The always topical Charles Dickens had this to say about life in 2020:
“It is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair.”
Well, maybe Dickens wasn’t writing about Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, systemic racism, white privilege, All Cops Are Bastards, Trump v. Biden, the Green New Deal, Indigenization of universities, Covid-19, economic lockdowns, a $343 billion deficit, or any of the other hashtags, accusations, uprisings or calamities convulsing political, economic and social discourse today. Rather, he was writing about the eve of the French Revolution.
Yet his (slightly altered) opening line from A Tale of Two Cities brings to mind today’s collision of relentless human progress with universal crisis and self-abnegation as easily as it does the 1780s. And it’s not just in Dickens. References to the French Revolution’s tumultuous decade of upheaval and conflict are widespread these days.
The lamentable killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota earlier this year triggered an explosion of violence and street riots across the U.S. – and to a much lesser extent in Canada – that suggest significant historical precedents. This past summer, for example, a St. Louis, Missouri couple found themselves facing an angry crowd of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters outside their home shouting, “You can’t stop the revolution!” Homeowner Mark McCloskey, a criminal defence attorney whose client list includes poor blacks, afterward told a local television station, “I really thought it was the storming of the Bastille, that we would be dead and the house would be burned.” As of late October, the rioting had killed at least 25 people, many of them black.
The physical violence, along with an untold cost in destruction of public and private property, has been followed by much grander demands for sweeping social changes. And swift retribution follows for anyone who dares to dissent. It is now commonplace to read about the “tumbrils passing by” or to lament the propensity of modern-day Jacobins to demand “heads on pikes” as a symbolic Reign of Terror takes hold over some of our most important institutions. Language is a battlefield. Public displays of moral virtue – kneeling before sporting events, unquestioned acceptance of systemic racism, virulent disapproval of contrary opinions or even failure to shout affirmation (“Silence is Violence!”) – have become obligatory components of performative citizenship.
Meanwhile, more rational minds can be heard pining for a “Thermidorian Reaction” that might set the mob to rights. It comes as no surprise that English philosopher Edmund Burke is also having a moment right now. Burke is considered the father of modern conservatism for his critique of the French Revolution and preference for gradual, reasoned change over violent upheaval and mob rule.
To date Canada has avoided the extremes of politicized riots displayed in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and some other U.S. cities. In Seattle, for example, a mob took over a six-block chunk of the city and dubbed it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ); there were five shootings and at least one murder inside CHAZ during the 24 days before civil rule was finally re-asserted. Three nights after the recent U.S. Presidential election, “protesters” in Portland, Oregon vandalized a city commissioner’s home and briefly set fire to City Hall. Of course, this country has witnessed plenty of symbolic mob violence. A Montreal throng’s toppling of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in August is one obvious example. Scrawled on Macdonald’s plinth after his abrupt decapitation was the acronym ACAB, short for “All Cops Are Bastards.”
Nothing about the status quo seems quite safe these days – from the very existence of police budgets and civil order to the language we use to express ourselves to the foundations of knowledge. In the name of fighting systemic racism, society must apparently be dismantled and replaced with something entirely new. All existing customs, including even traditional family relationships and the scientific method, are now considered manifestations of racist colonialism, white supremacy or other evils from our past. BLM, the social movement at the head of many protests, is noteworthy as an explicitly radical endeavour that seeks to dismantle capitalism and “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” BLM’s manifesto (recently removed from its website) declares that children should be raised by “villages that collectively care for one another.” An end to markets and the nuclear family? Surely this is the stuff of revolution.
If we want to understand where revolutions can take us, we might as well start at the beginning.
“The French Revolution has never been more relevant than at this moment,” observes Jeremy Popkin, a professor at the University of Kentucky and author of last year’s well-received one-volume history of the French Revolution, A New World Begins. “Within it you find people trying out every idea and political concept that we’re still discussing today.” Much of modern political theory – from Marxism to populism to modern conservatism, as well as the terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” – finds its roots in the Revolution, adds Popkin in an interview. “The story of its striking successes and failures is full of lessons for today.”
The French was the first of the modern revolutions – which also include the Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Cambodian iterations – that sought to dramatically re-order society. It is distinct from the earlier American Revolution and Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, which merely revamped the political order without altering societal relations. As such, it is the myriad and bloody failures arising from France’s experience in 1789 and beyond seem most worthy of our attention today.
These ‘striking’ failures include an inability to consolidate early achievements, a seamless slide into street violence, a tendency to devour not only its enemies but many of its most prominent early leaders, a relentless attack on history, culture and language, an intolerance for dissent or debate, the conclusive repudiation of its own ideals and, after a decade of unrelenting chaos, a circular and ignominious capitulation to absolutism. For anyone already wearying of our current revolutionary times, we might consider this last, desperate urge for a return to the beginning to be the French Revolution’s most important lesson for today. The madness only lasted ten years.
Getting Caught up on 1789
By the mid-1780s, King Louis XVI’s government was nearly broke. He’d spent heavily to help defeat arch-enemy Great Britain in the American Revolution, and while the war was a strategic success it proved a financial disaster. In trying to pay off his massive war debt, Louis XVI was saddled with an inefficient and mostly privately-run tax system that exempted the wealthy nobility from the bulk of taxation while leaving the peasantry in perpetual poverty.
What privilege really looks like: France’s ancien régime under King Louis XVI entrenched vast differences between the nobility and everyone else.
Complicating matters, a boisterous middle class aspired to the perks of nobility but often found themselves frustrated, creating an undercurrent of resentment. And France’s backward rural economy meant it was missing out on the remarkable productivity gains experienced by Great Britain. This left the budget decidedly unbalanced. France’s national expenditures were about 600 million livres (the French silver-based currency) per year, while annual revenues were a mere 400 million livres. For those keeping score at home, the ancien régime’s debt-to-GDP ratio was about 80 percent. It’s 49 percent in Canada today, and rising fast.
In response, the King sought to reform the tax system by requiring the nobility to pay a fairer share. “Privileges will be sacrificed!…justice demands it,” declared French finance minister Vicomte de Calonne when convening the Assembly of Notables in 1787. Unfortunately, the upper class refused to play along. This forced Louise XVI into calling a rare meeting of France’s Estates-General for a national discussion, bringing together representatives of all sectors of French society: the clergy (the First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and everyone else (Third Estate). A full Estates-General had not met since 1614; no one could even remember the rules.
The resulting Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences and plot twists culminated in a public demonstration that on July 14, 1789 stormed the Bastille, the country’s most notorious prison. When the army refused to push back against this popular uprising, Louis XVI’s absolutist reign had come to an abrupt end.
The revolution of 1789 thus began as a reaction against systemic privilege. “Prior to the French Revolution, privilege was an explicit jurisdictional foundation of European society,” says William Cormack, a historian specializing in the French Revolution at the University of Guelph. “The nobles had very different rights, faced different laws, and paid different taxes [than the other Estates].”
The variance in taxation highlights the vast inequities. In addition to onerous national, state, and municipal government taxes and church tithes, Third Estate commoners were also subject to a long list of special imposts on such things as leather, ironworks, salt, and tobacco. When the Bastille fell, private tax collectors were just completing an enormous wall encircling Paris comprising 48 guard posts at which duties had to be paid.
It is said that history rhymes, and privilege has re-emerged as a clarion cry in our current proto-revolutionary times: white privilege, male privilege, settler privilege, and on and on. But there’s a significant difference in how this word is wielded in our century. As Cormack points out in an interview, everyone currently enjoys the sort of equality under the law the French Revolution was striving to create. “Today,” he notes, “privilege has become a rhetorical device. People use this notion of privilege to make political and social arguments, but it no longer refers to any specific legal reality.”
“Privilege” has thus degenerated into a mere slogan. Recent claims of privilege centre on allegations that current outcomes are the product of past generations of injustice, an entirely different – and highly contestable – notion from the observation that the law is applied differently to different people. Instead, different rules are now actively sought to aid these newly-favoured classes with claims to historical grievances, turning the entire concept on its head.
A Quick and Impressive Start
The French Revolution got off to a very quick start. Mere weeks after the Bastille fell, most of that inequitable tax system had been torn apart and feudalism abolished. The proclamation of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen – often considered a companion piece to the American Declaration of Independence – came on August 26, 1789, boldly establishing a new era of human rights. All men (but not yet women or slaves) were declared equal. Religious tolerance was professed, a boon to minority Protestants. Private property was sacrosanct. Citizens were free to travel as they pleased.
Freedom and equality: France’s 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen (left) is often considered a companion document to the American Declaration of
Independence of 1776 (right).
Freedom of expression was similarly protected. “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions,” the 10th of 17 articles declares. “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man,” states the 11th. True equality under the law was a foundational principle of the Revolution. Privilege had indeed been jettisoned.
The National Assembly, the successor parliament to the Estates-General, then began replacing the ancien régime with a functional constitutional monarchy loosely based on the British model, including an elected legislature and a king with veto powers. The new French government further foreswore any interest in other nations’ affairs. War was to be a thing of the past. Considering the arc of European history, this was a remarkable and enlightened stance. If only it could have stopped there.
Following those first few glorious months, numerous figures and political groups sought to consolidate the Revolution’s astounding achievements by shifting the nascent government’s focus onto pragmatic, domestic issues such as balancing the budget and ensuring an adequate food supply, as a series of crop failures created a volatile backdrop. The first of these attempts was led by a moderate group called the Feuillants, comprised of many of the Revolution’s most significant early leaders, including the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero from the American Revolution. The Feuillants regarded a constitutional monarchy as the appropriate culmination of the Revolution’s goals.
The Feuillants were soon ousted by the Girondins, a more radical group intent on dispensing with the King and creating a republic. The Girondins also sought to bolster national unity by engaging in war with the rest of Europe. Eventually they too became satisfied with their accomplishments and sought to rest on their laurels. And shortly thereafter they were supplanted by the more radical Jacobins, who then split into moderate and extreme factions in a process of extremist one-upmanship that appeared endless.
Notwithstanding its incessant factionalism, the French Revolution had forbidden political parties, instead expecting elected representatives to collectively express the “general will” of the French people. As it proved impossible to achieve unanimity on most matters, the elected deputies came to seat themselves according to their ideological preferences. Those seating arrangements resonate to this day. The radical Jacobins who wished continual revolution sat high on the Assembly’s left side; the more-moderate Girondins who wanted to rein in constant change were on the right. In the middle were non-aligned free-agents whose votes both extremes sought to win. Today, of course, left and right have become universal shorthand for socialist/radical and market-based/conservative political tendencies.
The French Revolution’s constant push towards radicalism has since become a familiar feature of most modern revolutions. “There is always somebody who will say that if you don’t go along with the most extreme views, you are selling out the revolution,” observes Popkin. The inability to accept a moderate end-point caused the French Revolution to quickly lose sight of its original democratic aims and devolve into a cultural endeavour obsessed with pursuing an ever-stricter vision of its own purity.
Tear it All Down
Outside the legislature roamed another crucial, though unchecked, participant in revolutionary French politics: the mob. Or, as liberal historians prefer it: “the people.” Their anarchic potential was in full display on the first day of the Revolution when the people sawed off the Bastille governor’s head with a pocket knife, placed it on a pike and paraded it around Paris. This urge towards street violence was soon channelled and exploited by the Paris Commune, a de facto city hall whose ability to mobilize a bloodthirsty urban mob on command gave it political power often exceeding that of the national legislature.
The hungrier the crowd got, the nastier its urges became. In June 1793 the Girondins countered the Commune’s Paris-centric concerns by refusing to approve a maximum price for grain that would have harmed the country’s agricultural regions. The legislature was promptly surrounded by rioters demanding the arrest of the Girondin leadership, getting their way through sheer force of numbers. Another time, a Commune-directed mob broke into the legislature and cut off the head of an elected deputy to express its displeasure with another matter of interest to Parisians.
Mobs are never known for their rational behaviour. Or respect for history. After its capture, the Bastille was torn down brick-by-brick and the pieces sold as souvenirs. It was the first of many physical representations of the old regime to be obliterated. Statues of kings and dukes throughout the country were toppled with gusto. The royal tombs at the Abbey of Saint-Denis were desecrated and emptied by looters. On the western façade of the hallowed Notre Dame Cathedral, statues of 28 Biblical kings were beheaded at the behest of a mob that mistook them for French monarchs.
This destruction of the nation’s physical heritage reached such a fever pitch that Abbé Henri Gregoire, an early and vocal supporter of the Revolution, was moved to invent a new word for the process – vandalisme – in a fruitless effort to restrain the process. “Gregoire realized that when you whip up people to destroy statues, it’s just a small step further to start killing people,” Popkin notes.
“Vandalism” gets thrown around quite a bit today. And for good reason. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used it to refer to the ignominious removal of Macdonald’s head in Montreal. It also seems appropriate to describe the many other spontaneously or official statue removals across Canada and the U.S. during 2020. As with those Biblical kings on the Notre Dame, however, much of the animosity shown statues these days is driven by ignorance and bile.
Vandalism then and now: Statutes of 28 Biblical kings on Notre Dame’s façade were beheaded by a vengeful mob during the French Revolution (above, the heads on
display at Musée de Cluny in Paris) and empty pedestals once occupied by statues of former U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln in San Francisco
and Portland, Oregon respectively (below). (Below Right Image Credit: Nathan Howard)
In the name of fighting systemic racism, San Francisco recently disappeared its statue of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union forces over the Confederacy in the Civil War. As president, Grant also went after the Ku Klux Klan and signed the 15th Amendment proclaiming racial equality. The same bizarre fate has befallen a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Portland. The Great Emancipator may have freed the slaves, but he was also responsible for hanging 38 Dakota warriors after a native uprising in Minnesota in 1862. And on those grounds, he has become an enemy of the present. “The parallel is very clear,” says Popkin of this impulse for violent historical removal. “One of the ways you announce you are having a revolution is by getting rid of the symbols of the old society and repudiating its history.”
Into the Terror
Recognizing the effect street violence had on the politics of the French Revolution, the radical Jacobins’ sought to institutionalize it. “Let us be terrifying, in order to spare the people from having to be so,” Georges Danton declared. A physically towering figure with a gift for improvised oration, Danton was an influential member of both the Commune and the National Convention, a successor to the National Assembly. As such, he held sway over both the mob and the legislature, and used this power to institute what is now known as the Reign of Terror.
The Revolution’s hopeful and enlightened early phase ended when the various competing groups and interests stopped recognizing each others’ rights to free expression and sought to repudiate and punish contrary views. This process began gradually during the first year, and culminated in 1793’s Law of Suspects allowing for the arrest of anyone who “either by their conduct, their contacts, their words or their writings, showed themselves to be supporters of tyranny, of federalism, or to be enemies of liberty.” The vagueness of the law allowed the government to arrest and execute anyone who expressed an opinion opposed to revolutionary cant. Here began the Revolution’s “cannibalistic” phase.
Its central figure was Maximilien Robespierre, a provincial lawyer with a curiously fastidious approach to dress and politics. While often overshadowed by the more charismatic Danton during the Revolution’s early years, Robespierre rose to prominence by controlling key committees and setting himself up as the Jacobins’ pre-eminent voice of moral earnestness. As historian William Doyle observes in The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Robespierre was “obsessed with cleansing the Republic…of all those who fell short of his exacting standards of virtue.” He frequently portrayed the forces of compromise, moderation or common sense as mortal enemies of the Revolution. In Manichean fashion, Robespierre declared everyone either ally or traitor.
In 2020, we might consider Robespierre’s part to be played by social media. Facebook and Twitter commentary today stand in for Robespierre’s speeches as expressions of the same demands for unqualified loyalty, purity and performative behaviour, in conjunction with unrelenting attacks against anyone who fails to live up to the impossible standards of consistent moral virtue.
Robespierre became the face of the year-long Reign of Terror for his unforgiving sense of public duty and incessant, vicious criticism of others – although there were certainly other villains of the time. Among the Terror’s victims were many of the Revolution’s most prominent and talented early proponents, such as famed orator Pierre Vergniard. Vergniard was one of the 21 Girondin deputies arrested when the mob surrounded the legislature in 1793 over grain prices, and the last of this group to be sent to the guillotine. It was he who observed that “the Revolution, like Saturn, successively devour[s] its children.”
The guillotine was, curiously enough, first proposed as the means to bring equality to capital punishment. Before its appearance in 1792, commoners were typically hanged whereas nobles were given the “honour” of a swift decapitation by axe or sword. But instead of turning the process into a painless mechanical procedure, as its inventor had hoped, the guillotine soon became a public spectacle and final insult to enemies of the Revolution. (Except when guillotines alone couldn’t accommodate the vast numbers awaiting execution during the Terror, necessitating mass drownings and even firing squads comprised of cannon rather than muskets.)
The Terror cast a terrifyingly wide net. An estimated 200,000 citizens (out of France’s then-population of 28 million) were arrested as “suspects” against the Revolution. Past tax collectors were guilty by definition. The same went for much of the nobility, priests and other clergy, including nuns, army officers, successful merchants and some of the generation’s greatest minds. Political theorist Nicolas de Condorcet, chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and feminist Olympe de Gouges were all consumed by the Terror’s demands for ideological absolutism. Lafayette was also ordered arrested – although he escaped and went on to a glorious career lasting another three decades. The full weight of one’s lifetime accomplishments meant nothing during this time – as has become the case today with Grant, Lincoln, Macdonald and innumerable other living victims of our regrettable “cancel culture”.
The fate of the Duc d’Orléans, a cousin of the King, illuminates the Revolution’s unforgiving nature. His role in foiling Louis XVI’s efforts at tax reform in 1787 made Orléans one of the Revolution’s original instigators. “His strategy [was] to turn himself into a popular hero,” writes historian Simon Schama in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. The duke crafted an image for himself as a pre-revolutionary reformer and critic of the status quo. Later he even changed his name to Phillipe-Egalité to sharpen the point. He was then elected to the National Convention and sat with the radical Jacobins, where he voted for the execution of the King, which took place on January 21, 1793. (The even more notorious guillotining of the King’s wife, Marie Antoinette, judged guilty of a variety of fabricated sexual offences and treasonous acts, occurred later that year.)
But even willingly participating in the slaughter of his own relatives wasn’t enough for Revolutionary moralists; Orléans’ birthright inevitably doomed him to be found guilty of treason, and in November 1793 he too was given an appointment with the “national barber.” In publicly classifying individuals as either victims or oppressors, class played the same arbitrary and immutable role then as race does today. And once the Jacobins split into factions, they too came to devour themselves, just as Vergniard predicted. By 1794 even Danton had decided the Revolution had gone too far and tried to pull it back. For his troubles, he was labeled an Indulgent, arrested, and executed with Robespierre’s acquiescence.
The Terror’s bloodlust and moral exactitude frequently defy reason. In his 2016 book Liberty or Death: The French Revolution, historian Peter McPhee tells the grim story of a theatre company in Bordeaux that, at the peak of the Terror, performed a play in which a character was required to say, “Long live our noble King.” Such a theatrical declaration so outraged the spectators that all 86 members of the theatre company were arrested and sentenced to death for disloyalty to the Revolution. The actor who spoke the fateful lines apparently went to the guillotine insisting, “But it was in my part!”
The Terror repudiated nearly every ideal expressed in the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, including individual liberty, free speech and religious freedom. Identity cards were required for travel within and without France. The country found itself at war with the rest of Europe as well as itself. And democracy was declared too dangerous to be left in the hands of the electorate. Better that Robespierre’s ominously named Committee of Public Safety should run the country. The Terror “has a certain logic to it,” offers Popkin. “If you decide it is necessary to defend the accomplishments of the Revolution at all costs, and if no compromise is possible, then you will be led to take extreme measures.” Yet even Popkin, who favours a liberal view of the Revolution, concedes that “one of the great mysteries of the French Revolution is the willingness of the revolutionaries to kill one another.”
The Terror only ended when it became apparent to everyone left standing that it would be impossible for anyone but Robespierre to live up to Robespierre’s precise standards of morality and purity. This moment came during his final speech, in July 1794, when he explained, “I know of only two parties, that of good citizens, and that of bad citizens.” By this time, however, the so-called bad citizens far outnumbered the good. With his opponents finally unified against him and the mob having abandoned him, Robespierre went to the guillotine the next day, after having botched a suicide.
Destroying Language and Culture
The Revolution left a deep scar on the French people’s spiritual and linguistic life. One of the radicals’ greatest obsessions, little noted today, was the attempted destruction of organized religion. As pre-revolutionary philosophe Denis Diderot declared, France would not be free until “the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Despite having relied heavily on reform-minded clergy for its early momentum, the Revolutionary government quickly moved to expropriate Church lands as a way to rescue the government’s budget. This opened the door for an increasingly radical, anti-clerical set of policies, culminating in 1793’s Oath of Loyalty that required clergy to swear allegiance to France’s constitution rather than the Vatican, essentially abolishing Catholicism.
One of the Revolution’s most divisive moves also became one of its greatest errors, says Cormack. “Imposing the oath suggests the Revolution has the right to rule over people’s conscience,” he observes. The anti-religious edicts became a wellspring of popular dissent, sparking a bloody civil war in the western province of Vendée, the city of Marseilles and elsewhere. “This is a tragedy that could have been avoided,” Cormack adds.
The revolutionary government did not merely wish to bring the Catholic Church under its political control, similar to how the British monarch is also head of the Church of England. It sought to degrade, debase and humiliate Christianity itself. The iconic Notre Dame Cathedral, for example, was reconsecrated as a secular “Temple of Reason.” And a deliberately sacrilegious ceremony was later held in the building in which a grass-covered mountain was built in the nave upon which a “beautiful prostitute” symbolizing Reason ascended. Later the cathedral was used to store casks of wine seized from the nobility.
The French language also fell prey to the Revolution. To protect themselves from accusations that they harboured royalist views, it became necessary for people to address one another as citoyen rather than monsieur or madame and use the familiar pronoun tu rather than the formal and more polite vous. The practice eerily foreshadows skirmishes in our current culture wars regarding transgender pronouns.
Areas considered disloyal to the revolutionary cause often found they no longer even existed. Following a counter-revolutionary uprising in Lyon, the National Convention passed the following decree: “The city of Lyon shall be destroyed…The name of Lyon shall be erased from the list of cities of the Republic.” It was renamed Ville Affranchie or Liberated City. Similarly, after the Vendée’s rebellion was quelled in particularly brutal fashion, it became Vengée or Avenged.
To properly recognize its own achievement, the Revolution also grandly sought to impose a new way to keep time. The first day of Year I was retroactively declared as September 22, 1792, marking the formal end of the French monarchy. The new calendar consisted of 10-day weeks called décades. Months were comprised of three décades and given new names reflecting agricultural events such as Brumaire, Germinal, and Thermidor. (British wags of the era translated them as Slippy, Nippy, Drippy, Heaty, Wheaty, Sweety, etc.) To make the suppression of organized religion easier, these new décades eliminated the concept of Sunday entirely. Mathematical complications arose from having a dozen 30-day months, however, as this left five days unaccounted for at the end of every year, six during leap years. This problem was solved by declaring the extra days to be festivals dedicated to reflection on the Republic’s moral virtue.
No more Sundays: The French Revolutionary Calendar consisted of 12 months each made up of three ten-day weeks called décades; it was widely detested.
Using the new calendar became a way to force citizens to reaffirm their commitment to the new regime and further purge organized religion from daily life. “The war over the calendar became one of the most contested battlegrounds of the struggle,” says Popkin. “The revolutionaries understood that if you really wanted the revolution to succeed, you had to change everything you took for granted in everyday life.” The metric system, invented in 1794, was another attempt at replacing tradition with something appropriately revolutionary.
The Revolution Comes Full Circle
While a political revolution is generally defined as a sharp break from the status quo, the more traditional – or mechanical – notion of a repetitive circular motion is more apt in explaining France’s decade from 1789 to 1799. After the horrifying excesses of the Terror culminating in Robespierre’s death in 1794, what remained of the government became fixated on keeping both radical revolutionaries and royalist counter-revolutionaries away from the levers of power. The Thermidorian Reaction, named for the month in which Robespierre was ousted, led to government by a three-man executive council called the Directory. Though it formally lasted until 1799, it was fundamentally unstable. “The Directory devolved into a series of coups d’état, with constant arrests and purges of members thought to be on the extremes,” observes Cormack. Consider it a dictatorship of authoritarian moderates.
Aiming to restore order and stability, one Thermidorian law mandated the re-election of two-thirds of incumbent deputies. This was considered necessary to frustrate the electoral prospects of resurgent royalists who had survived the Terror and whose advocacy of a return to the “good old days” was starting to sound attractive to beleaguered citoyens. It is here that Napoleon Bonaparte makes his political entrance. Napoleon was one of France’s most successful military leaders during its early civil wars and conflicts with neighbouring countries, but he fell out of favour with the Jacobins. In 1795, however, the Little Corporal resurrected his reputation with the Directorate by providing his famous “whiff of grapeshot” – a sturdy fusillade of cannon fire – in the direction of a dangerous mob that was making its way to the legislature, thus preserving the political status quo, at least for a while.
The Directory system collapsed after one final coup in 1799, at which point the ambitious Napoleon, just back from a campaign in Egypt, seized control as First Consul. By 1802 he was Consul for Life, and in 1804 crowned himself Emperor. While Napoleon sought to frame his ascension as a consolidation of revolutionary gains, his seizure of power properly deserves to be seen as the endpoint of a full revolution: the turning of the wheel back to where France started in 1789, with an absolutist ruler.
Despite his claims to the contrary, Napoleon reversed rather than protected many of the Revolution’s most significant achievements and ruled as a monarch rather than the defender of Republicanism. He made war at his own whim. He reinstituted state control of the theatre nearly identical to that exercised by Louis XVI. Legislation that had established gender equality was rolled back under a Civil Code that stated a wife “owes obedience to her husband.” He reintroduced slavery, abolished mid-Revolution after much debate. But Napoleon’s biggest reformation project was to make peace with the Vatican. The Concordat, an agreement recognizing the authority of the Pope and allowing the Church to become a part of national life once more, was put into effect on Easter Sunday, 1802, at a grand ceremony in the re-reconsecrated Notre Dame Cathedral. Equally significant, Napoleon got rid of the absurd Revolutionary calendar, although he kept the metric system.
How did France manage to rebuke itself so comprehensively in just ten years? “Clearly much of the French population was rather satisfied with Napoleon’s rule,” says Popkin. “They were quite willing to accept [imperial rule] after all the instability of the Revolutionary period.” Following a decade of non-stop crises of every imaginable sort, the people simply wanted a break. Returning to where it all started sounded pretty good.
Was it Worth the Candle?
Should the French Revolution be considered a tragedy or a triumph? Untold undergraduate essays have struggled with this topic, as have many eminent historians and scholars. Certainly, the advancement of the ideals of democracy, popular sovereignty, liberty, and equality must be considered worthy achievements and contributions to humanity as a whole. That these ideals define modern France – current French President Emmanuel Macron has built recent speeches around them, in fact – honours the Revolution’s original aims. But it has been a wholly uneven process, with numerous lurches back and forth between republic, monarchy and empire. France, remember, is on its fifth Republic.
And remember also that the Revolution achieved most of its main goals within the first few months. After a year it was already rolling back early gains with anti-clerical edicts. From there, it was an easy slide into travel restrictions, limits on speech, terror, dictatorship and the bloody repudiation of nearly all its enlightened principles. The human toll from this backsliding was horrifying. Historian Doyle puts the total deaths caused by the Revolution at a stunning 1 million French citizens – or almost 4 percent of the entire population. This includes the butcher’s bill from the guillotine and other aspects of the Terror plus deaths arising from religious and royalist civil wars as well as war with the rest of Europe. To put this in perspective, a similar death rate among Canada’s current population would mean 1.3 million deaths. “From the very beginning,” writes Schama, “violence was the motor of the Revolution.”
Alongside this massive death toll, the Revolution failed in its fundamental aims of elevating the oppressed underclass. Literacy actually dropped during the Revolution, from 37 percent to 30 percent as the country focused on tearing itself apart. (In contrast, male literacy rates in colonial America have been estimated at 90 percent.) Hunger was a constant concern in many areas. Amid the decade-long economic collapse and the state-mandated destruction of religious institutions, relief for the poor and charity all-but-disappeared. As late as 1847 France still had substantially fewer hospitals than it did when the Revolution began, according to Doyle. A decade of poor crops and fiscal mismanagement – including an early case of hyperinflation – meant this period was almost entirely a tragedy for the common folk.
It is from this perspective that the second half of the Revolution – including the rise of counter-revolutionary sentiment, the dictatorship of the Directory and the crowning of Emperor Napoleon in a Catholic Cathedral – demands to be seen as an expression of a deep national desire to return to normalcy. There’s only so much change any person, or society, can stomach before they decide to revolt against the revolution. And after Napoleon came King Louis XVIII in 1814.
Yes, the aspirations of liberty, equality and fraternity did eventually resurface in France. But they also appeared in other countries without nearly as much bloodshed or anguish. Anyone seeking the wholesale reimaging of society as a necessary and enlightened process must also bear in mind the French Revolution’s vast propensity for excess, its inevitable resort to violence, its wanton destruction of nearly all pre-existing social institutions, and the limits to popular appetite for change. After devouring its opponents and its progenitors, a revolution’s end can look shockingly similar to its beginning.
So who wants a revolution now?
Peter Shawn Taylor is Senior Features Editor of C2C Journal.