(Original posted on Friday, July 17, 2009)
“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…
“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…