Figures, leaders and thinkers who held the stage in The French Revolution.
Those have their own page:
- Napoléon Bonaparte
- Charlotte Corday
- François-René de Chateaubriand
- Jacques-Louis David
- Marquis de La Fayette
- Louis XVI
- Maximilien Robespierre
- Marquis de Sade
Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (9 March 1749 – 2 April 1791) is one of the key political figures of the 18th Century. The son of the economist, Victor Riqueti, Mirabeau was an Enfant Terrible who rebelled against aristocratic conventions, spending most of his time engaging in controversial love affairs. He perhaps had an affair with his sister (as per Francois Furet). His own father sent him to prison to discipline his son, a popular method in 18th Century France. He was The Gadfly who failed at practically everything in his earlier life and made a living by becoming a writer. He would travel widely and be imprisoned in different nations and his first major work was "Essai sur le despotisme", a critique of Frederick the Great and the concept of an Enlightened Monarch. He also worked as a writer of erotic works, though this was not necessarily separate from his main vocation as a political activist and thinker. As per Robert Darnton, in his book The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, several intellectuals of The Enlightenment used the popular form of erotic works and pornography to secret spread anti-establishment beliefs and ideas since it fell Beneath Suspicion (whereas the Encyclopedists who went over-the-counter ran into problems with Catholic censors), this played no small part in maintaining literacy and spreading ideas (Paris had an almost completely literate male population at the time of the Revolution).
Mirabeau was already quite well-known for the prowess of his oratory. In one of the many sham trials he was brought to face for his libertine lifestyle, his spirited self-defense won him his freedom and renown, as well as much scorn from the Establishment. It also gave him an innate sense of the injustice of absolute monarchy and the need for change. As such he travelled widely, outside France and to England and was highly interested in its political institutions. When the King called the Estates-General in May 1789, Mirabeau got elected from his native Provence. At the time, Mirabeau was stripped of his ranks and titles, and so he initialy arrived as Honoré Gabriel Riqueti and got elected in the Third Estate (rather than the Second Estate of Nobility where he belonged nominally). He was also poor at this time, and deeply in debt, practically disowned by his family. It was only with the fame of his leadership during the National Assembly, that he finally retained his family title and became for all time, Comte de Mirabeau.
When the Estates General convened, Mirabeau had a wealth of experience and age on his side, a life of rebellion and bohemianism that gave him first hand insight into the injustice of the government. The other major revolutionaries - Robespierre, Danton, Saint-Just - were largely conformists in the old regime, never straying or challenging the system until the Revolution opened doors from them. Mirabeau on the other hand was defiantly rebellious. His position as an Impoverished Patrician, wide political experience derived from travel to other countries, his reputation of libertinage made him simultaneously endearing to both the nobility and the common people. He was called The Orator of the People and The Torch of Provence. He became the leading figure in the early stages of the Revolution and won fame for his defiant speech in June 23, 1789, where he told royalist ministers that the Third Estate will not stop meeting until a new constitution is ready. Furthermore, he told the Royal Minister to give a message to "your master", which Victor Hugo noted was itself Refuge in Audacity, since he was stating he was not the King's subject anymore.
The message is immortal:
- "If you have orders to remove us from this hall, you must also get the authority to use force, for we shall yield to nothing but bayonets."
Georges Jacques Danton (1759-1794) is perhaps the most popular and well-liked of all the French Revolutionaries. Someone whom moderates and conservatives regard as a positive figure while at the same time being praised by Vladimir Lenin as "the greatest tactician of the French Revolution."note Paradoxically, for someone who is so popular, Danton is highly mysterious since he did not write any speeches, nor did work as a journalist or a writer. As such its very difficult to know what (if any) ideas, Danton really had for the Revolution. It also lends his life to a lot of Applicability and mystery. In other words, exactly as how Danton planned it. The little we know of Danton's life suggests a charismatic Boisterous Bruiser, a man who was impeccable at cultivating a common touch despite living a lavish lifestyle, who publicly stated one thing while privately tried to negotiate alliances and compromises, in other words a pragmatist and peacemaker who was a median between revolutionary and peacetime politician.
In his youth, he didn't do especially well in school, largely because he had difficulty reading; had he been raised in the 20th century, he would almost certainly have been diagnosed with dyslexia (the description of his trouble reading is almost textbook), but as it was his teachers simply called him lazy. Nonetheless, when he left school, a Parisian law firm hired him to apprentice despite an atrocious writing sample, possibly seeing his natural gift for oratory. Recognizing that he was not going to be any good writing pleadings and briefs, his employers sent him to observe trials and arguments before the various law courts of Paris to educate himself on the finer points of oral presentation in the courts and to report back to the firm if anything interesting happened. Danton absorbed this education fully, and after passing the bar, he embarked on a successful practice focusing on trial and argument. His practice included Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre's childhood friend—who, conveniently enough, was an excellent writer but had a stammer that made him kind of crap at getting up on his hind legs and talking at a judge.
When the Revolution broke out, Danton began his political career forming the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen or the Club des Cordeliers, which had a more populist base than the Jacobins. It was the Cordeliers who played key roles in the public events of the Revolution. Especially the protest at the Champs du Mars that led to the first massacre of French citizens by government troops.
Danton found his fame with the events that led to the August 10 Insurrection - the Storming of the Tuileries, the birth of the First Republic. He became the central figure in the organization of events and the behind-the-scenes political manoeuverings. He also became Minister of Justice in the new government and arrested several royalist prisoners, and likewise proposed forming special tribunals to deal with them. Danton had initially supported Robespierre's protest against the Girondin's agitating for war. However, on seeing how unpopular this position was (and how unpopular Robespierre was at that time) he cautiously lent support to the war, insisting that France should claim its "natural boundaries". When the war after initial successes began its reversals, Danton in early September gave a speech that defiantly called for resistance to an Austrian invasion and a proud defense of the Republic:
- "Il nous faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace, et la France sera sauvée!"'note
As well quoted as this speech is, its often forgotten that it was followed by the September Massacres. Danton, serving as Minister of Justice, essentially washed his hands as the events were happening and refused to prosecute or arrest the sans-cullottes who killed and butchered priests, common criminals, prostitutes and only few of the political prisoners that had been their intended target. In the months that followed, Danton tried to argue for peace with the Girondins to little avail. He later served on the Committee of Public Safety after the ousting of the Girondins but he left a month later and absented himself for much of the Reign of Terror, returning to political life at the end of 1793. Danton had served briefly as a diplomat and tried to make peace overtures to end the war, including ransoming Marie-Antoinette but he kept failing and ultimately he and Robespierre could not stall for her execution further. In the months to come, Danton would fall out with the new Revolutionary leadership and become the most prominent victim of the Terror at the time, the first who was neither a royalist, a trouble-maker, a food hoarder, but a former hero of the Revolution.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Historical Hero Upgrade: In most depictions Danton is presented as a moderate alternative to Robespierre, and a man who, if he had prevailed, would have established a more consensual revolutionary government. The actual historical record is considerably more mixed, and historians agree that Danton was considerably prone to accepting bribes. As noted by one historian in the New York Review of Books:
Most French historians today probably would concede that Danton's finances do not stand up to close scrutiny. In 1789 he was a not especially successful lawyer loaded down with at least 43,000 livres in debts. In 1791 he paid off his creditors and bought an estate worth 80,000 livres without an ostensible improvement in his practice or the acquisition of another legitimate source of income. He probably took money from the court. But a politician may fatten his purse without betraying his country, and Danton certainly led the resistance to the invading armies after the overthrow of the monarchy on August 10, 1792. His statue still stands in the Place Danton as the embodiment of patriotism.
- Historical Domain Character: Danton and the circumstances of his death remains among the most enduring images of the Revolution. Famously chronicled in the play Danton's Death and the 1983 film Danton where he's played by Gérard Depardieu.note
- We Used to Be Friends: He and Robespierre are often shown this way. In actual fact, Robespierre had defended Danton numerous times in public and private. When Danton's friend Fabre D'Eglantine became involved in a stock market scandal, Danton continued to defend him and oppose the Committee of Public Safety for their political persecution, escalating the situation. Robespierre subsequently provided information to use in his indictment. When Robespierre faced his end, he was simultaneously accused by extremists for being moderate towards Danton and by moderates of betraying Danton. His final recorded exchange went like this:
Man in Crowd: It is Danton's blood that is choking you!
Robespierre: Danton! It is Danton then you regret? Cowards! Why did you not defend him?
Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) was a doctor, a would-be scientist, a political thinker, a journalist and finally a Rabble Rouser. Before the Revolution, Marat, born in Switzerland but settled in Paris, embarked on a career as a public intellectual and scientist. He briefly befriended Benjamin Franklin and courted the support of Voltaire to become a member of the Academy of Science but he was rejected. Thereupon, he travelled to England and Switzerland, serving as a wandering physician, becoming interested in political matters but generally unengaged. When the Revolution broke out, Marat became the most famous, notorious and controversial journalist of his day. His headlines, pamphlets and notices were often filled with wild passionate discourses. He famously called for the deaths of "500 aristocratic heads" noting that doing so would be more merciful than the deaths of millions.
Marat's journal, L'Ami du Peuplenote became (along with its Spiritual Successor Le Père Duchesnenote ) became the most contoversial journal of its days. Marat's tone as a journalist, combined fiery explosive language, the tone of a watchdog against conspiracy as well as denunciations of prominent political figures from the Marquis de La Fayette to Mirabeau. Marat was even declared a criminal by the government at one point, forcing him to go underground and even hide in the sewers. His time spent there proved an ill effect since it gave him eczema that required constant hydrotherapy. This led to him residing long hours in a medicinal bath that eventually became quite iconic. Marat was a member of the Cordeliers club along with Jacques Hebert and Danton, but he was largely a figure who did not align to a single party.
He gained prominence for the fact that several of his statements and wild harangues eventually came true - Mirabeau was corrupt, France's war with Austria proved self-destructive to the revolution, General Dumouriez eventually defected. He became a member of the National Convention when the First French Republic was formed but contributed little to the debate outside of voting for the King's execution. His constant criticisms of Girondins eventually led to him being the first person brought to the Revolutionary Tribunals. Marat coolly answered his questions and turned the trial against his accusers who carried him away out of Paris in triumph. His illnesses eventually led to him being confined after the insurrection against the Girondins. This led him to become vulnerable to Charlotte Corday's blade when she arrived with a list of purported counter-revolutionary agitators. Upon his death, Marat became the martyr of the Republic, celebrated in the most famous portrait of the Revolution, given an ornate funeral, his busts replacing Jesus in churches and even being interred into the Pantheon for a few months before being disinterred again.
Marat is possibly even more controversial than Robespierre. Where the latter endures as a self-righteous Knight Templar fanatic, Marat is seen, perhaps unfairly, as the Psycho Party Member of the Revolution.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (1767-1794) was 21 years old at the outset of the French Revolution. He was the son of a family who were slightly well-off in the province of Aisne. Saint-Just was by several accounts a trouble-maker, rumoured to have advocated starting a fire at school as a young man, running away from home after stealing money from his mother in his adolescence and indulging in other hijinks. Towards the end of his teenage years he became more disciplined and started a career in literature, even publishing a long erotic poem called L'Organt of little merit. When the Revolution broke out, Saint-Just became a member of the National Guard and quickly rose up its ranks becoming known for being a strict disciplanarian and a born leader. However, he was already ambitious and yearned to be part of the center of events in Paris, fearing that it would end without him making his mark on the stage. He was finally elected to the National Convention after the First Republic was formed in August 1792. He immediately became an associate of Robespierre and ultimately proved to be his most loyal friend even as Saint-Just established a political career independently of his mentor. Saint-Just quickly made up for last time by making what is perhaps the most stunning debut speech of that age. For his first speech, Saint-Just defiantly laid out to the National Convention, the reasons why Louis XVI was not only guilty of treason but also why it was necessary for the Revolution to have him executed.
- "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."
Saint-Just was notorious for being handsome, cold and cruel. While historians have questioned his coldness and cruelty, no one denies his considerable beauty. The youngest member of the National Convention endures as the archetypical young revolutionary, inspiring the likes of Enjolras in Les Misérables and serving as an inspiration for several generations of leftists around the world. Saint-Just played an important part in the Reign of Terror, often serving as the spokesman for the Committee of Public Safety to the National Convention. His cold, methodical and precise oratory went a long way in effectively articulating the demands of the Committee, whether it was to expand the scope of its powers or in calling for the execution of its political enemies. It was Saint-Just who read out the denunciation for the Girondins and the Dantonists. Saint-Just's talents had less controversial use in his skills as a military organizer, as a missioned representive, he restructured the Army of the Rhine that suffered from defeat, defection and extremely poor discipline. He made it an effective fighting force, culminating in the decisive Battle of Fleurus. Returning from Fleurus, Saint-Just received a hero's welcome. A month later, he would join Robespierre and his friends on the scaffold, dying at the age of 26.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Historical Domain Character: He appears quite often though he tends to be seen as The Dragon to Robespierre's Big Bad and usually gets Historical Villain Upgrade. Most portrayals don't do justice to his skills as a military organizer or the fact that he was one of the framers of the 1793 Constitution. Enjolras in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables was an acknowledged Expy of him, while Marguerite Blakeney is his fictional cousin.
Politically, Carnot was not really a member of any faction. He was never a part of the Jacobin Club, and he was temperamentally closer to the Moderates. However, Carnot definitely shared the sympathies of several radicals who sat on la Montagne (the highest seats on the National Convention, where Jacobins, Cordeliers, Extremists and others formed a coalition). He was a regicide - he voted decisively for the Death of the King without public appeal. He also called for the insurrection and purge of the Girondins, regarding them as incompetent and incapable of organizing the military to meet the threat of invasion ("We must pulverize them or be crushed by them"). Carnot sat on the Committee of Public Safety and served as the main military charge d'affaires. His outstanding achievement was the Lévee en masse, mass Conscription of civilian army for the defense of the nation. Carnot also served as a representative on mission, and even led a column in the Battle of Watignies. For his efforts in restructuring the army, Carnot was given the well-earned moniker, Organizer of Victory.
Camille Desmoulins (1760-1794) is one of the most renowned French Revolutionaries. Born to a middle-class family in a provincial region, he studied at the Louis-le-Grand school where he befriended Robespierre and other future scholarship boys who would bite the hand that fed them. In the years before the Revolution, he had a career in law (in the same practice as Danton's) but a pronounced stammer would make it hard for him to speak in public. He then began a more successful career as a political journalist and indeed Albert Camus (also a former journalist) regarded him as the best political journalist of his generation.
When Louis XVI convened the Estates-General, Camille's father Marie-Jean-Nicolas Desmoulins became a delegate but was too ill to attend the meetings and so he sent his son to observe the events. Desmoulins skills as a journalist brought him the attention of Mirabeau who enlisted him to write for his entourage. Desmoulins made history on July 12, 1789 when the King dismissed Jacques Necker and sent a legion of foreign troops to Paris. Desmoulins dramatically leaped on top of a table at the Palais Royal and announced, for the first time without stammering:
Several members on hearing this, quickly rose and got out and made plans to attack the Bastille. Desmoulins subsequently became an active journalist and pamphleteer of the Revolution. In his newspaper, Desmoulins was one of the very first revolutionaries to publicly advocate for a Republic. He and Danton formed the Club des Cordeliers and played key roles in the Champs de Mars protest (which ended when soldiers led by La Fayette shot the protesters, killing dozens at least) and the Storming of the Tuileries. In 1792, he entered the National Convention of the First French Republic and along with the rest of the Montagne, voted for the execution of the King. He did become increasingly upset at the course of events, especially the purge of the Girondins and the Reign of Terror. This subsequently led to a falling out with Robespierre with whom he was friends with. He and Danton would later be sent to the guillotine. Camille's wife, Lucille was arrested during his trial and she would follow a week later, leaving Desmoulins's son to be raised by his grandmother.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Audience Surrogate: Often plays this part in works where he has a substantial role.
- Historical Domain Character: He appears quite often, including a memorable cameo (played by Vincent Cassell) in the Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris. The popular novel, A Place of Greater Safety features him and his love life as a crucible to explore the events.
Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836) was a clergyman and a political writer. He had initially planned to become a soldier, but his weak health consigned him to a career in the clergy. Sieyès was by most accounts not a believer, he saw the Church as a career and spent most of his years studying and perusing books of prominent authors of The Enlightenment, reading up on political theory and philosophy, becoming a brilliant scholar and intellectual. When Louis XVI planned to convoke a meeting of the Estates-General, he asked several writers for their opinion. Sieyès published a pamphlet that became the Manifesto of the Revolution: What is the Third Estate?
In that he pointed out that the Third Estate was large enough to provide a government without the first two estates and yet had been consistently denied representation by an archaic political structure and obsolete form of government. Sieyès was among several delegates of the Third Estate who took the Tennis Court Oath. He played a major role in the National Assembly which framed the Constitution. Temperamentally, Sieyès was more of a statesman rather than a Revolutionary. He was not a good public speaker but as an intellectual he yielded considerable influence. He was excluded from the short-lived Legislative Assembly thanks to Robespierre's self-denying ordinance but returned during the National Convention. Alongside Condorcet, Thomas Paine and other Girondins, he was a member of a committee which drafted a "girondin" constitutional project. Sieyès voted for the Execution of the King but otherwise kept a low profile during the Reign of Terror, neither participating in the events or the Thermidorian Reaction. He regained his prominence in the Directory period. Sieyès disliked the Directory government, believing it was highly unstable though he played a major part in ousting the final remnants of the Jacobins in this period. He plotted to oust the government via a military coup, famously noting, "I need a sword" and he searched for sympathetic generals to enlist in this cause. The one who was, conveniently, available, was none other than Napoléon Bonaparte. Napoleon consented to Sieyès' plans but upon taking power on 18 Brumaire, remodelled Sieyès' plans for a new Constitution, pulling off a coup-within-a-coup and establishing his dictatorship.
Sieyès subsequently retired from public life to a rather large estate gifted to him by Napoleon. He would live long, and see the end of Napoleon, face exile during the Bourbon Restoration (for being a regicide) and returning during the July Monarchy.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord
Before the Revolution Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was the son of one of France's oldest aristocratic families. A weak foot prevented him from participating in his hoped for military career; he was therefore disinherited and sent to seminary school. A brilliant student and genuinely curious mind with an interest in Enlightenment philosophy, he also had a penchant for drinking, gambling, and womanizing that was entirely in keeping with what was expected of a young noble of his day; he was also a pretty much an atheist. The church was corrupt enough that his lack of religious belief was no real barrier for rise up the ladder. Talleyrand got an opportunity to showcase his talent for management and interest in reform early in his career, when he was appointed one of two Agents-General of the French clergy—i.e. the main administrator of the French Church's vast landholdings. He ended up becoming Bishop of Autun around the time the Estates-General was convened. He made his only trip ever to his diocese in 1789, where he managed (barely) to convince the clergy of the diocese to elect him their representative to the Estates-General—and then promptly slipped out of town just before Easter so as to avoid having to celebrate Mass (which he had no idea how to do).
Throughout the Revolution, Talleyrand's signature style was to be one step behind the course of events, always joining the winning team just after it started winning, whatever that might mean. This pattern (which has been criticized as a lack of conviction but also defended as a means of ensuring he always served the national interest) began early, where, after the Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath and declared itself to be the National Assembly, he was not one of the first few First Estate delegates who joined the Assembly, but rather a little after, when he figured that the National Assembly was going to be the locus of power, but before the majority of First and Second Estate delegates had come to the same conclusion.
In the National Assembly, Talleyrand played a major role in calling for the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Talleyrand welcomed state intervention of Church matters largely for the political opportunities it provided him. As a bishop, he officiated the first Anniversary of the Revolution at the Fête de la Fédération, which included a Mass (which, again, he had no idea how to do, but nobody noticed because nobody could hear him). When the Civil Constitution passed, he was one of the few bishops who took the Civic Oath; for this reason, the National Assembly instructed him to ordain the first handful of new bishops under the Civil Constitution, thereby allowing those bishops to ordain the rest of the constitutional bishops while preserving Apostolic Succession. The fact that Talleyrand had resigned his episcopate a few months earlier was conveniently ignored.note
When the Legislative Assembly declared war, Talleyrand was entrusted as a diplomat and backchannel envoy to Britain in the hopes of securing neutrality. (Under the National Assembly's self-denying decrees, which forbade members of the National Assembly from taking posts in the royal ministry, he could not be appointed France's official ambassador to the Court of St James's, but everybody knew he was the actual representative of France in London.) He technically succeeded, inasmuch as Britain never did declare war during his missions, but this was mostly because the Prime Minister, William Pitt The Younger, had no interest in a Continental war. Talleyrand himself was unpopular with the British court and Cabinet, and his presence in London did little to advance French interests (though given the circumstances, it's unlikely that anyone else could have done any better). However, political events in France subsequently took a turn for the worse and by November 1792, Talleyrand was effectively exiled from France with a warrant from his arrest issued by the National Convention in November 1792. Talleyrand however did not defect like the other exiles and emigres and was essentially stateless in England until the Pitt government ordered him to leave. He travelled to America where he engaged in several businesses while befriending many of the founding fathers, including (perhaps uniquely) both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.note
Talleyrand's real political career began in the Directory Period, where he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs. His return to France came about thanks to sympathetic contacts in Madame de Stael and Benjamin Constant. During this time, Talleyrand established a wide area of contacts and became renowned for his skill in diplomacy, for which his name became proverbial. He also built a friendship with Napoleon and played a role in securing the coup of 18 Brumaire. For most of his rule, Napoleon and Talleyrand complemented each other, but Talleyrand foresaw that Napoleon in posing an existential threat to the aristocratic order of Europe realized that he would keep France on a constant war footing. To this end, he began destabilizing his regime from within. He was even careless and obvious in his double dealing on a few occassions but proved too valuable for Napoleon to get rid off altogether. After Napoleon's first defeat, Talleyrand served as plenipotentiary at the Congress of Vienna and secured highly generous terms for a defeated France but this ended with the Hundred Days. After that Talleyrand retired from public affairs, since the returning Bourbon administration regarded him as "a revolutionary". In the July Monarchy, he served as ambassador to England between 1830-1834, dying at the age of 84. His legacy lived on: In the leadup to the July Revolution, he and Lafayette (of all people) sponsored the rise to prominence of Adolphe Thiers, a major figure in the July Revolution and July Monarchy who would lead the French center-left basically until the 1870s (by which point it had become the center-right, but now we're getting ahead of ourselves).