Must radical political adjust geneprice uncontainable violence? The French Revolution is both a cautionary and also motivating tale


The execution of Robespierre and his accomplices, 17 July 1794 (10 Thermidor Year II). Robespierre is portrayed holding a handkerchief and dressed in a brvery own jacket in the cart immediately to the left of the scaffold. Photograph courtesy the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris


Jeremy Popkin

is William T Bryan Chair Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the College of Kentucky. His publications encompass A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution (2012), From Herodotus to H-Net: The Story of Historiography (2015) and also A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution (2020).

You are watching: What was the legacy of the french revolution


If the French Revolution of 1789 was such a vital event, travellers to France’s funding city of Paris frequently wonder, why can’t they find any map of the Bastille, the medieval fortress whose storming on 14 July 1789 was the revolution’s most dramatic moment? Determined to destroy what they observed as a symbol of tyranny, the ‘victors of the Bastille’ instantly started demolishing the framework. Even the column in the middle of the busy Place de la Bastille isn’t connected to 1789: it commemoprices those who passed away in one more upclimbing a generation later, the ‘July Revolution’ of 1830.

The legacy of the French Rdevelopment is not uncovered in physical monuments, but in the ideals of liberty, ehigh quality and justice that still inspire contemporary democracies. More ambitious than the Amerideserve to revolutionaries of 1776, the French in 1789 were not simply fighting for their very own nationwide independence: they wanted to create ethics that would lay the basis for liberty for humans everywhere. The United States Declaration of Independence briefly stated legal rights to ‘liberty, ehigh quality, and also the quest of happiness’, without explaining what they supposed or just how they were to be realised. The French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and also Citizen’ spelled out the civil liberties that comprised liberty and also etop quality and outlined a mechanism of participatory government that would certainly empower citizens to safeguard their very own civil liberties.

Much more openly than the Americans, the French revolutionaries recognised that the ethics of liberty and ehigh quality they had actually articulated posed standard questions about such worries as the condition of woguys and the justification of slavery. In France, unfavor the US, these inquiries were questioned heatedly and also openly. Initially, the revolutionaries chose that ‘nature’ denied woguys political legal rights and that ‘imperious necessity’ dictated the maintenance of slaextremely in France’s abroad nests, whose 800,000 enslaved labourers outnumbered the 670,000 in the 13 Amerideserve to states in 1789.

As the revolution proceeded, however, its legislators took more radical measures. A legislation redefining marital relationship and legalising divorce in 1792 granted woguys equal legal rights to sue for separation and also child custody; already, womales had created their own political clubs, some were openly serving in the French army, and also Olympe de Gouges’s eloquent ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman’ had actually insisted that they have to be enabled to vote and also organize office. Woguys accomplished so much affect in the roadways of revolutionary Paris that they drove male legislators to attempt to outlaw their tasks. At nearly the very same time, in 1794, faced with a enormous upincreasing among the enslaved blacks in France’s the majority of handy Caribbean swarm, Saint-Domingue, the French National Convention abolished slaincredibly and also made its previous victims complete citizens. Black men were seated as deputies to the French legislature and also, by 1796, the babsence general Toussaint Louverture was the main commander-in-chief of French forces in Saint-Domingue, which would certainly become the independent nation of Haiti in 1804.

The French Revolution’s campaigns concerning women’s civil liberties and also slavery are simply two examples of how the French revolutionaries experimented via radical new concepts about the meaning of liberty and also etop quality that are still pertinent. But the French Revolution is not just crucial this day because it took such radical measures to increase the meanings of liberty and also ehigh quality. The movement that began in 1789 likewise showed the threats innate in trying to remake an entire culture overnight. The French revolutionaries were the first to grant the appropriate to vote to all adult guys, but they were also the first to grapple with democracy’s shadow side, demagogic populism, and also with the effects of an explosion of ‘new media’ that transdeveloped political communication. The revolution observed the initially full-range attempt to impose secular concepts in the challenge of vocal opplace from citizens who proclaimed themselves defenders of faith. In 1792, revolutionary France came to be the first democracy to launch a war to spread its worths. A significant consequence of that war was the creation of the first modern-day totalitarian dictatorship, the rule of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror. Five years after the end of the Terror, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had gained fame as an outcome of the battle, led the first modern-day coup d’état, justifying it, like so many kind of strongmales since, by claiming that only an authoritarian regime can guarantee social order.

The reality that Napoleon reversed the revolutionaries’ development of women’s rights and represented slaincredibly in the French nests reminds us that he, prefer so many kind of of his imitators in the previous 2 centuries, characterized ‘social order’ as a rejection of any kind of expansive interpretation of liberty and ehigh quality. Napoleon additionally abolimelted meaningful elections, ended freedom of the press, and brought back the public status of the Catholic Church. Determined to keep and also expand the revolutionaries’ foreign occupations, he ongoing the war that they had begun, yet French armies currently fought to produce an empire, dropping any kind of pretence of bringing liberty to other individuals.

The relevance of the French Radvancement to present-day disputes is the factor why I determined to write A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution (2020), the initially in-depth English-language account of that occasion for basic readers in more than 30 years. Having invested my career rebrowsing and teaching the history of the French Rdevelopment, but, I know extremely well that it was more than an idealistic crusade for huguy rights. If the fall of the Bastille stays an indelible symbol of aspirations for flexibility, the various other universally recognised symbol of the French Rdevelopment, the guillotine, reminds us that the activity was likewise marked by violence. The Amerihave the right to Founding Fathers whose refusal to consider providing civil liberties to women or finishing slaexceptionally we currently rightly question did have actually the excellent feeling not to let their distinctions rotate right into murderous feuds; none of them had to reflect, as the French legislator Pierre Vergniaud did on the eve of his execution, that their activity, ‘favor Saturn, is devouring its own children’.

It is hard to stop concluding that tbelow was a partnership in between the radicalism of the concepts that surfaced throughout the French Rdevelopment and the violence that marked the movement. In my book, I present readers to a character, the ‘Père Duchêne’, that concerned represent the populist impulses of the radvancement. Nowadays, we would certainly speak to the Père Duchêne a meme. He was not a real person: rather, he was a character acquainted to audiences in Paris’s popular theatres, where he worked as a representative of the country’s simple human being. Once the rdevelopment began, a variety of journalists started publishing pamphallows supposedly created by the Père Duchêne, in which they demanded that the National Assembly perform more to benefit the negative. The small newsfiles that used his name brought a crude woodcut on their front page mirroring the Père Duchêne in turbulent workers’ clothing. Holding a hatchet over his head, through 2 pistols stuck in his belt and also a musket at his side, the Père Duchêne was a visual symbol of the association between the rdevelopment and also renowned violence.

The elites had enriched themselves at the cost of the human being, and required to be required to share their power

Although his crude language and his consistent danger to rekind to violence alienated the even more moderate revolutionaries, the Père Duchêne was the living embodiment of among the fundamental values included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The sixth article of that record affirmed that ‘the regulation is the expression of the general will’ and promised that ‘all citizens can participate personally, or through their representatives, in its establishment’. The fictitious Père Duchêne’s message to readers, no issue how negative and uneducated they can be, was that an ordinary perboy can case a voice in national politics.

*
The Great Anger and The Great Delight of Père Duchêne, Hébert’s radical and also rabble-routilizing pamphlet. Courtesy Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Like contemporary populists, the Père Duchêne had actually a basic political programme. The elites who ruled France prior to 1789 had actually enriched themselves at the cost of the world. They needed to be forced to share their power and wide range. When the revolution did not instantly improve the lives of the masses, the Père Duchêne blamed the movement’s more moderate leaders, accmaking use of them of exploiting it for their own benefit. The journalists that composed under the name of the Père Duchêne offered colourful language laced via obscenities; they insisted that their vulgarity verified that they were ‘informing it favor it is’. Their tone was vindictive and also vengeful; they wanted to watch their targets humiliated and also, in many type of situations, sent out to the guillotine. The a lot of successful Père Duchêne journalist, Jacques-René Hébert, built a political career through his success in making use of the media. At the elevation of the Reign of Terror, he pushed through the production of a ‘revolutionary army’ regulated by his friends to intimidate adversaries of the rdevelopment, and seemed on the verge of taking over the federal government.

Maximilien Robespierre and his even more middle-class colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety feared that Hébert’s populist movement might drive them from power. They chose that they had actually no alternative yet to challenge Hébert and also his followers, even if it meant alienating the ‘base’ of plain Paris inhabitants, the famed sans-culottes. Using the exact same smear strategies that the Père Duchêne had actually perfected, they accoffered Hébert of dubious intrigues through foreigners and also various other questionable activities. Like many type of bullies, Hébert quickly fell down once he discovered himself up against severe opponents figured out to fight back; the crowd that cheered his dispatch to the guillotine in March 1794 was bigger than for many kind of of the executions that he had incited. But he and also the other Père Duchênes, and also their female countercomponents, the Mère Duchênes that flourimelted at some points in the rdevelopment, had done a lot to turn the movement from a high-minded crusade for huguy civil liberties into a free-for-all in which just the loudest voices might make themselves heard.

The ambivalent tradition of the French Revolution’s democratic impulse, so vividly lugged to life in the number of the Père Duchêne, underlines the method in which the motion begun in 1789 stays both an ideas and also a warning for us this particular day. In the more than 200 years considering that the storming of the Bastille, no one has actually formulated the human yearning for flexibility and justice more eloquently than the French revolutionaries, and no one has shown more clearly the threats that a one-sided search of those purposes can produce. The career of the many well known of the radical French revolutionaries, Robespierre, is the the majority of striking demonstration of that fact.

Robespierre is remembered bereason he was the the majority of eloquent defender of the dictatorship produced throughout the revolution’s most radical period, the months known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre’s speech on the ethics of revolutionary federal government, yielded on 25 December 1793, made an uncompromising case for the legitimacy of excessive procedures to defeat those he dubbed ‘the adversaries of liberty’. Paradoxically, he insisted, the only method to develop a society in which citizens could exercise the individual freedoms promised in the Declaration of Rights was to suspend those civil liberties until the revolution’s adversaries were conclusively defeated.

Robespierre’s colleagues on the all-powerful Committee of Public Safety determined him to safeguard their policies because he was even more than just a spokesguy for harsh actions against their opponents. From the time he initially appeared on the scene as one of the 1,200 deputies to the Esays General summoned by Louis XVI in May 1789, his fellow legislators recognised the young provincial lawyer’s intelligence and his unswerving commitment to the ideals of democracy. The renegade aristocrat the comte de Mirabeau, the most prominent spokesguy of the revolutionary ‘patriots’ in 1789 but an frequently cynical pragmatist, easily sized up his colleague: ‘That male will certainly go much, bereason he believes whatever he claims.’ Unlike the Père Duchêne, Robespierre always dressed carefully and also spoke in pure, educated French. Other revolutionary leaders, favor the rabbleroutilizing orator Georges Danton, were happy to join insurrectionary crowds in the streets; Robespierre never personally took component in any type of of the French Revolution’s explosions of violence. Yet no one stays even more connected via the violence of the Reign of Terror than Robespierre.

To minimize Robespierre’s heritage to his association through the Terror is to overlook the prestige of his role as a one of history’s many articulate proponents of political democracy. When the majority of the deputies in France’s revolutionary National Assembly tried to restrict full political civil liberties to the wealthier male members of the populace, Robespierre reminded them of the Declaration of Rights’ assertion that liberty supposed the best to have actually a voice in making the regulations that citizens had actually to obey. ‘Is the regulation the expression of the general will, when the better variety of those for whom it is made cannot contribute to its formation?’ he asked. Long prior to our present-day discussions about income inehigh quality, he denounced a device that put genuine political power in the hands of the wealthy: ‘And what an aristocracy! The a lot of unbearable of all, that of the affluent.’ In the at an early stage years of the revolution, Robespierre firmly defended flexibility of the press and referred to as for the abolition of the fatality penalty. When white homesteaders insisted that France can not make it through economically without slaexceptionally, Robespierre cried out: ‘Perish the swarms quite than abandon a principle!’

The majority of the population was not ready to take on a radical secularist movement

Explaining just how Robespierre, the principled defender of liberty and also equality, became in just a few short years the leading advocate of a system of revolutionary government that foreshadowed the 20th century’s totalitarian dictatorships is perhaps the best challenge in defending the tradition of the French Revolution. Robespierre was no innocent, and also in the last months of his brief political career – he was just 36 when he passed away – his clumsy confrontations via his colleagues made him a dangerous variety of enemies. Unlike the Père Duchêne, however, Robespierre never before adopted violence as an end in itself, and a cshed examicountry of his career mirrors that he was regularly trying to find means to limit the damages caused by policies he had actually not initially endorsed. In 1792, once many of his fellow Jacobin radicals taken on the speak to for a revolutionary war to encertain France’s security by toppling the hostile monarchies surrounding it, Robespierre warned against the illusion that other peoples would rotate against their very own governments to assistance the French. ‘No one loves equipped missionaries,’ he insisted, a warning that current US leaders could have done well to heed.

When radicals such as Hébert began a project to ‘de-Christianise’ France, in order to silence opplace to the movement’s effort to recreate the Catholic Church and sell off its residential or commercial property for the advantage of the radvancement, Robespierre reined them in. He recognised that the majority of the population was not ready to embrace a radical secularist motion bent on turning churches into ‘holy places of reason’ and also placing up indications in cemeteries calling death ‘an eternal sleep’. Robespierre proposed instead the arrival of a purified and also simplified ‘cult of the Supreme Being’, which he assumed believers could take on without abandoning their confidence in a higher power and also their belief in the immortality of the soul.

*
To inaugurate the new state faith, Robespierre declared 8 June 1794 (20 Prairial Year II) to be the Festival of the Supreme Being. The festival was organised by the artist Jacques-Louis David and also took location roughly a artificial hill on the Champ de Mars. Courtesy Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Robespierre kbrand-new that many of the revolution’s bitterest adversaries were encouraged by loyalty to the Catholic Church. The revolution had not begun as an anti-spiritual activity. Under the rules supplied in the elections to what came to be the French National Assembly in 1789, a fourth of all the deputies were clergy from the Catholic Church, an institution so woven right into the cloth of the population’s life that hardly anyone could imagine its loss. Criticism that the Church had grvery own also rich and also that many type of of its beliefs fairesulted in meacertain approximately the criteria of reason promoted by the Enlightenment was widespreview, even among priests, however most hoped to watch religion, prefer eincredibly other aspect of French life, ‘regenerated’ by the impulses of the radvancement, not destroyed.

The revolutionaries’ confrontation via the Church began, not with an argument around beliefs, yet bereason of the immediate need to meet the crisis in government profits that had actually required king Louis XVI to summon a nationwide assembly in the first area. Determined to avoid a chaotic public bankruptcy, and reluctant to raise taxes on the populace, the legislators made a decision, 4 months after the storming of the Bastille, to put the vast residential property of the Catholic Church ‘at the disposition of the nation’. Many type of Catholic clergy, especially underphelp parish priests who resented the deluxe in which their aristocratic bishops lived, supported the expropriation of Church residential or commercial property and also the idea that the federal government, which currently took over the duty for resources the institution, had actually the appropriate to reform it. Others, yet, observed the recreate of the Church as a cover for an Enlightenment-influenced project against their belief, and also much of the lay population supported them. In one region of France, peasants developed a ‘Catholic and also Royal Army’ and revolted against the rdevelopment that had actually supposedly been brought out for their benefit. Womales, that uncovered in the cult of Mary and also female saints a resource of emotional support, were often in the forefront of this religiously motivated resistance to the rdevelopment.

To supporters of the revolution, this religious opplace to their activity looked favor a nationwide conspiracy avoiding development. The progressively harsh steps taken to quell resistance to Church recreate prefigured the plans of the Reign of Terror. The plunge right into battle in the spring of 1792, justified in component to display domestic enemies of the radvancement that they might not hope for any kind of assistance from awide, allowed the revolutionaries to specify the disruptions led to by diehard Catholics as creates of tfactor. Suspicions that Louis XVI, that had embraced the demand for a declaration of war, and his wife Marie-Antoinette were secretly hoping for a quick French defeat that would certainly permit foreign militaries to gain back their powers caused their imprisonment and also execution.

Accusations of foreign meddling in revolutionary national politics, a so-called foreign plot that supposedly connected the payment of huge sums of money to leading deputies to promote one-of-a-kind interests and also undermine French democracy, were one more resource of the fears that sustained the Reign of Terror. Awash in a sea of ‘fake news’, political leaders and ordinary citizens shed any sense of perspective, and also ended up being significantly ready to believe also the a lot of far-fetched accusations. Robespierre, whose individual honesty had earned him the nickname ‘The Incorruptible’, was particularly quick to suspect any kind of of his colleagues that appeared prepared to toleprice those that enriched themselves from the rdevelopment or had actually contacts with foreigners. Rather than any kind of lust for power, it was Robespierre’s weakness for seeing any disagreement with him as a sign of corruption that led him to support the elimicountry of countless other revolutionary leaders, including numbers, such as Danton, that had actually when been his cshed allies. Other, more cynical political leaders joined Robespierre in widening the Reign of Terror, calculating that their very own finest opportunity of survival was to strike down their rivals prior to they themselves might be targeted.

Although the toxic national politics of its a lot of radical phase did a lot to discrmodify the radvancement, the ‘Reign of Terror’, which lasted little more than one year out of 10 in between the storming of the Bastille and Napoleon’s coup d’état, was likewise a time of necessary experiments in democracy. While hundreds of ordinary French men and woguys uncovered themselves unjustly imprisoned during the Terror, hundreds of others – admittedly, only males – hosted public office for the first time. The exact same revolutionary legislature that backed Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety took the first measures towards developing a modern nationwide welfare system and passed plans for a substantial device of public education. Revolutionary France came to be the first country to develop a device of universal military conscription and also to promise simple soldiers that, if they showed themselves on the battlearea, there was no rank to which they can not aspire. The principle that society necessary a privileged management class in order to function was tested as never before before.

Amongst the guys from modest backgrounds who increased to positions they could never before have actually attained before 1789 was a young artillery officer whose strong Corsihave the right to accent marked him as a provincial: Napoleon. A mere lieutenant as soon as the Bastille was stormed, he was supported to basic simply 4 years later on, after impushing Robespierre’s brother Augustin through his skill in defeating a British invasion force on France’s southerly coastline. Five years after the overthrow of Robespierre on 27 July 1794 – or 9 Thermidor Year II, according to the brand-new calendar that the revolutionaries had actually embraced to underline their full break via the past – Napoleon joined through a variety of revolutionary politicians to overthrow the republideserve to program that had come out of the revolution and also relocation it through what shortly became a device of one-guy dominance. Napoleon’s seizure of power has actually been cited ever considering that as evidence that the French Rdevelopment, unlike the American, was fundamentally a faiattract. The French revolutionaries, it is regularly said, had tried to make also many kind of changes as well easily, and the movement’s violence had alienated as well a lot of the populace to enable it to succeed.

To accept this verdict on the French Rdevelopment is to ignore an essential yet little-known facet of its legacy: the method in which the movement’s own leaders, figured out to escape from the destructive national politics of the Reign of Terror after Robespierre’s death, functioned to ‘exit from the Terror’, as one historian has actually put it, and also develop a steady create of constitutional federal government. The years that history books speak to the duration of the ‘Thermidorian reaction’ and also the period of the Directory, from July 1794 to November 1799, comprise fifty percent of the decade of the French Revolution. They administer an instructive leschild in how a culture can try to put itself back on an also keel after an endure during which all the plain rules of politics have actually been broken.

The post-Robespierre republic was carried down by the disloyalty of its very own political elite

One easy leschild from the post-Terror years of the rdevelopment that many kind of succeeding political leaders have learned is to blame all mistakes on one person. In death, Robespierre was built up into a ‘tiger thirsty for blood’ that had supposedly wanted to make himself a dictator or also king. All too aware that, in fact, hundreds of others had actually aided to make the revolutionary federal government function, however, Robespierre’s followers discovered themselves under pressure to lug at leastern some of the Terror’s various other leaders to justice. At times, the procedure escaped from control, as as soon as angry crowds massacred political prisoners in cities in the southern throughout a ‘white terror’ in 1795. On the totality, yet, the republihave the right to leaders after 1794 succeeded in convincing the population that the excesses of the Terror would not be repetitive, even if some of the men in power had been as deeply implicated in those excesses as Robespierre.

For five years after Robespierre’s execution, France lived under a quasi-constitutional mechanism, in which regulations were discussed by a bicameral legislature and also debated in a fairly free push. On numerous occasions, it is true, the Directory, the five-man governing council, ‘corrected’ the election results to encertain its very own host on power, undermining the authority of the constitution, but the mass arrests and also arbitrary trials that had actually marked the Reign of Terror were not repetitive. The Directory’s policies permitted the country’s economy to recover after the disorder of the revolutionary years. Harsh toward the poor that had actually established themselves through the Père Duchêne, it consolidated the educational redevelops started throughout the Terror. Napoleon would develop on the Directory’s success in creating a modern, centralised device of management. He himself was one of the many armed forces leaders that allowed France to defeat its continental adversaries and also force them to recognise its territorial gains.

Although legislative disputes in this period reflected a swing versus the broadened legal rights granted to women previously in the rdevelopment, the regulations passed earlier were not repealed. In spite of a heated project waged by disput plantation-owners, the thermidorians and also the Directory kept the legal rights granted to the freed blacks in the French nests. Black males from Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe were elected as deputies and also took component in parliamentary discussions. In Saint-Domingue, the babsence basic Louverture commanded French pressures that defeated a British invasion; by 1798, he had been named the governor of the swarm. His power was so excellent that the Amerideserve to federal government, by this time locked in a ‘quasi-war’ via France, negotiated directly through him, hoping to lug push on Paris to end the harassment of Amerideserve to merchant ships in the Caribbean.

The post-Robespierre French republic was brought down, even more than anything else, by the disloyalty of its very own political elite. Even before Napoleon all of a sudden changed from the expedition to Egypt on which he had actually been dispatched in mid-1798, many type of of the regime’s vital numbers had actually determined that the constitution they themselves had assisted to draft after Robespierre’s loss gave also many kind of avenues for rivals to obstacle them. What Napoleon discovered in the fall of 1799 was not a country on the verge of chaos but a crowd of politicians competing through each various other to plan coups to make their positions irreversible. He was able to choose the allies who struck him as most likely to serve his purposes, discovering that none had actually the popularity or the charisma to host their very own against him as soon as the Directory had actually been overthrown.

One cannot simply conclude, then, that the background of the French Revolution proves that radical attempts to readjust society are doomed to faitempt, or that Napoleon’s dictatorship was the inescapable destination at which the radvancement was doomed to arrive. But neither have the right to one simply hail the French motion as a forerunner of modern-day principles about liberty and ehigh quality. In their search of those goals, the French revolutionaries discovered exactly how vehemently some world – not simply privileged elites however additionally many type of simple males and also women – can stand up to those concepts, and also just how dangerous the impatience of their own supporters can come to be. Robespierre’s justification of dictatorial techniques to overcome the resistance to the radvancement had actually a particular logic behind it, yet it opened up the door to many kind of abprovides.

See more: Which Of The Following Has The Strongest Magnetic Field ? Questions And Answers

Regardless of all its violence and also contradictions, however, the French Rdevelopment remains coherent for us now. To neglect or disapprove the legacy of its calls for liberty and etop quality amounts to legitimising authoritarian ideologies or arguments for the innate inetop quality of particular groups of world. If we desire to live in a human being qualified by respect for basic individual civil liberties, we should learn the lessons, both positive and negative, of the excellent effort to promote those ideals that tore dvery own the Bastille in 1789.