A Debate On The French Revolution, Good or Bad?
A Debate On The French Revolution, Good or Bad?
Fengyu Li 22/7/19
Even though the French Revolution caused great anarchy and adversity during its time, the undeniable fact remains that it has a profound impact on the world, still continuing today, centuries after its ultimate end. Showing the world the power that resides within the will of the people.
The French Revolution started out as a just rebellion featuring third-class peasants and workers wanting a more equal socio-political system that did not endorse only the upper classes. ‘The Revolution set out to replace them with a new social and political order, at once simple and more uniform, based on the equality of all men.’(Alexis De Tocqueville, 2010, p.20) Represented by its motto “liberte, egalite, fraternite”, that eventually spread across Europe and quite possibly the world. Inspiring the oppressed of the idea that they deserved more.
Absolute monarchy was common during the time of the French Revolution, the people were never treated fairly. However, France was in a particularly problematic situation. After the events of the Seven Years War and the American Revolutionary War, the French government was deeply in debt. Attempting to remedy the situation a largely unpopular method of regressive taxation was employed. Further inflaming the resentment of the privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy and the Catholic clergy, as they lived lavishly while the peasants who already struggled to make ends meet were left with virtually nothing. Accuratly put into words by Jean Jaures: ‘There was not one action in rural life that did not require the peasants to pay a ransom… Feudal rights thus extended their clutches over every force of nature, everything that grew, moved, breathed […] even over the fire burning in the oven to bake the peasant’s poor bread.’(1901) Bad harvest years due to inadequate regulation of the agricultural system and natural disasters only added fuel to the flame.
Befuddled and desperate for a solution, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the estates general where representatives from the three estates could vote and solve the problems of their country for the first time in 175 years. Even though the third estate represented 98% of the French population, its vote was equal to the two other estates, and both the upper classes preferred to keep their privileges. Realizing they wouldn’t be treated fairly, the third estate broke off and formed the National Assembly. Later, the revolutionaries took the Tennis Court Oath on the 20th of June, 1789, where they pledged to draft a new, equal constitution, with or without the other two estates. This new National Assembly included some of the most educated members of the third estate, most notably, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton as well as some members of higher social classes pining for change. Although the National Assembly was created to bring reform and refinement into the existing society, some felt that it wasn’t enough. As a result, the Jacobin club was created, where the members, one of which was Maximillien Robespierre, rooted for something more extreme, a revolution and complete removal of monarchy, an idea that spread like wildfire. A possible response from the King to the Jacobins was the discharge of popular finance minister Jacques Necker, who was fighting for equality and reformation himself. Because of this, the National Assembly established the National Guard, an autonomous force of police and troops.
As time passed, the tension between the National Assembly and the other two estates escalated. As rumors flew around the city about an impending military coup, the revolutionaries grew more fearful with the passing of each day, culminating on July 14th when angry Parisians joined by sympathetic soldiers stormed the Bastille Prison, a symbol of royal power and authority, in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weaponry.
The revolution had begun.
When the National Assembly heard about the violence that had taken place, some members were shocked and horrified as they wished to transform the society using peaceful means; however, the majority celebrated this action by deeming it courageous. In fact, many historians believe that this reaction was to blame for the utter violence and cruelty that became the legacy of the French Revolution. One of the main supporters of such acts of violence was Jean-Paul Marat. He began a fanatical newspaper The Friend of The People where he proposed to execute all nobility and privileged. Not surprising considering that he was an esteemed member of the Jacobin club. The newspaper succeeded in becoming one of the most popular papers during its time, as well as inciting great fear and anger within its readers. Meanwhile, in the National Assembly, a remarkable document that would go on to inspire the world of liberal ideas and equality amongst all men was being drafted, with help from a certain Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was published on 26th of August, 1789.
Despite the various improvements made by the revolution, peasants were still starving, and they decided that the King was to blame for their continuous suffering as he lived in a palace in Versailles, completely disconnected from the real world and their hardships, therefore as a result, he didn’t make an effort to improve their conditions. Thus commenced the Women’s March. A group of women in Paris, who were later joined by more revolutionaries and allies, eventually turning into a crowd of thousands, marched towards the city of Versailles, where they demanded an audience with the King. The King had no choice but to agree to share his power with the revolutionary government. He and his family were also forced to go back to Paris with the protesting crowd, officially removing the barrier between nobility and citizen.
In the following years, taxes would be raised on the other two estates, fewer people were starving, and it seemed like real change and refinement was indeed possible for the people of France. Little did they know, that the next page of the French Revolution would be stained in blood.
King Louis and his family were staying in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, where he found himself being used as a figurehead for the revolution, a puppet of the revolutionary government, stripped of any real power. At one point, he was even forced into wearing the revolutionary bonnet. Soon growing tiresome of his new treatment, King Louis decided to leave Paris and seek help from the homeland of his wife-Austria, where he could potentially formulate an army to invade France, defeat the revolutionary government and reclaim the country as his own. On the night of June 20th, 1791, the King and his family disguised themselves as servants and fled from Paris. Due to multiple difficulties along the way and constantly changing horses in fear of being discovered, the royal family was too late to join up with the military escorts that had been meant to guard them along the journey. In addition to this, the King who was disguised as a valet was recognized by several citizens that later alerted the National Guard. So when they arrived at their next stop-Varennes, the entire royal family was caught and immediately sent back to Paris.
This action shattered the people’s faith in the King. And extremists such as those in the Jacobin club were enraged and considered the King a traitor who should be executed. One month later, these radicals staged a protest, urging for the removal of the King. Fearing that an insurrection was brewing, the National Assembly sent out the National Guard to allay the heat. However, the conflict soon escalated, eventually resulting in a massacre. The National Guard that was supposed to protect and support the revolutionaries, murdered their own people. This tragedy reflected a growing division within the brotherhood of the revolution, one between moderates and extremists. While the moderates believed that a country could not function without a King who should be kept as at least a figurehead, the extremists believed that any anti-revolutionist should be removed, in this case, the King. But despite their many differences, the two parties did have one thing in common: they believed in equality of execution. Dr. Joseph Guillotine invented a supposedly painless and efficient way of execution-the guillotine. A heavy blade that beheads the victim, regardless of social class, gender or age. ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!’ (Charles Dickens, 1859)
As the number of violent revolts against local lords increased, nobilities around France were terrified of losing their titles, or worse, their heads. That is why many of them fled abroad, seeking refuge from other monarchs, as well as attempting to convince them to help put out the revolutionary flame. Although the neighboring monarchs might not have had the best interests in their hearts, they were concerned with the idea that the revolutionary spark might awaken the same ideals of equality amongst all men within their people, thereby destabilizing their throne. In fact, this is exactly what the National Assembly, now known as the Legislative Assembly thought before they abruptly decided to declare war upon Austria on April 1972, as they thought it was better to attack than to be attacked. This declaration launched a series of devastating military conflicts-The French Revolutionary Wars, in which blood was spurted all across the continent of Europe. Despite the various efforts made by the French army, not much progress was made. In fact, after the ally of Austria-Prussia joined in the fight, they were immediately pushed back, fruitless and defeated. After the victory made by the two allies, the Prussian Duke of Brunswick wrote the Brunswick Manifesto in July 1792, issued to the people of France, demanding the restoration of royal authority, as well as threatening to destroy the city of Paris along with its people if the slightest harm comes to the King.
The letter, originally purposed to intimidate, had the opposite effect on the people of France. They were enraged by the threat and on the 10th of August 1792, the Palace of Versailles was stormed by a huge crowd of citizens. Hundreds of lives were lost. King Louis fled and sought refuge in the chamber of the Legislative Assembly, a thoughtless mistake that he would soon come to regret. The Assembly took a vote to decide the treatment of the King, and unlike what he had expected, the Assembly decided that it was best to keep him as well as his wife in a prison cell, where an eye would be kept on them.
Receiving the news of the King’s arrest, the Duke of Brunswick decided to show the people of France that his letter wasn’t an empty threat. On the 20th of August 1792, the Brunswick army attacked, easily taking the northeastern fortresses of Longwy and Verdun.
The government of Paris, now under the influence of the radical sans-culottes who rooted for removal of monarchy and access to bread, began sending thousands of people suspected of having anti-revolutionary thoughts to prison. That included a huge part of the aristocracy, and Parisians feared that the prison may become a breeding ground for counterrevolutionary conspiracies. Inspired by the writings of Marat and other extremists, a group of armed citizens, both angry as well as terrified stormed the local prisons. It was a great tragedy, over 1000 prisoners were massacred, many of them being woman and children. All of this happened over the course of four days, starting on the 2nd of September, 1792. This historical event, also known as The First Terror, truly represented the violent nature of what the French revolution had become, and what fear and panic can do to humanity. ‘Are these “the Rights of Man”? Is this the LIBERTY of Human Nature?’ (London Times, September 10th, 1792)
The trial of the King had come, accused of treason against his country as well as the revolution. He was of course, found guilty, but there was a difference of opinion on his punishment. Many moderates thought that banishment was more appropriate, however, Robespierre insisted that the revolution could not live on if the King kept his head: ‘The king must die so that the country can live’(1972)
By the difference of just one vote, King Louis the XVI was sentenced to death. He was executed on the 21st of January, 1793. Soon his wife would meet the same fate.
Back at the borders, the invasions continued, however at the battle of Valmy, the French army made its first major victory in the war against Prussia, with the fight ending as a stalemate. Although neither party won the battle, the result did greatly boost the spirit of the French Army. Furthermore, the Prussians realized that the war was a great deal more costly than expected, so they retreated from France to preserve their army as well as their wealth. Soon after, the newly established National Convention, a successor of the Legislative Assembly officially abolished monarchy, declaring the foundation of the First French Republic on the 22nd of September, 1792. This new convention immediately started celebrating France’s new freedom by radically disposing everything from the old royalist regime: priests who did not demonstrate support of the revolution were arrested, a new atheistic religion call the Cult of Reason was created as a replacement for Catholicism, and churches were trashed and repurposed, even the Christin calendar didn’t survive. It would seem as if the original revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality were being replaced by fear, anger, cruelty, and terror.
As more countries such as the Great Britain joined in the war, the French Army had only one option-conscript the masses, each province of France had to provide a certain quota of men. However this did not go down well with the public, as many already believed that as the revolution turned more and more violent, their lives were better under monarchy rather than the revolutionary government, and asking them to fight for a government that they did not fully support or trust was the last straw. Suddenly, anti-revolutionary rebellions broke out all across France, some would last for years to come. One of these, at the Southern city of Tulon, gave an inexperienced young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte his first taste of victory, as he contributed to the siege of the city. This success served as a stepping stone for his climb up the military ladder. However, the most infamous and bloody uprising happened in the Vendee region. The deeply religious local army stirred up a whirlwind of discord, and was suppressed by the republican army in the most brutal way possible. Many historians would describe this event as a genocide. Tens of thousands of lives were lost. What’s even more inhuman about this event, was that women and children were the main targets of the “pacification”: ‘The Vendee is no more … According to your orders, I have trampled their children beneath our horses’ feet; I have massacred their women, so they will no longer give birth to brigands. I do not have a single prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated them all.’ (General Westermann to his political masters at the National Convention, 1793)
With more and more regional uprisings accompanied by a poor trajectory of the war and economy, radical’s fear for the downfall of the revolution intensified, with many blaming the moderates for their own faults. Marat even called for the execution of all moderates, which led to his arrest. In response to this, Maximillien Robespierre encouraged the people to arm themselves against the moderates. It all ended on the 31st of May, 1793, when an insurrection took place under the pressure of the radical Jacobins and Sans-culottes, which resulted in the masses shooting at moderate members of the National Convention. The party of moderates was no more, Robespierre along with his radicals became an almost indomitable political force.
Sick and tired of the violence and cruelty that had taken place, woman Charlotte Corday from Caen decided to do something to put an end to what she hated and bring Peace back to France. She left for Paris, sending a letter to the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat promising a list of anti-revolutionaries in her home town for him to publish. Delighted by the news, Marat invited her to his bathtub which he was confined to due to a skin condition. Charlotte killed Marat with the fatal strike of a dagger on the 13th of July, 1793. After the death of Marat, Charlotte did not attempt to flee, so she was soon arrested and put to death due to her heroic act of crime. Sadly, her hopeful dream of peace died with her at the guillotine. After his death, Marat gained even more power, he was even worshipped at temples of reason as a God. He had more influence over the minds and souls of the people than ever before.
The radicals who were now in total control, believed that the greatest threat to the revolution was not invasions from other countries, but their very own people. In order to deal with this issue, a new Committee of Public Safety was established, composed of 12 members elected by the National convention, who could be reelected one month after. Following the failure of Georges Danton as the leader of the committee, Maximillien Robespierre was elected and soon started to dictate France with an iron fist, relying on the support of the Jacobins and complete domination over the National Convention. A special court was also created in order to judge suspected enemies of the revolution, if found guilty, the victim would immediately be sent to the guillotine and executed. ‘Let’s make terror the order of the day!’ (Bertrand Barere a member of the Committee of Public Safety, September 5th, 1793)
The Reign of Terror had begun.
This period of time, however short, was arguably the darkest of all of France’s history. Secret polices were everywhere, always watching. The people of France lived every single day of their lives fearing for the future. The smallest expression of disobedience or dissatisfaction with the current regime could be seen as a counterrevolutionary rebellion. Any mention of the old monarchy, any criticism about the current state of matter, any form of self-expression could have you landed in the guillotine. Before the revolution, the government was collecting tax, now, the government was collecting heads. Around 40,000 citizens of France lost their lives to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Robespierre and his allies committed a crime against humanity. After the triumph made by the French Army at the Battle of Fleurus on June 26th, 1794 where they managed to defeat the allied armies of Britain, Hanover, Dutch Republic as well as Habsburg Monarchy, Georges Danton felt like it was time to normalize the government as well as attempt to stop the war. He shared his ideas with his friend Maximillien Robespierre hoping to put an end to the Reign of Terror, but was sentenced to the guillotine. Before his death, he said to the executioner: ‘My only regret is that I’m going before that rat, Robespierre! Don’t forget to show my head to the people; it’s well worth seeing.’ (April 5th, 1794)
He was right. The downfall of Robespierre was soon to come. After the death Georges Danton, Robespierre no longer had a restriction to his power nor a second opinion. Many of his close followers were sent to the guillotine for their futile attempts at advising him against the worst of his nature. In fact, during his late years of power, he began to descend into insanity due to extreme paranoia, arrogance and an obsession with his vision of an ideal republic. During a festival of the Cult of The Supreme Being, a religion created by himself and the Committee of Public Safety in replacement of the Cult of Reason, Robespierre walked down the mountain like a God, all those who did not cheer for him were sent to the guillotine. Deputies from both the National Convention as well as the Committee of Public Safety agreed that something needed to be done with Robespierre. But out of fear, not one member dared to take action. That is until the fateful day of July 26th. On that day Robespierre made a speech to the National Convention, declaring that the true enemy of the revolution was the convention itself, and that the Committee of Public Security should be purged as well. That was the last straw, and what made the convention realize what needed to be done. One member called for the arrest of Robespierre and the entire convention agreed. Maximilien Robespierre was sentenced to a cruelty that he had bestowed upon thousands-the guillotine. He finally faced justice on the 28th of July, 1794, and along with him died the monstrous era of the Reign of Terror. Georges Danton can finally rest in his grave.
After the death of Robespierre, a more moderate political force called the Thermidorians took control. Just like Danton, they wanted to restore peace in France. However, their ideology did not match their actions. Right after they took control of the convention, the government went on a frenzy of revenge, targeting previous radicals and supporters of terror. Sans-culottes along with members of the Jacobins were tackled on the streets, beaten and executed during a period known as the White Terror (1794–1795). Soon after, the Thermidorians created a new government-The Directory. Many royalists saw this shift in power as an opportunity to bring back the old regime. They staged an insurrection in Paris on the 5th of October, 1795, resulting in civilians battling the National Guards on the streets. Luckily, a certain Napoleon Bonaparte happened to be in the city. Using military strategies, he directed the National Guards to “calm” the protesters, thus terminating the insurrection. For his contribution to the so-called “pacification”, Napoleon was promoted to the position of general and sent to the war-front of Italy. But Napoleon’s success came with a great price, from that moment on, the people of Paris lost their capability to stage popular protests, and thereby lost their control over the revolution. The Directory was a council of five replacing the Committee of Public Safety. The creation of this council was meant to prevent the grave mistakes made by previous generations-concentration of power. However, they were not very successful at accomplishing this goal. The following years of their domination were plagued with financial crises, political scandals, disregard of lower classes, and above all, corruption.
Outside of France, the Revolutionary Wars continued, where thanks to a certain newfound General, France won battle after battle after battle, becoming absolutely invincible not only on the battlefield, but in political conflicts as well. The French Army managed to capture the Austrian Netherlands as well as successfully knocking Spain and Prussia out of the war with the Peace Treaty of Basel. By 1796, Napoleon and his army had decimated the Habsburg forces and began to march towards Vienna. Panicked, the Austrian monarchy decided to negotiate for peace, agreeing to sign the Treaty of Campo Formio, personally overseen by Napoleon himself. Officially ending the First Coalition against the republic.
Napoleon quickly became popular in France, famed as a National Hero. However, his ambitions were still not completely fulfilled. In 1798, he led the French invasion of Egypt, starting the Second Coalition War. Taking advantage of the absence of the majority of the French Army, the allies saw an opportunity to take back the lost territories of the First Coalition War. However, they were largely unsuccessful with the exception of the British Navy at the Battle of the Nile. Despite his failure in Egypt, when Napoleon returned to Paris in the fall of 1799, he found his popularity to be soaring while the governments the opposite. Encouraged by the public’s support, he decided that he wanted more power. He formed an alliance with an aspiring political writer, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, together, they successfully staged a coup against the Directory Government on November 9th, 1799. Afterward, Napoleon renewed the constitution, making himself the “First Council”, with almost an unlimited amount of power. The ascension of Napoleon to a position that was, in essence, one of a dictator, marked the end of the French Revolution. (May 5, 1789 — November 9, 1799)
Born with a hopeful promise of liberty, equality, and fraternity amongst all men, the people of France settled for a dictator. However, the immense amount of pain and suffering endured by the people did not take place in vain. The French Revolution spread the seeds of liberty across the continent of Europe the way no other revolution could have. It was an inspiration for people to rise up against oppressive regimes and fight for equality no matter what the cost. That is why I believe that despite all its faults, the French Revolution was good. ‘According to my judgment, the French Revolution and the doings of Napoleon opened the eyes of the world. The nations knew nothing before and the people thought that kings were gods upon the earth and that they were bound to say that whatever they did as well done.’(Theodoros Kolokotronis)