Citizen, would you like to come on a journey through time? Its a long one, and I hope you stay for the story of the French Revolution, it must be long for its a complex event.
I have a phyrigian cap and cockade ready for our disguises.
I know what you are thinking:
"Vive la republique! Send every single person who is richer than me to the guillotine!"
"Oh yeahh the French Revolution? That's when Robespierre became a dictator right??"
"Weren't like all the aristocrats guillotined-- even the puppy dogs?"
All of the above statements are grossly inaccurate, but widely taught and believed. Sadly the richness and the complexity of the French Revolution is reduced to a media friendly "Ohh!!! Evil scary mob with pitchforks are storming the castle!" which sounds dramatic but makes a very lazy representation of history. The French Revolution is exciting enough as it is- especially when it is taken into account how human everybody was.
Everybody (including I) has their own opinions and biases on the revolution, but sadly there is also alot of popular mythology about it.
If you asked Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and Herbert a question and they gave three totally different stories, it doesn't mean any of them are lying- they just are coming from very different angles and worldviews.
Looking in retrospect it is also easy to judge from our preconceived notions, and the image popular media has imposed on us. Let us try as hard as we can to look at the French Revolution from the angles of a French person in the 18th century. Maybe then you will see why I believed the revolution was totally justified, and the Bourbons should have been overthrown. Maybe you will arrive at a different conclusion and support the ancient regime but believe it should have been reformed. Maybe you will be a Girondin? or a Herbertist and want everything destroyed? or a Buonapartist? Gasp!
Come with me citizen, and enter into the 18th century.
Here we are on the streets of Paris, covered in mud and sewers. Educated bourgeoisie? you are Robespierre? HAHAHA good luck succeeding! you can't get too far ahead unless you are a member of the 1st or 2nd estates.
Oh, you are the prince? Let me hide you far away from this rabble. You need to live here in this peaceful palace and remember- you are divinely ordained by God.
Ordained by WHO? Yes, you heard that right. If the king is divinely ordained by God that means whatever he does is God's Will. Even if he is a spoiled child who wants to stay up past his bedtime.
I do not believe this. I believe we are all equal in the sight of God and nobody has divine power (except for God himself) to claim you are divinely ordained- Citizen, dear citizen- that is an argument for another day and another post.
But for now, yes. The monarchs were divinely ordained (or so was thought) and could do whatever they pleased.
What is Versailles like? For my Protestant American mouth to put it politely, every one of the 10 commandments was broken before breakfast!
It wasn't uncommon for aristocrats to have people killed because they want their land, or money. It was a culture that delighted in immorality.
Although gradually when the revolution was approaching they became more and more concerned with the fragile state of the nation, they still were out of touch due to increasing socio-economic conditions.
A common misconception is that the aristocracy was
Totally innocent and out of touch
Out of touch? Yes. But not all of them. Innocent? I would argue, no. This isn't to say the revolutionaries were perfect. Citizen, we are looking at one of the messiest parts of human history! Humans themselves are messy. This was a very human struggle. But no, the French nobility's life of luxury and love of the immediate would have led to their ruination.
What if they caught it earlier? Would there have been more hope? Hmmm... part of me wants to say "yes" since I hope for even the worse villains to have a change of heart. But realistically, no.
Think of power as the ring from Lord of the Rings- the more you have of the ring the more you want. It destroys and perverts you. If you are taught your entire life that you are God on earth, you will behave as such.
They should have had a Constitutional Monarchy like England or Overthrown them less violently
Ahhh!! We wish! But if you go out to the Tuilleries palace with signs reading "#NeverLouis", "Impeach the King!", "Resist Louis!", "Taxed Enough Already!" good luck. You'd probably find yourself in the dungeon, disappeared or worse. Dissent simply wasn't allowed. We are in a different culture and era, we need to see the context they had and the system they were up against. This system murdered thousands throughout the years. This is what was in place.
They did attempt a constitutional monarchy, but psychologically if you were taught you were divinely ordained and your entire life did whatever you wanted because you were absolute. Think a little constitution is going to hold you back?
Louis and Marie were nice people, I have no doubt. But we need to take into account this entire system was in place for many years.
The Reign of Terror was total anarchy!
The Reign of Terror strictly refers to one year- 1794. What was the happening citizen? Ahhh messy international relations. Mind you, at the time France was under the threat of foreign invasion due to all the monarchs wanting to keep their throne. Many people were sent to the guillotine after proof of actively plotting with foreign governments to get rid of the republic and restore the monarchy. Intelligence operations weren't as sophisticated as they are today, so sadly- yes some innocent people were probably killed as well. But so did the monarchy kill innocent people for thousands of years just for disagreeing. There is no official number of all those the monarchy killed because they wanted land, people the monarchy killed because they weren't Catholic, people the monarchy killed just because.
But no, the Reign of Terror wasn't the witch hunt commonly depicted "Oh you have blue eyes! you MUST be an aristocrat!" while it makes for a great backdrop for The Scarlet Pimpernel it simply isn't true. Sorry, Percy.
Everybody wanted to get rid of the church
Oh, citizen! We are about to get into some really complex messy situation where "church" and "state" are very different than what we think today
The church and state were connected in 18th century France. While some were there for religious reasons, it was mainly a political tool- a tool of power and the strength of the state. People became less concerned about the church for preaching the gospel, and more concerned with the power and comfort being a church member had.
This is very tricky for us today to grasp. We are used to churches whether they are Baptist, Catholic or whatever being instruments to bring us together, show the love of God and conduct charity. The French church wasn't like this. Also judging by the immorality that went on at Versailles- I think those aristocrats could have used some church. I find this part of the story very sad. While the church should have been helping the poor, and ministering to the aristocrats as well- many people became more concerned about themselves and their own money.
Also, it was mainly Herbert who wanted dechristianization and to get rid of the church. Robespierre thought Herbert was crazy.
There were the monarchists, and radical revolutionaries. That is all!
Oh, citizen! Surely you know that even today it is impossible to say "All conservatives believe this!" for even those within a group find themselves arguing.
Citizen, the French Revolution was highly complex and even two monarchists probably won't agree on everything. Here is a short simplified overview of the factions in the theater we call France
- Monarchists: Vive le roi! may he live a million years and govern us under his divine right, May he preserve tradition and stability for years to come with the church.
- Constitutional Monarchists/Feuillants: Alright monarchists, that is cool and all but he really should have a Constitution and follow it. Let's see if we can be a bit like England and be all cultured and modern. Sound good? Oh and Lafayette likes us.
- Girondins: Let's get rid of the monarchy. They aren't cool. But this whole revolution thing is getting too crazy and radical for me. I think we should encourage our neighbors to all adopt republics through the military might of France. Sound cool? The military is pretty awesome right? And the free market!
Climbing The Mountain (aka: those who sat on the upper left, the "radicals")
- Jacobins: (Robespierrists, Saint-Just) You are all wrong I'm afraid. We need to totally get rid of the monarchy, adopt a new Constitution called the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. We also need a government system based on virtue! sounds awesome? Virtue and liberty go together and we need both. This reign of terror is needed because we are getting rid of the foreign intelligence spying on the republic. Also, let's have a maximum price set.
- Jacobins: (Cordliers- Danton, Desmoulins) You guys are cool but so weird. Virtue can't work like that, and the terror might be going a bit too far. Maybe??? You guys have gone off the track! Also, need more populism. Long live the people! more democracy!! Huzzah!!
- Herbertists: I hate you all. Everybody. I want everybody guillotined now. Also, we need to totally do away with all this Christianity virtue stuff. (these guys were a minority)
- The Enrages: WE ARE ENRAGED!!! SEE HOW WE LIKE TALKING IN ALL CAPS???? Yes, we are a very small minority- the sans culottes and stuff. Some call us socialists, some call us anarchists. Some say we are a contradiction. We are the FULL UNLEASHED ANGER OF THE LOWER CLASSES. Although small in number we still want to be part of this drama <3
and some more who came about later
- Bonapartists: Napoleon is awesome. We need a strong general and leader to give us order and glory. France should dominate as the main global superpower.
- Legitimists: Oh let's have Bourbons again. They weren't that bad right?? Also you peasants better chill out.
- Orleanists: Or try a different royal family? Like the Orleans? :D Louis Phillippe is sooooo charming and handsome. Oh la la!
- republicans: Vive la republique! I shall die on the barricades before bowing my head to a king of France. The dream of my every moment is a republic and I shall never stop fighting for her. (this is where I tend to fall. With the Republicans of the 1832 barricades)
But after Robespierre everything got better!
Well, citizen, I have to burst a couple more myths. Robespierre wasn't in charge.
They had a government called the National Assembly, a Constitution, and a Revolutionary Tribunal. The Revolutionary Tribunal actually didn't send as many people to the guillotine as previously thought, about half were acquitted of crimes and suspicions. It wasn't the witch hunt portrayed in the movies. Also, Robespierre really couldn't do much on his own. There was a committee of 12 called the Committee on Public Safety.
Also, the National Assembly even revolted against the Jacobins which led to Robespierre's execution. Did it make things better?
NO! The White Terror actually killed more than the Reign of Terror. The White Terror is sadly under-discussed in history books.
After the White Terror, Napoleon came to restore order. We all know that story... after Napoleon, guess who came back? Oh no! our old friends or enemies (depending on where you stand) the Bourbons. But wait look over there citizen, its the barricades of 1830. That slender petite girl with light brown hair, is that Marianne? the symbol of the republic? Oh no.. citizen, Louis Phillippe (another king!!) just took the throne of France. He is charming, handsome and ohhh what a smooth talker. Maybe he is democratic afterall?
Or not, the barricades came up again in 1832. Ohh but that Louis knows how to crush a rebellion by killing even those suspected of being involved. Yikes! but oh well, here you have your fabricated account of the rebellion to read. Or do you citizen? Excuse me for a second, I shall only bow before the republic and not you King Louis Phillippe! Vive la republique! Here I stand, I will not lie about the 1832 rebellion. Oh wait, this isn't working. Just got thrown into jail by the king. Oh no! But wait... 1848, another rebellion? what is this? almost like the people are actually rising again?? oh no not another Bonaparte! Anyway, let me fast-forward our time machine here....
Where are we? No more barricades. I don't have to wear this phyrigian cap anymore, oh well I'll wear it anyway it is cute. But wait, is that the Republic's flag?? look at this "Republique Francaise" Wait... so the monarchy eventually was defeated?
That it was. That it was. The French Revolution wasn't a total failure, and it continued to inspire parts of classical liberal philosophy to this day. Citizen, you probably have read Rousseau? I sure hope so! Or I hope you have read Robespierre's writings? or Desmoulins?
Also let me set the record straight- Les Miserables was not the French Revolution! It was the June Rebellion.
Also, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Tale of Two Cities take place in the French Revolution but please take into account that both of these wonderful stories are works of literary fiction and effected by the cultural biases. I don't discourage you from reading them, please do! They are very enjoyable, but please remember to keep in mind the mythology of the French Revolution.
Citizen, I'm glad you enjoyed this adventure. It was long, I hope you stayed for the whole thing. Merci beaucoup! Now whatever conclusion you reach- whether you are a monarchist, Dantonist, Bonapartist or a Robespierreist I hope this encouraged you to read the French Revolution with new lenses. To look into the cultural context and the primary sources.
Please stay tuned for my 1832 June Rebellion adventure if you are interested. I shall be here with my phyrigian cap and coffee!