[Partly edited 10/28/08]

The French Revolution


 For the last several elections, the winning theme in American politics is change.  Let's make changes now.  Lets make wonderful improvements in things.  Bill Clinton was elected on the promise of change--that he would make wonderful improvements in America.  Two years later Republicans took congress on promise of change--that they would make wonderful improvements in American.  Both Barack Obama and John McCain campaigned on the promise of "change."  But the actual changes made in American government are generally pretty small--and maybe this is not such a bad thing.

 Now if you want real changes in government, the place to look is France.  For more than two hundred years, the French have been tinkering with their government, constantly making changes, making wonderful improvements in their form of government.  Unfortunately, quite often these "wonderful improvements" turn out not to be so wonderful after all.  The greatest example of this: the French Revolution.

[The "wonderful improvements" phrase I borrow from Oscar's Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.  At one point in the play, John says to Algernon, "But a common cold isn't hereditary.  You said so yourself,"  to which Algy replies, "It usen't to be I know, but I dare say it is now.  Modern science is always making wonderful improvements in things."  I love the line: modern society (not just modern science), does constantly make "wonderful improvements" that turn out not to be so wonderful.]

The French have had many Revolution in the last couple of centuries, but The French Revolution, the big one, is the revolution that began in 1789.  And ended?  In 1795 perhaps? Or 1799?? Or 1804??? How about 1815?? Or is it over even yet?  For this class, we'll treat the French Revolution as the entire period between 1789 and 1815, a period of enormous change in French government.  I will highlight four phases of the revolution.  You should know the changes made in each phase and why these changes might not have been so wonderful after all.


 It's easy to see why French would want to make some changes in 1789:

 1.  There was much poverty and suffering in France.  Intense poverty afflicted perhaps a third of the population, with many so poor they couldn't even afford a pair of shoes.  Largely because of poverty, there were 25,000 prostitutes in the city of Paris alone (a city of 350,000 people at the time).  This tells you all sorts of negative things about France.  Women generally don't resort to prostitution if there is a viable opportunity, and such a high rate of prostitution points to a situation where many women are in a truly desperate financial situation.  Further, a high prostitution rate indicates that, for many of the French (men as well as women) the dream of a stable marriage was an impossible dream. Many men couldn't afford to marry and support a wife and children.  And this was a problem.  For most people in most of human history, the single factor most important in determining whether or not they will be satisfied with life is their ability to form a a stable marriage.  When men don't have this hope, they become angry--and potential canon fodder for a revolutionary movement.   [The contrast between rich and poor was a real grievance as well.  Had France been a poor country, poor people might have better accepted their lot.  But France was relatively rich, probably the richest country in Europe.] But such conditions generally won't produce a revolution unless more privileged people are unhappy as well.  And there were in France many relatively privileged people who were unhappy with France as it was..

 2.  Taxation was a real problem in France.  While rulers like Henry IV and Louis XIV had to a certain extent fixed the "tax farmer" problem, they hadn't fixed the tax fairness problem. Nobles and clergy, the most privileged people in France, were exempt from taxes. For the "commons" (everyone from the wealthiest merchant to the poorest peasant) this seemed obviously unfair.  Perceived unfairness in taxation is one of the things that make people angry enough to demand change--perhaps even revolutionary change.  Look at the American Revolution!

 3.  Another reason for change was the fact that the French military was not doing so well.  France lost the Seven Years War/French and Indian War, and this meant the loss of French Canada.  But it also meant that the French had to worry about the possibility at least of invasion and all the horrible things that might mean.

 4.  Another problem was that the French church was filled with corruption.  The church was incredibly rich, and that should have been good, since much of what we today associate with government was then the responsibility of the church.  Education, medical care, and relief for the poor were primarily church responsibilities.  but the vast wealth of the church wasn't devoted to this kind of thing.  Instead, high church officials (bishops, abbots, etc.) pocketed much of the money and lived like the nobles--which, in fact, many of them were.  This left the actual work of the church in the hands of poorly paid parish clergy who did their best, but seldom had the resources they needed.

 5.  Even then, France probably would have had no revolution had there been a body to bring about peaceful change, the equivalent of the English parliament.  France had no such representative body.  Well, theoretically, they did. There was the Estates General, a group comprised of representatives of the three "estates" in France: clergy, nobles, and commons.  The problem was that the estates general hadn't met in over 100 years!  Absolute monarchs like Louis XIV hadn't felt they needed its advice.

 6.  And, even then, there might not have been a revolution in france had there not been a weak, indecisive king on the throne, Louis XVI.  Louis wasn't the type of man who make absolute monarchy work, the decisive type of person Louis XIV had been.  One example: the idea of taxing nobles.  At one point, Louis decided he was in fact going to start asking nobles to pay their fair share of taxes.  But he was soon talked out doing so.  Naturally enough, this kind of back-and-forth policy made people mad.  Louis' indecisiveness was really costly when it came to the events that actual touched off the Revolution.


In 1789, Louis, not knowing how else to address French problems, called for a meeting of the Estates General.  Since this group hadn't met in 100 years, no one really was sure how it was supposed to operate, or even how the votes were to be distributed.  Some said: 1/3 of the votes for clergy, 1/3 for nobles, 1/3 for the commons.  The commons, however, wanted what they called a doubling of the third: 1/3 for the clergy, 1/3 for the nobles and 2/3 for the commons.  Of course, that doesn't add up.  What they meant was 1/4 for clergy, 1/4 for nobles, and 1/2 of the votes for the commons.
Would the third get doubled or not?   If Louis had decided either way, the Estates General might have had a chance of success.  Instead, the estates general went nowhere.  Finally,  many of the commons (joined by some nobles and some clergy) broke away from the Estates General and started meeting on their own, calling themselves the National Assembly.  They began to act as if they were the legitimate representatives of the people of France, and debated ideas for improving the country. 

However,  it looked  like Louis might send in troops to disperse the NA.  What to do?  Well, leaders of the NA stirred up the Paris mob and led that mob to the Bastille, and old French fortress at the time used as an armory and as a prison.  The mob eventually takes the Bastille, slaughters its garrison, and turns itself into a fairly heavily armed mob.  Time for Louis to call out the troops and restore order!  But not Louis: he starts treating the NA as if it really were the legitimate legislative body of France!


[Note: many texts divide the National Assembly period into two phases, the "Constituent Assembly" and the "Legislative Assembly."]

With Louis' reluctant support, the NA  begins to make many wonderful improvements:

 --The NA abolishes many noble/clergy privileges
 --The NA issues the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, sort of like a combination of our Dec. of Independence and our Bill of Rights
 --The NA gives France a new constitution, creating a limited monarchy rather than the earlier absolute monarchy
 --The NA holds first elections for France
 --The NA confiscates church land and makes the clergy employees of French state
 --The NA imprisons opponents of the regime, hoping this will help expedited the changes they want to make

 While some of these changes seem good, no one in France was really happy.

 --There was a division among French clergy, some declaring their loyalty to the new government church, others sticking with the Roman Catholic Church
 --Nobles began fleeing France, fearing worse things to come.  They stirred up worries about France in places like Austria and Prussia and soon...
 --France is at war with its neighbors
 --The king changes his mind again, decides to escape France and create a force to end the revolution, but he's caught and becomes almost a prisoner of the revolutionary government
--Inflation goes out of control, food prices skyrocket, and poor people launch a new round of bread riots
--Instability is so great that a far more radical group can take control--the Convention.

V. THE CONVENTION (1792-1795)

The National Convention also made many wonderful improvements in France--or at least what radicals thought were wonderful improvements.  The goal of these people was to set up a "Republic of Virtue," a society like that dreamed of by Jean Jacques Rousseau, a society which would express the general will of the people.  Remember that Rousseau said we create the perfect society, not by changing ourselves, but by changing the laws, by changing society itself.  And this is what the radicals set out to do.

Their dominant figure of the convention was a man named Robespierre, a very persuasive speaker whom some regarded as something like the "lawgiver" described by Rousseau, a man who knew exactly how things should go.

Robespierre told the assembled members of the convention that they had an immense task before them: "French republicans, it is your task to purify the earth, which the tyrants have defiled."

For Cromwell's Puritans, purification had meant getting rid of all traces of Catholicism.  For Robespierre's Convention, purification meant getting rid of every trace of monarchy.  Here's what they did:

--They eliminated monarchy altogether and established the first French republic, a government with  no king at all
--They executed Louis and many of his family so the Bourbons would not be in a position to return to the throne
--They purified the arts and the theater, making sure the power of the arts supported their revolutionary ideas
 --They purified entertainment, eliminating, for instance, the standard playing card deck and replacing it with a deck without kings and queens.
 --They purified religion, beginning is some instances a program of dechristianization.  They dressed donkey's put in bishops' robes,  forced priests and nuns to go through mock marriage ceremonies, and burned hymnals, Bibles and prayer books. They took over churches and called them "temples of reason," establishing what's called The Cult of the Supreme Being.  This religion affirmed belief in a supreme being, but, it many ways, its practices amounted to nature worship--or even a return to the old paganism.  In place of veneration of the saints, the services now focused on venerating the rose, hops, sorghum, etc.  The bread and wine of communion were now said to represent the flesh and blood of kings, so that even the "sacraments" supported republican ideas.

Not surprisingly, many didn't like these changes, particularly in the Bordeaux and Lyon regions of France.  In these regions, some were loyal to the Bourbon monarchs.  Others liked the constitution of National Assembly.  Most were loyal to the Catholic church.  As a result, they resisted the Convention's  changes, and this led to civil war in France.  This civil war, as most civil wars, was filled with atrocities.  It was particularly horrible because the Convention forces believed they were fighting to create a Republic of Virtue, that they had that chance that comes along once in a thousand years to create a good government, and that they were justified in doing anything necessary to create that government.

 In some regions of France, they wiped out as much as 1/3 the population.  At least 200,000 Frenchmen were killed in these civil wars.  Treatment of non-combatants was horrible.  Children were routinely killed, women were raped and killed.  The victims bodies were frequently mutilated in horrible ways.  This was a deliberate use of terror.  The Convention forces performed "Republican marriages,"  they loaded barges with people and sunk them.  Women, children, and old people were forced to kneel by pits, shot, and shoved into the pits.

[The behavior of the Convention forces was not as bad as I make it sound in class.  No, it was far, far worse.  If you have a strong stomach, you might take a look at this description of Convention atrocities.]

 All in name of general will of people!

 But you see, task of purification not complete if France alone purified.  The radicals of the Convention supposed it necessary to purify the earth, to spread their views to rest of Europe.  They created a new, improved army, introducing universal conscription.  The army was told it was fighting for "liberty, equality, and fraternity"--even they were even more fanatical than Cromwell's Puritans.

 The radicals were fighting on two kinds of war: civil war within, foreign wars on the borders.  But even in Paris itself, the city that first supported the wonderful improvements of the radicals--all was not well.  There were (amazingly enough) people in Paris who did not support the values of the revolution.  And this was dangerous: these malcontents could sabotage  a movement that was destined to change the world.  So, one more wonderful improvement.

The Convention established a "Committee of Public Safety,"  a committee whose job it was to seek out and destroy the enemies of the revolution.   But, unfortunately, there were enemies everywhere: hundreds of them, maybe thousands of them.  And so you needed a way of dealing with all of these enemies.  How about...the guillotine.

Surely here was a very wonderful improvement.  The guillotine was humane: people could be killed without as little pain as possible.  The guillotine was efficient: one could kill people more quickly than one could haul the bodies away.  And the guillotine was frightening.   This period in French history is rightly called the "Reign of Terror," because of the deliberate use of frightful punishments for those who dared oppose the revolution.  Within a year, twenty thousand people had gone to the guillotine.

"Yes, but they were nobles and clergy.  They had it coming."

Nope.  Only around 15% of those executed were nobles or clergyman.  The vast majority of those executed were ordinary people.  Ordinary people who supported the Bourbon monarchs.  Ordinary people who criticized the Convention.  Ordinary people who refuse to compromise their religious beliefs.  Or ordinary people who were simply unlucky, for while the guillotine's victims were given trials, the trials were summary at best, and the charges which seemed to merit execution, trivial in the extreme.  One person was executed for "thoughtless indifference to the Revolution."  Another was executed for "not losing much sleep over the Revolution."

Stupid?  No: diabolically clever.  This forced people to go out of their way to prove that they were not thoughtlessly indifferent.   How did you do that?  You wore the clothes of the revolution, shouted the slogans of the Revolution, sang the songs of the Revolution, and went to every event proclaiming the glories of the Revolution.  The strategy adopted by the Convention created the illusion of overwhelming public support for the Revolution, making resistance seem futile.

But now there was a problem.  It was clear that, under the new conditions people might look, and sound like supporters of the Revolution, but (secretly) they might be its enemies.  Even people who looked like revolutionaries might by plotting to undermine the glorious changes taking place.  Why, even in the Convention and even on the Committee of Public Safety itself there might be enemies of the Revolution.  Why, yes.  There was Danton: a tiny bit more conservative than Robespierre: clearly an enemy of the Revolution.  And there was Hebert, a tiny bit more radical than Robespierre: clearly an enemy of the Revolution.  Robespierre denounced these traitors: and to the guillotine they went.  But now, who is safe?  A little to the right of Robespierre and you're dead.  A little to the left of Robespierre, and you're dead.  And so the logical thing to do is get rid of Robespierre.  Almost overnight, the Convention goes from idolizing Robespierre to condemning him to death.

And now, without the guiding voice of Robespierre, the Convention is at a loss.  What to do?  Why, one more wonderful improvement.  The Convention votes itself out of existence, making way for a new phase of the Revolution, an phase dominated by what is called the Directory.

The Directory made many improvements.  They gave France a new constitution: an elected legislature would work with a five-man board of directors.  They gave the French people a new bill of rights.  They negotiated treaties with Austria, Prussia, and Britain, giving France a temporary peace.  They ended the reign of terror.

However, the peace treaties broke down.  Inflation ran out of control.  Government officials were either corrupt or incompetent, and the work of government was carried out effectively.  Civil war and riots in the provinces continued.  And so the Directory made one more wonderful improvement.  They appointed three men as "consuls," giving these three men special authority to deal with all the problems France faced.   This improvement worked:  too well!

One of the three consuls was Napoleon Bonaparte.  Napoleon used his emergency powers quite effectively, helping to end the civil war within France and securing some impressive military successes against France's enemies.  Napoleon's status as a war hero put him in a position to ask for more.  He proposed a new constitution, a constitution that would give him even more power as "First Consul."

Napoleon's constitution won a massive vote of confidence.  Fewer than 2,000 Frenchman voted against the constitution.  Over 3,000,000 voted for it.  And with this popular mandate, Napoleon proceeded to make some wonderful improvements in France.

He reformed government, cleaning up some of the corruption and incompetence.  He reformed education, creating military and technical schools and (I think) the lycee system.  He reformed the legal system, creating the Code Napoleon: a comprehensive but concise set of laws for all of France.

And now that France was organized, it was time for the rest of the world to watch out.

Napoleon used the old watchwords: liberty, equality, fraternity.  But now the fanatical French troops were led by one of the greatest minds in military history.  In short order, liberty, equality, and fraternity had been spread to Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland.... Everywhere his troops went, Napoleon set up representative governments and promised people certain fundamental rights.

An all around good guy making truly wonderful improvements?  Not quite.

Napoleon wanted more.  In 1804 (with the support of the French people, by the way), he crowned himself emperor of France.  He began installing his family members on the various thrones of Europe, turning the Bonaparts into a dynasty like the Hapsburgs.

But Napoleon was worried.  Although he and his family dominated Europe, their were potential threats from both Britain and Russia.  If either could be disposed of, Napoleon felt confident of lasting success.  Britain proved too tough a nut: the defeat of the French navy at Trafalger ended any hope Napoleon might have had of dominating Britain.  But the Russian threat might be dealt with.

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russian with an army of 600,000 men.  The Russians adopted a clever strategy.  Instead of meeting Napoleon head-on, they retreated--but while they retreated, they destroyed the lands through which the French
marched.  Napoleon got all the way to Moscow--but the Russian burned the city, and Napoleon found himself in an impossible position.  Winter set in, and Napoleon's troops were forced to try to make it back to France.  The Russian armies attacked the retreating French.  By the time he got back home, Napoleon had only 100,000 men left.  He had lost half-a-million men killed, captured or wounded.

It didn't stop him, though.  He formed a new army, an army soon defeated at the Battle of Nations.  He went into exile, but then returned to France and formed a new army.  This army was eventually destroyed at the famous battle of Waterloo.  Napoleon was forced into exile again.

The allies that defeated Napoleon had had enough of French aggression, and they blamed the 26 years of European war primarily on the French experiments in government.  At their insistence, the French in 1815 turned back to the Bourbon monarchs.  Louis the XVIII took the throne.  And so, after 26 years of "wonderful improvements," where were the French?  Almost right back where they started.  Pretty impressive.