French Revolution


The eighteenth century in Europe had its dynastic wars, witnessed a great colonial struggle throughout the rest of the world between France and Britain and the birth of the United States of America. To the majority of Europe’s inhabitants whose homes were not on the routes of armies, life had been peaceful and, to those with fortunes or talents above the average and who accepted society as it was, it had probably been a great deal more pleasant than any other period of history, and certainly more secure.

Yet the last decade of this century was to see all Europe in ferment, wars raging continually across the Continent, men in their hundreds and thousands conscripted or press-ganged into armies or navies which fought each other with a savagery and courage never before seen. Men, even ordinary men, at the end of what is called the Age of Reason, were haunted by spirits and visions of human liberty and fraternity, of conquest, of will to resist oppression and of despair. Not even the great Goethe with his love of poetry and science, and his secure position as minister and favourite of a German princeling, could live untroubled by these spectres. The cause of this was the French Revolution which began in 1789.

One of the underlying causes of the French Revolution was that men rejected the Absolute Monarchy inaugurated by Louis XIV in 1660. In its time it had not served France badly and towards the end of the eighteenth century she was a rich country with a flourish­ing foreign trade and Empire, with the most skilled artisan class in the world, and a productive agriculture. But government by an Absolute Monarch was clearly an anachronism; the sacredness of royal and episcopal authority had been destroyed by the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau and of the French Encyclopedistes. Intel­lectuals looked to England with its constitution and freedom which allowed a sect such as the Quakers to flourish and permitted men to speak openly against war.

Underlying the political questions were more fundamental ones. The middle-classes could no longer bear the insolence of the nobles who looked down on them, again a difference between France and England which was acutely felt, and they detested the fiscal privileges of the Church. High posts in the Army and the Church were denied to the middle classes. The peasants were hungry for land and furious at the survival of feudal rights. There were other grievances obscurely but powerfully felt. When the Revolution got under way it became far more than a political struggle.

The actual cause of the outbreak of the Revolution was over quite a humdrum matter, how was the King of France to ensure that he had enough money to govern the country and maintain his court.

Owing to a succession of financial crises, King Louis XVI decided in 1788 to summon a kind of national Parliament called the Estates General, a body which had not met since 1614 and which formed no part of the system of Absolute Monarchy. But this step was unlikely to prove successful, for the Estates General represented precisely those parts of French society which held themselves to be immune from taxation or, if not immune, highly privileged.

Had the nobles and the clergy who formed two of the Estates General allowed themselves to be taxed, and had the magistrates of the local parliaments, the squires and small landowners who formed the Third Estate, not held so fiercely to the privileges, fiscal and other of the regions they belonged to, there would have been no financial crisis in spite of the cost of past wars and of the extravagance of the Court.

When the Estates General met in 1789 there was an immediate refusal of consent to a system of national taxation. The Third Estate was as adamant as were the nobles and clergy. A majority of the members of the Third Estate, and some of the nobles and clergy felt in their bones that what was under discussion was how to give France a new, more representative constitution with the monarch subordinated to a real national parliament. They were in fact aware of the wind of change which had been blowing through France for the past fifty years. So when the proceedings seemed likely to amount to nothing but wrangles between the three Estates and the Royal Ministers, the Third Estate suddenly declared itself to be a National Assembly.

At a meeting which took place in the tennis court at Versailles on 20 June, 1789, most of the Third Estate and some nobles and clergy took an oath never to separate until they had given France a constitution. King Louis XVI had most of the private virtues; he was well intentioned, at times liberal minded. But he was a weak vacillating character. After the oath in the tennis court, he listened to his Court and to his Austrian-born Queen, Marie Antoinette, and brought two regiments into Versailles.

It was then that there occurred the event which started the French Revolution, the date of which marks to-day the National Day of the French Republic. On 14 July, a Paris mob, stirred up by the oath of the tennis court and the king’s counter-move, stormed the royal fortress of the Bastille and massacred the garrison which had surrendered on safe conduct. When, in his Palace at Versailles, the king heard the news, he turned to the Duke of Liancourt and said: “This looks like a very serious revolt.” “No, Sir,” answered the Duke, “it is a Revolution.”

Indeed in three and a half years from that date, the king and Marie-Antoinette and several members of his family were to be guillotined. For more than two years, France, particularly Paris, was to undergo the regime known as the Terror, and revolutionary France was to be at war with all dynastic Europe.

The taking of the Bastille could have been an event in itself of insignificant importance (there had been -plenty of riots during the hundred and thirty years of the Absolute Monarchy), but in fact this mob action revealed the second layer, as it were, of the movement for change which had been long gaining strength. The reformers, the writers and intellectuals whose works amused and were admired by the Court, were the first wave which overwhelmed the intellectual defences of the monarchy and of the bishops; underneath was a revolutionary passion for change, the leaders of which were comparatively unknown middle-class lawyers, merchants or even soldiers, tired of being ridiculed and kept in their places by the nobles, who were determined to end a regime of arbitrary imprisonment as well as arbitrary taxation. And the overwhelming majority of the nation followed their leaders, determined no longer to be subjects of the King of France, but citizens of France.

During the night of 14 July the proletariat of Paris, women and children among them, with all the criminals and desperadoes who were the hommes de main of the extreme revolutionaries, the Jacobins, danced in the light of torches round the severed heads of three nobles stuck up on spikes.

During the rest of 1789 and 1790 there was growing anarchy and disorder. Theldng, and the self-constituted National Assembly of the tennis court, were moved from Versailles to Paris. In an extraordinary session of the Assembly, representatives of the nobility voluntarily surrendered all their feudal rights over their peasantry, rights which were in fact not often exercised such as that of the disposal of young girls in marriage and the often-quoted obligation of peasants to beat the ponds near the Chateaux to stop the croaking of frogs.

But this did not stop the Revolution; in the country peasants seized the lands of the nobles, particularly if the absentee nobility lived at the Court. Nobles whose houses had been set on fire started to emigrate and one of the first was the king’s brother, the Count of Artois, destined to return to Paris in 1814 as King Louis XVIII. For a while Mirabeau, a moderate reformer, attempted to save the monarchy and had it not been for the folly of some Royalists who wanted to wreck any constitution it might have been possible to have persuaded the National Assembly, the most sensible and moderate France was to have for a long time, to have created a constitution which would have retained the monarchy shorn of its absolute power and a government which would have restored order. But Mirabeau died suddenly.

In September, 1791, the National Assembly finished drawing up the constitution, dissolved itself and, unwisely, decreed that none of its members, now experienced in parliamentary affairs, should sit in the new parliament. The constitution was in many respects reasonable. It abolished all the hated feudal exactions and it legalized the taking over of land by the peasants. There was a place for a constitutional king wearing the red, white and blue cockade who would serve the cause of liberty, equality and fraternity. The land and wealth of the Church was confiscated and the clergy high and low were to be State servants. This was not altogether unacceptable, for the Church in France had long depended on the French monarchy.

What provoked strong anti-revolutionary feelings among Catholics, particularly in the west of France, was that priests were henceforward to be elected by laymen who might well be atheists. An impracticable aspect of the new constitution was that the power of the government elected by the Assembly was to be severely checked on all sides, whilst the municipalities directly elected by the people were to have the right to decide what taxes should be levied in their areas and to exercise control over the National Guard.

Before the Constitution appeared and the Assembly was dissolved, the king had committed among many errors a fatal one. At Easter, 1791, he and the queen had been prevented by a mob from taking communion in a private chapel at St Cloud. As a result of this experience he and his family made a badly organized attempt in June to escape from France in a private coach and were captured by the National Guard at Varennes and taken back to the Tuileries under escort.

A year later, after many indignities and just before the election for the new Assembly, the Jacobin Commissar Danton ordered the attack on the Tuileries at which the king’s Swiss Guards were killed almost to a man and the king and his family taken as prisoners to Le Temple. And it was Danton who, a few days later, arranged for the slaughter of all the Royalists in Paris prisons, a measure by which he forced the majority of Paris citizens who were inclined to avoid trouble to realize that too much blood had been shed by the Revolution for any opposition to it to be anything but bloody.

It was from Le Temple on 21 January, 1793, that the king and his family went to their public executions. At the execution of Charles I in 1649, a groan went up from the crowd when the king’s head was severed. Cheers greeted the executioners when they held up the gory head of the ci-devant Louis to the dancing and singing crowds.

The new government was known as that of the Girondins from the fact that some of its leaders came from the Bordeaux region. Although the emigre nobles clustering on the French frontiers of the north clamoured for a war of revenge, neither the Emperor of Austria nor the King of Prussia were anxious to fight. Both, after 1791, threatened France with combined action if Louis XVI was ill-treated; but both were far more actuated by a feeling of satisfaction that a strong France no longer existed to have its say in German policy and to threaten the Austrian hold of Flanders; both too had their eyes on Poland, which was about to be invaded by the Empress Catherine of Russia and be finally partitioned between the three central powers.

The Girondin government, however, forced war by demanding that the Elector of Treves should at once dismiss the French emigres gathered at Coblenz. Although France was disorganized, the Girondins were confident of success and believed that the peoples of Europe would rise to help the revolutionary cause. They even believed for a while that in the struggle against the autocracies England, the country whose constitution they admired, would be with them.

In spite of a rising in Belgium against the Austrians as soon as the French armies arrived, the war went badly and the French were swept out of Belgium and, a little later, a Prussian army under the Duke of Brunswick invaded France from the east. But at Valmy his army suddenly lost heart and retreated. At Jemmappes in Belgium the French general Dumoriez won a resounding victory. All this together with the seizure of Savoy and Nice by the French armies took place in the autumn of 1792, when the king was imprisoned.

Determined to secure Austrian Belgium, the French armies then proclaimed, in spite of an international treaty, that the Scheldt was open to navigation and incited the people of Holland to form a republic. It was this step which was to lead Britain into the coalition against France, for the elimination of Antwerp as a rival to London and keeping the Low Countries out of the grasp of France was a cardinal maxim of British foreign policy.

By the spring of 1793, after the execution of the king, the military victories of the Republic were shown to be flimsy.

William Pitt the Elder had been reluctant to bring Britain into the war for, although Burke and some Tories were the enemies of the Revolution from the beginning, British opinion was divided. Pitt would like to have had his hands free to save Poland from partition. But the threat of Antwerp, combined with the murder of the king, brought Britain into a war with France which was, with a few years of truce, to last until 1815. Spain and Holland joined the side of the Republic’s enemies; Royalist revolts broke out in the Catholic Vendee of Brittany and in the region of Lyons; the British fleet seized Toulon; France’s best general, Dumoriez, disgusted with the growing Terror in Paris, went over to the King of Prussia.

But the tide turned again and the summer of 1793 began a memorable year for the Republic. The Austrians were soundly defeated at Wattignies and Fleures; Holland was invaded and a handful of French cavalry galloped to Texel and compelled the Dutch fleet to surrender; all internal revolts were put down and Toulon recaptured from the British: not a foreign soldier remained on French soil and a friendly republic was created in the Low Countries.

Three things partly explain this miracle: first the pre-occupation of Austria and Prussia with Poland; secondly the sympathy of the peoples of the Low Countries with the Revolution; and thirdly the fact that the French army was not as disorganized as it was supposed to be and, in any case, enough professional soldiers remained to act as a trained nucleus for the hordes of enthusiastic recruits who poured into it as part of the levee en masse.

The first national army in fact was called into being by Robespierre, the Jacobin leader, who had taken over power from the Girondins and before these enthusiastic soldiers, the well-drilled but tepid-spirited soldiers of the dynasties proved inferior. Unlike the eighteenth-century armies, these citizen armies lived off the countries which they had once liberated and looted. They were highly mobile, their baggage trains were reduced to a minimum. The use of artillery was perfected. The military semaphore was first used so that Paris learnt of the victory at Fleures long before Vienna learned of the defeat.

It was during this memorable year of victory that the Terror was at its height in Paris. Robespierre, the prim, virtuous fanatical lawyer from Arras, was a believer in totalitarian government. Girondins along with Royalists were ruthlessly butchered, and soon his great rival Danton who had advocated a return to clemency in the hour of victory passed under the guillotine. Robespierre was a believer not only in the great and pure republic but in the Supreme Deity, and soon members of the Convention, as the Assembly was now called, were executed for atheism or for anarchic opinions.

In July, 1794, Robespierre and the Paris Commune were overthrown by the more moderate revolutionaries and, with his jaw fractured by a bullet and covered in blood, Robespierre was dragged on to the scaffold in his turn. The era of guillotine and the Terror was over. The number of its victims was estimated to have been some three thousand in Paris and perhaps twice that number for the rest of France.

The moderate revolutionaries, Dantonists and Girondins, who now ruled Paris had still to fear internal enemies in the capital— the Reds of the Paris Commune, the supporters of Robespierre and the well-to-do classes who had supplied the forces necessary to overthrow Robespierre. A democratic constitution was still impossible and in 1795 the Convention, the National Assembly charged with revising the constitution set up in 1792, which sat as a sort of permanently revolutionary body, was twice attacked from the Left.

The Directory of five men, the most able of whom was Barras, was now to govern, in the name of the Revolution, for four years with a facade of democracy in the shape of a Parliament with two chambers elected on a limited franchise, membership of which was restricted to members of the old Convention who had voted for the execution of the king in 1793. In October, 1795, cries of Vive le Roi were heard in the streets of Paris, and if it was true that only one man in a hundred and thirty had actively backed the Terror, it was possible that the passive minority were now capable of overthrowing the Revolution.

Twenty-six thousand men in Paris were said to be preparing to attack the regicides of the Directory. It was then that Barras decided to entrust the defence of the regime in Paris to a young artillery general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had distinguished himself at the siege of Toulon. Napoleon sent one of his then unknown lieutenants, Murat, post-haste to bring cannon into the city. On 3 October a prompt and savage cannonade, “the whiff of grape-shot”, dispersed the expected riots. The young general was given command of the army in Italy.

The Revolution did not give France a democratic Republic, and after the fall of Napoleon the Bourbons returned to rule France for fifteen years and the liberal monarchy of Louis-Philippe was to last until 1848. And even then the second French Republic was to last barely three years and to give way to the Second Empire of Napoleon III. What the revolutionary period and the Empire did was to make the French people conscious of being a nation.

If in terms of creating a democratic political organization the Revolution failed, it nonetheless ensured that France was to become a country which stood for political liberty and human rights. It gave the French people the motion that three great universal principles, liberty, equality and fraternity, were specifically French. So just as Joan of Arc gave the French monarchy and France the feeling that France had a divine mission, that to fight against France was to fight against God, so the Revolution enabled the French to believe that France was the source of human enlightenment and the enemies of France were inevitably the agents of reaction and the enemies of humanity.

These two conceptions have co-existed and continue to do so in the soul of the French people.

Because of Napoleon’s conquests, the French Revolution became for the rest of the world inextricably mixed up with a new attempt to unify Europe under French hegemony. Yet it had a much more profound effect on men’s minds. After the French Revolution there were long to be more or less absolute monarchies in Europe. But the doctrine that man was born a subject, that his main duty was to serve his prince, was nowhere accepted by any large body of intelligent opinion in Europe.

Individual men had the right to the pursuit to happiness. Men were born equals. The French Revolution meant that throughout Europe the idea of a nation, of a group of people who feel they belong together, triumphed over the conception that groups of people belong, as a result of marriages and conquests of dynasts, to other groups with whom they have no racial or linguistic affinity. European liberalism and nationalism both have thus their roots in the events which began in 1789. So the French Revolution is a great dividing line in world history, and Goethe, who was with the Prussian army at Valmy and saw this army retreat before the revolutionary forces of France, was right to say to a group of officers: “From this place and from this day begins a new era in the world’s history: and you can all say that you were present at its birth,”

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