to communicate with my friends in France and as an attempt to practice my French in hopes of improving my facility in that language. I hope that French teachers and their students will be able to make use of these postings in their classrooms in order to improve their facility with French.

[Note: I do not claim to be an expert in the use of French, but I am trying to improve my facility. French is my third language, behind English and German. Please forgive me for any mistakes that I have made in these translations within this context.]

I have found that reading French literature to be a valuable tool in improving my French facility. This helps me with vocabulary, grammar, and, hopefully, in my speaking competence. So, my challenge to high school and college students who are at an intermediate level will benefit from these French postings in much the same way dual-language books have helped me.

Online Resources…

For my English-speaking readers, I have tried to paint a verbal picture of the French Revolution within a cultural context. I have taken some ‘poetic license’ in creating my narratives, while still remaining factually accurate. However, I realized while writing the first two installments of these postings use terminology that may be unfamiliar to the typical English reader. Therefore, I would recommend that you refer to a glossary of terms on the web site maintained by George Mason University…

Web Site:

Glossary of Terms:

This glossary will be extremely helpful when we deal with the various legislative bodies and factions that shaped the French Revolution. I will attempt to use terms in accordance with these definitions unless otherwise indicated. I encourage you to access and print out these definitions to use while reading these postings.

Lesson Plans for Teachers…

Finally, I have identified a couple of good sets of lesson activities that you, as high school or college teachers, will be able to make use of these resources in conjunction with my blog postings. These two resources are available freely at:

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education, “The French Revolution: ‘Those who have and those who have not’ at and

History Teaching Institute at Ohio State University, “The French Revolution” at

Both of these sites have good suggestions for activities and further research for your students during the study of the French Revolution. As teachers, please take a look at them and I would appreciate any feedback you might have as comments on both these lesson plans and my postings.

I hope that these musings and resources will enrich your lives and studies. I look forward to your comments and suggestions…

Next Time: The French Revolution was not a singular event, but a series of events. To create a new government, the people suffered through the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the use of the guillotine to execute the King, his nobility, and even some of the revolutionaries themselves. We shall explore these topics and more in the coming posts. Join us in this adventure…

(Originally posted on Tuesday, July 14, 2009)

image “The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development. The error of Louis XIV was that he thought human nature would always be the same. The result of his error was the French Revolution. It was an admirable result.”
— Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish Poet, Novelist, Dramatist and Critic

The French Revolution, started in 1789, produced a dramatic change in the European landscape. It was a capstone to a trend that had previously affected Britain and was a foreshadowing of a trend that would sweep through the competing European Empires over the next century. This revolution in France was to become the model used by Lenin for the Russian Revolution in 1917. France was about to release chaos onto the European stage.

“We need the real, nation-wide terror which reinvigorates the country and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory”
— Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) Russian Founder of the Russian Communist Party & leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917

Let’s take a closer look at what triggered these changes to the French nation in 1789 through 1795…

The Historical Context

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
— Charles Dickens

The upheaval in England that had occurred during the Commonwealth period (1653-1659) under Oliver Cromwell had deposed King Charles I and thrown England into Civil War. During this period, England was a republic; when the new King, Charles II, was returned to the throne in 1660, England became a Constitutional Monarchy in which the King was given a sphere of influence while the Parliament was responsible for many of the common functions of government. These changes caused fear throughout the European Absolute Monarchies, such as that which existed in France during the late eighteenth century. In the latter forms of government, the King exerted absolute control over not only the people, but also the clergy and nobility. Such was the realities in France at the time of the Revolution.

image In addition to the Civil War in England, England was also involved with a set of thirteen colonies on the Eastern coast of the American continent. These colonies, in the mid-1770s, arose against the power of the British Empire. This insurrection, the American Revolution or 1776, saw the colonists resisting the oversight of both the British Parliament and the British Monarchy in the person of King George III. This resistance was precipitated as a response of excessive taxation and embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The new American nation fought the Revolutionary War against the British for their independence. This insurrection manifested itself a mere dozen years before the unrest appeared in France. The spirit of this revolution of this revolution was embodied in the philosophy of the ‘Enlightenment’ in England and France; it was also carried to Paris by the representatives of this new nation by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Thomas Paine.

These revolutionaries mixed freely within the solons of the elite of Paris. The ideas of these American rebels, along with those of the French ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, stirred new, egalitarian ideas among French society. King Louis XVI should have been aware of these ideas, but appeared to be sheltered by his court from the realities of life outside of the Palace. Like the English, the ‘Seven Years War’ had depleted the French treasury, but the King and his court continued to live out their lavish lifestyle while the people suffered. This set the stage for conflict.

Conditions of the French People at the time of the Revolution

image Society in France during the eighteenth century consisted of an absolute Monarch, King Louis XVI, and three groups within the rest of the nation. These were the clergy, the ‘First Estate,’ the nobility, the ‘Second Estate,’ and the rest of the population, the ‘Third Estate.’ The lands of the Catholic Church, the clergy, and the nobility were held in a special status and remained untaxed. Therefore, when the King demanded that taxes be raised to help replenish the treasury, he was, in effect, calling for a tax on the common people, the ‘Third Estate.’ However, these are the people already taxed by not only the government, but by the church (in the form of the ‘dime’ or tithe). Furthermore, they were held in subservient positions and had only limited wealth; the property of the church and the châteaux of the nobility were exempt from these taxes. The situation was oppressive and the people were at their limit. Although they did not have the voice that their American predecessors had, they were being ‘taxation without representation!’

The situation was made worse by a famine that had affected the land for many years. It was not known whether this famine was due to the ‘Little Ice Age’ or by the ‘El Niño’ produced by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Mt. Laki, in 1783. In any case, crops were failing, the people were starving, and the people were dying of malnutrition. While this was occurring, the other estates and the court were eating well and apparently unaware of the plight of the ‘Third Estate.’ This put the people on a collision path with the ruling classes and the crown. Added to this was the increasing awareness amongst the ‘Second Estate’ of the philosophy of the ‘Enlightenment,’ especially from the French Philosophers: Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Their ideas of the rights of the people, the virtues of a republican form of government, and the separation of powers within the government created an undercurrent among the solon crowd. The charges were laid, the sides were set, and it would only take a match to set off this powder keg.

“The famous line about the French king was that he didn’t even know what was going on. He said: ‘Is it a revolt?’ And the other guy said: ‘No, it’s a revolution.’ The king was thinking it was nothing.”
— Luc Besson, (French film director and filmmaker)

The real question was: How will the French government handle this crisis. That was soon answered…

The Estates-General and National Assembly

image Finally, the King was forced to do something. He needed money to maintain his lifestyle and support his many military endeavors. His Minister of the Treasury, Jacques Necker, proposed raising taxes, and removing the tax exemptions from the clergy (the ‘First Estate’) and the nobility (the ‘Second Estate’). This would help address the current problem at the expense of the privileged classes. The King called for a meeting of a set of representatives to meet as a quasi-parliament, the Estates-General, in 1788. [It is interesting that this was only one year after the Americans meet in the Constitutional Convention.] The formation of the Estates-General made an initial change in the monarchy — it was no longer an absolute Monarchy!

A meeting of representatives was scheduled for May, 1789, in Paris. The representatives were elected and then the ‘fun’ began: How to structure the operations of the parliament? Two options were available. The first, favored by the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Estates, was to vote by Estate, with each having a single vote; this would have guaranteed that the ‘Third Estate’ could not hope to win any votes. The second, favored by the ‘Third Estate,’ was to have each representative be given a single vote, and to vote ‘by head.’ This would provide a chance for the people to get some of their proposals through the parliament. The groups debated these issues until the frustrated ‘Third Estate’ decided, in June, 1789, to form a National Assembly and invited members of the other two estates to join them. This was, in fact, a move to reject the Monarchy and ‘go it alone.’

When this National Assembly tried to meet in the conference hall, they were threatened with a lock-out. They changed their venue to a public tennis court and forced all delegates to swear the ‘Tennis Court Oath.’ From this point, the situation grew progressively more out of hand. When the King and his family retreated to his Palace of Versailles with his personal elite guard unit, this was perceived as a ‘hostile’ action. When the Minister of the Treasury, Jacques Necker, was dismissed, it was perceived as a further effort of the King to back away from listening to the will of the people. The fuse was set and the whole situation was ready to explode.

And where would this explosion be set off? At the fourteenth century fortress in the middle of Paris: the Bastille. This fortification was used as a prison, a keep for weapons (especially gunpowder), and as a billet for soldiers. After the above events cascaded out of control, the people gathered in the streets of Paris and surround the Bastille. The standoff continued for most of the day, but the soldiers finally lowered the drawbridge and surrendered to the people. These soldiers were dragged through the streets of Paris, the seven prisoners were set free, and the gunpowder was confiscated by the people. The revolution was ‘ON.’ The power of the King was broken.

On that special day long ago, the 14th of July, broke the power of tyranny and set the course of the French nation towards a republican form of government. The journey was not smooth and it had its ups and downs. These we will examine in the coming posts…

Next Time: The French Revolution was not a singular event, but a series of events. To create a new government, the people suffered through the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the use of the guillotine to execute the King, his nobility, and even some of the revolutionaries themselves. We shall explore these topics and more in the coming posts. Join us in this adventure…