The  Revolution and Terror  in France

When the American Revolutionary War was waged, the conflict was unpopular both in England and America. Only one third of the colonists supported and participated in the War. And yet the Revolution was won—astonishingly—by the upstart colonists; and suddenly America was on its own, as the “United States,” embarking on one of the most revolutionary governments of all time, a democracy.  It cannot be exaggerated how experimental this new nation seemed to the Europeans.  America was an unprecedented ideal realized and many observers predicted failure and chaos. It also cannot be exaggerated how much Europeans distrusted the very concept of “democracy,” or rule of the “mob.”  “Government by the people, for the people,” as Lincoln said later, was a horrifying concept in Europe.  And with good reason, from the perspective of the sober middle class, the “dangerous” lower classes were to be feared. Those fears were manifested in France, only a few years after the formation of the United States of America, when another Revolution erupted in 1789. All fears of the wrath of the lover classes were realized, and, in France, this revolution was bloody and violent, utterly without common sense or reason.

Unlike the American Revolution, as much as it was a revolution against a King ,the French Revolution was a civil war, a war between the classes. For centuries the lower classes had been repressed and kept under the delicate high heels of the aristocracy, which refused to part with any of its age old privileges. Those with titles lived in a world of the past, frozen in amber, clinging to a past, unaware of the dangers of the present. The middle class, literate and educated and ambitious were steeped in the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment. The real civil war in France was between the past and the future, with the Revolution as the blood midwife of the present, giving violent birth and presiding over gruesome death.  The American Revolution pitted one restive nation against an oppressive parent nation, but the French went war with themselves as class fought class for survival and dominance. The reasons for the French rebelled against King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were quite different and more personal compared the the distant antagonism of the Americans to a far-away King George III, who suddenly tried to tax them. Their political cry–“no taxes without representation”–was a demand for equality, but the slogan fell on deaf ears. It was quite possible that if the Crown had negotiated with the colonists, an agreement might have been reached, but in France there was no possibility of reasoning with the angry proletariat. Although inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, the French Revolution began, not with the middle classes, but with the lower classes. The sans coulottes, or the proletariat, had suffered under the unbending rule of the aristocracy and were struggling with the impact of a change in climate, known as The Little Ice Age, which brought years of crop failure and famine. In addition to the lowering of temperatures, a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 resulted in devastated harvests. After years of dramatically cold winters and devastatingly hot summers, there was a significant shortage of grains and bread riots began in 1789. The starving proletariate demanded that the inert government act to protect its people.

The lower classes, the peasants, tired, overworked, and hungry, and they spontaneously rose up to protest their hardships. The proletariat was not inspired by ideas of their “natural rights;” they were starving. When the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers filtered down to them, these modern ideas were rejected by the lower classes, who felt threatened by modernity and its attack on a traditional way of life. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, it was the well-educated aristocrats in France and England supported the Revolution, acting from a moral and philosophical point of view, never thinking they would be in danger. Those of the upper class who were wealthy and prospering from new economic opportunities had everything to gain from establishing a constitutional monarchy along the lines of the arrangement in England.  Although the heroes of the American Revolution, Washington and Lafayette, were greatly admired in France, the ultimate model for the French Revolutionaries was Britain, which had a constitutional monarchy and an established aristocracy. America was too democratic for French needs.

By 1788, France was in a crisis of confidence concerning the incompetent rulers, King Louis XVI and his Austrian Queen, Marie Antoinette. As if the bloodline of French royalty and thinned into this indifferent couple which was positively incontinent when it came to spending money. But it was not the extravagant Marie Antoinette and her famous diamond necklace which bankrupted France. The French monarch actually cost the French people half of what the British monarchy cost the English. Ironically, the nation’s financial troubles stemmed from its alliance with the American colonies in the War of Independence. The saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” could have been applied to the unhappy French royal family after America became independent. Not that the French were supporting democracy; the French were fighting England for continental and international dominance. The French had gone into debt to finance the Seven Years’ War with England and the desire for revenge had propelled them into another war, using America as their pawn.  All the French wanted to do was to slow the dominance of the British Empire but the law of unintended consequences came into effect: as a result of supporting the American cause and humiliating the British, the nation was bankrupt and there were severe food shortages with no money to pay for imported food.

The war fought for American independence, told from the French perspective, is unrecognizable to an American: the powerful and competent French won the war for the incompetent and stalemated Americans, but great cost financially. The difficulty of recovering from a costly war is a also modern problem, and, even today, recovering from the expense of a war can easily take a decade. For example, it took America some twenty years to recover from the expense of the Vietnam War, hence the prosperity of the 1990s. But France was reeling from the impact of climate change, and the nation was a largely feudal nation faced with the coming of modern capitalism but still lacking the modern financial instruments to solve their problems. Then, as now, no one wanted to be taxed to pay for the war, even a war that was so full of celebrated and adored heroes, such as Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Layfayette. The war had to be paid for and the King was persuaded to call representatives of the people together to work out a workable tax system to pay for the war.

The philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had taken such a hold on the imagination of the ruling class that the King was forced to bend to the logic of “natural law” and “natural rights.” An amateur watch maker, Louis XVI seemed to genuinely want to be the kind of good ruler demanded by the Enlightenment and he made he mistake of calling together the Estates General, a representative body with a medieval ancestry. The Estates General, which had not been called since 1616, consisted of the First Estate, the nobles, the Second Estate, the clergy, and the Third Estate, the middle class. The representatives were supposed to solve the problems of France by raising taxes on the people, but the men who gathered together began to imagine a new system of government entirely. The problem was that the three estates had equal votes and the first and second estates aligned themselves against the third estate. After six weeks of contention, the Third Estate pulled out and declared themselves the National Assembly, meeting on a tennis court, jeu de paume, to take an oath to stay together until, like the Americans, they wrote a Constitution. In the end, rather than helping the King solve the problems of the nation, this distaff group eventually deposed the monarchy. Once painter the the aristocrats, Jacques Louis David, depicted the dramatic moment of the oath taking, showing the excitement of runaway emotion and demonstrating his flexibility in the face of a changing client base.

Jacques-Louis David. The Tennis Court Oath (1791)

The word of the hour was “citizen,” which also meant patriot or someone who served the patrie or nation, not the King. Originally intended to be an inclusive term, it would later be an excluding term.  While the aristocrats limited their revolutionary gestures to divesting themselves of their titles (not their lands or wealth) and privileges, the sans coulottes (who did not wear breeches and hose but the long trousers of the working class male) desperately needed help. It is one thing to be unhappy with your rulers; it is another thing entirely to be hungry with no prospects for change. The French Revolution began in 1789, the same year the Americans were writing a Constitution, opening dramatically on July 14 with the storming of the Bastille, an infamous but largely empty prison. From the start, the Revolution was an unstable entity, driven by mob anger, which led to the Terror of 1793-94.  The transfer of power from the aristocrats to the middle class ended with the execution of the King and Queen and the annihilation of  a large portion of the aristocratic class. Thousands of people, the wealthy, the well-born, and their servants died under the new invention, the guillotine, at the hands of a blood thirsty mob. Indeed, many of those titled men who had so passionately supported the Revolution lost their heads to a new invention, the guillotine, because, as aristocrats, they could never be “citizens.”

As though the regicide of the King loosened something in the French people, the year of the execution of Louis XVI opened the Reign of Terror under the auspices of the Revolutionary Tribunal over 30, 000 people perished under the blade of the guillotine. The instrument of Terror was the Committee of Safety, where the major leaders of the Revolution, Robespierre, Danton, and Sainte-Juste, took away all of the rights won by the early years of the Revolution and reinstalled all of the oppressive practices of the monarchy. The reasons for setting up this deadly tribunal were, according to Sophie Wahnich, was to turn the attentions of the French people from unruly vengeance to the task of defending the Revolution against the European powers threatening to invade France and end the Revolution. But there were enemies within as well who much be purged so that the people could see that the leaders were preventing “injustice.” As Wahnich wrote in 2012 In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, 

The Terror presupposed quick action so as to defeat the enemies before they destroyed the Revolution so that the people would not be disgusted by injustice, and wold not have to take up unheeding injury in their exercise of the sovereign exception, and to effectively restrain this founding sovereignty. The exercise of Terror was thus a race against time. It was undoubtedly here that the project became impossible:to give the expected justice a form that was at the same time controlled–and do so at lightening speed.

The French were unfortunate in their leaders, or rather, their lack of real leadership or moral or ethical guidance. This revolution thrust up rabble-rousers and demagogues, ambitious and unscrupulous men, all determined to ride the wave of revolution into greater power. In the end, they all wound up victims of the very rage they had stirred up.  Although the notorious Committee of Safety was in charge, no one was in control. There were only those who aroused the mod, like Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, Georges Jacques Danton, and Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Juste. The result was that the Revolution ran wild as the lower classes vented their anger on the aristocrats and ordinary people, during the years known as the Terror from 1793 to 1795. As Robespierre thundered, “Softness to traitors will destroy us all.” Actually Robespierre was involved in an internal struggle among the revolutionaries over who would control the Revolution and he attempted to ride the tiger he set loose. As every demagogue finds out, it is dangerous to unleash the passions of the mod, because the same crowd that lifted him up can cast him down. Marat was assassinated, Robespierre  and Saint-Juste, “the archangel of the Revolution,” were executed in the Thermidorian Reaction, Danton created the Committee of Public Safety and then warned that the Revolution was spiraling out of control, only to be executed by the Committee he founded.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. Louis Antoine de Saint-Juste (1793)

The French Revolution degenerated into horror. Added to surveillance, spying and denunciation were massacres, mass executions and near genocide of a single class.  In the end the leaders of the mob all went to that instrument of a human and “democratic” death, the guillotine. The question is when did the French Revolution end? Unlike the American Revolution, there was no moment of victory or surrender but a slow and disorderly internal struggle with in the new “government” formed in 1795, the Directory, to retain power among themselves and to keep the “mod,” still hungry and still angry and still powerless, under control. The “official” end, if there was one, was the Coup of Brumaire in 1799. Under the leadership of Director Emmanuel Joseph Sieyés, who installed an undefeated general, named Napoléon Bonaparte, he though was controllable and Pierre-Roger Ducos, who had supported him in the Coup. The three formed the Consulate and the military took control.

The rest, as they say, is history. The power vacuum left behind by the killing of the king was to be filled by a new leader, who could bring order out of chaos by protecting the French from the European armies, which were advancing towards the country to put an end to the savage rebellion and restore the monarchy. Napoléon Bonaparte waited politely for three years before he removed his fellow counsels and reinstalled the idea of total power being held by one man, ending the goals and the ideals of a Revolution gone wrong.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.
[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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