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—Goethe to the defeated German soldiers after the battle of Valmy
The era in French History known for Marie Antoinetteallegedly giving her subjects dietary advice. They responded by storming Versailles and putting her and her husband Louis XVI to death by the guillotine. 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, a word invented during the Revolution to describe what they were fighting against. It promised Liberty, Equality, Fraternity but led to the rise ofNapoleon Bonaparte. He marched across Europe, stopped only by Richard Sharpe or the Russian winter, depending on your nationality.
The more cynical version of the French Revolution is that it wasn't nearly that much fun. Start with a series of nations (Britanny, Gascogne, etc. etc.) that kind of hate and have to share a realm with each other, bound, if at all, by King and Church. Most of France, outside of Paris, don't really feel this unified 'French' identity and nobody's sure if this idea of the "nation" can really replace the centuries old traditions of feudal monarchy backed by the Church, and most are still skeptical that a Republic can govern a large nation since it had hitherto only been observed in Italian City-States and the ancient world which covered a small area. Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the intellectual spirit behind the Revolution, was skeptical of the last part. There was also the fact that France was 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). In addition, there are these expensive-to-make-and-keep royal palaces, a new and very young king and queen who don't have a clue how to run the country, a nobility that did not want to pay exorbitant taxes even if they had money and didn't use it at all, with the emerging middle and lower-classes being asked to foot an exorbitant bill. A feudal nation held in an obsolete Absolute Monarchy that missed the reforms that modernized England in the last hundred years, leaving France with a rigid social system more or less akin to castes. Over and above, there was the escalating famine, where bread is too expensive for the average person in the Parisian Basin to buy. What the great Mirabeau said about the elite of France's slave-run colony in Haiti applies equally to the metropole, "They were sleeping on the slopes of Vesuvius."
Even the King realized this. So in May 1789, he called a meeting of the Estates-General at Versailles, an ancient feudal organization that comprised of France's three ruling classes. The last meeting was in 1614. The First Estate was the Clergy, the Second Estate was the Nobility and the vast majority was the Third Estate. The election of the 1789 Estates General brought people from across France to the government. Several of them being quite young and very few of them having direct experience in handling politics. Almost immediately it became clear that the Third Estate, which comprised of middle-classes, professionals and guild members, were in effect a separate ruling body on their own and that they represented France better than the first two estates. This realization that the fading aristocracy would have little voice and role in a more modern state brought about reactions in the government that only made their opponents bolder. This created the tensions of the Revolution, the proposals of changes were met by reactions which spurred even more radical proposals for changes that provoked even more reactions and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the people of France, especially in Paris were skeptical of changes happening slowly, and that the Third Estate while having wider representation than the First Two, was still not wide a representation as people expected. So they decided to take up arms. First the Bastille fell, then the King and Queen were dragged from Versailles to Tuileries by the Women of Paris and Nothing Is the Same Anymore.
The French Revolution's liberal and progressive achievements was enshrined in The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. Several basic rights were first outlined here. 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 previously placed stringent requirements meant to protect its members from competition. Church lands were seized and property put on sale. 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 during the Flight to Varennes, he made it clear that this was not the case. On the 10th of August 1792, the sans culottes and the National Guard rose in insurrection and 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. This was the start of the First French Republic, a government that, in strict definition, had no legal founding but had the legitimacy of popular sovereignty and could count on this legitimacy only by being, and remaining, revolutionary.
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. 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). 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 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. France modernized its army and gave careers to several Young Future Famous People in the Napoleonic Wars, including the Corsican refugee and Jacobin, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Some basic notes:
Louis XVI stayed King until 1792. He called the Estates-General in 1789 and despite recalcitrance, took an oath to abide by the Constitutional Monarchy which, at Mirabeau's insistence, gave him a veto. This did not work out quite as expected since, the King and the Royal Court kept issuing vetoes on every issue (earning him and his wife the nickname "Monsieur and Madame Veto". 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 enjoyed decent support until the death of Mirabeau. The subsequent Flight to Varennes, a horrible PR disaster was the event which really split the existing factions into Constitutional and Republic Lines. At this time, even Robespierre was reluctant about a Republic, he wanted to erode the King's inviolability and put him on trial for his treason, but still backed the 1791 Constitution. The Storming of the Tuilleries marked the end of Constitutional Monarchy and the birth of the Republic, which led to calls for a new republican constitution.
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.
To meet the challenge of the war, the emergency laws of the Terror were unleashed. The National Convention apppointed the Commitee of Public Safety, essentially the first war cabinet, and provided them mandate to ensure that the government remains "Revolutionary until the Peace". This introduced mass Conscription - the Levee en masse issued by the great engineer Lazare Carnot. 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.
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. That said some artists and scientists suffered during this time, including Chateaubriand (who was a fierce royalist), Beaumarchais (the playwright, author of "The Marriage of Figaro" who moonlighted as an arms dealer for both the American and French Revolutions) 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.
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 Directory (1795-1799)
Napoleon Bonaparte ended this when he took direct power. It's not like he caused any more mess. At least he stabilized the country and its institutions and consolidated most of the reforms of the Revolution with his Napoleonic Code(authored by Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, a member of the National Convention).
Aerith and Bob: As part of the general shift towards getting rid of most Christian influences on civil society, birth names given during the First Republic tended to sound like this, although today some of them are not as unusual as they were by then.
Names inspired by nature such as Rose, Prune note Plum, or Cerisenote Cherry, were invented (as names) at that point to replace then-popular names like Marie, Pierre or Jean.
Enthusiastically republican adults also took on antique or "republican" names. For instance, Louis-Philippe d'Orléans, the king's cousin, who became "Philippe Egalité". Proto-communist François Babeuf renamed himself Gracchus as an Homage to the Gracchi brothers. A MP took the very unusual first name of Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher.
The American Revolution: Whatever one may say, the two were inspired by similar ideals. The American Revolution is also one of the causes of the French one.
Many French revolutionary leaders were partly inspired by events across the pond. Some, like Thomas Paine and La Fayette, even participated in both. On a more materialistic view, the heavy financial cost of France's support of America during the Revolutionary War was one of the reasons France went bankrupt, albeit marginally.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, was suggested and partly authored by Jefferson himself. 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 (1778-1785) how the American Revolution was doing, and Franklin would always reply in broken French, "Ah, ça Ira" ("It's still on"/"It's happening"/"It's going good") which was later set to a song by a street singer.
Thomas Jefferson remained steadfast in his support of the French Revolution, even after learning of the Terror. He fought the U.S. policy of neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars. On the other side, several prominent Americans (notably Benjamin Franklin) 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 but upon Napoleon's rise to power and the Louisiana Purchase, they became best friends again. Napoleon even ordered a national mourning on hearing of Washington's death.
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 the Americas weren't seeking to overturn the social order but merely wanted to redefine their role in it. The French however, wanted to rewrite the rules completely by introducing elements of democracy way ahead of America and England, that the latter two would introduce gradually only in the coming years of the 19th and 20th Century - universal male franchise without property qualification, election by popular suffrage, regulation of the stock market, anti-racism and abolition of slavery.
Aluminum Christmas Trees: The French Revolution introduced 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.
Another 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.
A lot of people see Louis XVI as this nowadays. He had good intentions toward his country, he just happened to be overall unfitted for a time of deep political troubles. He was clumsy, undecisive and too reluctant to play along the new rules.
A lot of 20th Century writers (like Hannah Arendt and Hilary Mantel) have come to see Robespierre this way. Even a critic like Francois Furet noted that Robespierre represented the Revolution at its purest 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 at the time and still present in pop-culture depictions, though usually overshadowed by disproportionate focus on Mob Violence.
Edmond-Charles Genet was sent to America in 1793 by the Girondins to court Washington's support in the French Revolutionary Wars. On arriving to America, instead of going to meet the government in Philadelphianote DC was still under construction, he started recruiting privateers and mercenaries to fight neighbouring colonies, impugning on America's sovereignty and endangering its neutrality. Once rebuked by Washington when finally met, he started encouraging political clubs "à la Francaise" and encouraged opposition to Washington. In the meantime, the Jacobins had come to power and on learning of Genet's chicanery, issued an order for his recall and arrest. Genet fearing a likely execution, refused to come back, at which point Alexander Hamilton and Washington offered him asylum.
On the other side, there's Gouverneur Morris, the American Ambassador in Paris who stayed there right through the Terror, and spent most of his time having trysts with aristocratic women in France. He clashed regularly with Thomas Paine who, in his view, was acting against American interests by agitating for "world revolution". When Paine was arrested during the Terror, Morris did nothing to help his release, even denying he was an American citizen. Upon his release, Paine accused Washington of conspiring with Robespierre to get him killed, citing Morris' actions as evidencenote He also cited a note handwritten by Robespierre stating that Paine was "Detained in the interests of France and America". Morris delayed agitating for Paine's release from confinement even after Robespierre's downfall. It was only with the arrival of the new American ambassador, James Monroe, three months later, that Paine was released.
Back from the Brink: By 1793, 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 coalition now included England who put a blockade on all food imports. So what do France do? They got their act together, discover their revolutionary spirit and start winning. In the space of a single year, the French restructured their army from the ground up while pioneering technology and administrative reforms that put them years ahead of the rest of the Continent.
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.
The Revolution was the first really large-scale social movement. France was the largest and most populous state, one of five Europeans was French in 1789, and it was the first time people wondered if a large land-mass could become a Republic(which in Continental Europe had previously been confined to isolated city-states). As such, it was in a very real sense a challenge to all monarchs who realized that if it succeeded, it would prove them virtually obsolete. Geographically, France was surrounded by hostile monarchies on all of its land borders, and Austria (via the Queen) were blood relatives to the Royal Family.
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 but that changed after Edmund Burke, a hero to the liberal Whigs, denounced the Revolution in his famous essay. When the Girondins(who were ironically Anglophile) declared war on England, they unleashed all kinds of repressive laws, stifling famous scientist and radical Joseph Priestley, whose house was burned down by conservative rioters. During the revolutionary war, England violated 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, this led the French to issue an order (that the French soldiers actually ignored) to execute every British prisoner of war. note 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.’
Though immediately averted, this trope made wonders for Charlotte Corday's memory in the long run. She ended up being seen as a heroine rather than a lunatic. Compare with anyone who killed a public figure on their own initiative. Granted, the way Marat ended up being (inaccurately) seen helped too.
Averted first with Marie-Antoinette, but played straight in the long run too.
Averted also with Saint-Just, everyone agrees that he was extremely good-looking, but his reputation as the "Angel of Death" and voice of the Terror led people to see him as "Robespierre's cruel friend" (Marguerite Yourcenar).
La Fayette was immensely popular until he made his troops shoot the protesters gathered on the Champ-de-Mars to demand the downfall of Louis XVI after the Flight to Varennes.
Mirabeau got this posthumously after the papers discovered in the Iron Chest proved that he had been Playing Both Sides for quite a long time.
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.
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 Theory: The French Revolution was in fact the first world event that had conspiracy theories attached to it, including both legitimate and illegitimate sources:
The first book came from a right-wing Catholic Priest, Abbe Barruel who claimed that The Illuminati or Freemasonry (or both) secretly orchestrated the French Revolution. Over the century, this suffered Memetic Mutation to give us what things are now with the Illuminati as the Omniscient Council of Vagueness doing things (mostly) For the Evulz. The belief was that the people didn't want to be free and were secretly loyal to the King and Church, and held under thrall by those evil Jacobins who wanted to give those loyal subjects, religious freedom and the right to vote. Edmund Burke likewise romanticized Ancien Regime France as being steeped in the medieval era of chivalry and believed that the populist 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 and that it was the first revolution to include an explicit anti-racist character.
Conspiracy theories were by no means consigned to the right wing. Revolutionaries, Robespierre most notably but he wasn't alone, became highly paranoid about royalist conspiracies who sought to turn the Revolution into a Staged Populist Uprising for their benefit. This had deadly consequences since it created a climate of inquisition and fear that finally spilled over in the Terror. The worst manifestation was in 1792, when the sans culottes believed there was a counter-revolutionary conspiracy among political prisoners, leading to what is known as the September Massacres.
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 was made to feel 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. Gregoire was both a devout Catholic who practiced the Mass even at the height of dechristianization and a true revolutionary who came to oppose Napoleon's Concordat with the Vatican to restore Church privileges
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. This was stopped when Napoleon came to power. 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.
Decided By One Vote: A very popular 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, the King's Cousin.
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. The truth is a lot of the issues stemmed from defining what people meant by democracy at that time.
Initially, there was Constitutional Monarchy in the style of England, which Mirabeau believed would best unite France and provide a transition from feudal France to a modern democracy. Robespierre, even when he supported the Constitutional Monarchy, believed that France couldn't follow on English lines, since England benefitted from resilient civil institutions that, in his view, provided the people the checks and balances that weren't guaranteed by a constitution and government. France didn't have equivalent traditions to provide the citizens a platform to restrain the King, so by necessity it can only provide democracy by restructuring society and severely eroding the King's role.
When the Constitutional Monarchy became a Republic, the conflict took place between the Girondins who wanted a Federation that favored provincial cities to respect regional traditions and forms over a centralized nation state. The Jacobins however wanted a centralized Republic that provided representative democracy and a strong union, which not only brought them in conflict with the Girondins but eventually, their Paris support base. The Paris Commune and its Sections(City-Wards) that formed after the first years of the Revolution functioned more or less like an Athenian-Style direct democracy and this brought it into conflict with their Jacobin allies who saw "Revolutionary Government" as a transition to representative democracy and later moved against the sections and neutralized its assembly.
This clash was essentially the debate of The Enlightenment, whether a Republic or a Democracy can govern a large area of land, since historically only an Empire or Kingdom had managed until then. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had expressed skepticism about this question but his valorization of direct democracy was cited by revolutionaries as an inspiration. Benjamin Constant, the liberal theorist who came to France after the Terror criticized direct democracy as an impractical model for a large government, while conservatives and Bonapartists cited it as grounds to dismiss democracy as impractical altogether for a large nation state. This debate finally resolved itself in the Third French Republic.
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 being counter-revolutionary. 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).
Driven to Suicide: Several people, the most noteworthy being Robespierre who botched his attemptnote Though things are fuzzy as national guardsman Merda boasted that he was the one who shot Robespierre and shattered his jaw. He got promoted for this, and some years later, could change his crappy name..
Turbulent Priest Jacques Roux, leader of the Enragés took his life in prison in 1794.
Early-Bird Cameo: Napoleon Bonaparte became famous in 1793 after he took back Toulon from royalists allied with Spanish and English troops. He arrived as a captain, he left as a general.
Fouché, later head of Napoleon's police, began as an extraordinary envoy of the Convention with the task of repressing the Girondin-royalist upprising of Lyon.
Talleyrand was the bishop in charge of the Fête de la Fédération in 1790. He left France in 1792 to live in exile in Britain then in the USA. He only came back in 1796, under the directory.
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". Anti-rich violence is a popular image of the Revolution and its Truth in Television. One instance is the death of Foullon de Doué, referred to in A Tale of Two Cities. The finance minister was highly unpopular, hated by his own tax collectors and was rumoured to have said, "If those rascals have no bread, let them eat hay!" After 14 Juillet, he tried to flee to his country estate but the mob caught him, dragged him back to Paris at the Hotel de Ville and after several attempts to lynch him on a lamp-post beheaded him and stuffed his mouth with Grass and paraded around Paris on a pike. On the same day, his son-in-law was killed and beheaded as well, 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.
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".
Later, intellectuals devoted time to study the impact of philosophical ideas, economic fluctuations and a tense social situation on the Revolution, which to them vindicated the fact that changes in the structure of society was visibly the cause for historical shifts. This led to a greater prominence for the nascent field of social sciences, which found its spiritual home in France. The revolutionary pamphleteer l'Abbé Sieyes coined the term "sociologie". Alexis de Tocqueville, a politician of the 19th century wrote major early books on both the American and French revolutions. 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.
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. Napoleon could also have run across Louis-Nicolas Davout in the Paris Military school, had he not graduated one year early.
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.
The Extremist Was Right: While undoubtedly ruthless, the extreme measures taken by the Committe of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror effectively saved the Republic. Counter-revolutionary insurrections (royalists and pro-Girondins) were contained then defeated. The food crisis was (temporarily) resolved. The Army became increasingly professional, turning the tables in the European war. It also became more pro-Republic and meritocratic, assuring its loyalty for several years.
Face Death with Dignity: Many of the victims of the Guillotine comported themselves this way, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Revolutionaries too, Danton most famously, but also Saint-Just, who marched to the guillotine with his head held high and on his arrest on Thermidor, pointed to the radical 1793 Constitution and stated, "After all, I wrote that."
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!)
First Installment Wins: Few people know the there was another Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1793. Mostly written by Hérault de Séchelles et Saint-Just, it was even more progressive that the 1789 one.
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.
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:
"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. Despite Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration, they succeeded.
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'. All in all, she had horrible political sense and her pieces of advice to Louis XVI made more ill than good.
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 had no reason to complain about the uncalled for but obviously useful assist.
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 own right (though at the time of the 1790s they were closer to oligarchies). However, they were increasingly turned off by the various things the revolution turned into, which they called "anarchy" but in today's terms is closer to a radical democracy. Washington for his part did not like the expansionist nature of the French Revolutionary Wars that aimed to bring democracy by force of Arms, since he felt that each nation should serve their interests primarily. The English aiming to control their own radical movement played up the French "excesses" for their advantage.
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 is seen as a martyr, especially since he and Camille Desmoullins made a commendable effort in trying to stop the Terror. He organized city resistance and was indeed the great popular leader at the time of the forming of the Republic. Danton however was also a highly pragmatic individual who played the angles. He led a lavish lifestyle at a time of famine and war deprivations and used the Revolution to line his pockets, taking bribes from diplomats on "peace" missions. He served as Minister of Justice, during the famous September Massacres, and let it happen unimpeded. He also created the very instruments of the Reign of Terror : The Revolutionary Tribunals and the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre only got elected there after he had left. The Committee called him to trial citing his undisclosed funds, his extravagant lifestyle and a recent financial scandal involving shares from the French East India Company that his associate Fabre d'Eglantine was involved 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 likewise became a major figure in sentimental royalist propaganda and by feminist historians who see her as Not Evil, Just Misunderstood. In truth, the smear campaign which she suffered, at the hands of Jacques Hébert, while exceptionally vicious by any standards (going as far as false accusations of incest during her trial) as well as libel in the case of the "Affair of the Necklace" 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. But ultimately this played no part in her unpopularity. What really made the people turn against "L'Autrichienne" was the Fight to Varennes. They disliked her lavish lifestyle, her peasant fantasies at Petit Trianon but the Mob were not so uninformed as to hold that on a lower scale than conspiring with the Austrian army to attack France and re-install the Ancien Regime, by turning an invading army against her own subjects.
The Girondins in the Anglo-American media at least 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 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.
The Jacobins are generally seen as radical leftists, this can be both a compliment and an insult. The truth is that the Jacobins were a highly middle-class party, favoring free market and capitalism. Indeed, the membership fees for the Jacobins was higher than the Cordeliers(which included Danton, Desmoulins and Marat among its ranks). The only thing that made the Jacobins stand out from its opponents was a less-intellectual, nationalist and populist ideology. They had popular support for a brief moment during the Terror, which they lost when Robespierre and Danton both conspired to limit the section assemblies, and then Robespierre went against Danton, which proved to be highly self-destructive, since they had no support base when the Convention turned against them. 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 consolidated 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. As per Alfred Cobban, "No one at the time of the Revolution, went as far as Robespierre in stating what were later to be recognized as the essential conditions of the democratic state."
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 and a consistent anti-war activist. His death deprived the sans-culottes and working-class agitators a competent and widely respected voice in government leading to demagogues like Hebert to represent them. 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.
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.
Danton, the man who started the Revolutionary Tribunals and sat on the opening Committee of Public Safety stated that the only way to curb mob violence was to "be terrible so that the people don't have to be." He was brought later to the same Revolutionary Tribunal and sentenced to death because he couldn't curb state violence, which he had set in motion.
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. The Directory had an inherently unmanageable constitution, making coups and purges the only way to get out of political blockages. Napoleon managed to put a stop to the purges and even offered amnesty to all persecuted political prisoners, even to Billaud-Varenne who turned Napoleon down because he wanted to serve in a republic and not a military dictatorship.
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.
In the beginning Comte de Mirabeau was the leader of the Revolution, popular among the Assembly and the people, the man behind the Tennis Court Oath and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Others relevant at the time include Lafayette, Siéyès or Talleyrand. A lot of the great early reforms happened in the 89-91 period but collapsed in the crisis of Varennes and Mirabeau's death. The latter was later discredited by the revelation of his corruption, and collaboration with the King. Sieyes who was more pragmatic, blended in the National Convention, while Talleyrand was put on the emigre list and banned from France during the Terror, returning much later. Lafayette discredited himself in his involvement with the Champs de Mars massacre, likewise became a captive of the Austrians and as such labelled as a defector (which he wasn't, for all his flaws, he was a true Patriot).
In the second period, Danton and Marat were the popular heroes but again while they rallied the public, they were not really influential in policy, with Marat killed early and Danton absenting himself from politics during the 1793-94 period, when the Committee of Public Safety was charged with the defense of France, when Robespierre and Saint-Just became more prominent though never as popular as Danton or Mirabeau. Robespierre was liked and respected among the Parisian public (especially lower-class women) but his reserved intellectual nature and his lack of PR skills meant that he was never really a driver of the popular movement nor was he a major creator of laws or policy. His major involvement came in the Execution of the King, the Insurrection of 31st May which ousted the Girondins, and later the Festival of the Supreme Being, and after Thermidor, he became the scapegoat and total embodiment of the Revolution, which is in many ways an exaggeration of his actual skills, roles and level of influence.
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. Charged with leading France in this difficult situation, the Committee of Public Safety 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 mobilized France to total war, maintained supply lines, installed 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 moreover maintained paperwork to ensure total transparency and accountability. Nobody tried to hide or destroy evidence (until Thermidor) and Robespierre was especially insistent on paperwork.
The paperwork left behind shows that Robespierre never held a dictatorship or a faction within the Committee. His main role was as spokesman for the Committee to other political parties and later the Police and Surveillance organizations. Thermidorians would state that Robespierre was behind the executions but his signatures appear far less frequently than others. While supposed moderates like Lazare Carnot who won sole credit for the war effort (even earning the admiration of Charles De Gaulle) was no less bloodthirsty and indeed agitated for the death of the Girondins (and the killing of all British prisoners-of-war) and sent innocent generals to the guillotine in show trials to re-organize the army. The Committee members had specific responsibilities but in terms of executions, they were unified in blame and responsibility. The Terror as such was not an ideology of a single faction but a siege mentality that was widely felt in France. The Committee had the full support of the National Convention who renewed its membership and extended its term each month, and willingly gave it additional measures as a result of its success and competence in leading the war effort. It was only when France's borders became secure at Fleurus, and the crisis at Thermidor, that the Convention took full control and thereafter washed its hands off "the Terror" that it had unquestioningly supported until then.
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. Also, most of France was unaffected by the Terror. Executions were geographically concentrated only in areas close to the frontier and regions that had risen in Civil War. The executions weren't a continuous event but spiked up after major victories and towards the end, all executions were ordered to be held in Paris. This led to the Great Terror, where an even worse Law of 22 Prairial was instituted, and the Terror rose from 5 deaths a day to 27, doubling the death toll of the previous year in Paris.
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, disaffected Jacobin faction even if Babeuf distanced himself from the Terror.
The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The overwhelming conservative opinion. It's also how the French Revolution is usually portrayed in fictions, especially anglophone anti-revolutionary popular culture, enshrined in works like A Tale of Two Cities which greatly shaped the collective imagination, focusing disproportionately on Mob Violence. Historians however, differ on why it wasn't civilized.
The debate originated during the Revolution itself. Everyone, Royalists, Girondins and the Jacobins accepted that the Revolution was anything but "civilized". But all felt that the violence was a result of government failure and a legitimate expression of popular grievance. Some sought to find a legitimate way to channel this anger for the greater good, manifesting itself in the 1792 War and later Terror wedded with "Virtue".
"The vessel of Revolution can arrive at port only on a sea reddened by torrents of blood."
— Louis Antoine de Saint-Just
The critical tradition first formulated by Edmund Burke, codified by Francois Furet in the 1960s, feels that the revolution was on a collision course to the Reign of Terror from its very outset. 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. Furet noted that all the revolutionary traditions failed to establish proper rule of law (which only came with the Napoleonic Code) and correct representation. Inability to resolve this contradiction of sincere revolutionary enthusiasm within a state of lawlessness led to the Terror, where genuine social reforms was accompanied with a highly repressive state.
Pro-revolutionaries, Marxists and milder liberals like R. R. Palmer argue that the revolution became uncivilized and violent because of its unique circumstances. They note that violence was in reaction to an out-of-control situation and failure by the government to accept the new reality. Unlike England, France was deeply entrenched in traditions of royal absolutism set by Louis XIV which his successors were unable to embody the way the Sun King did. Louis XVI was too weak and surrounded by bad advisors to enforce reforms. They also point the conservative bulwark of the Church. Palmer states that the American Revolution did not have to deal with the question of religion as the French had to. The Catholic Church remained hostile about 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 Counter-Revolution wasn't civilized either. Anti-Jacobins insurrectionnists in Vendée, Toulon or Lyon lynched or grimly executed the ones they had at hands.
''La Marseillaise'' is the French national anthem since 1879, but that didn't went easily. Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration suppressed it, before its comeback in the July Monarchy. Napoleon III suppressed it once again but since the Third Republic it has endured. Even the Vichy government, despite Petain's hatred for the Revolution's legacy, didn't have the balls to ban itnote Vichy supporters tried to promote a Petainist anthem to culturally replace it, though (they failed).. World War II gave back the Marseillaise its original meaning: the fierce song of the undomitable La Résistance, as seen in Casablanca. The Marseillaisestill raises controversy once in a while in France, due to its war song nature (pacifists versions have been made several times).
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen has been officially part of the French Constitutions since 1946.
Played with in the Anglophone media and fictions in general. They display embarrassment, skepticism to downright hostility to the Revolution's legacy, or rather to its associations with insurrection and mob violence. But in the end, they usually begrudgingly acknowledge that its achievements are unquestionable and that the World changed for the better, a feeling shared even among conservatives.
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 event. Romanticism itself was divided between hostility and enthusiasm for the French Revolution. A good example is Victor Hugo who was critical and dismissive of the Revolution but later came to embrace it.
Early Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge were initially supportive before becaming disillusioned. Early Romanticist writings across Europe (but especially in England and Germany) 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. They felt that poets and poetry should also be revolutionary, that artists could and should change society with art, a central belief in romantic literature. Some Romantic composers such as Beethoven were initially pro-Revolutionary but turned bitter when Napoleon became Emperor, i.e. a king with a different name. Some others Romantics, 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, made him closer to a Byronic Hero than Byron himself.
The real influence of the Revolution may have been in Romantic nationalism. The idea of "nation" and its unique culture and patrimony, introduced by the Revolution through its secular pantheon of great minds, the Louvre Museum and its innovations in artistic restoration and cultural acquisitions. This led many nations to start focusing on their own folklore and heritage. It had a positive impact in spreading the idea of preserving old monuments and buildings. 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 made 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."
Scary Black Man: General Dumas (the father of Alexandre Dumas) had this reputation but personally he was an incredibly professional soldier and dedicated patriot.
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. This was true of his entire generation. Danton, Saint-Jut, Desmoulins among many others were all in their early-to-mid 30s and had no political experience at all.
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.
Simple Yet Opulent: The new Greco-Roman inspired high-waisted muslin gowns replacing the aristocratic wigs and full-skirted dresses. Only the richest people could afford it.
Slave Liberation: The Revolution became a global conflict partly because of France's relations to its slave-run colonies:
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.
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. 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.
The Committee of Public Safety 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.
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 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.
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 and defense during the Terror, 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:
"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.
Alexandre 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.