When Louis XVI was enthroned in 1774, the currents of European favour were running fresh and strong for ‘enlightened despotism’. France had nearly three times the population of England, great agricultural resources, an upwardly mobile textile industry, splendid roads and canals, a large, successful fleet, and a foreign trade which had increased by 500% since the death of Louis XIV (the ‘Sun King’ who set France on her feet, but also built the Palace of Versailles). But France was troubled with deeply grave domestic problems. It was believed she was threatened with bankruptcy. She lacked social equality, a reasonable taxation, political freedom, and an efficient government. The evils of privilege invaded every part of political life, from local mayors to senators. The Church, the nobles, the provincial estates and administrations, the trade associations and guilds were privileged.
Privilege polluted Justice, pushed the main burden of taxation on to the shoulders of the poor (of which there were many), and kept the more intelligent of the comparatively new middle class citizens out of high positions in the army, navy, church and the magistrature. Priests and bishops paid no taxes, and had a reputation for vice. The nobles did not live on their estates, leaving them to be managed by poorly paid, usually corrupt servants. They lived in Paris, and some hardly knew where their estates were. They took their rents and feudal dues, and, as there was no need to fight off enemies, had forgotten the ancient tradition by which nobles are required to defend their country.
Of course there were exceptions. There were some good, improving landlords among the nobility, especially in the Vendée, where the aristocracy lived on their estates in the English style, keeping the devotion of their dependents. This would be proved later. The Revolution happened because the King was unable to solve the question of privilege. He was not strong enough, or interested enough, to overthrow what was left of feudalism, which in France, as in most other continental countries, held the land.
Another reason was the food supply system, not yet reinforced by the potato. In spite of all the agricultural wealth of France, and the brilliant luxury of her upper classes, many sections of the population were often subjected to starvation. But this was not due to enforced industrialisation, as in England. Paris the capital had 750,000 inhabitants, but her methods of industry, as well as agriculture were mostly mediaeval.
The proletariat of the French Revolution was not made up of nomadic and uprooted factory workers (as it almost was in England). It was composed of disorganized, dispirited, depressed, potentially lethal domestic workers and agricultural peasants. This kind of society had no complaint against capitalism as such, or against private ownership of land. It wanted bread, but due to archaic systems of cultivation, and internal customs duties, it were not always able to get it. The consequences of this were serious – bread riots, and in large towns and most country districts, a great mass of embittered destitution. Somebody had to be blamed, and the easiest was the King, Louis XVI, and his foreign wife. Louis had every private virtue, honesty, piety, friendliness, good sense – but he could not govern. He needed clearness of mind, purpose, a sense of opportunity, steady application to work; of these he had none. From 1755 to 1793 he allowed himself to drift with the tide. His Austrian wife Marie Antoinette was an unpopular symbol (for the French) of a hateful alliance with a foreign country. To the statesmen, she was an example of frivolity at Court, and expense to the country’s purse. Her beauty and charm did not help at all. She was proud, and unable to conciliate. To the critics of the Régime, Marie Antoinette was the sirena who was drawing the ship of state towards the rocks.
On August 8, 1788, in the middle of fears, suspicions and hopes, the King called the parliament of France, called ‘The States-General’, for the following year, and recalled the Swiss banker Necker to try to re-organise the country’s finances, as indeed he had done from 1739 to 1781. But no great or even interesting reform had ever come from this old-fashioned body. Necker hoped the States-General would provide money with which to reduce the deficit and balance the budget. But no plan for constitutional reform had been prepared, nor any directions for the guidance of an inexperienced assembly of 1200 men.
Once assembled at Versailles, the members of the Third Estate (anyone who was neither noble no clerical) met together in a spirit of excitement and hope. At last they were equal in numbers to the nobility and the clergy. They were determined to make France the envy and model of the world. They were not disposed to tolerate any opposition from the privileged orders. They declared a National Assembly (June 10 1789) and said they would not separate until they had given a new constitution to France. After all, they thought, the Americans had hammered out a constitution in peaceful but hard-working circumstances at Philadelphia. But Paris was not peaceful. The members of the Assembly worked always with the sinister presence of the Paris mob at their gates. It would be hard enough to reform the ancient structure of the monarchy, and there were groups in the Assembly who had no wish to give any concessions to ‘the people’, who they considered worse than muck. They persuaded the King to dismiss Necker, a protestant, reformer, and nouveau riche, as well as foreign.
The Paris mob reacted on July 14, 1789 by storming the Bastille after plundering the palace of the Invalides. It was the prosperous middle class of Paris that financed and organised the destruction, probably seeing Necker as their main hope, and furious at his sacking. The Bastille was traditionally a jail for political prisoners, but the mob found very few, and one of these asked to be returned to his cell, where he was ‘very comfortable’ The spirit of the Revolution caused the mob to murder the garrison and its governor. The French Revolution started with a terrible crime, but the mob had scented blood, and was anxious for more.
Throughout Europe, however, the fall of the Bastille was seen as the end of tyranny and arbitrary imprisonment. It ‘heralded the age of Freedom’. Great music was composed, and the new National Hymn was sung. The Paris Commune was set up, and the National Guard (in which many murderous criminals were enlisted) became a People’s Army. Crowd rule of the cities began.
The eclipse of the monarchy was complete. The King was forced in public to praise the fall of the Bastille, to sack Necker, then recall him! The King was forced to wear the new tricolour cockade (devised by a Frenchman, Lafayette, who had taken part in the liberation of America from the British). Paris thought that the King was best in Paris, not at Versailles, where the National Guard could watch him and his hated wife. In October Lafayette and the Guard brought the royal family back from Versailles to Paris, and virtual imprisonment in the Tuileries.
After the fall of the Bastille everything was chaos. The administration, the army, the navy; the peasants set fire to their employers’ houses and lands, thus stopping their own source of bread. The People believed themselves to be the new owners of France. They saw themselves as free to regulate the Church, the Army and the Navy, to make laws and collect taxes. No power was available to make impositions on their National Assembly. They could even change the names of the Seasons and change Dates!
Against the seductive force of this democratic logic the voices of moderation and wisdom couldn’t operate. The belief in the essential goodness of human nature which was the fount of these theories was in fact the source of the terrible disasters which now began to assault France. The desperate need for authority was drowned in enthusiasm for democratic freedom. Who could be in authority if all were equal?
Below the level of the bourgeoisie was a proletariat, starved in mind and body, brutalised by neglect and unequal laws, a gathering of criminals, smugglers, murderers and aprovechadores. When King and Assembly moved to Paris, real power fell into the hands of the members of the political clubs, the most important being the Jacobins, soon to become the real rulers of France. To the operations of these revolutionary middle-class bodies, who brought the Terror to France and fostered mutiny in the armed forces, there was no opposition.
History will always be interested in people like Mirabeau, adventurer, statesman, demagogue, self-publicist, as the man who tried to check the mounting forces of anarchy and the save the crown of France. He thought that only a strong executive could keep France from falling into the abyss, But where was the strength to be found? Not in the King, nor his older brother, nor in Lafayette, that vain, incompetent, proud man who governed the National Guard. It was Lafayette who concluded that nothing could be done with the Assembly in Versailles. He secretly proposed to the royal family that they should retire to Rouen, in Normandy. But it didn’t really matter where the King was. France was already a republic. And the constitution that at last emerged from the saucepan of debate kept that anarchical dispersion of powers which the Assembly had founded, and not about to correct. Now real power existed only in the form of municipalities which paid those taxes that they chose to charge. Democracy at last!
Then came the revolution’s attacks on the Church. The anti-clerical Assembly voted to abolish Church taxes, suppress al religious orders, confiscate all church property, release all monks and nuns from their vows (whether they wanted to or not). Priests were to be greatly reduced in number. Chief of all the reforms was the requirement that bishops should be chosen by the electors of a departement and local priests by the local district Assembly. Thus Catholic priests and bishops might be chosen by laymen who might be protestants or even atheists. It was inevitable that the Pope in Rome should condemn the reform, which he promptly did. No mistake made by the Constituent Assembly was as great as this one, because it affected the religious convictions of the people. Some priests and bishops accepted, but many did not, especially in the Vendée and in Bretagne. Thus the Revolution created a strong dissident section of the population. These were the prêtres insermentés – the priests who risked imprisonment and death rather than obey the new laws.
The royal prisoners in Paris watched all this helplessly. The Jacobins became more and more violent, the Press incited the people to further bloodshed. The Assembly gave in to everything proposed by the mob. The royal family decided after being turned away from Mass by en excited mob (Easter 1791) that they must escape to the frontier. Before leaving, the King signed a document denying any constitutional reforms he may have been forced to recommend. But the fugitives were caught at Varennes (June 21). The people now thought their King a traitor to the Revolution, an émigré, a friend of the unsworn priests and a fomenter of civil war. When the new Constitution was at last completed (September 14, 1791) the Assembly put and end to its own existence, Already by its own renuncia it had decreed its members incapable of election to the new legislature. Sacrificing the experience which had been gathered by two years of intense political work, the makers of the first French constitution were ready to entrust its working to inexperienced and untried men. Nothing turned out according to plan. It was the end of the dying Assembly, which believed in Liberté, Fraternité and Égalité. Now the path was ready for anarchy, more tyranny than ever before, the beginnings of civil war and the Terror. Leadership`of the new assembly was taken by a group`of eloquent young men of the middle class called the Girondins, because most of them came from the south-western part of France called the Gironde. They posses a glowing enthusiasm for the republican idea, and a missionary desire to spread it beyon the borders of France. Upon these middle class men must fall most of the responsibility for a long and terrible war, which destroyed Richelieu’s system and left France a feeble member of European society. At this time the chief enemy of the revolution appeared to be the emigré, the non-sworn priest and the Austrian Emperor, (technically until 1804 Archduke of Austria and until 1806 Holy Roman Emperor) Leopold of Austria who said it was French encouragement that led to a similar revolution in Belgium, of German princes dispossed of their rights in Alsace, of Avignon taken by the Pope, of the new and unfortunate idea that the people of a country have the right to determine things for themselves. His sister the Queen of France was begging Leopold to summon all other European countries to come to France’s aid, with armed force. After the arrest at Varennes, Leopold issed a declaration with the King of Prussia which seemed to threaten France with European action if King Louis was not awarded the treatment he deserved, as King. Soon he began organising an invasion but before he could achieve it, he suddenly died. His successor Francis, you and vigorous, took up the challenge of the Girondins. The Girondins were not afraid, and swept into war with Austria and Prussia (April 20, 1792). Then the French discovered that if revolutionary France was to be effectively protected againsty the monarchies of unreformed Europe, King Louis XVI must cease to reign, and France must submit to a severe form of tyranny. The war led to the fall of the monarchy, the establishment of the Republic, and finally to the formation of the Government of the Terror. But the army was no good. How could the war be made to succeed whiloe Louis was till king, was a friend of the enemy, was married to the sister of the enemy, was dismissing his Girondin ministers, and secretly encouraging the enemy?
The Prussian army was advancing on Paris. Its leader threatened destruction of the great city if the King of France were to be harmed. It was at this moment that a great revolutionary leader emerged. This was Danton, who led an attack on the Tuileries (August 10, 1792), hacking the loyal Swiss Guards to pieces, and taking the King and Queen into real imprisonment. There were mass murders in the prisons, ordered by Danton and Fouquier-Tinville- the Public Prosecutor. The guillotine was set up in the squares and plazas of Paris and all the major cities. At Bordeaux the revolutionaries put their enemies into large boats, which were towed out to sea. Once a suitable distance from the coast, bungs were removed from the bottom of these old ships, and the people left to drown. Danton wanted to make sure that a counter-Revolution could not take place. The massacre of aristocrats and the confiscation of their lands began. The Girondins were nearly all sent to the scaffold too. Leadership of the people by the Jacobins was guaranteed. On January 21, 1793, the French executed the King, and later the Queen. This vicious act of regicide brought Britain into the war against revolutionary France. The Terror had begun.
In Paris Robespierre’s Year marks the peak of the Jacobin Terror. The man was like Lenin, a fanatical believer in his own inspired text. The violence of his views, the ease and malevolence of his speeches, his great dexterity in the arts of political management, made him from the first a leader of the Jacobins. He had for every dissenter from his own narrow creed a simple remedy; the guillotine. In April Danton himself and Desmoulins, both members of the Club went to the knife. But Robespierre went too far with his Law of the 22 Prairial, which threatened the life of every member of the Convention, because the immunity of the legislators was removed, and the last feeble safeguards for the protection of persons were swept away. Friends and enemies of Robespierre conspired against him, including Barras and Tallien. On July 28, 1794 (9 Thermidor on the Republican Calendar), the Hôtel de Ville where Robespierre held his office was attacked by men armed to the teeth. Robespierre fought, and had his jaw broken by a bullet wound, but he was still captured and dragged to face his own guillotine.
The nightmare was over. In Paris alone the Terror had cost the lives of over two thousand six hundred victims. Not all were aristocrats. The agricultural classes and the miners who had opposed the Revolution were also slaughtered. The Jacobin Club was closed, recalled the Girondins, or what was left of them. Terrorism was banished, but the Revolution stood firm. France was a Republic. Barras became Director of a form of government called the Directoire.It was Barras who ‘discovered’ a young Corsican army officer called Napoleon Buenaparte, who had distinguished himself at the Siege of Toulon. Napoleon was made a general of the Interior, and in the next year he received, again with the support of Barras, the all-important Italian Command, as well as the hand of Josephine Beauharnais.
Conclusion: All revolutions, including the French and Russian, are caused by the middle classes, often using the power of a well-led, but badly-fed working class to dispose of enemies. France had been ruled by despots for too long. There was no sign of a liberal, or more liberal Constitution which might protect the lives and interests of ALL French people, not just the privileged few. Therefore there was every reason for a revolution. But people are human beings, and there were plenty of people who, originally well-intentioned, sought to use the Revolution as a means to assume personal power – infinitely more power than that originally held by the nobles, the church, or the Monarchy. Danton was a better man than Robespierre, but weaker. It is always the Robespierres of this world that triumph – for a while, and later fall under the weight of their own ambition.