—Goethe to the defeated German soldiers after the battle of Valmy
Era in French History when Marie Antoinetteallegedly 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.
Then Napoleon took over, and marched across Europe, stopped only by Richard Sharpe or the Russian winter, depending on your nationality.
The more cynical version of the French Revolution wasn't nearly that much fun. Start with a series of nations (Britanny, Gascogne, etcetc, a unified 'French' identity or even language had yet to be invented) that kind of hate and have to share a realm with each other as well as being drained by three major world wars in the last hundred years and lots of smaller ones besides (The American Revolution in particular, which basically boiled down to Britain vs France note The Revolutionary War had fronts in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and India with Britain to get back for the last one), add some conspicuously expensive-to-make-and-keep royal palaces and 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 rigid social system more or less akin to castes, a famine that makes bread too expensive for the average person in the Parisian Basin to buy, and don't forget to add a heaping helping of bitter, crude, ranting over the "Austrian Bitch" at Versailles and an arbitrary non-income-based tax system that meant far too many people's tax demand was greater than their entire income.
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 and so was, surprisingly, homosexual sex. 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. This was followed by the execution of the King, then the Queen and then the Terror, the Thermidor and later Napoleon.
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). Indeed, the French Revolution also affected American politics. Many political clubs developed in America in imitation of the French, much to President Washington's displeasure. The pro-Revolution camp was called "Democrat" by Citizen Genet (a Girondin ambassador who got stranded in America when the Reign of Terror was unleashed). The Haitian Revolution and its mounting refugee crisis, spilling out of the French Revolution, also affected its politics. 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 working within the structures it creates but either thinking it went too far/too fast or disliking it; 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 fascism was added, encompassing a combination of socialism's revolutionary spirit with a conservative/reactionary twist on its ideals), but did little to alter the overall orientation.
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, led 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.
In a way he was right, the French Revolution unlike the American one featured for the very first time, universal male suffrage (women did not get the vote, sadly, in this it was aligned with the American revolution) by which every citizen in France of a certain age, regardless of occupation and vote was given a vote. Suffrage in America at least in its early days was limited to property owners. The French National Convention election in 1792 was the first time in the modern era that it was practiced. Suffrage after Thermidor would be increasingly restricted until returning in the Second Republic. The French Revolution also developed a reform program during the Reign of Terror that aimed at fixing the price of bread, regulating the market and wealth redistribution. One aspect in which the French Revolution went further than America was the fact that it witnessed in February 1794, the first occasion in the ruling government of a Western power where slavery was outright abolished in an act of law, partly out of principles but also because of the pressures of the Revolution in Haiti which was happening side by side. When Napoleon took power, these and other reforms were set back and made illegal again.
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 butCheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys, repeatedly thrashing everyone from Great Britain to Austria to the Holy Roman Empire to Spain. A young Napoleon Bonapartewas among France's generals, developing the reputation and skills that would serve him so well later in his career, at the same time building his contacts among revolutionaries in different factions. He was initially a Jacobin and supporter of the Terror, it was Robespierre's brother Augustin who gave him his first major promotion. During the Thermidor, Napoleon was briefly imprisoned for his association with Robespierre but later released. He became a national hero by defending Paris on 13 Vendemmiare against the Vendee royalist faction. He commanded the defense and won it, in Carlyle's phrase, with a "whiff of grapeshot" and didn't even have a scratch.
The Revolution was innovative for a number of features.
For one thing it introduced Total War, mass Conscription of civilian soldiers into the Army, the Levee en masse issued by the great engineer Lazare Carnot, an action for which he was called the Organizer of Victory. This involved able-bodied men, women and children performing all kinds of actions. Women were sent to hospitals and sent to work while the men were sent to fight the War in all kinds of capacities. Such initiative and mobilization would be repeated on a far grander scale during World War II but the world saw it first here.
Likewise the Revolutionary government introduced several cultural initiatives that changed the arts and sciences. The most successful were a bunch of units introduced by the National Convention in Year 3 (1795) like the meternote The meter was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator, on a line running from Dunkirk to Barcelone through Paris. 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). It since has become quasi universal. It was during the Revolution that the Louvre Palace, already used as a warehouse for the Royal Art collection and a residency for artists patronized by the throne, became the Louvre Museum, opening it to the public and declaring it part of the cultural patrimony. Likewise the Royal Garden became the Jardin des Plantes, headed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who would eventually become a key pre-Darwin evolutionary theorist. Other long lasting changes include the departments — the borders of which have changed little since 1789 — and the tricolor flag. Not that the government was a bastion of freedom, during the Reign of Terror, the likes of Chateaubriand (who was a fierce royalist) and Beaumarchais (the playwright, author of "The Marriage of Figaro" who moonlighted as an arms dealer for both the American and French Revolutions) were forced into exile and one of the victims of the Terror was the father of Modern Chemistry, Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier himself, because of his past as a tax collector and a Girondin.
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.
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.
The King and the Royal Court for his part kept issuing vetoes on every issue,(earning him and his wife the nickname "Monsieur and Madame Veto") led astray by bad advice and the hope that the Revolution was a passing frenzy. Mirabeau and Lafayette tried to urge the King to begin reforms but the Queen was paranoid and distrusted both of them. Constitutional Monarchy at the time was even supported by the Jacobin-Montagnards (even Saint-Just of all people) who were not yet radicalized. The turning point came with the Flight to Varennes, a horrible PR disaster which really split the existing factions into moderate and extreme lines (Girondins and Jacobins). This and the Storming of the Tuilleries marked the end of Constitutional Monarchy and the birth of the Republic.
A faction of the Jacobins, led by Jacques Pierre Brissot came to be called the Girondins or Brissotins. They were the leading voices in the years 1792-early 1793. They were slow to pass reforms, represented and catered to the provincial cities rather than the Parisian sans-culottes/nascent working-class. They also sought to energize the Revolution by declaring war on Austria which Robespierre famously opposed, only to be silenced as it gained support even among extremists like the Hebertists.
When the War started losing ground, and General Dumouriez who the Girondins had touted as highly sympathetic to the nation, defected to the enemy along with other noble defections, France found its borders threatened. This led to a city-wide insurrection that put the Jacobins in power, the Girondins imprisoned and the proper beginning of the Reign of Terror, as a wartime measure to meet the armies on France's borders.
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 revolutionaries.
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), of which the Committee of Public Safety was a sub-group, as was the Paris Commune.
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. Thomas Jefferson remained steadfast in his support of the French Revolution, even after learning of the Terror, and fought the U.S. policy of neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars. Several prominent Americans (including Benjamin Franklin who was the United States Ambassador to France until 1785) also had personal sympathy for Louis XVI (as a man, if not necessarily a monarch) for his aid during their revolution. The US and France ended up fighting each other in the Quasi-War in 1798.
In fact, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the major document of the Revolution was suggested and partly authored by Jefferson himself. And the famous mob song, "Ah, ça Ira" derives from Benjamin Franklin's popularity among French people. He was constantly asked during his stay as ambassador how the American Revolution was going, and Franklin would always reply in broken French, "Ah, ça Ira" ("It goes"/"It's happening"/"It's going good") which was later set to a song by a street singer.
Aerith and Bob: As part of the general shift towards getting rid of most Christian influences on civil society, as exemplified by the Republican Calendar, baby names given during the First Republic tended to sound like this, although today some of them are, if not common, at least not as unusual as they would have been then: names inspired by nature such as Rose, Prune note Plum, or Cerisenote Cherry, were basically invented (as names) at that point to replace then-popular names like Marie, Pierre or Jean. Adding to this trend is the fact that enthusiastically republican adults, namely politicians, also took on either non-biblical or "republican" names: for instance, Louis-Philippe d'Orléans, the king's cousin, who thus became "Philippe-Egalité". Somewhat like The Sixties hippy names, only slightly less shroom-induced.
Aluminum Christmas Trees: The French Revolution introduced a lot of radical features that gave it an edge in its conflict with the rest of Europe:
It started using hot air balloons in battlefields to provide a high vantage point in which to survey enemy formations. It famously used this in the battle of Fleurus.
It's real edge however was the groundbreaking Semaphore line nascent telegraph technology developed by Claude Chappe. This was a telegraph system with mounted visual relays on towers that covered 556 stations across 4800 kms. Its ability to rapidly transmit information about the war from the frontlines to Paris, while the rest of the Coalition struggled in confusion, allowed for superior mobilization of resources.
Angry Mob Song: La Marseillaise, now the French national anthem. See also La Carmagnole and Ah ça Ira.
Anti-Villain: A lot of people see Louis XVI as this nowadays, if not just a victim; he genuinely had good intentions toward his country, he just happened to be both clumsy and unfitted for a time where the King's image had already been severely damaged.
A lot of 20th Century writers, including Hannah Arendt and recently, Hilary Mantel, have come to see Robespierre himself this way. Even a critic like Francois Furet noted that Robespierre represented the Revolution at its best and most tragic discourse. He represents the recent adage, "You either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain!".
Aristocrats Are Evil: A very influential trope. Though a lot of the popular images of the revolution, especially in works like A Tale of Two Cities focus, greatly on Mob Violence, often to disproportionate levels.
Back from the Brink: By 1792, the French Army had suffered setbacks, the Austrians were marching to the capital and General Dumouriez, the hero-general of Valmy had become a defector along with other nobles. The government executed the King, the coalition now included England who put a blockade on all food imports. So what do France do, they got their act together, discovered their revolutionary spirit and started winning. By the time of the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, France's borders were totally secure and the invasions were repelled. In the space of a single year, France, deprived of its army and economy, facing what would likely have been a very brutal sack and occupation, restructured its army from the ground up, stamped out local counter-revolutions (with extreme prejudice, needless to say) and federal insurrections, pioneered technology and administrative reforms that put them years ahead of the rest of the Continent and ensured the triumph of the Revolution and the birth of Europe.
Badass Creed: The motto of France during the year of the Reign of Terror, when they were about to be invaded on all sides and faced Civil War:
Less official but more popular and well-known mottos were also of this type:
La Liberté ou la Mort ! (Liberty or Death!), Vivre libre ou mourir ! (To Live Free or To Die!).
Balance of Power: The major reason why the French Revolution provoked so much hostility in Europe, it upset a delicate geopolitical status-quo of inter-mixed land borders and inter-married nobility, plus the system of feudalism and tradition that had been in place for centuries. It was also a key part why the revolution turned increasingly bloody:
Geographically, France shared land borders with Austria (which also included the Netherlands and Belgium) and Prussia in the North, Spain to the South, Italy in the East and towards the West, England across the channel. All those countries, save for England, had been steeped in feudalism and the Queen of France was of course Austrian. So an attack on the sovereignty and limitations of powers of the King and Queen naturally made them afraid, since they felt it would give their subjects bad ideas. Once the King was executed however, it became a war for vengeance, and to this end they even refused peace overtures by Danton to ransom the Queen since Marie Antoinette, at that stage, was more useful to them as a martyr to avenge and mourn than to keep alive.
In the early stages, England had offered tentative support to France believing that a step towards constitutionalism would perhaps lead to a new alliance in the European balance, rather than England's traditional alliances with Portugal and Austria. However, the radical direction taken in France, with constant support in England led conservatives such as Prime Minister William Pitt and statesman Edmund Burke to denounce the Revolution and, following the French declaration of war on Britain, unleash all kinds of repressive laws. The mood in England was such that famous scientist and radical Joseph Priestley had his house burned down by conservative rioters and before coming to France, Thomas Paine himself was submitted to a trial for sedition. During the revolutionary war, England violated (then) established international law by issuing an embargo on ships carrying grain produce to France, where they would seize and/or sink ships carrying grain with the stated intention of starving its subjects, which was famously defied during the Glorious First of June.
The French themselves had little problem with violating international law, when they ordered their soldiers to execute every British prisoner of war. While justifying this, leading member of the Committee of Public Safety, Bertrand Barère declared, 'The English are a race foreign to Europe, foreign to humanity. They must disappear.’
Of course, the war was ultimately provoked by France itself, specifically the Girondin party led by Brissot, though most of the Jacobins, save for Robespierre and Marat, supported it as well. Brissot argued that Louis XVI was sitting on the fence because he and his wife hoped that the Austrians and other powers would restore his privileges, so if they pre-emptively declared war on Austria, the King would have no choice to go along with the Constitutional Monarchy if only to defend his Kingdom. Brissot also argued that "liberating" France's neighbours and establishing republics would "spread the revolution" across Europe and also provide a good buffer zone between France and its enemies.
Robespierre and Marat argued against any war for aggression (they were okay with defense). Robespierre pointed out that if France lost the war, their enemies would restore the Ancien Regime, maybe carve up some French territory and the radicals and people would be punished severely. However, given that the Military was still largely royal and nobility dominated at the time, victories were equally dangerous. It could lead to the generals turning against the young republic in favour of the Kingnote A problem Robespierre and Saint-Just solved by successfully pushing for his execution and taking France to a Point of No Return or some general developing ambitions and support for a military dictatorship. "Spreading the Revolution" likewise would not work as well, because they would be seen as conquerors by their enemies and its subjects ("Who loves Armed Missionaries?") and in turn provoke endless coalitions against France which would destabilize Europe. Nobody listened to him and when the war started going sour and former war-hero General Dumouriez and several nobles defected to the enemy and threatened to march to Paris, the Reign of Terror was unleashed to defend France and after Thermidor, the war turned from defensive to expansionist, leading to the rise of Napoleonnote who ironically got his promotion via Robespierre's younger brother, and his wars and the Bourbon Restoration which was, however, a strong constitutional monarchy.
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 his bedroom the night after, awoke him and informed him of the revolt:
Duke of La Rochefoucauld: Sire, the Bastille has been taken.
Louis XVI: Taken? But by who?
Duke of La Rochefoucauld: By the people, sire.
Louis XVI: Is it a revolt?
Duke of La Rochefoucauld: No Sire, it is a revolution.
Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Quite a few, but none more than Joseph Fouché. He shifted from Girondin to Jacobin, from there to Robespierre's Mountain faction During the Reign of Terror he was among the most brutal representatives, presiding over vicious massacres in Lyon, where he cannon-blasted with grapeshot men, women and children, which Robespierre himself denounced and then kicked him out of the Jacobin Club, which at that time was close to a death sentence in practice. Fouche then became a major conspirator in Robespierre's downfall, after which he played a role in hunting down several Robespierre loyalists and Jacobins. He then conspired with Napoleon to bring down the Directory government and appoint him Dictator. Years later, he would stab Napoleon in the back and then conspire with the Bourbons despite having voted for Louis XVI's death, where he hunted down other regicides for revenge killing.
Conflict Killer: After ten years of Royalists, Girondins and Jacobins fighting and killing each other in the streets of Paris and failing to establish a stable government after the fall of Robespierre, in comes Napoleon a belove war-hero who proposes a third option, make me Dictator! Quite a few Girondins were opposed to Napoleon taking power as were others but a broad majority tired of the in-fighting and lack of agreement voted for him since it kept the other side from getting a majority. Napoleon than managed to unite the internecine factions by conquering Europe "spreading the Revolution", all the while suppressing all newspapers, instituting censorship and bringing slavery back and becoming a military dictator in the process.
Of course, it turns out that many of the people in Napoleon's cabinet never had real loyalty to the man and were secretly working to undermine him all the time and return France to a more democratic system. Talleyrand, ex-Bishop, was the main glue in this.
Conscription: The Trope Maker. Revolutionary France was the first government to pass universal conscription for all able-bodied Frenchmen, introducing total war where women were tasked to work in various capacities while the men were away.
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 culottes believed there was a counter-revolutionary conspiracy among prisoners, leading to what is known as the September Massacres, where political prisoners were killed en masse.
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.
Edmund Burke, the famous Conservative Critic, in his famous anti-Revolutionary pamphlet of Reflections argued that the Revolution was the conspiracy of "Jew Brokers" who sought to do create a brutal and crude middle-class world to replace the Aristocracy. Such anti-semitic harangues gained strength from the fact that the Revolution made great progress in de-Ghettoizing Jews across Europe.
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. The Church itself directed many atrocities and counter-revolutionary activities in France. It also had a role in forcing Louis XVI to veto reforms since being a genuinely devout Catholic, he felt that he was defending his own faith.
The French Catholic Church was also the largest landowner in France at the time which meant that any reforms to end feudalism inevitably put the Revolution on a collision course against the Church. The Church also had a serious hold over the education system of France and careers for the third estate, which meant that even people who weren't necessarily "good catholics" such as L'Abbe Sieyes and Talleyrand had to start out as bishops for social reasons if not religious and indeed many careerist clergy eagerly jumped ship to secular government.
However, it's also important to note that quite a few Catholic priests, mostly low-level priests and some reformist bishops were entirely supportive of the Revolution. The Bishop Henri Gregoire, an abolitionist who also argued for Jewish tolerance and clamping down on anti-semitism, was one such example.
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.
Cycle of Revenge: The Revolution became this slowly. The people largely wanted revenge against the aristocrats for centuries of oppression and indentured servitude. In the post-Thermidor, Girondins and Thermidorians would hunt Jacobin sympathizers on a large scale. Later during the Bourbon restoration, regicides, people who voted for the King's death were hunted down, executed or exiled forever, even those who helped the Bourbons to come back like Fouché.
Dark Action Girl: Charlotte Corday, who assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, a key revolutionary and leader of the Reign of Terror.
Deadly Bath: The most famous real-life incident, the Death of Marat. Jean-Paul Marat had a bad skin condition(augmented by the time he spent hiding in Paris sewers, escaping royalist persecution) which meant he had nearly constant fevers. The only way to solve that was regular hydrotherapy which is why he spent so much time his bath-tub with a table and writing material on top for him to work. This unfortunately meant he was especially vulnerable in terms of movement to protect himself from Charlotte Corday, who he finally let in over his wife Simonne Evrard's reluctance, because she claimed to have information about Girondin agitators.
The woman who became Marie Tussaud (yes Madame Tussad herself, l'originale) often found herself making death masks of famous victims which were often sold as souvenirs and paraded in public. She herself barely dodged the guillotine.
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.
It was a close run thing, out of 721 voters, 34 voted for death, by delay, 2 voted for life imprisonment in irons, 319 voted for imprisonment until the end of the war (to be followed by banishment). But a majority of 361 voted for death without conditions, among the people who voted was Philippe-Egalite, duc d'Orleans.
Deism: Many French Revolutionaries ardently believed in this ideal, to the point that they tried to oppose atheism and replace it with all kinds of proto-hippie cults and revival of old pagan gods and goddesses.
The Cult of Reason, supported by atheists, revived goddesses such as Liberty (an actual Roman goddess), statues of which were placed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame(statutes of kings and saints were removed or destroyed). Liberty later became part of revolutionary iconography manifesting itself in Delacroix's famous painting of Liberty Leading the People and triumphantly in the Statue of Liberty, gifted by the French to America as a celebration of the two revolutions.
Robespierre for his part, felt atheism would alienate people and sought to create a Cult of the Supreme Being whereby people would channel their old religious devotion to civic virtue and democracy. He even quoted Voltaire, "If God does not exist, it is necessary to invent him." His infamous festival of the Supreme Being organized in the Champ de Mars was widely attended and a public success though on a personal level, it alienated him from the more radical political base.
Democracy Is Flawed/Democracy Is Bad: The French Revolution is often used as an example for both tropes, often tending to the latter rather than the former. In most cases, the situation is not simple or one-sided.
In any case the situation is complicated by the fact that the Revolution actually saw several different attempts at different styles of democracy, moving from Constitutional Monarchy which failed big time, then leading to the Girondin's Republican government that ultimately sought to solve a weak situation by instigating War for Fun and Profit but not making changes in the army structure to align with the new national principles. Predictably, when they started losing that war, the Jacobins had to install the Reign of Terror to win that war, introduce reforms only for them to fall into factional in-fighting that led them to bear the bad press for two hundred years. After, Thermidor, they moved to the Directory which was essentially an oligarchy and then to military dictatorship.
The most reasonable conclusion is to simply regard the violence as logical for a young nation beset by a siege mentality, facing invasions from all sides and unlike the American Revolution lacking the Atlantic Ocean to provide some geographic buffer. Furthermore, France had to go from a feudal nation to a democratic, middle-class society very fast, a transition that in England(from which America derived its foundation) took place across three hundred years but which France achieved in four or five years, with things such as land reform, peasant distribution, division of church property and the changes in society needed to make those political and economic changes happen. In other words, a political change had to accompany social and economic changes whereas the American Revolution was largely based on the question of political self-determination and emerging nationalism and could restrain itself from dealing with social, racial and economic issues during the period of foundation.
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).
Drill Sergeant Nasty: Louis Antoine de Saint-Just had this reputation as a Committee Overseer of the French Military. He was actually highly popular among rank and file men but he hated the officers, and had many of them executed by firing squad, including a general at one time. His constant policing of the generals, and remember Saint-Just was in his 20s, proved effective in imposing discipline among generals, officers and soldiers:
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 near 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. Note that Rousseau died in 1778.
One of the most shocking instances, referenced by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities is that of Foullon de Doué, the highly conservative financial minister who was hated by his own tax collectors for being a Jerk Ass. He was rumoured to have said, "If those rascals have no bread, let them eat hay!" He was highly unpopular in Paris, and after the Bastille was stormed, he tried to flee to his country estate but the mob caught him, they then dragged him back to Paris to the Hotel de Ville, made him walk barefoot with a bundle of hay tied to his back. The mob then tried to lynch him on a lamp-post which broke three times, before being beheaded, its mouth being filled with Grass and paraded around Paris on a pike. His son-in-law, was killed and beheaded-on-a-pike later that same day, and a creative mob decided to make him "Kiss Daddy" by pushing one head against the other.
End of an Age / Dawn of an Era: Historians usually mark the French Revolution as the beginning of the Late Modern Period. It is seen as as important as the Discovery of America or the Fall of Rome.
Specifically it was the point where the Age of Enlightenment was no longer confined to intellectuals in their failed attempts to hawk ideas to "Enlightened Monarchs" like Frederick the Great (Voltaire) and Catherine the Great (Diderot), but became the language of the people, succeeding in becoming a mass movement which The Renaissance failed to become.
Economically its the point where aristocrats if they weren't killed were essentially neutered with the middle class or the bourgeosie taking power and calling the shots. It spread the idea of nationalism, for better and worse, and codified popular sovereignty inspiring independence movements in Latin America, the Middle East, India and the rest of the world.
Enfant Terrible: Louis Antoine de Saint-Just is perhaps the real-life incarnation of this defining French trope. He was born to minor nobility but had a rebellious personality all his childhood, including a plan to start a fire in the school. He eventually stole money from home and ran away to the big city before being caught, and before the revolution he tried a career in poetry by writing a long erotic poem L'Organt. When the revolution started he became a hyper-competent organizer, efficient military bureaucrat and seduced people with his incredible good looks which to some extent off-set his ruthless streak during the Reign of Terror. Supporters noted that he had, "A brain of fire and a heart of ice".
I'm not for any faction. I will fight them all.
The Enlightenment: For outside observers across the world, the French Revolution was the moment where the Enlightenment was no longer consigned to people in aristocratic salons but actually became ideas that hit the streets, becoming part of the brutal, life-and-death politics. It was the moment where the Enlightenment became real in all its positive and negative connotations. Of course, The American Revolution was also inspired by the Enlightenment but the movement had its roots in Europe and France in particular, it was one thing to see it happen in a patch of colonies across the Atlantic ocean and another, as the common phrase of the day went, "to bring it into port".
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. Augustin gave Napoleon his first major promotion.
The three young soldiers Napoleon befriended and took as aides-de-camp after the Siege of Toulon (Auguste Marmont, Andoche Junot and Jean-Baptiste Muiron) went to the same collège and had all served in different regiments before reuniting in Toulon.
Evil Cripple: Georges Couthon was condemned by Thermidorians because of that. In their defense, Couthon was the man who instituted the dreaded Law of 22 Prairial, with Robespierre's support, by which suspects brought to tribunals could not be allowed witnesses or evidence. The Terror became bloody after that, with most of the new victims being wealthy nobleman and clergy, and in Paris alone, doubling the number of victims in two months than all the numbers in the previous year.
Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The instigators of the Reign of Terror actually called it that. Maximilien Robespierre used it to define the climate of siege and necessity which called for it, since France was under terror of occupation and a return to the feudal order, the government would assume a state of emergency commensurate to the threat.
Even historians highly critical of the Jacobins, such as Furet and Alfred Cobban, regard Robespierre's as the only real government of the Revolution. Right before his death the economy was stabilizing, largely due to the assignat system of fixed bread prices that he placed in. The Army which he was controlling via Committee Overseers Saint-Just and his brother Augustin was becoming professional despite featuring a mass of raw recruits, largely thanks to the organization of Lazare Carnot but also on account of Robespierre's rigid demands of meritocracy. This resulted, ironically, in Napoleon's first major appointment (a fact which he was always grateful for to Robespierre, though he kept his praises private).
After Thermidor, the Directory government saw rapid inflation and widespread unpopularity and the continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars via military adventurism, created the climate for Napoleon to take over. Also, after Thermidor, there were no more social programs aimed at public welfare until the Napoleonic Code. Even Thomas Paine, who was imprisoned by Robespierre during the Terror and narrowly avoided guillotine, criticized the Director government for abandoning the Jacobin constitution which allowed for universal male suffrage while the later constitution restricted the vote.
See also Society Marches On below for some measures who were seen as "extreme" at the time, but are fairly mundane parts of our lives now.
Face Death with Dignity: Many of the victims of the Guillotine comported themselves this way, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but also Danton and even Jacobin Saint-Just who on marching to the guillotine held a copy of the radical 1793 Constitution (which was never actually enforced) stating, "I wrote that" and walked with his head held high.
"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.
Famous Last Words: It was a golden age for this. Among the most famous is Madame Roland's:
"O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!"
(Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!)
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.
Ancient Rome, especially the Republic, Sparta and Greece were as obsessed over during the Revolution as it was during the Renaissance. Brutus, both the founder of the republic and his notorious descendant, were regarded as heroes and during Dechristianization, men were given names like Grachhus or Spartacus. A lot of the revolutionary costumes, most famously the Red Phrygian cap of the sans-culottes and other accessories was part of the classical revival as were some of the more revealing female fashion trends, the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses, during the Directory Period of France. When Napoleon came to Power, after his adventure in Egypt, he added a lot of Egyptian motifs to the mix while the trends, in-synch with the historical parallel, moved from glorifying the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.
The early part of the Revolution also saw a lot of pro-English and pro-American sentiment which never did die away (at least among the Girondins and moderate republicans), but once France went to war and the Jacobins came to power, there was a lot of Cultural Posturing about how it was a true Republic while England still kept its king. Later, they denounced England as the "Modern Carthage" with themselves being "the Romans". The National Convention refused to send diplomatic missions to nations that were not "true" republics so only America and Switzerland had diplomatic offices, though later for reasons of Realpolitik they entered into negotiations with Ottoman Turkey. The Directory was pragmatic about it and sent diplomatic missions when needed, yet ironically is the one which got its diplomats assassinated.
From Nobody to Nightmare: None of the major figures in the French Revolution would have amounted to much had it not been for the Revolution. Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins were lawyers with no prior political ambitions and interests. Saint-Just was a Rich Idiot with No Day Job, Marat was an out-of-work physician and aspiring scientist with only passing interest in revolutionary concerns. Lazare Carnot was a minor bureaucrat and maths teacher at the military academy with no real chance of advancement. The revolution made them as much as they made it.
Napoleon Bonaparte was minor nobility in Corsica at the outbreak of the Revolution. At the early part of his career, he had seriously considered becoming a mercenary, even applying to the British Royal Navy. When the revolution broke out, he became a Jacobin, falling out with Pasquale Paoli a Corsican separatist(and Royalist) and joined the French Revolutionary Army in 1792-1793, becoming Brigadier-General in the space of a year after the Siege of Toulon.
Maximilien Robespierre: "Our revolution has made me feel the full force of the axiom that history is fiction and I am convinced that chance and intrigue have produced more heroes than genius and virtue."
Full-Circle Revolution: The Girondins wanted to establish a liberal democracy with a constitutional framework but their failings resulting from them instigating a foolish war, resulted in the Jacobins starting the Reign of Terror and establishing Robespierre as informal dictator. Years later, the Thermidorians, the Directory and others brought Napoleon into power as a compromise between the few radicals that remained and the monarchists, neither of whom wanted the other in power. Most famous was the view of one observer:
Gambit Pileup: The French Revolution can charitably be considered a clusterfuck, where different people want different things and different ideas on how to achieve the same things.
The Girondins were seen by the Jacobins as sellouts who ignored the real demands of the people, were slow to pass reforms and finally decided to divert attention by outright declaring war on Austria in the hope of "spreading the Revolution" especially since Austria had merely indulged in sabre rattling at the time. The Jacobins managed to force the Girondins to take a stand on Louis after the Flight to Varennes. Then during the September Massacres, the Jacobins took power by popular support with the sans-cullotes.
The Jacobins once they took power under the Committee ended up splintering into Hebertists, Dantonists and the Marais(the Marsh) the moderates, while Robespierre tried to insist on "virtue" by starting a Cult of the Supreme Being while being forced into executing his friends and pass some reforms in the meantime.
"There were two, three or four French Revolutions. Like a multi-stage rocket today, the Revolution involved several successive explosions and propellant thrusts."
—Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations.
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!: Something of a given, but rarely mentioned in modern accounts. Many Frenchmen (and women) were willing to, and actually died to keep the liberty so hardly won and preventing things coming back to what they were before the Revolution. Roughly 500.000 Frenchmen died in the revolutionary wars between 1792 and 1802.
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'.
Gray and Grey Morality: Whether your sympathies are royalist or republican, neither side comes out particularly well.
At the very least, both of them were in extremely difficult positions in a situation that was going out of control, with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette paying the price of a corrupt system that punished them precisely because they were not as cruel as they were supposed to be.
Likewise, the Jacobins, under Robespierre, were embattled and taking control of a country under siege, coping with massive Gambit Pileup, having to somehow build an army capable of defeating a Coalition of European powers alongside massive desertion and defection of soldiers, all of which to them justified the Terror. And this was directly a consequence of the Girondin Party declaring war with Austria, which Robespierre protested against to start with it.
Towards the end, even Saint-Just himself started reflecting on this:
"The Revolution has grown cold; all its principles are weakened; there remains only red caps worn by intriguers. The exercise of terror has made crime blasé, as strong liquors made the palace blasé."
— Saint-Just, Fragments sur les institutions républicaines.
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. During the Revolution, David served on a committee overseeing executions and signed the death warrants of several people, among them Alexandre de Beauharnais, the first husband of the woman (Marie-Rose-Joseph de Tascher) that would be called Josephine by her second husband, Napoleon, who, obviously, expressed grateful at the uncalled but nonetheless useful assist from David.
The Thermidorian Faction of Tallien, Fouche and Barras were full supporters of the Reign of Terror, with Tallien and Fouche committing atrocities that Robespierre himself called excessive. He denounced them and drove them into hiding, they later plotted his defeat and the takeover of the Directory, and soon started persecuting their ex-Jacobins and friends in the White Terror campaign. Later Fouche became Napoleon's spymaster and much later betrayed him causing his downfall.
France itself suffered this, especially in the eyes of the Americans and (to a lesser extent) British and Dutch. While the Absolutists were naturally horrified by the idea of popular sovereignty and democratic republicanism, the major Western maritime powers were liberal and democratic in their on right and initially had sympathy for it on the whole. However, they were increasingly turned off by the various things the revolution turned to, and the Moral Event Horizon for the British was the terror and/own Republican France's declaration of war against the Dutch Republic and "Crowned" Republic of Great Britain. Likewise, America suffered this to the French revolutionaries for applauding its' "sister revolution" only to declare neutrality when it started declaring wars, even going so far as to say the alliance it had with the Ancien Regime did not apply to the new Republic.
The Heart: Journalist and member of Convention Camille Desmoulins (the man who triggered the storming of the Bastille) was this trope. Well liked by everyone, he publicly expressed his disagreement with Robespierre in his newspaper once he believed the Revolution had gone too ruthless. Despite being a school friend of Robespierre, his proximity with Danton was his doom. To this day, while not the most famous of the revolutionaries he's the certainly the one who retains the most sympathy between the French people. It helps that historians put an unusual focus upon his (quite romantic) love life.
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.
Georges-Jacques Danton got this a lot especially after the film, Danton where he was played by Gerard Depardieu and especially for the fact that he and Camille Desmoullins made a commendable effort in trying to stop the Terror. In actual fact, Danton was a highly pragmatic individual who played the angles and who used the Revolution to line his pockets, while at the same time organizing city resistance and inspiring revolutionary fervor. He also instigated the famous September Massacres and created the very instruments of the Reign of Terror : The Law of Suspects and the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre only got elected there after he had left. The Committee called him to trial because they cited undisclosed funds, his extravagant lifestyle and a recent financial scandal involving shares from the French East India Company that he had involved himself in.
The Revolt in the Vendée is often portrayed in a more romantic light by historians and novelists. They cite the large scale killings (130,000 but often inflated to 200,000) committed by the Republican side as an example of Revolutionary violence. In truth, the Republican response was driven by a massacre of Republican Vendeeans committed by Royalist Vendeeans when they killed 200 of them in Machecoul. The Vendean response by the Committee of Public Safety had considerable local support among Republican Vendeeans and peasants who were quite keen on the fact that the government was cutting down on the feudal privileges that the Royalists wanted to reinstate - namely giving out Church property to peasant landholders. One of France's greatest Prime Ministers Georges Clemenceau came from the Vendee and he descended from Republicans who had fought on the side of the Revolutions. Undoubtedly there were atrocities committed by the Revolutionary side, but the Vendeeans own atrocities and sparking the response is under-reported by comparison.
Marie Antoinette is portrayed as more of a naive but good natured woman recently, with films like Sofia Coppola's and Antonia Fraser's biography citing the horrific smear campaign she endured. In truth, the smear campaign by Jacques Hébert while exceptionally vicious by any standards (going as far as false accusations of incest during her trial) was part of a political strategy to criticize the Royalist government since the 1791 Constitution refused to allow criticism of the King but left his family members an open target. They also forget that her lack of tact while not endearing to the people of France was far from the main, or only, reason why they turned against "L'Autrichienne". While the people regarded her as mostly a Love to HateButt Monkey for real and imagined reasons, it was only after the Fight to Varennes, where she and the King planned to go to a royalist territory and with support from the Austrian army attack France and re-install the Ancien Regime (which she supported) that it turned to outright hatred. Likewise Danton and Robespierre who executed the King had initially not planned to execute her, and they delayed her trial and execution because they still hoped to ransom her as a bargaining chip for peace, but the French public put considerable pressure on the Committee calling for her death. Furthermore, the Hapsburgs, her own relatives who she hoped would invade France on her behalf, had no interest in saving her and turned down all of Danton's peace offers. They wanted to invade France, carve up territory and punish the revolution, and she was more useful to them dead than alive.
Comte de Mirabeau is today regarded very positively in France for his support of abolitionism, his authorship of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and making a real effort in establishing a constitutional basis in France. During the revolution, the Jacobins regarded him as a hypocrite and upon the release of the armoire de fer, with several documents showing high level corruption and involvement with the King and Austrian agents, he was denounced as a traitor, with his remains having initially been placed in the Pantheon, removed and buried in a common ground. To this day, his remains have never been recovered.
The Girondins in the Anglo-American media at least, such as Brissot, Monsieur and Madame Roland are regarded as more positive expressions of Revolution than the Jacobins, citing their moderate constitutional approach and their favoring provincial cities like Lyon and Bordeaux over a centralized Paris. What is usually glossed over is their high level corruption, their elitism, their laziness in pushing proper reforms and finally their belief in War for Fun and Profit in the name of "spreading the revolution", an action which unleashed 20 years of warfare across Europe, which Robespierre had furiously denounced as a Bread and Circuses distraction. After the Thermidorians brought them back in power, the Girondins went on a counter-purge against Jacobins, the "White Terror", where they even executed moderate Jacobins such as Gilbert Romme (who was not pro-Robespierre at all) and true to form, undid all the good things done by the Committee of Public Safety, paving the way for the Directory and then Napoleon. By contrast, Robespierre even during the Terror, personally intervened for 70 Girondin moderates from the guillotine blade, and only advocated going after Girondins who were true counter-revolutionaries.
The Jacobins also get this in the Soviet and Communist media as well as leftists who see them as precursors to 20th Century radicals which in turn led to their Villain upgrade in the West. In actual fact, the Jacobins were predominantly middle class, albeit highly radicalized, and certainly favored the free market with a view, however, of providing wealth redistribution and social welfare note Which by the way, most Marxists don't like, they see it as a bourgeois compromise. They only got the support of the sans-culottes and the Paris sections for a brief period during the Girondin crisis and during the Terror, they exerted control and suppressed the sections meetings and assemblies, neutralizing the popular movement which neither the Royalists or Girondins succeeded in doing. The Jacobins were not truly representative of popular consensus at the time of Thermidor. What the Jacobins actually did, as per Alexis de Tocqueville, was stabilize the government and centralize authority, completing a process started by Louis XIV and continued later by Napoleon Bonaparte.
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. The actual Marat, while not personally attractive, was actually a mix between moderate and extreme, a consistent anti-war activist and while he certainly advocated executions, he was not bloody minded and in some instances even called for moderation. Indeed his death deprived the sans-culottes and working-class agitators a widely respected voice in government leading to demagogues like Hebert (who nobody liked - neither Robespierre nor Danton) to represent their interests. The famous post-colonial poet Aime Cesaire also pointed out that Marat was the only major Revolutionary who stated that France's colonies had the right to self-determination and independence from France, a position that put him way ahead of his time, something that even a consistent abolitionist like Robespierre was ambivalent about.
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.
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 to an empire. Note that Neoclassicism was in fashion at the time.
The British hate when this is pointed out, but they did exactly the same as the French, just one century before. They ousted the King, judged him in Parliament, beheaded him, established a republicnote "commonwealth" is a Literal Translation of the Latin "res publica", which gave "republic" which ended in a dictatorship, paving the way for the return of the kings. What sets them apart is the French Revolution's bigger focus upon equality and its messianism while the English Civil War had its' religious overtones.
The Revolutionaries were themselves aware of these comparisons and saw themselves as part of a historical tradition. Robespierre in fact was adamant that the Revolution should not become a military dictatorship of Caesar and Cromwell and so sought to make it a civilian dictatorship instead. Upon his death and his less than practical solution, Napoleon came in, a man who initially idolized Robespierre and got his first major promotion from his brother...oh the irony!!!
Also in the 80s, several historians began a backlash towards the French Revolution because they felt it anticipated and spread the ideals which would be repeated in Communist Revolutions of the 20th Century, with no one stopping to think and actually learn from the mistakes made in 1790s, but simply regurgitating its ideals ad nauseam. This had a big impact for the subdued bicentennial in 1989.
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. Though in day to day life, the Gregorian calendar still remained in use, the dates and months were used in official documents and signs.
The calendar entirely operated in decimal measures. Each Day had 10 Hours, Each Hour Had 100 Minutes and Each Minute Had 100 Seconds. Each month had thirty days organized in three weeks called Decades, the tenth day of each week was called the decadi and a public holiday. A leap year likewise had five extra days. Each year had 12 months divided into sets of three months to reflect the four seasons of Autumn (Vendémiaire note from Latin vindemia, "grape harvest", Brumaire note From brume, French for "fog", Frimaire note (From French frimas, "frost")), Winter (Nivôse note from Latin nivosus, "snowy", Pluviôse note from Latin pluvius, "rainy", Ventôse note (from Latin ventosus, "windy")), Spring, (Germinal note from Latin germen, "germination", Floréal note from Latin flos, "flower", Prairial note (from French prairie, "pasture")) and Summer (Messidornote Harvest, Thermidornote summer heat, Fructidornote Fruitful Month). There is a conversion table for contemporary dates into the French Calendar. The real problems with the use of the calendar aside from widespread cultural inertia with the Gregorian calendar, is that the new months while corresponding well, more or less, with the seasonal structure of France was useless in colonies where a Snowy Month (Nivôse) doesn't snow and so on. The other issue was that there were only three weekends or decadis, rather than the four-to-five Sundays per month in the Gregorian leading workers to complain about having their free time taken from them.
The reason they still remain well known is that it was introduced in the famous year of 1793-1794, the year of the Terror, and several months and dates, have become proverbial in terms of its gravity of impact. The most well known dates on the calendar is 9 Thermidor, the Fall of Robespierre and 18 Brumaire, the Rise of Napoleon.
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 cousin, 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.
During his notorious argument calling for the death of the King, Saint-Just, backed later by Robespierre, stated that the King was essentially "Dehors le loi!"(Outside the Law, or outlaw) by his actions in the Flight to Varennes and his former constitutional immunity and therefore can be killed without trial. Come Thermidor, and the brief flight of Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon, the National Convention declared them outlaws and executed all of them without a trial using the exact line of reasoning made by Saint-Just. Later the same principle was invoked by the Congress of Vienna during Napoleon's Hundred Days.
Even if Louis XVI was personally a good man, as even Communist historians agree, and had genuinely good intentions he had fatally compromised himself by the Flight to Varennes and his constant vetoing of reforms. When the Girondins launched their war against Austria, the King supported it because if France won, it would keep him alive, but if France lost then the Austrians, as per feudal customs would nonetheless spare the monarchy and restore the Ancien Regime. As the war started going sour, it led first to an insurrection by storming the Tuilleries, forcing the King and Queen to take refuge at the Legislative Assembly and so formally ending monarchy. However, this only added fuel to their enemies who can now claim they are going to liberate the monarchy. Several defeats demoralized the French public and in order to convince the people that it meant business, the Republic had to go past the Point of No Return, and for that to happen, it was essential for the King to be executed. This and the Terror permanently ended the Ancien Regime and feudalism, to the extent that even when the Bourbon Restoration happened, power was still kept within the constitutional authority, deriving strength and stability, much like the English parliament after the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, from the specter of regicide.
Comte de Mirabeau, the original leader of the Revolution, he rebelled against aristocratic conventions, did time in Bastille for "libertinage" and ultimately even lost his privileges which made him highly empathetic to the common people and their plight. Because of his complex background he became a popular leader and middleman between the aristocrats who were to be gently coerced to losing their privileges and the angry Third Estate.
Marie-Rose-Josephe-de-Tascher, the future Empress Josephine, also fell to hard times, thanks to both the French and Haitian Revolutions by which her family fortune in Haiti was threatened. Her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnnais was guillotined during the Terror which led to her being imprisoned before being released after Thermidor, after which she met Napoleon.
The notorious Marquis de Sade was writing the 120 Days of Sodom in the Bastille before being released two weeks before 14 July, 1789. During the revolution, he worked in the popular theaters and became a spokesman in the Radical Paris Section (City Ward) Piques (it was Robespierre's ward!). He was highly popular and well-liked by the sectionnaires and sans-cullotes and became a committed radical, even writing a eulogy for Marat which compared him to Jesus. He faced problems when his son, fighting in the French Army, defected to the enemy and he also argued against the Terror which led to his imprisonment. After Thermidor, he was virtually penniless, being forced to sell his remaining estate and barely subsisting until Napoleon whimsically ordered his imprisonment to Charenton after reading ''Juliette''.
The legendary Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Palettiere was the son of a French nobleman and a Haitian African slave. In France, he was raised with full privileges and education. During the Revolution, he fell out with his father and he took his mother's family name and called himself Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. He fell into hard times towards the end of the Revolutionary Wars and the Rise of Napoleon(they hated each other) and Dumas was unfairly stranded in an Italian prison for two years which badly affected his health. After his release, Napoleon refused to give him and his wife a pension and when he died, his wife had to raise her young son Alexandre Dumas in poor circumstances for which they blamed Napoleon.
In general, during the Revolution, a lot of money and property transferred itself from the nobility to the bourgeosie and some peasantry, Church property was divided and distributed among peasant farmers and a lot of shifts happened in the class structure. Napoleon and the Bourbon and July Monarchy restored some monarchical titles to good and bad effect but it was mostly In Name Only. In some cases, nobleman actually joined the sans-culottes and blended in and threw off their old life, hippie-style.
Just the First Citizen: The Committee of Public Safety had no leadership positions; Robespierre was just another member, but he soon emerged as the most public and terrifying face of the Reign of Terror.
During the revolution, everyone addressed each other as "citoyen/citoyenne" depending on "him/her" as a way of instilling republican virtue and equality, from the wealthy bourgeois to the proletarian. This tradition was revived and turned to cliche by international communists addressing each other as "Comrade". The term still had the original usage, as witness the title of Citizen Kane.
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.
The Man Behind the Man: Paul Barras is probably quite close to this. A wealthy bourgeois and minor Nobleman, he was an active member of the Jacobin Club and hoped to profit from the revolution via his business contacts and his network in the Provence. He was an active terrorist and quite unscrupulous, which earned him Robespierre's loathing. He plotted Robespierre's downfall with Fouche and Tallien. During the revolution, he established contacts with many former aristocrats and even counted Therese Cabarras and the young Marie-Rose Joseph de Tascher among his mistresses. When Napoleon renamed Marie-Rose as Josephine, Paul Barras sponsored the wedding and his rise to power. He somehow managed to get a cozy exile during the Bourbon restoration despite having voted for the death of the King.
Bertrand Barère is seldom, if at all, mentioned as a key figure of the Revolution, while he is the man who had the longest run as member of the Committee of Public Safety and is behind some extreme measures Robespierre disagreed with. He famously said "Vendée must be destroyed".
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.
"When I finished Carlyle's French Revolution in 1871, I was a Girondin; every time I have read it since, I have read it differently—being influenced and changed, little by little, by life and environment ... and now I lay the book down once more, and recognize that I am a Sansculotte! And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat."
More Deadly Than The Male: That was the tricoteuses' reputation, anyway. In truth, they were among the earliest agitators of the Revolution who later felt marginalized by the politicians who claimed to "lead" the Revolution. They took the weaving among the guillotines as a form of passive-aggressive protest.
Theroigne de Mericourt also had this reputation, known for wearing a red and black riding habit, calling for women to bear arms and form their own civilian batallion.
Never Live It Down: Jean-Paul Marat accomplished a lot of things during his life, but most people in France essentially remember him as "the guy who got assassinated in his bathtub". The reason why he got assassinated there was that he had a bad case of painful eczema that required hydrotherapy and the bath-tub was actually his office.
Marie-Antoinette made several mistakes at the beginning of her reign (losing loads of money playing the faro card game or in bets, outrageously favouring the Polignac family, playing the shepherdess, etc.) which alienated the public opinion to her. Her popularity never recovered, making her a choice target for libelists, even before the Flight to Varennes.
The Nicknamer: The Citizens of Paris loved bestowing nicknames on public figures. It turns out the France's fondness for all things Ancient Rome and Greece extended also to Homeric adjectives and Roman nicknames:
Marie Antoinette was called L'Autrichienne, Madame Deficit and Madame Veto. Her husband who was initially liked came to be called Monsieur Veto.
Camille Desmoulins was The Lantern Attorney for a famous pamphlet he wrote called, The Lamp Post speaks to Parisians, advocating the mob to use the lamp-posts as execution spots.
Théroigne de Mericourt, a highly flamboyant female revolutionary was called The Red Amazon for her tendency to dress in Red and Black riding gear. Charlotte Corday came to be called L'ange de l'assassinat (The Angel of Assassination). Thérèse Cabarrus, who seduced Tallien note She would dump him later and move on to other men like the smart girl she was. and often intervened to save others from the guillotine, was called Notre Dame de Bon Secours(Our Lady of Good Fortune) and when Robespierre finally imprisoned her, driving Tallien to depose him, she came to be called, Notre Dame de Thermidor(Our Lady of Thermidor).
Barras, the most prominent figure of the Directory, was nicknamed Red Viscount, King of the Directory, but also King of the Corrupts. Corruption under the Directory was proverbial.
When Napoleon made his big splash in defending Paris from the Chouannerie rebellion, he was called "General Vendémiaire" by both enemies and friends, which he considered the first real honour he earned. Later critics and Jacobins would call him, Robespierre on Horseback. Among his already loyal soldiers, he was, of course, Le petit caporal
Nothing Is the Same Anymore: Oh yes. The global system was shaken from its core. Consequences are still visible and discussed to this day.
News, rumours and paranoia as well as poor leadership led to many peasants to storm the Bastille after hearing that the King had amassed troops to surround Paris. They invaded the Prison and grabbed weapons and formed a kind of involuntary army, dedicated to lynching aristocrats and walking with heads with pikes on it. Initially several liberals like Camille Desmoulins and others, saw this as a long delayed Kick the Son of a Bitch and few people sympathized with the early victims of this rioting.
The turning point came with the September Massacres, where people found mob insurrections distinctly lacking in romanticism. When France's war effort was turning sour, and with the King and Queen imprisoned, Parisian mobs feared that political prisoners(for counter-revolution) will collaborate with invading traitors and end the revolution. So over a three day period, they started killing en-masse prisoners, political and otherwise in various prisons - including several priests, prostitutes, common criminals. Over a 1000 people were killed as a result of this, including the famous death of the King's sister, Princesse de Lamballe and many others. The Reign of Terror was initially justified by Danton (who serving as Minister of Justice at the time, probably had advance knowledge of and enabled it to some extent) as the state taking away the apparatus of violence from the people, "Let us be terrible so that the people don't have to be!"
Ironically, the angry mob has become such a defining stereotype that observers and casual historians tend to over-exaggerate their volatility. This is not fair. Almost all Parisian men were literate during the French Revolution, as David A. Bell pointed out. They were also radicalized and highly informed, they distributed, wrote and diffused newspapers and pamphlets and were capable of swift and efficient organization. They were also highly shrewd and scathing about politicians vacillating on promises and likewise attended the galleries of major debates on National Convention. Ironically, the politicians who finally succeeded in defusing the powder keg crowd was also the most populist ones, Robespierre and Danton, who ensured that the Committee allowed the sections only so far as they can appoint their leaders. After the death of Marat, and the execution of Hebert, the sans-culottes and other sections were pretty disillusioned as a whole and went back to private lives, either looking for careers in army, starting their own business or going to other areas. Populist agitations died down slowly after the Thermidor, even if the succeeding government was highly unpopular and faced constant problems.
Propaganda Machine: Jacques-Louis David was a one-man Public Relations office dedicated to the awesomeness of the Revolution, and later Napoleon. He was a major driver of all the festivals and cultural programs during the Revolution, his paintings of classical themes such as The Oath of the Horatii and The Death of Socrates featured the fashionable Graeco-Roman themes. His triumph however was The Death of Marat where a lurid crime scene gets the same treatment as a Christian painting. David worked extensively with Robespierre on the notorious Festival of the Supreme Being, essentially the son-and-image theatrical event avant-la-lettre. After Thermidor, he came to the attention of Napoleon (a canny propagandist himself) and painted several iconic portraits that built his legend.
The Purge: Like in its Roman model and/or its wannabe spiritual successor the Soviet one. Jury is still out if it was driven tensions of wartime necessities and siege mentality, or a result of infighting between revolutionaries intimately convinced that only themselves could save the Republic. Truth is certainly in between.
The fall of the monarchy in 1792 triggered the first one against the royalists.
Once elected, the National Convention saw no less than three purges. First, Girondins (moderate Republicans) were kicked out of the Convention and outlawed in 1793. Then 1794 went crazy in this regard. First the Hébertists (more leftist than Robespierre) were eliminated, then Danton's friends (less leftist than Robespierre), then Robespierre and friends themselves. In the wake of Robespierre's death, the a priori moderate Thermidorians executed 77 of his supporters in a single day, the largest single mass guillotine during the Revolution. And all of this happened before 1794 July had ended!.
Another side of the Thermidorian purge was the White Terror, where the Thermidorians hunted down Jacobins and Robespierre holdouts, even sponsoring street gangs such as the "jeunesse doree" and the Muscadins who killed with impunity.
However, the purges resumed full time during the Bourbon Restoration where regicides people who "voted" for the King's death were persecuted along with Napoleon loyalists. The worst massacres were in the South of France were 200-300 to killed (including Marshall Brune) and in the bloodiest incident, a Mameluk Bonapartist regiment formed by volunteers from Egypt were murdered en masse by Catholic xenophobes.
Pyrrhic Victory: A classic case in the "Glorious First of June". The First Republic, during the Terror, had arranged for a convoy of ships to bring food to the starving French public and cut down on bread riots. To do this they had to break a British blockade, send a convoy along with a navy to America and Haiti, collect rations and come back. The British naturally found out and met them in battle, the French navy met them head on and fought bravely, with one ship "Vengeur du Peuple" being Defiant to the End, crying "Vive le Republique!" as they drowned before retreating. The English won the battle but the convoy reached France absolutely untouched bringing huge quantities of food. The French suffered a tactical defeat but totally achieved their strategic aims.
Reign of Terror: The Trope Namer. R. R. Palmer's book on the Terror, The Twelve Who Ruled demonstrated that the Terror was an emergency situation of exceptional circumstances. France was facing civil war inside, and was about to be invaded by all of Europe on its borders, all a consequence of a war started by the "moderate" Girondins and opposed by Robespierre and a few other Jacobins(with others such as the Hebertists, urging for "spreading the revolution").
Charged with leading France in this difficult situation, Robespierre and the Committee had to centralize state power, establish peace and well, provide public safety. Napoleon himself stated that the Committee of Public Safety was the only real government of the Revolution. It achieved this by mobilizing France to total war, maintaining supply lines, using police surveillance to ensure steady flow of information, fix prices for bread, provide efficient street lighting at night(one of the few European cities to do so at the time) and also initiating social and cultural reforms (such as opening the Louvre museum to the Public). It was during the Terror, that France abolished slavery.
The purpose of the committee was also to cut down on mob violence and hangings and other vigilance committees that had already engaged in "Terror trials" on their own. By centralizing the government, the Reign actually established control over revolutionary excess. The vast majority of suspects and political prisoners(except for the high profile ones) were kept in good conditions in abandoned old regime buildings.
The Reign lasted for less than a year and while the final tally is a large figure, the executions were not a continuous bloodletting but came in periods. Historians note that the executions really jump right after major victories at wartime. The worst period was the Great Terror where an even worse Law of 22 Prairial was instituted, this saw numbers rise from 5 deaths a day to 27, with 38% of the victims being aristocrats and second highest being clergymen doubling the death toll of the previous year in Paris. As David Andress noted in The Terror considering the proportional damage and population differences between 1790s France and 1780s America, the situation in France was not especially worse. He also notes that atrocities from other factions during this case, like a failed 1798 Irish Rebellion supported by the French but suppressed by the English led to 50,000 deaths(More than the French) but is comparably under-reported because unlike the Reign it lacked famous victims.
Mark Twain reflected on the disproportionate focus on the Terror and the association of it with the Revolution a hundred years later:
"If we really think about it, there were two Reigns of Terror; in one people were murdered in hot and passionate violence; in the other they died because people were heartless and did not care. One Reign of Terror lasted a few months; the other had lasted for a thousand years; one killed a thousand people, the other killed a hundred million people. However, we only feel horror at the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. But how bad is a quick execution, if you compare it to the slow misery of living and dying with hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? A city cemetery is big enough to contain all the bodies from that short Reign of Terror, but the whole country of France isn't big enough to hold the bodies from the other terror. We are taught to think of that short Terror as a truly dreadful thing that should never have happened: but none of us are taught to recognize the other terror as the real terror and to feel pity for those people."
Gracchus Babeuf's Conspiracy of the Equals, a failed attempt to take over the government after Thermidor, was this for the pro-Robespierre Thermidor faction even if Babeuf distanced himself from the Terror.
The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The overwhelming conservative opinion. And for that matter, most liberals and leftists who felt that the Terror set a monstrous precedent for succeeding revolutions. Historians however, differ on why it wasn't civilized.
Pro-revolutionaries, Marxists and milder liberals like R. R. Palmer note that the revolution became uncivilized and violent because of its unique circumstances and that it was in reaction to an out-of-control situation and failure by the government to accept the new reality. France unlike England was deeply entrenched in the feudal traditions of royal absolutism set by Louis XIV which his successors were unable to actually embody the way the Sun King did or in the case of Louis XVI, too weak, and surrounded by bad advisors to enforce reforms. They also point out the role of the Church and its conservative bulwark. Palmer states that the American Revolution, during the clash against the English, did not have to deal with the question of religion as the French had to, since the Church remained hostile to secularization and a role outside of politics. He stated that this entrenchment, mobilized by poverty, was the reason why even early moderates like Robespierre had to be pushed into an extremist direction.
The critical tradition formulated by Edmund Burke, and later codified by Francois Furet felt that the revolution was on a collision course to the Reign of Terror from the very outset since much of the debate rested on "popular sovereignty" which tended to express itself as "absolutism" in the name of, and on behalf of, "the people". This led to encouragement and condoning of mob violence, most famously the September Massacres. He noted that all the revolutionary traditions failed to establish the proper rule of law and correct representation(which only came with the Napoleonic Code) and the failure to resolve this contradiction of sincere revolutionary enthusiasm coupled with lawlessness expressed itself in the Terror where genuine social reforms was accompanied with a highly repressive state.
This debate by the way originated during the Revolution itself, where everyone, Royalists, Girondins and the Jacobins accepted that the Revolution was anything but "civilized" but all felt that the violence was a consequence of government failure and that mob violence and more controversially war, could be channeled for the greater good.
"The vessel of Revolution can arrive at port only on a sea reddened by torrents of blood."
— Louis Antoine de Saint-Just
The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: ''La Marseillaise'' is now the Fr ench national anthem because of this. Though its content and origins were so volatile that succeeding governments tried to suppress it, it was always the song of the Revolution until finally becoming the national anthem of modern France. Most historians and cultural commentators, despite the ambiguous nature of the Terror and its influence and association with the Communist Revolutions on behalf of some critics, the French Revolution's gains - social democracy, freedom for minorities, emancipation of slavery, the right to divorce and allowing women to inherit property(if not the vote) and codifying the right to protest and dislodge the government - are regarded as vastly greater than the negatives. The Revolution also had a wider and more positive influence on nationalist independence movements which many say began on 14 July.
Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: The French Revolution is usually seen as the event that marked the two eras decisively with Romanticism largely being a reaction to the influence of the event. Yet the views of the Revolution are not really all that simplistic:
The Team Enlightenment View: The fact that the Revolution was birthed by a mix of philosophical ideas, economic fluctuations and a tense social situation led to a greater prominence for the nascent field of social sciences, which found its spiritual home in France. The idea of society and changes in the class structure being the cause for changes in history was made visible in the French Revolution and indeed, the revolutionary pamphleteer l'Abbe Sieyes coined the term "sociologie" and Alexis de Tocqueville, a politician in the Second Republic, wrote major early books on both the American and French Revolution. Philosophers Hegel, Kant and later, Karl Marx were deeply inspired by the French Revolution and looked at its successes/failures by exploring its philosophical and socio-political implications.
Early Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge were initially supportive but eventually became disillusioned with the Revolution. Romanticist writings especially in England, Germany, across Europe and even in France, were prone to nostalgia for the Ancien Regime and the centuries long tradition that the Revolution was radically upsetting. They also saw the Terror as a new form of Intellectually Supported Tyranny and the dangers of cold, excessive, rationalism which tended to clamp down on the individual.
Later romantics such as Percy Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron who were liberal-leftist felt that the Revolution brought the spirit of change in Europe and radically felt that poetry and the role of a poet should also be revolutionary, creating the idea of artists wanting to change society with art, a central belief in romantic literature. Romantic composers such as Beethoven were initially pro-Revolutionary but turned bitter with the rise of Napoleon (who Beethoven initially supported only to be disappointed at his dictatorship). However, other poets and novelists, even liberals, saw Napoleon as the Romantic Hero, a Badass who by sheer merit and talent, recognized and rewarded by the Revolution, brought modernity to Europe by radically upsetting ideas of aristocracy and monarchy. His youth and good looks (which he imposed on the public by propaganda campaigns), made him closer to a Byronic Hero than Byron himself.
Perhaps the real influence of the Revolution was in what was called Romantic nationalism. The idea of a nation and unique culture and patrimony(which the Revolution introduced with its secular pantheon of great minds, the Louvre Museum and its innovations in artistic restoration and cultural acquisitions) often led many nations to start focusing on folklore and heritage. This had the positive impact in that it built the idea of preserving old monuments and buildings(which started in the Revolution itself by the Committee of Public Safety but continued in the 19th Century, partly by invoking the vandalism, rare limited and not state condoned, during the Reign of Terror). It also had a negative impact in promoting chauvinism and xenophobia.
Robespierre, pre-Terror, earned his reputation for this. They didn't call him "L'Incorruptible" for nothing.
"I will not remind you that the sole object of contention dividing us is that you have instinctively defended all acts of new ministers, and we, of principles; that you seemed to prefer power, and we equality... Why don't you prosecute the Commune, the Legislative Assembly, the Sections of Paris, the Assemblies of the Cantons and all who imitated us? For all these things have been illegal, as illegal as the Revolution, as the fall of the Monarchy and of the Bastille, as illegal as liberty itself... Citizens, do you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution which has directed itself against those who freed us from chains?"
Comte de Mirabeau, after the Tennis Court Oath gave the speech that mad him, The Orator of the People on June 23, 1789:
Camille Desmoulins won a place in history, when, on July 12 1789 in a cafe at the Palais Royal, he jumped on top of the table and asked the crowd to rise against threats of royal troops arriving in Paris. What made this speech remarkable was that Desmoulins had suffered from a stutter throughout his law career. This was the first time he spoke without it and he didn't realize it until later. He had found his voice, just like everyone in Paris:
Saint-Just was quite obsessed with Spartan minimalism and tended to make short speeches that were laconic, in the original sense:
"Dare! — this word contains all the politics of our revolution."
Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: The reason why Robespierre was nicknamed L'Incorruptible. Even more so given several high profile revolutionaries were corrupt, notably Danton and Mirabeau.
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, Augustin Robespierre and Paul Barras in particular. Napoleon was born to nobility, but his Corsican origins, his unusual accent (he spoke French with an Italian accent)
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 Although this engagement was not his first : he had already joined the French army once at 17, fled because he had killed an officer, and then served under the Prussian and Austrian banners while occasionally working as a fencing teacher when funds were running low. 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.
Maximilien Robespierre was a simple provincial lawyer from Arras who largely got his reputation from taking pro-bono cases and popularity with the peasants, factors which got him elected into the National Convention after 1789. From there, he became one of the most influential and notorious figures in French history.
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?
France's defense of its borders during the Reign of Terror ensured that the old regime nobles and aristocrats would never come back. They proved to the European powers that the new middle class could not only take power, but win wars as well, entirely on their own, since they had next to no support from their client Republics or allies like America. It was this middle class that willingly allowed Napoleon to take power and later when he started getting problematic, they brought back the House of Bourbon in a constitutional monarchy, that was way more rigid than the one in 1789. The Revolution would eventually bear lasting fruit with the formation of the French Third Republic that lasted for 70 years, many of its reforms were based on ideas introduced during the revolution, specifically the constitution of 1793.
Of course, for the working class, especially the sans-culottes and the village peasants (who were still bound by old feudal customs and traditions) there, initially, wasn't a great deal of change between Royal and Republican France. The revolution as some Marxists keep pointing out is the moment where the Middle Class, or the bourgeosie, first became the ruling class of Europe bringing us such joys as capitalism, war-profiteering, stock-jobbing, conspicuous consumption, Total War and general hypocrisy. For general leftists, the Revolution was the first time a bunch of ordinary people without a voice found, if not representation at least acknowledgement and a role to play in public life where before they had none. Even reactionary governments after the Revolution tried to make reforms to prevent revolution (and save their heads). The notion of "governments fearing the people" became a permanent reality right to the present day.
Slave Liberation: The Revolution became a global conflict partly because of France's relations to its slave-run colonies and its efforts to institute abolition:
Haiti was France's most prosperous and wealthiest colony when Toussaint L'Ouverture's Revolution broke out, and quickly became bloody, far moreso than France. It had global implications. Exiled white planters landing in the United States gave America its earliest refugee crisis and the "horror stories" strengthened support for America's slave states. Toussaint and his supporters initially did not plan for independence, but manumission and legal rights. Faced with the entrenched white planters, he switched his support to the Spanish San Domingo(today's Dominican Republican) to fight the French. They eventually switched over completely to the Republic because of the February 1794 Abolition Decree, which was inspired by a small legislation sent to France by Haiti. This liberated all slaves across French colonies and gave them full legal rights as citizens. The corruption under the Directory and Napoleon's shifty nature led Toussaint to declare independence.
Many French bourgeois (including Josephine's family) were prominent sugar barons and noblemen with investments in the slave trade. Major revolutionaries, Mirabeau, Robespierre, Brissot were consistent abolitionists but failed to make headway thanks to the powerful Club Massiac which was a slave-owner's lobby. Robespierre famously condemned the proposal to institute a defense for slavery in the French constitution, put forth by Barnave, declaring "Périssent les colonies plutôt qu'un principe!"note Perish the colonies, rather than our principles. The crisis in France, between the fall of the King and the war, put the issue on the bench, though the 1793 Jacobin constitution abolished slavery, but was suspended because of the Reign of Terror. After France abolished slavery, the Committee of Public Safety's police force arrested several prominent members of Club Massiac, all of whom were freed after Robespierre's fall and went back to lobbying for a return to slavery.
At the same time, the Committee tasked Victor Hugues, with the mission of carrying the emancipation decree to the colonies. Hugues arrived in Guadalope, occupied by the English who signed the Whitehall Accord with white colonists on the island. Hugues arrived there with a small force, breaking an English blockade, set about freeing slaves and winning them to the Republican side, started an integrated mixed-race non-segregated army and successfully threw the English off the island. Hugues ruled Guadalope for four years, during which he guillotined counter-revolutionaries, passed reforms, sent newly freed slaves and privateers to other ex-slave islands (some of which played a part in the XYZ Affair). Hugues was later called back to France and forced by Napoleon to bring slavery back, to which he only managed to get the concession of slavery being kept away from colonies he had already freed.
Society Marches On: Universal suffrage, abolition of slavery and divorce through mutual consent were part of the "horrors" of the French Revolution for some of its opponents. They were swiftly abrogated by Napoleon Bonaparte and only came back much later in France: 1848 for the first two, and 1975 for the mutual consent divorce.
Stay in the Kitchen: While overall Fair for Its Day as far as women's rights goes, the Revolution's famous Declaration of Rights of Man did not mention women, as Olympe de Gouges, a feminist pointed out. Despite this, several women, working class and aristocratic were prominent in the event. The Women's March to Versailles being the most famous, as well as Revolutionary Republican Women led by actresses Claire Lacombe. However, the Jacobins unexpectedly shut down all women's organizations during the Reign Of Teror particularly due to their closeness to Hebertists. They did this, partly to appease the sans-cullotes who were complaining about women in the streets and not in the homes. While it campaigned for universal male suffrage, women's voting rights were not advanced in France during this period and it would take till 1944 for women to get the vote in Francenote The National Assembly approved it several times between 1918 and 1939, but the Senate would always refuse it, and at the time, it was impossible to bypass its approval.
True Neutral: George Washington maintained this as official American policy during the Revolution, much to the displeasure of the likes of Thomas Jefferson and other Americans, as well as several French statesmen who hoped for America to join in support against the coalition. His main reasons was America's relative youth as a nation which made consolidation the top priority, the fact that it was King Louis XVI who provided crucial support to America during its Revolution and that the Revolution faced so many sudden changes there was no way of really knowing, from a distance, what to really support. That said, America did provide France valuable grain for its cargo during the Glorious First of June, which was a huge help for France's food crisis.
The other funny example of America's neutrality is the Haitian Revolution. A slave revolt was a terrifying prospect for America's slave-owning constituency and several white colonists fled Haiti to America with all kinds of, real and exaggerated, horror stories. Despite this, America was secretly hoping for the prospect of France losing Haiti since it did not like the idea of another European colony, especially once the French Republic started an expansionist war in Europe, having a base so close to the original 13 colonies. During the Haitian Revolution, guns and arms were sold by Americans to both sides.
The Villain Sucks Song: La Carmagnole was a popular song after the fall of the Tuilleries, which was pretty much about the King and the Queen sucked after the political disaster of the Flight to Varennes.
War for Fun and Profit: While it took the form of authentic national liberation, the French Revolutionary Wars also had this character.
The war was originally declared by Revolutionary France itself in the hope of expanding its borders under the idea that they would "spread the Revolution", the same justification used by Napoleon. The new Republics in Holland and Italy which they established were forced to pay a great deal of tax to the French government. Furthermore, the Girondins, led by Jacques-Pierre Brissot believed that a war would actually clear the debate in France and unite all the country - royalists, radicals, people - against an enemy:
The Louvre Museum built an important partnote The rest, Mona Lisa to begin with, was already part of Royal collections. of its first collection from art theft committed by the Army during this period, including the famous Apollo Belvedere and the Horses of Saint Mark which Napoleon took down from Venice and sent to France. Everything was given back after Napoleon's defeat, though.
Wham Line: Famously discussed by Albert Camus in The Rebel. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, at the age of 25 one of the youngest members of the National Convention, gave his first speech, marking the real Point of No Return for the revolution:
"I say that the king must be judged as an enemy; that we have less to judge him than to combat him. I would even say that a constitution accepted by a king does not bind the citizens: even before his crime they had the right to outlaw him and drive him out ... A king should be tried not for the crimes of his administration, but for that of having been king, for nothing in the world can legitimize this usurpation, and whatever illusion, whatever conventions royalty surrounds itself in, it is an eternal crime against which every man has the right to rise up and arm himself... No one can reign innocently: the madness of this is too obvious. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. This man must reign or die."
Robespierre followed him the next day and essentially backed Saint-Just's argument in calling for Louis XVI's death, marking what critics would call his Start of Darkness:
"As for myself, I abhor the death penalty administered by your laws, and for Louis I have neither love, nor hate; I hate only his crimes. I have demanded the abolition of the death penalty at your Constituent Assembly, and am not to blame if the first principles of reason appeared to you moral and political heresies ... Yes, the death penalty is in general a crime, unjustifiable by the indestructible principles of nature, except in cases protecting the safety of individuals or the society altogether. Ordinary misdemeanors have never threatened public safety because society may always protect itself by other means, making those culpable powerless to harm it. But for a king dethroned in the bosom of a revolution, which is as yet cemented only by laws; a king whose name attracts the scourge of war upon a troubled nation; neither prison, nor exile can render his existence inconsequential to public happiness; this cruel exception to the ordinary laws avowed by justice can be imputed only to the nature of his crimes. With regret I pronounce this fatal truth: Louis must die so that the nation may live."
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!"note We don't kill women! In the end, the mob, impressed by his determination, dispersed without a single shot being fired.
You Have Failed Me: The war effort in 1792-1793, plagued by betrayals, defections and setbacks and poor miltiary organization brought France on the brink of Civil War and defeat. To reverse this, the Committee of Public Safety exercised strict and rigid control over the military, rapidly curbing down the old Ancien Regime style of military bureaucracy. In the year 1793-1794, 84 generals were executed and 352 dismissed. The presence of nobles in officer class dropped from 90% to 3%. The results, France bounced Back from the Brink and became a modern army of Conscription and by ''aggressive'' meritocracy created a new cadre of officers.
Young and in Charge: Its not noted often but the generation of the French Revolution was incredibly young. Robespierre, Danton, Desmoullins were merely 35 when they died, Saint-Just was 27 years old! The Girondins were older as was Marat. Napoleon was 19 years old when the Revolution broke out. Compared with the American revolution where the founding fathers were in the 40s-50s or the later Russian Revolution, it is pretty incredible.
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.
The Sky over the Louvre, by French bande-dessinee artist Bernar Yslaire and famous screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (who also wrote the famous film Danton). Commissioned by the Louvre itself, this comic explores the founding of the museum during the Revolution through the Odd Friendship between Robespierre and painter Jacques-Louis David.
La Marseillaise (Jean Renoir film). 1938 film which chronicles the early years from Bastille to the Storming of Tuilleries and ending at the Battle of Valmy. Features costumes by Coco Chanel and amazing battle scenes, also depicts the writing, development and Memetic Mutation of the song that would become France's National Anthem.
The Lady and the Duke, a French film by Eric Rohmer, starring Lucy Russell and Jean-Louis Dreyfuss showing the events from the perspective of Philippe Egalite, Duc d'Orleans and his mistress Grace Elliott.
Farewell, My Queen a 2012 French film starring Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette. It explores Versailles in the first three days of the Revolution.
Alexander Dumas whose father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was a general in the Revolutionary Army, wrote a series of novels dealing with the years leading to, and during the Revolution. The first book, Joseph Balsamo famously featured a secret society who meet in a mountain and promise to usher in the Revolution:
French writer Anatole France's The Gods Are Athirst explores the Terror from the perspective of a Robespierre fanatic.
Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban author wrote two classics about the impact of the French Revolution on Latin America.
The Kingdom of the World deals with the Haitian Revolution.
Explosion in the Cathedralnote The Spanish title, El Siglo de las Luces translates to Century of Lights, or more precisely, Age of Enlightenment, but the English is way more badass deals with Victor Hugues, an obscure Revolutionary, who brought the Emancipation Decree of 1794 to the former slave-run sugar-owning colonies and started several Slave Liberation(s) in the Caribbean.
Horatio Hornblower: Episode "The Wrong War" (aka "The Frogs and the Lobsters") deals with a civil war between the Royalists and the Revolutionaries.
Die Jagd nach dem Urmeter/Un mètre pour mesurer le monde (The hunt for the first meter/One meter to measure the world), a very well made German documentary about the difficult birth of the Metric system, especially the meter.