The Pathos of Politics (34) The French Revolution

The French Revolution

The French Revolution reinforced the role of the state. Authority was harder, more peremptory; control, more centralized. ~ American historian David Landes

The 7 Years’ War and American Revolutionary War put the French government deep in debt. It attempted to fill its coffers through regressive tax schemes.

On top of overtaxation, years of bad harvests and rising food prices in the 1780s inflamed popular resentment over the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and aristocracy. In 1788, a severe winter brought famine to the countryside, resulting in riots in Paris over the price of bread.

Desperate, King Louis XVI called for the Estates-General to convene. The Estates-General was a legislative body that had last met in 1614, 175 years prior.

The Estates-General was organized into 3 Estates: the clergy, the nobility, and commoners (peasants and a burgeoning middle class). The assemblage convened on 5 May 1789.

The first task was for each Estate to verify its members’ credentials. After doing so, the 3rd Estate (commoners) proceeded to declare themselves a National Assembly.

The Assembly convened in June 1789 with the radical purpose of drafting a new constitution. King Louis XVI futilely tried to thwart the meeting.

The finance minister, Jacques Necker, had earned the enmity of the French court for his overt manipulation of public opinion. On 11 July 1789, Necker publicly released an inaccurate account of the state’s debt, showing that the crown was not bankrupt as supposed. The king fired him for the deception.

Many Parisians presumed Louis’ was doing his utmost to act against the Assembly. When they heard the news of Necker’s dismissal, they openly rebelled.

Parisian paranoia was not without reason. The king appeared ready to use force to disband the Assembly.

On 14 July, the rebels overtook a well-stocked armory (Hotel des Invalides) and the medieval Bastille fortress in Paris, then used as a prison and ammunition depot. The storming of the Bastille became an iconic flashpoint of the French Revolution.

Civil authority deteriorated throughout the country as the spirit of popular sovereignty spread. Local militias formed. Granaries were robbed and manor houses overrun.

Messages of support for the Assembly poured in from cities throughout the country. Seeing the ascendant power of the 3rd Estate, a majority of the clergy joined the Assembly, as did many noblemen.

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good. ~ Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

On 26 August 1789, the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. The Declaration was based upon natural law: rights held to be universal at all times, especially equal protection under the law.

Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law. ~ Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

The protections afforded in the Declaration did not apply to women or slaves. Slavery in France was outlawed in 1794. Universal suffrage for men (without property qualifications) was enacted in 1848. Women had to wait until 1945 for their chance to vote. Nature and natural law are not to be confused – the former is what is, whereas the latter is what patricians think the former ought to be.

The Declaration was submitted by French aristocrat General Lafayette, who had fought for the United States in its Revolutionary War. He was helped in its drafting by his close friend, Thomas Jefferson. The inspiration and much of the content of the Declaration emanated from the ideals of the American Revolution.

While rebellion intensified, the National Assembly continued to meet, eventually crafting a constitution in 1791 that established France as a constitutional monarchy. The king had to share power with an elected legislature, but still retained a royal veto and the ability to select ministers.

The attempt to govern failed altogether. Its legacy was an empty treasury, an undisciplined military, and a people debauched by safe and successful riot.

Food shortages worsened. In 1792 the radical faction – Jacobins – seized power.

They abolished the monarchy, proclaimed a republic, and began a Reign of Terror to eliminate political opposition.

It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty. ~ proclamation of the French National Convention (5 September 1793)

Over 41,000 people were executed; 16,594 via the “National Razor” (guillotine). Many victims were nobility. The former king and queen were among them.

Louis XVI lost his head on 21 January 1793. His wife, Marie Antoinette, got the chop on 16 October 1793.

Maximilien Robespierre

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue. The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny. ~ Maximilien Robespierre

French lawyer and politician Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) was a member of the Estates-General, the National Assembly, and the Jacobin Club. Influenced by Montesquieu and Rousseau, Robespierre opposed slavery and the death penalty while supporting universal male suffrage, equal rights (for men), and establishment of a republic.

Robespierre was an exceptionally eloquent and compelling speaker. In his speeches he often invoked moral virtues. Yet Robespierre was the mouthpiece of terror and became its effective leader. He was instrumental in creating a legal tribunal that functioned as a court of condemnation, without need of witnesses.

Understandably, paranoia infected French politics. Political infighting intensified.

The terror worm turned on Robespierre, who was condemned by his enemies on charges of tyranny. On 27 June 1794 he was arrested. The next morning, he was tried and his head lopped off.


The excesses of the Revolution abated. In 1795, a less radical constitution was enacted. Elected by the legislative assembly, a 5-man council became the executive branch, known as the Directory.

Despite the relative calm, the economy was still in shambles, and the country was still at war. State finances were in disarray. The government covered its expenses only through plunder and extortion of tributes from foreign countries. If peace were made, the armies that returned home would face exasperation in losing their livelihoods, while the ambitions of generals would be turned inwards, to domestic conquest.

The Directory turned out to be a nest of corruption. Its ineptness led to riots anew, which the army suppressed; led by Napoléon Bonaparte, who had his troops fire cannons on the Parisian mobs.

In reaction, royalists were elected in 1797. The Directory rejected the results and retained power.

On 9 November 1799, Napoléon staged a coup, which led to his dictatorship, and eventuated in his proclamation as emperor in 1804. Thus, Polybius’ karmic wheel of politics turned in France.