Reporter: What is the historical significance of the French Revolution?
Zhou Enlai: It's too soon to say. (Asked in 1972)
Era in French History when Marie Antoinette allegedly
tried giving her subjects a little dietary advice, who responded by storming Versailles and putting her and her brave husband Louis XVI to death by the guillotine. Their son, the Dauphin, makes it out of France alive, though, thanks to the tireless efforts of that "demmed elusive Pimpernel
". Everyone in this time period wore pastel-colored satin, big fancy wigs, fake beauty marks, and snorted snuff like it was cocaine. Unless they were poor, in which case they wore trousers with tricolor badges and sung "String the aristocrats from the lamp posts!" whilst waving their pitchforks
and gnashing their rotting teeth. Don't forget about taking down l'Ancien Régime
took over, and marched across Europe, stopped only by Richard Sharpe
or the Russian winter
, depending on your nationality.
The more realistic and cynical version of the French Revolution wasn't nearly that much fun. Start with a nation bankrupted by the construction of palaces and drained by wars (The American Revolution
in particular), add in a new and very young king and queen who don't have a clue how to run the country (it doesn't help that their young son died in the early weeks of the Revolutionary period), throw in a social elite envious of the nobility's privileges, a famine that makes bread too expensive for the average person to buy, and don't forget to add a heaping helping of bitter, crude, filthy misogynist ranting over the "Austrian Bitch" at Versailles and an arbitrary non-income-based tax system that meant many people's tax demand was greater than their entire income.
Simmer for a few years, then let the poor boil over, form mobs called the sans culotte (literally "without knee breaches", as in they wore trousers), and kill anyone they can catch, including the cream of the country's scientists, musicians, judges, educators, and artists. Burn to the ground any department that raises any objections. Spread lots of stories about Marie-Antoinette's sexual escapades and supposed indifference to the poor and Louis's supposed cruelty to justify your actions, and finish by executing everyone who instigated the revolution. Don't bother to actually feed the poor, though.
The revolution started with many liberal and progressive ideas. The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, declared many rights that are now considered basic human rights. In a radical idea at the time, divorce was legalized. Guilds were abolished, allowing more people to enter professions that had been protected by stringent requirements meant to protect its members from competition. Church lands were seized, and clergy were forced to swear an oath to the new constitution. At first the King seemed to be embracing the idea of a constitutional monarchy, even swearing an oath to uphold the constitution. However, in a scathing letter left behind when he escaped Paris, he made it clear that this was not the case. On the 10th of August 1792, the sans culottes and the National Guard attacked the Tuileries Palace and slaughtered the Swiss Guard guarding the royal family. The constitutional monarchy was no more, with the king placed under arrest. From there all order was lost, with the government declaring itself revolutionary and declaring terror to be its official policy.
An example of the variety of viewpoints is: in England "Jacobin" means "Jacobin", in America "Jacobin" means "fanatic", in Austria "Jacobin" means people like Alexander I of Russia, and in France "Jacobin" means "anti-federalists". To this day, the European political spectrum
is largely oriented by one's opinions on the French Revolution: the terms "left" and "right" themselves originate in where the delegates sat in the national assembly (other cool terms like Montagnard (Mountaineer) have not survived). Broadly speaking, liberalism consists in agreeing with it only so far as it went before the Reign of Terror; socialism consists in extending and "perfecting" it; conservatism consists in disliking it but working within the structures it creates; and reaction consists in trying to do away with it altogether. These notions have slipped a lot with time, the modern meaning of these terms being quite different. Red October
and World War II
changed these positions (for instance, the latter added fascism, a combination of socialism's revolutionary spirit with a conservative/reactionary opposition to its ideals), but did little to alter the overall orientation.
Today, the French Revolution is usually considered to be a radical alternative to the American Revolution
. Ironically, at the time the French and American revolutions were seen as ideological twins (subject peoples inspired by radical liberal ideas
overthrowing aristocracies, lead by radicalised members of the middle class like Robespierre and Washington) and supporters of one were usually supporters of the other (Thomas Paine
, the Anglo-US radical, considered a traitor by the British for his support of the American revolution, was an equally-fierce supporter of the revolution in France; he later turned against the leaders of both considering them what we would now call sell-outs). Also ironically, the most famous man to say anything about both revolutions, Irish statesman Edmund Burke, supported the American Revolution but not the one in France - he supported the Americans because they were fighting for freedom but opposed what the French were doing because they were trying to change too much too fast and based only on largely untested ideas. Modern "interpretations" of the events of the period usually say much more about contemporary politics and bickering than they do about the late 18th century.
The rest of Europe, which was still ruled by kings and emperors, were alarmed at what was happening in France. Many of the rest of Europe's great powers eventually invaded France in the French Revolutionary Wars
, either to forcibly put the Bourbons back on the throne, prevent the revolution from spreading to their own lands or even to take advantage of the chaos in France. Over the course of the war, the French proved to be anything but Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys
, repeatedly thrashing everyone from Great Britain to Austria to the Holy Roman Empire to Spain. A young Napoleon Bonaparte was among France's generals
, developing the reputation and skills that would serve him so well later in his career.
Lastly, we can't discuss La Revolution without talking about the Republican Calendar. Wanting to eliminate Christian influence, the French reset their calendars based on the new French Republic. 1792 (the year the Republic was founded) was now Year I (years were written in Roman numerals), and September 22 (the official beginning of the Republic) marked the beginning of the year. But it didn't end there. Years were divided into 12 months...but each month had 30 days (months were renamed after the common weather conditions of Paris), and each week had 10 days. A mostly decimal-based calendar looked good and orderly on paper, but in practice was somewhat more complicated
. For instance, there would first be five-year intervals between leap years, followed by four. Even so, the French and eventually Napoleon persevered at it before giving up in 1805. The revolutionaries even tried to institute decimal hours, minutes, and seconds
, but this proved even less popular. However, longer lasting were a bunch of units
introduced by the National Convention in Year 3 (1795) like the meternote
for lengths, the liter for volumes of liquid, the gram for mass, along with multiples of these units by factors of 2 and 10 like the kilogram (1000 grams), double decaliter (20 liters), or the centimeter (0.01 meters). Other long lasting changes include the departments — the borders of which have changed little since 1789 — and the tricolor flag.
Some basic notes:
- Louis XVI stayed King until 1792. He called the Estates-General in 1789 (the only body in France representing every Estate, or class, which hadn't been called since 1614) but some disagreement about the method of voting led to the formation of the National Assembly by the representatives of the Third Estate (peasantry/bourgeoisie). Initially the members of this body were split between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy similar to England (Feuillants) and those who wanted a Republic (Girondins and Jacobins). Robespierre was a leader of the Jacobins, though he only came to the forefront of the Revolution later when the Committee of Public Safety was in power. Lafayette was the leader of the National Guard in Paris until he was accused of being a counter-revolutionary and he fled the country.
- It went to hell when the King tried to suppress the changes leading to the Jacobins gaining power.
- The Reign of Terror under Robespierre killed at least 16,594 people and may have gone as high as 66,000.
- There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille when it was stormed, none of whom were political (the Marquis de Sade had been moved 10 days earlier). Besides, the goal of the rioters wasn't to free them but to get some weapons to defend themselves against royal troops. This event appears to have come about from rumours about said troops preparing a massacre of reolutionaries.
- There were several different governments during this time:
- The National Assembly (1789)
- The National Constituent Assembly (1789-1791)
- Legislative Assembly (1791-1792)
- National Convention (1792-1795)
- The Directory (1795-1799)
- Napoleon Bonaparte ended this when he took direct power. It's not like he caused any more mess. At least he stabilized the country and its institutions.
See also French Political System
, for all the bizarre things that have happened in France since then.
Popular tropes from this time period are:
- The American Revolution: Whatever one may say, the two are linked together as contemporary events inspired by somewhat similar ideals. France's support of America during the Revolutionary War was one of many reasons France went bankrupt while many French revolutionary leaders were at least partly inspired by events across the pond; many, like Thomas Paine and Marquis de Lafayette, participated in both. Americans were nonetheless disgusted at the bloodshed of the French Revolution; death is inevitable in such things, but a lot of what was happening in France was so gratuitously cruel that there was little excuse.
- Angry Mob Song: La Marseillaise, now the French national anthem. See also La Carmagnole and Ah ça Ira.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: A very influential trope.
- Black and Grey Morality: Whether your sympathies are royalist or republican, neither side comes out particularly well.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Danton, by all accounts.
- Conscription: The Trope Maker. Revolutionary France was the first government to state universal conscription for all able-bodied Frenchmen.
- But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Much like the "King George III wrote 'nothing important' in his diary on July 4, 1776" story, Louis XVI wrote "Nothing." in his journal on July 14, 1789. This is a subversion however, as a) he was referring to his unsuccessful hunting trip that day, and b) an aide burst in shortly after and informed him of the revolt (which is where we get the dialogue at the top of the page).
- Conspiracy Theory: There are claims that The Illuminati or the Freemasonry (or both) have secretly orchestrated the French Revolution (despite the Illuminatis' official disbandment years earlier). Note that this was two centuries before the McCarthyist "Soviet conspiracy" theories.
- Conspiracy theories were popular. Both the Jacobin and Cordeliers Club included rooting out counter-revolutionary conspiracies in their mission statements. After the fall of the king, the sans culotte believed their was a counter revolutionary conspiracy among prisoners leading to what is known as the September Massacres.
- Another variant, apparently popular among hardline royalists and later ultraconservatives, involved the Revolution being an anti-Christian conspiracy to destroy the "proper order" of the Ancien Regime and bring about the End Times. Coincidentally, the same theory is more or less used for other events and trends, ranging from the American Revolution to Vatican II.
- Corrupt Church: The Catholic Church in France pre-Revolution was notoriously authoritarian, ultra-royalist, anti-reform, arrogant (it obeyed instruction from Rome basically when it felt like it) and, well, corrupt. This was a major factor in the popularity of deism and the anti-Catholic atrocities during the Terror.
- Crowning Moment of Awesome: The Battle of Valmy. With a Ragtag Army of Misfits, too. Ask Goethe, he was there. They did bring a poet.
- More generally, the French Revolutionary Wars stand as a Crowning Moment for France as a whole. The brand new republic is in chaos, its treasury is empty, and it's surrounded by hostile powers who want to destroy it. What does it do? Get some help from Poland, Denmark and Norway, and proceed to kick the asses of Germany, Britain, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Austria, Turkey and Italy, expanding its territory in the process. This was also where Napoleon Bonaparte earned the reputation that would eventually lead him to found the French Empire.
- The "Serment du Jeu de Paume" and the "Prise de la Bastille" certainly qualify.
- Dark Action Girl: Charlotte Corday, who assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, a key revolutionary and leader of the Reign of Terror.
- Decapitation Presentation: Look!◊. Also happenned to Danton et Robespierre.
- Decided By One Vote: A very pupular myth about Louis XVI's execution. Execution was in fact widely ahead, but if you add the "death with delaying conditions" to the opposing votes, it comes to this.
- Democracy Is Flawed/Democracy Is Bad: The French People basically fought to overthrow the oligarchy and institute a people's government. It worked, and what it amounted to was the people enacting Mob Rule and civil war. At best, France's democracy after the Revolution was flawed, and at worst, it was bad.
- Disproportionate Retribution: During the Terror, you could be convicted as a counter-revolutionary on the slimmest evidence, leading to people being executed for some pretty ridiculous things.
- One could actually be executed for not being enthusiastic enough, let alone against the Revolution.
- Or even suggesting an expansion of the scope of the terror. Yes, Robespierre considered extremists like Hebert to actually be counter-revolutionaries (they were more bloodthirsty than him though).
- Early-Bird Cameo: France survived the foreign invasions in no small part due to the brilliance of its military leaders. One of these leaders was a young Napoleon Bonaparte, who was developing the skills and earning the fame that would serve him well later on.
- Eat the Rich: The Ur Example for this Stock Phrase came about during this time when Jean-Jacques Rousseau reportedly said, "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich," which would make an interesting corollary with Marie Antoinette's alleged "Let them eat cake" comments.
- Everyone Went to School Together: Robespierre and Desmoulins were friends in law school; they wound up as political enemies, resulting in Desmoulins's execution. Louis XVI was there to hear Robespierre's valedictorian speech. Also, Napoleon went to school and was friends with Augustin Robespierre, Maximilien's younger brother.
- Evil Cripple: Georges Couthon was condemned by Thermidorians because of that.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The instigators of the Reign of Terror actually called it that.
- "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: Danton's gets two: "Don't forget to show my head to the people, it's well worth seeing" addressed to his executioner and "My only regret is that I'm going before that rat, Robespierre!" addressed to the crowd.
- For Want of a Nail: Some experts believe that the famine that was one of the primary catalysts of the Revolution might not have been so bad, or even been averted completely had the French public had not been so resistant to earlier government efforts to introduce a crop from the New World known as la pomme de terre or in English, the potato.
- God Save Us from the Queen!: L'autrichienne.
- For those who don't speak French: autrichienne means '(female) Austrian', but chienne means, well, 'female dog' (and is just as insulting as in English). In addition, autruche means 'ostrich'.
- Gorgeous Period Dress/Pimped-Out Dress: The new Greco-Roman inspired high-waisted muslin gowns replacing the aristocratic wigs and full-skirted dresses.
- Hazy Feel Turn: Jacques-Louis David, the talented painter, prominent supporter of the Robespierre, and the chief propagandist of the Revolution and the Terror. He then managed to weasel out of a death sentence when Robespierre was guillotined and later became a great supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte. This resulted in the ironic fact that the most famous image glorifying the Revolution (La Mort de Marat) was painted by the same man who created the most famous image glorifying Napoleon (Napoleon Crosses the Alps), the man who ended the Revolution.
- Historical-Domain Character: Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and Napoleon spend so much time in fictions set in this period, one wonders how they managed to play their parts in history.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Robespierre did some less than commendable things in the name of the Republic, but he was co-author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, he advocated against the death penalty and was involved in such causes as the abolition of slavery, eliminating the property qualification to be represented in government, and granting rights to Protestants and Jews . Tell that to some fictional portrayals.
- Jean-Paul Marat perhaps got it worse than anybody else from that period, and went from being an almost godlike figure whose bust replaced crosses in churches to be described as an "angry monster insatiably hungry for blood" after the Reign of Terror was pretty much done and finished.
- Louis Antoine De Saint-Just is often portrayed in fiction as a violent extremist who wanted anyone of noble birth, even the ones on his side, wiped off the face of the earth. Now, while he did actually say this, he did so in the final years of his life (during the height of the Reign of Terror when they started executing people left and right), and for the most of his life had pretty moderate views. Tell that to fiction.
- On the other side, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette got this, especially during the Revolution. Marie Antoinette did not actually say the infamous line, "Let them eat cake", and Louis XVI was not tyrannical, just incompetent.
- History Repeats: The French Revolution cycle is strangely similar, if compressed, to the one of Ancient Rome: ousting the King, establishing a Republic undone by its divisions which gives way for an empire.
- Hit So Hard The Calendar Felt It: As noted above, the revolutionary government made 1792 the Year I, and France counted years that way for a while thereafter.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: The salon culture of Paris that served as the intellectual birthplace of many Revolutionary ideas grew as the result of the active patronage of the Duke of Orleans, Louis XVI's uncle, who was hoping to use the popular discontent against the King to usurp the throne himself. Suffice to say, things did not go as planned.
- List of Transgressions: King Louis received one.
1 - On 20 June, 1789, you attacked the sovereignty of the people by suspending the assemblies of its representatives and by driving them by violence from the place of their sessions. Proof thereof exists in the procès-verbal drafted at the Tennis Court of Versailles by the members of the Constituent Assembly.
2 - On 23 June you wished to dictate the laws to the nation; you surrounded its representatives with troops; you presented them with two royal declarations, subversive of every liberty, and you ordered them to separate. Your declarations and the minutes of the Assembly established these outrages undeniably.
32 - On 10 August you reviewed the Swiss Guards at five o’clock in the morning; and the Swiss Guards fired first on the citizens.
33 - You caused the blood of Frenchmen to flow
- Loophole Abuse: The U.S. maintained neutrality in the war between Britain and revolutionary France, despite an earlier treaty with the French signed during the American Revolution. George Washington's administration argued that the treaty was invalid because it had been signed with the no longer existent French monarchy. This led to the Quasi-War.
- Mind Screw: The Revolutionary period is often cited as one of the most complex and confusing areas of historical study, and is sometimes memetically invoked as something that drives people mad or puts them to sleep.
- More Deadly Than The Male: That was the tricoteuses' reputation, anyway.
- Nothing Is the Same Anymore: Oh yes. The global system was shaken from its core. Consequences are still visible and discussed to this day.
- When Kissinger asked Deng Xiaoping about the consequences of the French Revolution, Deng famously replied; "It is too early to say yet".
- Off with His Head!: The guillotine was extensively used, during the Reign of Terror in particular.
- Reign of Terror: The Trope Namer.
- The Remnant: The Royalists of Vendée and the Chouans saw themselves as this, along with La Résistance, in their uprising from 1793-1799. Their defiance and utter zeal caught the admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte. But even to this day, many of their descendants don't take to the Republic well.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The overwhelming conservative reaction.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: ''La Marseillaise'' is now the French national anthem because of this.
- Rousing Speech: Several, often doubling as Badass Boasts. For instance, Henri de la Rochejaquelein addressing the Vendean Royalist rebels: "If I advance, follow me; if I die, avenge me; if I retreat, kill me!"
- The most well-known may still be Danton's "(...) de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace (...)!".
- Self-Made Man: Arguably, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Revolution had given him an opportunity to rise up the ranks to become the legendary general-turned-Emperor known to history. Especially through a mix of ability (merit replacing social standing in the military) and connections with some of the Revolution's leaders.
- Pierre-François Augereau and André Masséna, the top commanders of the Army of Italy before Napoleon took over, rose from even lower. Augereau was the son of Parisian shopkeepers and became a brigadier general at 36 in 1793, three years only after joining the Revolutionary armies note . Masséna's story is a bit similar, although less convoluted : he was the son of a grocer from Nice, lost his father at 6, ran away from home at 13 to become a sailor, joined the army twice in 1775 and later in 1790 ; and he was also 36 when he became a brigadier general in 1793. Both men would then be made Marshals by Napoleon when he established the Empire.
- Shoot The Shaggy Dog Story: The revolution to get rid of an absolute monarch, followed by the wars to remove foreign influence, ended up producing another absolute monarch, who was then defeated by foreign influence, and the entire period of upheaval ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo and the re-installation of the House of Bourbon. By foreign powers. After nigh-on three decades of bloodshed, the French could be forgiven for asking: what was the bloody point?
- That's taking the short view. The House of Bourbon couldn't maintain an absolute monarchy for long and constitutional reforms were gradually introduced. The French monarchy in 1815 was very different from the one in 1789.
- Wouldn't Hit a Girl: How the king was forced back to Paris from Versailles.
- Also Amazon Brigade: the Revolutionary Republican Women (NOT to be confused with...).
- Invoked by Jean-Baptiste Bessières (former medical student, future Marshal of the French Empire) when he was part of the Constitutional Guard, tasked with the protection of the King. On August 9th 1792, he and about 200 other guards faced a furious mob of sans-culottes ; he ordered his men to lower their weapons and shouted "On ne tue pas les femmes !". In the end, the mob, impressed by his determination, dispersed without a single shot being fired.
- Upper-Class Twit: Whatever else you think about Marie and Louis, it's pretty obvious they had no clue what they were doing. The other French aristocrats weren't much more efficient, and most higher clergy and nobles constantly blocked any economic reforms that would help the country (since said reforms would also require them to give up some of their cash and nobility privileges). Others (usually poorer ones) supported them, some because they sincerely believed the country needed change (the leaders of the moderate faction were mostly aristocrats, some of them very capable men like Lafayette and Mirabeau; they wanted a limited monarchy like in Great Britain, but couldn't convince the king it was his only hope of surviving.) Others opposed reforms just because they hated Calonne.
Works that are set in this time period are:
Anime and Manga
- Batman: Reign of Terror: An Elseworlds story set during the French Revolution with Bruce Wayne as a French nobleman who becomes a masked crimefighter carrying convicted innocents out of France, a la The Scarlet Pimpernel.
- The Sandman story "Thermidor" is a dark tale set in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
- Danton's Death (play by Georg Büchner)
- Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss