Why the French Revolution devoured its own people
An essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.
Hope inspires nations to improve their societies, challenge their citizens’ capabilities, and face down seemingly invincible enemies. In revolutionary France, citizens and their leaders tasted the sweet fresh air of liberty, equality, and nationalist unity. They sensed their hopes for a brighter national and social future might be realized, and they determined that nothing would interfere with that grand realization. But how did those hopes lead France into the horrific era of the Terror? The tragic evolution from revolution to republic to Terror was not a linear nor an inevitable process. Challenges to the Revolution mounted, as did the Revolution’s responses to them. The key elements of the Revolution – the people who embraced that revolution, their political leadership, and the counterrevolutionary threats that haunted all of them – ground against each other, setting off sparks that ignited the rise of a new form of government and an era of bloodshed that still stains the shadowed passages of tormented human memory.
The French Revolution reordered the political mindsets of many eighteenth-century French people. The preceding era of the Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters nurtured not only an intellectual renaissance but also demanded and inspired challenges to the way the French regarded the Catholic Church, their places in a monarchy, and their social, economic, and creative potential as liberated people.1 That intimate revolution in self-image was furthered in 1763 and 1764 when the Parlement of Paris argued that “the king held his throne and legitimacy” from “fundamental” French laws, deflating the inherently supreme majesty of monarchy and subordinating it to the French polity’s larger legal authority.2
As economic crisis paralyzed France, the Old Regime’s political leadership failed to live up to the people’s “almost-millenarian hope” that those leaders could improve commoners’ impoverished lives, convincing many of those commoners that they had to take control of their own existence.3 The privileges the upper classes enjoyed angered the middle classes, already irritated with “paternalism of government” and dismissive of the Church as a “corporation which had ceased to perform its functions efficiently.”4 A new era was about to dawn over France.
The Revolution retained the king but stripped privileges from the Church and demanded from the clergy oaths of loyalty to the new Civil Constitution. The new national representatives asked the people to share their concerns and ideas. It was intimately revolutionary. The people were asked to review their lives and look at elements of their government and society that they themselves deemed could “be changed or improved or abolished.”5 The new Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens promised a better future for an “imagined community” of equal citizens. The new October constitution formalized ideals of liberty and equality under a representative government, spiritually freed from Catholic doctrine, and under the paternalistic gaze of a weak and devoted monarch. While the reforms seemed to favor oppressed and voiceless lower classes, the Revolution did not have “a natural constituency.”6 Each citizen had their own self-interested reason for support or opposing the new era of liberty and equality.
By the early 1790s, the empowered and self-confident French people, no longer “docile followers” of the Old Regime’s well-trod paths through life, stood on the threshold of an undiscovered country, determined to face down the empires and kingdoms that besieged them, the political and economic differences that divided them, and, most importantly, the internal forces that conspired to undermine their Revolution’s promise of a new and better world.7
Revolutionary changes did not unfold without resistance, particularly from French sectors directly diminished by progressive policies, and the manner with which some changes were enacted inspired counterrevolutionary sentiments, conspiracies, and actions. Other counterrevolutionary actors feared further social disorder, insolvency, and unemployment, disagreed over food distribution policies, or simply suffered from bruised egos.8 Economic equality for the lower classes meant nothing if standards of living steadily fell.9
The nobles saw their privileges, including light tax burdens or exemptions from an incomprehensible financial system, stripped away “by violence and chicanery,” inspiring even elites who disliked each other to temporarily unite, thereby “creating one of the strands of the counterrevolution.”10 Some elites found a promising alliance with the other major French sector the Revolution diminished: the Catholic Church. Revolution policies expropriated church property, determined that embrace of a “Supreme Being” instead of God “eliminated the Church’s monopoly of public worship as well as its claim to special status,” issued a Civil Constitution of the Clergy in July 1790, and required the clergy to swear their allegiance to that constitution or resign their posts.11 The oath was meant to assert the people’s sovereignty over the church just as the Revolution asserted popular sovereignty over the government, class hierarchies, and the monarchy. The revolutionary government expected the Church to “proselytize for it and to keep order for it” among the masses.12
But that oath also became a rallying point for the Revolution’s leading enemies, who used it to break off sections of popular sentiment bristling over the Revolution’s treatment of their sacred religious institutions or feeling discontent over a multitude of other consequences of revolutionary policies. Counterrevolutionary elites focused disruptive energies on Catholic-rich regions of France and manipulated Catholic-Protestant divisions. The oath provided the counterrevolution a group from which to draw support that might have otherwise embraced the new era. Resistance to the Civil Constitution “took on the characteristics of a mass movement.”13
The oath also stressed the fragile loyalties of clerical deputies participating in revolutionary government. The faith they shared with most other deputies in the unifying symbol of the King Louis XVI bolstered the Revolution’s fragile coalition. His attempt to escape the Revolution sent devastating shockwaves through the delicate political networks and contributed to the people’s eventual capacity to wage the Terror against the threats he represented.14
The king publicly swore loyalty and support for the new constitution. But he secretly despised everything it represented. The Civil Constitution of Clergy disgusted him. In letters he raged against his loss of traditional monarchical authority.15 His escape in June 1791, his capture, and his discovered letters – including one he left behind explaining his reasons for his flight — exposed to his subjects what he truly felt about their aspirations and ambitions.
Louis warped the monarchy’s moral authority and stained any politician subsequently willing to deal with it or defend it. Opinion and justification over his actions split the political accord in the Assembly.16 The flight shattered for provincial citizens and officials any belief in the revolutionary government’s credibility, effectiveness, and stability. Who would help them? A government that accomplished nothing? A divided church only half-heartedly embracing a new era of social justice? A king that lied to their faces? The king’s flight and his sentiments convinced “the urban masses and the national guards” that they had to deal with incidents of counterrevolutionary unrest with degrees of force that they themselves deemed appropriate — with “their own solutions” — and Paris could do little to stop them.17 Perhaps, a few thought, France did not need a king. It was a key moment “in the emergence of French nationalism.” Some letter-writers even referred to the deputies as the new fathers of a new country.18
The king’s actions sharpened in the politicians and citizens’ minds their suspicions and fears of looming counterrevolutionary forces conspiring to destroy the Revolution. Priests refused to take their oaths of loyalty. Provincials fought amongst themselves. Émigré armies massed in the borderlands. And the king confessed his disgust for his own subjects’ hopes and attempted to leave them to the mercy of what might have been a foreign invasion — that might still take place.19 Even the most paranoid revolutionaries eventually appeared prescient to commoners who had no idea what the next day might bring. That fear justified the new forms of justice, suspension of personal liberties, lethal brutality, and outright murder throughout France.
To deal with perceived threats, in August 1792, the Paris government authorized the disarming of any suspected counterrevolutionaries and searches of any suspected counterrevolutionary homes. Betraying the Revolution was something bad but taking oppositional action against it was even worse. Arresting people for throwing stones or shouting at guards, shutting down political clubs and newspapers, listening to private conversations, or simply looking for anything or anyone that seemed suspicious – these were the actions of a terrified government willing to fight imagined terrorism with repression of almost any degree.20 In September, rumors of prisoners planning to revolt when foreign armies invaded France inspired revolutionaries to massacre them, leaving up to 1,400 dead. On Sept. 21 “the [national] Convention abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the Republic.”21
Recent battlefield victories against foreign counterrevolutionary forces and the war’s expanded scope inspired the republic to call up 300,000 men, which sparked “an unprecedented wave of riots.” More importantly, the riots – and fresh battlefield defeats — sparked an official response: the centralization of national authority, new judicial tribunals to persecute suspected treason, and state-directed repression of domestic unrest and disloyalty with a “supreme police”22 The Revolution was threatened, and the government took the repressive torches from the people and transformed them into fireballs with which to incinerate the elites, the price-gougers, and traitors of any section of the endangered French Republic. Terror was not a new horror — what was new was that the Terror was systemic, “a deliberate policy of government,” so it was wide-reaching, simultaneous, and steady in its murderous hunger for victims.23
The war machine was a ravenous hurricane at the Terror’s core, hungry for materiel from churches, loyalty from the populace, and legions of soldiers to be thrown against foreign armies. Churches became “barracks, arsenals, or stables,” and anything of value was put to military use. But the mobilization campaign quickly became a dechristianization campaign, in which signs of any kind containing Christian references were torn down. The new man of the Republic would be spared the old superstitions of the failed Church. Church defenders were killed. Nothing better symbolized the Terror for many citizens than the dechristianization efforts.24
The campaign drew deep divisions between commoners who believed they commanded the government and the political leadership, some in power without popular mandates, which was prepared to brutally suppress any resistance or wavering acquiescence to their absolute wartime authority. These two elements, increasingly at odds with each other, intensified the Terror’s murderous chaos.25 Real and imagined fears inspired both the French people and their provisional government — particularly members of the Committee of Public Safety like Robespierre — to use fear to repress it. Fighting fire with fire simply intensified the fire.26
Robespierre’s campaign to purify the Revolution, first by invalidating any sense of guilt or culpability for the atrocities he felt were necessary, was aimed at the building the new society the Revolution’s earliest aspirations aspired to achieve. The Terror’s own monstrous judicial liberties were realized on local levels as committees expressed the persecutorial zealotry required to achieve the sanctioned purifications.27 The Terror was sustained by “a strange compound of reason, desperation, and fear,” and it redefined what was revolutionary – not ideology, not a new vision, not a new government. The Terror’s revolution was one of efficient execution of “effective measures” — slicing through opposition and bringing centralized order to counterrevolutionary chaos in order to ensure the Revolution’s permanence.28
The Revolution’s supporters at first marched proudly into a new era, their self-image evolving from royal subjects to free citizens and optimistic that they would find a balance between better lives and the embrace of a king’s paternalistic gaze. But the Revolution’s real and imagined enemies inspired powerful figures who cared less about revolutionary aspirations than the measures necessary to defeat those enemies. French leaders became the bloodstained dictatorial oppressors from which they desperately fought to save their countrymen. Step by step, revolutionaries and their leaders became the firestorm they tried to extinguish.
BOOKS CONSULTED FOR THIS ESSAY
Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Palmer, R.R. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Sutherland, D.M.G. France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Tackett, Timothy. When the King Took Flight. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.