"From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world (...)"
—Goethe to the defeated German soldiers after the battle of Valmy
Era in French History when Marie Antoinetteallegedly tried giving her subjects a little dietary advice, who responded by storming Versailles and putting her and her brave husband Louis XVI to death by the guillotine. Their son, the Dauphin, makes it out of France alive, though, thanks to the tireless efforts of that "demmed elusive Pimpernel". Everyone in this time period wore pastel-colored satin, big fancy wigs, fake beauty marks, and snorted snuff like it was cocaine. Unless they were poor, in which case they wore trousers with tricolor badges and sung "String the aristocrats from the lamp posts!" whilst waving their pitchforks and gnashing their rotting teeth. Don't forget about taking down l'Ancien Régime.
Then Napoleon took over, and marched across Europe, stopped only by Richard Sharpe or the Russian winter, depending on your nationality.
The more cynical version of the French Revolution wasn't nearly that much fun. Start with a series of nations (Britanny, Gascogne, etcetc, a unified 'French' identity or even language had yet to be invented) that kind of hate and have to share a realm with each other as well as being drained by three major world wars in the last hundred years and lots of smaller ones besides (The American Revolution in particular, which basically boiled down to Britain vs France note The Revolutionary War had fronts in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and India with Britain to get back for the last one), add some conspicuously expensive-to-make-and-keep royal palaces and in a new and very young king and queen who don't have a clue how to run the country (it doesn't help that their young son died in the early weeks of the Revolutionary period), throw in a rigid social system more or less akin to castes, a famine that makes bread too expensive for the average person in the Parisian Basin to buy, and don't forget to add a heaping helping of bitter, crude, ranting over the "Austrian Bitch" at Versailles and an arbitrary non-income-based tax system that meant far too many people's tax demand was greater than their entire income.
The revolution started with many liberal and progressive ideas. The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, declared many rights that are now considered basic human rights. In a radical idea at the time, divorce was legalized and so was, surprisingly, homosexual sex. Guilds were abolished, allowing more people to enter professions that had been protected by stringent requirements meant to protect its members from competition. Church lands were seized, and clergy were forced to swear an oath to the new constitution. At first the King seemed to be embracing the idea of a constitutional monarchy, even swearing an oath to uphold the constitution. However, in a scathing letter left behind when he escaped Paris, he made it clear that this was not the case. On the 10th of August 1792, the sans culottes and the National Guard attacked the Tuileries Palace and slaughtered the Swiss Guard guarding the royal family. The constitutional monarchy was no more, with the king placed under arrest. From there all order was lost, with the government declaring itself revolutionary. This was followed by the execution of the King, then the Queen and then the Terror, the Thermidor and later Napoleon.
An example of the variety of viewpoints is: in England "Jacobin" means "Jacobin", in America "Jacobin" means "fanatic", in Austria "Jacobin" means people like Alexander I of Russia, and in France "Jacobin" means "anti-federalists". To this day, the European political spectrum is largely oriented by one's opinions on the French Revolution: the terms "left" and "right" themselves originate in where the delegates sat in the national assembly (other cool terms like Montagnard (Mountaineer) have not survived). Broadly speaking, liberalism consists in agreeing with it only so far as it went before the Reign of Terror; socialism consists in extending and "perfecting" it; conservatism consists in working within the structures it creates but either thinking it went too far/too fast or disliking it; and reaction consists in trying to do away with it altogether. These notions have slipped a lot with time, the modern meaning of these terms being quite different. Red October and World War II changed these positions (for instance fascism was added, encompassing a combination of socialism's revolutionary spirit with a conservative/reactionary twist on its ideals), but did little to alter the overall orientation.
The French Revolution is usually considered to be a radical alternative to The American Revolution. Ironically, at the time the French and American revolutions were seen as ideological twins (subject peoples inspired by radical liberal ideas overthrowing aristocracies, led by radicalised members of the middle class like Robespierre and Washington) and supporters of one were usually supporters of the other (Thomas Paine, the Anglo-US radical, considered a traitor by the British for his support of the American revolution, was an equally-fierce supporter of the revolution in France; he later turned against the leaders of both considering them what we would now call sell-outs). Also ironically, the most famous man to say anything about both revolutions, Irish statesman Edmund Burke, supported the American Revolution but not the one in France - he supported the Americans because they were fighting for freedom but opposed what the French were doing because they were trying to change too much too fast and based only on largely untested ideas.
In a way he was right, the French Revolution unlike the American one featured for the very first time, universal male suffrage (women did not get the vote, sadly, in this it was aligned with the American revolution) by which every citizen in France of a certain age, regardless of occupation and vote was given a vote. Suffrage in America at least in its early days was limited to property owners. The French National Convention election in 1792 was the first time in the modern era that it was practiced. Suffrage after Thermidor would be increasingly restricted until returning in the Second Republic. The French Revolution also developed a reform program during the Reign of Terror that aimed at fixing the price of bread, regulating the market and wealth redistribution. One aspect in which the French Revolution went further than America was the fact that it witnessed in February 1794, the first occasion in the ruling government of a Western power where slavery was outright abolished in an act of law, partly out of principles but also because of the pressures of the Revolution in Haiti which was happening side by side. When Napoleon took power, these and other reforms were set back and made illegal again.
Modern "interpretations" of the events of the period usually say much more about contemporary politics and bickering than they do about the late 18th century.
The rest of Europe, which was still ruled by kings and emperors, were alarmed at what was happening in France. Many of the rest of Europe's great powers eventually invaded France in the French Revolutionary Wars, either to forcibly put the Bourbons back on the throne, prevent the revolution from spreading to their own lands or even to take advantage of the chaos in France. Over the course of the war, the French proved to be anything butCheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys, repeatedly thrashing everyone from Great Britain to Austria to the Holy Roman Empire to Spain. A young Napoleon Bonapartewas among France's generals, developing the reputation and skills that would serve him so well later in his career, at the same time building his contacts among revolutionaries in different factions. He was initially a Jacobin and supporter of the Terror, it was Robespierre's brother Augustin who gave him his first major promotion. During the Thermidor, Napoleon was briefly imprisoned for his association with Robespierre but later released. He became a national hero by defending Paris on 13 Vendemmiare against the Vendee royalist faction. He commanded the defense and won it, in Carlyle's phrase, with a "whiff of grapeshot" and didn't even have a scratch.
The Revolution was innovative for a number of features.
For one thing it introduced Total War, mass Conscription of civilian soldiers into the Army, the Levee en masse issued by the great engineer Lazare Carnot, an action for which he was called the Organizer of Victory. This involved able-bodied men, women and children performing all kinds of actions. Women were sent to hospitals and sent to work while the men were sent to fight the War in all kinds of capacities. Such initiative and mobilization would be repeated on a far grander scale during World War II but the world saw it first here.
Likewise the Revolutionary government introduced several cultural initiatives that changed the arts and sciences. 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. Not the government was entirely a bastion of freedom, during the Reign of Terror, the likes of Chateaubriand, Beaumarchais were forced into exile and one of the victims of the terror was the father of Modern Chemistry, Antoine de Laurent Lavoisier himself.
Lastly, we can't discuss La Revolution without talking about the Republican Calendar. Wanting to eliminate Christian influence, the French reset their calendars based on the new French Republic. 1792 (the year the Republic was founded) was now Year I (years were written in Roman numerals), and September 22 (the official beginning of the Republic) marked the beginning of the year. But it didn't end there. Years were divided into 12 months...but each month had 30 days (months were renamed after the common weather conditions of Paris), and each week had 10 days. A mostly decimal-based calendar looked good and orderly on paper, but in practice was somewhat more complicated. For instance, there would first be five-year intervals between leap years, followed by four. Even so, the French and eventually Napoleon persevered at it before giving up in 1805. The revolutionaries even tried to institute decimal hours, minutes, and seconds, but this proved even less popular. However, longer lasting were a bunch of units introduced by the National Convention in Year 3 (1795) like the meternote The meter was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator, on a line running 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). Other long lasting changes include the departments — the borders of which have changed little since 1789 — and the tricolor flag.
Some basic notes:
Louis XVI stayed King until 1792. He called the Estates-General in 1789 (the only body in France representing every Estate, or class, which hadn't been called since 1614) but some disagreement about the method of voting led to the formation of the National Assembly by the representatives of the Third Estate (peasantry/bourgeoisie). Initially the members of this body were split between those who wanted a constitutional monarchy similar to England (Feuillants) and those who wanted a Republic (Girondins and Jacobins). Robespierre was a leader of the Jacobins, though he only came to the forefront of the Revolution later when the Committee of Public Safety was in power. Lafayette was the leader of the National Guard in Paris until he was accused of being a counter-revolutionary and he fled the country.
It went to hell when the King tried to suppress the changes leading to the Jacobins gaining power.
The Reign of Terror under Robespierre killed at least 16,594 people, by Guillotine. While unofficial executions may have gone up to 40,000. Towards the final month of Thermidor, it became worse, a period called the "Great Terror" where Robespierre himself was feeling it was getting out of hand and was trying to control the situation, only for it to backfire in return.
There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille when it was stormed, none of whom were political (the Marquis de Sade had been moved 10 days earlier). Besides, the goal of the rioters wasn't to free them but to get some weapons to defend themselves against royal troops. This event appears to have come about from rumours about said troops preparing a massacre of revolutionaries.
There were several different governments during this time:
The National Assembly (1789)
The National Constituent Assembly (1789-1791)
Legislative Assembly (1791-1792)
National Convention (1792-1795), of which the Committee of Public Safety was a sub-group, as was the Paris Commune.
The American Revolution: Whatever one may say, the two are linked together as contemporary events inspired by somewhat similar ideals. France's support of America during the Revolutionary War was one of many reasons France went bankrupt, while many French revolutionary leaders were at least partly inspired by events across the pond; many, like Thomas Paine and Marquis de Lafayette, participated in both. Americans were nonetheless disgusted at the bloodshed of the French Revolution; death is inevitable in such things, but a lot of what was happening in France was so gratuitously cruel that there was little excuse. Thomas Jefferson remained steadfast in his support of the French Revolution, even after learning of the Terror, and fought the U.S. policy of neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars. Several prominent Americans (including Benjamin Franklin who was the United States Ambassador to France until 1785) also had personal sympathy for Louis XVI (as a man, if not necessarily a monarch) for his aid during their revolution. The US and France ended up fighting each other in the Quasi-War in 1798.
In fact, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the major document of the Revolution was suggested and partly authored by Jefferson himself. And the famous mob song, "Ah, ça Ira" derives from Benjamin Franklin's popularity among French people. He was constantly asked during his stay as ambassador how the American Revolution was going, and Franklin would always reply in broken French, "Ah, ça Ira" ("It goes"/"It's happening"/"It's going good") which was later set to a song by a street singer.
Aerith and Bob: As part of the general shift towards getting rid of most Christian influences on civil society, as exemplified by the Republican Calendar, baby names given during the First Republic tended to sound like this, although today some of them are, if not common, at least not as unusual as they would have been then: names inspired by nature such as Rose, Prune note Plum, or Cerisenote Cherry, were basically invented (as names) at that point to replace then-popular names like Marie, Pierre or Jean. Adding to this trend is the fact that enthusiastically republican adults, namely politicians, also took on either non-biblical or "republican" names: for instance, Louis-Philippe d'Orléans, the king's cousin, who thus became "Philippe-Egalité". Somewhat like The Sixties hippy names, only slightly less shroom-induced.
Angry Mob Song: La Marseillaise, now the French national anthem. See also La Carmagnole and Ah ça Ira.
Anti-Villain: A lot of people see Louis XVI as this nowadays, if not just a victim; he genuinely had good intentions toward his country, he just happened to be both clumsy and unfitted for a time where the King's image had already been severely damaged.
A lot of 20th Century writers, including Hannah Arendt and recently, Hilary Mantel, have come to see Robespierre himself this way. Even a critic like Francois Furet noted that Robespierre represented the Revolution at its best and most tragic discourse. He represents the recent adage, "You either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain!"
Aristocrats Are Evil: A very influential trope. Though a lot of the popular images of the revolution, especially in works like A Tale of Two Cities focus, greatly on Mob Violence, often to disproportionate levels.
But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Much like the "King George III wrote 'nothing important' in his diary on July 4, 1776" story, Louis XVI wrote "Nothing." in his journal on July 14, 1789. This is a subversion however, as a) he was referring to his unsuccessful hunting trip that day, and b) an aide burst in his bedroom the night after, awoke him and informed him of the revolt:
Duke of La Rochefoucauld: Sire, the Bastille has been taken.
Louis XVI: Taken? But by who?
Duke of La Rochefoucauld: By the people, sire.
Louis XVI: Is it a revolt?
Duke of La Rochefoucauld: No Sire, it is a revolution.
Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Quite a few, but none more than Joseph Fouché. He shifted from Girondin to Jacobin, from there to Robespierre's Mountain faction During the Reign of Terror he was among the most brutal representatives, presiding over vicious massacres in Lyon, where he cannon-blasted with grapeshot men, women and children, which Robespierre himself denounced and then kicked him out of the Jacobin Club, which at that time was close to a death sentence in practice. Fouche then became a major conspirator in Robespierre's downfall, after which he played a role in hunting down several Robespierre loyalists and Jacobins. He then conspired with Napoleon to bring down the Directory government and appoint him Dictator. Years later, he would stab Napoleon in the back and then conspire with the Bourbons despite having voted for Louis XVI's death, where he hunted down other regicides for revenge killing.
Conflict Killer: After ten years of Royalists, Girondins and Jacobins fighting and killing each other in the streets of Paris and failing to establish a stable government after the fall of Robespierre, in comes Napoleon a belove war-hero who proposes a third option, make me Dictator! Quite a few Girondins were opposed to Napoleon taking power as were others but a broad majority tired of the in-fighting and lack of agreement voted for him since it kept the other side from getting a majority. Napoleon than managed to unite the internecine factions by conquering Europe "spreading the Revolution", all the while suppressing all newspapers, instituting censorship and bringing slavery back and becoming a military dictator in the process.
Of course, it turns out that many of the people in Napoleon's cabinet never had real loyalty to the man and were secretly working to undermine him all the time and return France to a more democratic system. Talleyrand, ex-Bishop, was the main glue in this.
Conscription: The Trope Maker. Revolutionary France was the first government to pass universal conscription for all able-bodied Frenchmen, introducing total war where women were tasked to work in various capacities while the men were away.
Conspiracy theories were popular. Both the Jacobin and Cordeliers Club included rooting out counter-revolutionary conspiracies in their mission statements. After the fall of the king, the sans culottes believed there was a counter-revolutionary conspiracy among prisoners, leading to what is known as the September Massacres, where political prisoners were killed en masse.
Another variant, apparently popular among hardline royalists and later ultraconservatives, involved the Revolution being an anti-Christian conspiracy to destroy the "proper order" of the Ancien Regime and bring about the End Times. Coincidentally, the same theory is more or less used for other events and trends, ranging from The American Revolution to Vatican II.
Edmund Burke, the famous Conservative Critic, in his famous anti-Revolutionary pamphlet of Reflections argued that the Revolution was the conspiracy of "Jew Brokers" who sought to do create a brutal and crude middle-class world to replace the Aristocracy. Such anti-semitic harangues gained strength from the fact that the Revolution made great progress in de-Ghettoizing Jews across Europe.
Corrupt Church: The Catholic Church in France pre-Revolution was notoriously authoritarian, ultra-royalist, anti-reform, arrogant (it obeyed instruction from Rome basically when it felt like it) and, well, corrupt. This was a major factor in the popularity of deism and the anti-Catholic atrocities during the Terror.
More generally, the French Revolutionary Wars stand as a Crowning Moment for France as a whole. The brand new republic is in chaos, its treasury is empty, and it's surrounded by hostile powers who want to destroy it. What does it do? Get some help from Poland, Denmark and Norway, and proceed to kick the asses of Germany, Britain, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Austria, Turkey and Italy, expanding its territory in the process. This was also where Napoleon Bonaparte earned the reputation that would eventually lead him to found the French Empire.
Cycle of Revenge: The Revolution became this slowly. The people largely wanted revenge against the aristocrats for centuries of oppression and indentured servitude. In the post-Thermidor, Girondins and Thermidorians would hunt Jacobin sympathizers on a large scale. Later during the Bourbon restoration, regicides, people who voted for the King's death were hunted down, executed or exiled forever, even those who helped the Bourbons to come back like Fouché.
Dark Action Girl: Charlotte Corday, who assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, a key revolutionary and leader of the Reign of Terror.
The woman who became Marie Tussaud (yes Madame Tussad herself, l'originale) often found herself making death masks of famous victims which were often sold as souvenirs and paraded in public. She herself barely dodged the guillotine.
Decided By One Vote: A very pupular myth about Louis XVI's execution. Execution was in fact widely ahead, but if you add the "death with delaying conditions" to the opposing votes, it comes to this.
It was a close run thing, out of 721 voters, 34 voted for death, by delay, 2 voted for life imprisonment in irons, 319 voted for imprisonment until the end of the war (to be followed by banishment). But a majority of 361 voted for death without conditions, among the people who voted was Philippe-Egalite, duc d'Orleans.
Democracy Is Flawed/Democracy Is Bad: The French People basically fought to overthrow the oligarchy and institute a people's government. It worked, and what it amounted to was the people enacting Mob Rule and civil war. At best, France's democracy after the Revolution was flawed, and at worst, it was bad. A third option is to simply regard the outcome as logical for a young nation beset by a siege mentality, facing invasions from all sides and unlike the American Revolution lacked the Atlantic Ocean to provide some geographic buffer. Furthermore, France had to go from a feudal nation to a democratic, middle-class society very fast. Reforms had died for a hundred years by that point.
Disproportionate Retribution: During the Terror, you could be convicted as a counter-revolutionary on the slimmest evidence, leading to people being executed for some pretty ridiculous things.
One could actually be executed for not being enthusiastic enough, let alone against the Revolution. Or even suggesting an expansion of the scope of the terror. Yes, Robespierre considered extremists like Hebert to actually be counter-revolutionaries (they were more bloodthirsty than him though).
Drill Sergeant Nasty: Louis Antoine de Saint-Just had this reputation as a Committee Overseer of the French Military. He was actually highly popular among rank and file men but he hated the officers, and had many of them executed by firing squad, including a general at one time. His constant policing of the generals, and remember Saint-Just was in his 20s, proved effective in imposing discipline among generals, officers and soldiers:
Early-Bird Cameo: France survived the foreign invasions in no small part due to the brilliance of its military leaders. One of these leaders was a young Napoleon Bonaparte, who was developing the skills and earning the fame that would serve him well later on.
Eat the Rich: The Ur Example for this Stock Phrase came about near this time when Jean-Jacques Rousseau reportedly said, "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich", which would make an interesting corollary with Marie Antoinette's alleged "Let them eat cake" comments. Note that Rousseau died in 1778.
Everyone Went to School Together: Robespierre and Desmoulins were friends in law school; they wound up as political enemies, resulting in Desmoulins's execution. Louis XVI was there to hear Robespierre's valedictorian speech. Also, Napoleon went to school and was friends with Augustin Robespierre, Maximilien's younger brother. Augustin gave Napoleon his first major promotion.
The three young soldiers Napoleon befriended and took as aides-de-camp after the Siege of Toulon (Auguste Marmont, Andoche Junot and Jean-Baptiste Muiron) went to the same collège and had all served in different regiments before reuniting in Toulon.
Evil Cripple: Georges Couthon was condemned by Thermidorians because of that. In their defense, Couthon was the man who instituted the dreaded Law of 22 Prairial, with Robespierre's support, by which suspects brought to tribunals could not be allowed witnesses or evidence. The Terror became bloody after that, with most of the new victims being wealthy nobleman and clergy, and in Paris alone, doubling the number of victims in two months than all the numbers in the previous year.
Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The instigators of the Reign of Terror actually called it that. Maximilien Robespierre used it to define the climate of siege and necessity which called for it, since France was under terror of occupation and a return to the feudal order, the government would assume a state of emergency commensurate to the threat.
Even historians highly critical of the Jacobins, such as Furet and Alfred Cobban, regard Robespierre's as the only real government of the Revolution. Right before his death the economy was stabilizing, largely due to the assignat system of fixed bread prices that he placed in. The Army which he was controlling via Committee Overseers Saint-Just and his brother Augustin was becoming professional despite featuring a mass of raw recruits, largely thanks to the organization of Lazare Carnot but also on account of Robespierre's rigid demands of meritocracy. This resulted, ironically, in Napoleon's first major appointment (a fact which he was always grateful for to Robespierre, though he kept his praises private).
After Thermidor, the Directory government saw rapid inflation and widespread unpopularity and the continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars via military adventurism, created the climate for Napoleon to take over. Also, after Thermidor, there were no more social programs aimed at public welfare until the Napoleonic Code. Even Thomas Paine, who was imprisoned by Robespierre during the Terror and narrowly avoided guillotine, criticized the Director government for abandoning the Jacobin constitution which allowed for universal male suffrage while the later constitution restricted the vote.
See also Society Marches On below for some measures who were seen as "extreme" at the time, but are fairly mundane parts of our lives now.
Face Death with Dignity: Many of the victims of the Guillotine comported themselves this way, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but also Danton and even Jacobin Saint-Just who on marching to the guillotine held a copy of the radical 1793 Constitution (which was never actually enforced) stating, "I wrote that" and walked with his head held high.
"Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: Danton's gets two: "Don't forget to show my head to the people, it's well worth seeing" addressed to his executioner and "My only regret is that I'm going before that rat, Robespierre!" addressed to the crowd.
Famous Last Words: It was a golden age for this. Among the most famous is Madame Roland's:
''"O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!"
(Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!)
For Want of a Nail: Some experts believe that the famine that was one of the primary catalysts of the Revolution might not have been so bad, or even been averted completely had the French public had not been so resistant to earlier government efforts to introduce a crop from the New World known as la pomme de terre or in English, the potato.
Full-Circle Revolution: The Girondins wanted to establish a liberal democracy with a constitutional framework but their failings resulting from them instigating a foolish war, resulted in the Jacobins starting the Reign of Terror and establishing Robespierre as informal dictator. Years later, the Thermidorians, the Directory and others brought Napoleon into power as a compromise between the few radicals that remained and the monarchists, neither of whom wanted the other in power. Most famous was the view of one observer:
Gambit Pileup: The French Revolution can charitably be considered a clusterfuck, where different people want different things and different ideas on how to achieve the same things.
The Girondins were seen by the Jacobins as sellouts who ignored the real demands of the people, were slow to pass reforms and finally decided to divert attention by outright declaring war on Austria in the hope of "spreading the Revolution" especially since Austria had merely indulged in sabre rattling at the time. The Jacobins managed to force the Girondins to take a stand on Louis after the Flight to Varennes. Then during the September Massacres, the Jacobins took power by popular support with the sans-cullotes.
The Jacobins once they took power under the Committee ended up splintering into Hebertists, Dantonists and the Marais(the Marsh) the moderates, while Robespierre tried to insist on "virtue" by starting a Cult of the Supreme Being while being forced into executing his friends and pass some reforms in the meantime.
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.
The Thermidorian Faction of Tallien, Fouche and Barras were full supporters of the Reign of Terror, with Tallien and Fouche committing atrocities that Robespierre himself called excessive. He denounced them and drove them into hiding, they later plotted his defeat and the takeover of the Directory, and soon started persecuting their ex-Jacobins and friends in the White Terror campaign. Later Fouche became Napoleon's spymaster and much later betrayed him causing his downfall.
France itself suffered this, especially in the eyes of the Americans and (to a lesser extent) British and Dutch. While the Absolutists were naturally horrified by the idea of popular sovereignty and democratic republicanism, the major Western maritime powers were liberal and democratic in their on right and initially had sympathy for it on the whole. However, they were increasingly turned off by the various things the revolution turned to, and the Moral Event Horizon for the British was the terror and/own Republican France's declaration of war against the Dutch Republic and "Crowned" Republic of Great Britain. Likewise, America suffered this to the French revolutionaries for applauding its' "sister revolution" only to declare neutrality when it started declaring wars, even going so far as to say the alliance it had with the Ancien Regime did not apply to the new Republic.
Historical-Domain Character: Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and Napoleon spend so much time in fictions set in this period, one wonders how they managed to play their parts in history.
Georges-Jacques Danton got this a lot especially after the film, Danton where he was played by Gerard Depardieu and especially for the fact that he and Camille Desmoullins made a commendable effort in trying to stop the Terror. In actual fact, Danton was a highly pragmatic individual who played the angles and who used the Revolution to line his pockets, while at the same time organizing city resistance and inspiring revolutionary fervor. He also instigated the famous September Massacres and created the very instruments of the Reign of Terror : The Law of Suspects and the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre only got elected there after he had left. The Committee called him to trial because they cited undisclosed funds, his extravagant lifestyle and a recent financial scandal involving shares from the French East India Company that he had involved himself in.
Marie Antoinette is portrayed as more of a naive but good natured woman recently, with films like Sofia Coppola's and Antonia Fraser's biography citing the horrific smear campaign she endured. In truth, the smear campaign by Jacques Hébert while exceptionally vicious by any standards (going as far as false accusations of incest during her trial) was part of a political strategy to criticize the Royalist government since the 1791 Constitution refused to allow criticism of the King but left his family members an open target.
Likewise the people of France didn't turn against "L'Autrichienne" for being a lesbian foreigner who hated the poor, they primarily did it because she was extremely capricious and spendthrift in the first years of Louis XVI's reign, wasting loads of public money in gambling and for people she liked. Among other things, she forced the French Treasury to pay for the debts of the Polignac family, which cost 400,000 livres tournois (roughly five millions of 2014 euros). No wonder Marie-Antoinette got nicknamed "Madame Déficit" (Mrs. Deficit). Ironically, she had largely reformed when The Affair Of The Necklace happened and discredited her even more while she was completely innocent.
Later she was actively involved in the Flight to Varennes, where she and the King planned to go to a royalist territory and with support from the Austrian army attack France and re-install the Ancien Regime (which she supported). Supporters of constitutional monarchy tried to Retcon it by putting all the blame on Marie-Antoinette, while Louis XVI was as much, if not more, behind it than her. Few people were fooled, though. And it is this action, not unjustifiably regarded as an act of betrayal by the public, that turned people's attitude towards the Queen, from general dislike or a Love to HateButt Monkey, to outright hatred, with people calling for the heads of the King and the Queen. Indeed Danton and Robespierre had delayed her trial and execution because they still hoped to ransom her as a bargaining chip for peace, but the French public put considerable pressure on the Committee calling for her death.
Historical Villain Upgrade: Robespierre did some less than commendable things in the name of the Republic, but he was co-author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, he advocated against the death penalty and was involved in such causes as the abolition of slavery, eliminating the property qualification to be represented in government, and granting rights to Protestants and Jews. Tell that to some fictional portrayals.
Jean-Paul Marat perhaps got it worse than anybody else from that period, and went from being an almost godlike figure whose bust replaced crosses in churches to be described as an "angry monster insatiably hungry for blood" after the Reign of Terror was pretty much done and finished.
Louis Antoine De Saint-Just is often portrayed in fiction as a violent extremist who wanted anyone of noble birth, even the ones on his side, wiped off the face of the earth. Now, while he did actually say this, he did so in the final years of his life (during the height of the Reign of Terror when they started executing people left and right), and for the most of his life had pretty moderate views. Tell that to fiction.
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.
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.
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.
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 as his mistress. 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.
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
Nothing Is the Same Anymore: Oh yes. The global system was shaken from its core. Consequences are still visible and discussed to this day.
When Kissinger asked Deng Xiaoping about the consequences of the French Revolution, Deng famously replied; "It is too early to say yet".
The Purge: The Reign of Terror eerily anticipates the Soviet examples. The jury is still out if it was genuinely driven by stresses and tensions of wartime necessity and siege mentality, or a result of Robespierre's desire for power which lead him to cull other factions. After Thermidor, there 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. After Robespierre's death, the Thermidor executed 77 supporters in a single day, the largest single mass guillotine during the Revolution.
Reign of Terror: The Trope Namer. It cast such a dark mark on leftist revolutions that even Vladimir Lenin insisted that he wouldn't institute a Revolution style Reign of Terror in his earlier speeches, though whether the replacement of the Gulag with public executions is a step up, is anyone's guess.
The Reign lasted for less than a year and while the final tally is a large figure, the executions did not get excessive until towards the end, the start of the Great Terror where an even worse Law of 22 Prairial was instituted, this saw numbers rise from 5 deaths a day to 27, with 38% of the victims being aristocrats, 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 Thermidor faction even if Babeuf distanced himself from the Terror.
The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The overwhelming conservative opinion. And for that matter, most liberals and leftists who felt that the Terror set a monstrous precedent for succeeding revolutions.
The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: ''La Marseillaise'' is now the French national anthem because of this. Though its content and origins were so volatile that succeeding governments tried to suppress it, it was always the song of the Revolution until finally becoming the national anthem of modern France.
The most well-known may still be Danton's "(...) de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace (...)!".
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?"
Self-Made Man: Arguably, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Revolution had given him an opportunity to rise up the ranks to become the legendary general-turned-Emperor known to history. Especially through a mix of ability (merit replacing social standing in the military) and connections with some of the Revolution's leaders, Augustin Robespierre and Paul Barras in particular. Napoleon was born to nobility, but his Corsican origins, his unusual accent (he spoke French with an Italian accent)
Pierre-François Augereau and André Masséna, the top commanders of the Army of Italy before Napoleon took over, rose from even lower. Augereau was the son of Parisian shopkeepers and became a brigadier general at 36 in 1793, three years only after joining the Revolutionary armies note Although this engagement was not his first : he had already joined the French army once at 17, fled because he had killed an officer, and then served under the Prussian and Austrian banners while occasionally working as a fencing teacher when funds were running low. Masséna's story is a bit similar, although less convoluted: he was the son of a grocer from Nice, lost his father at 6, ran away from home at 13 to become a sailor, joined the army twice in 1775 and later in 1790, and he was also 36 when he became a brigadier general in 1793. Both men would then be made Marshals by Napoleon when he established the Empire.
Maximilien Robespierre was a simple provincial lawyer from Arras who largely got his reputation from taking pro-bono cases and popularity with the peasants, factors which got him elected into the National Convention after 1789. From there, he became one of the most influential and notorious figures in French history.
Shoot The Shaggy Dog Story: The revolution to get rid of an absolute monarch, followed by the wars to remove foreign influence, ended up producing another absolute monarch, who was then defeated by foreign influence, and the entire period of upheaval ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo and the re-installation of the House of Bourbon. By foreign powers. After nigh-on three decades of bloodshed, the French could be forgiven for asking: what was the bloody point?
That's taking the short view. The House of Bourbon couldn't maintain an absolute monarchy for long and constitutional reforms were gradually introduced. The French monarchy in 1815 was very different from the one in 1789. 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.
Society Marches On: Universal suffrage, abolition of slavery and divorce through mutual consent were part of the "horrors" of the French Revolution for some of its opponents. They were swiftly abrogated by Napoleon Bonaparte and only came back much later in France: 1848 for the first two, and 1975 for the mutual consent divorce.
Stay in the Kitchen: While overall Fair for Its Day as far as women's rights goes, the Revolution's famous Declaration of Rights of Man did not mention women, as Olympe de Gouges, a feminist pointed out. Despite this, several women, working class and aristocratic were prominent in the event. The Women's March to Versailles being the most famous, as well as Revolutionary Republican Women led by actresses Claire Lacombe. However, the Jacobins unexpectedly shut down all women's organizations during the Reign Of Teror particularly due to their closeness to Hebertists. They did this, partly to appease the sans-cullotes who were complaining about women in the streets and not in the homes. While it campaigned for universal male suffrage, women's voting rights were not advanced in France during this period and it would take till 1944 for women to get the vote in Francenote The National Assembly approved it several times between 1918 and 1939, but the Senate would always refuse it, and at the time, it was impossible to bypass its approval.
War for Fun and Profit: While it took the form of authentic national liberation at first, 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.
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.
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.
Written by the Winners: During the Revolution, every side were busy engaging in a propaganda campaign against the other side, while the Coalition conducted their own campaign against the Revolution. In a way, it still goes on today, depending on the political perspectives of people who control the media industry:
The Jacobin Party as a whole were vilified for the longest time in the Anglo-American press and media, and likewise got much bad press within France for being too extreme in pushing for demands. The tendency is to be more sympathetic towards constitutional monarchy and the moderates who came back to power after the Thermidorian reaction and discredited several Jacobins (as well as conducting their own purge against them). The Jacobins were far from innocent but their actions weren't un-justified. The Girondins were engaged in high level corruption and behind the scenes dealing with Austria and England, they later declared a war against Austria, which Robespierre denounced as a Bread and Circuses move to divert away from the reforms they had consistently failed to uphold, and when the early phase of the war had started going against France leading to Austria coming in hair's breadth of occupying Paris, the Jacobins supported by the Paris crowd went in open insurrection to protect the Revolution and the French people. It was the Jacobin party that led France to victory in the early stages of the Revolutionary Wars thanks to their open meritocracy, their culling of aristocratic nobles and royals from army positions and introduction of Conscription.
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.
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.