The French Revolution

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!"

William Wordsworth

His perspective at the beginning of the French Revolution;
this spirit of enthusiasm didn't last long.

Liberty leading the People
"Liberty leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
      The French Revolution is clearly one of the central events in Western civilization - a period of history whose characters and events have always fascinated me. The more moderate American Revolution, in comparison, was much less influential upon the world of its time - even if it was more successful and less bloody. I would argue it was more successful precisely because it was more moderate and less murderous than the French Revolution.

      But the French Revolution ironically was a failed revolution: Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité quickly descended to the towering figure of Robespierre and his Reign of Terror as the revolution spun out control and began to murder itself. First the royalists were beheaded, next the moderate girondists, and by then the violence and suspicion was totally out of hand as the revolution devoured itself. In my opinion, after they started beheading the moderate Girondists it was only a matter of time before everyone else went to the guillotine. 26 years after the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" was written up, a Bourbon once more sat on the throne as the King of France - that is what I mean by "failed" Revolution. Since 1793, France has had no less than 11 subsequent constitutions (while the United States still uses their first). This is what I mean about moderation and political stability. It is the legacy of those revolutions so different in style, substance, and in legacy.

      During one rapacious stretch of mindless revolutionary paranoia, 1,376 individuals were guillotined in only 47 days. The moderate girondist Mme. Jeanne Roland de la Platiere's last words before her death on the guillotine were: "O liberty! how they have played with you." She put it well, in my opinion. Or Camille Desmoulins, writing to his wife from prison, claiming, "J'avais rêvé une république que tout le monde eût adorée. Je n'ai pu croire que les hommes fussent si féroces et si injustes." I always much preferred the moderate Montesqieu and Lafayette to Robespierre and his fellow radicals. Not surprisingly, they did not do so well in the French Revolution which is a prime example of Gresham's law of political morality: the bad drives out the good as everyone becomes corrupted while political life becomes not unlike the Hobbesian war of all against all in "a perpetual and restless desire for power, that ceaseth only in death."

Executioner of King Louis XVI shows the head of the King of France to crowd.
The king was only one of the thousands of victims of Robespierre
and his "Committee of Public Safety" and "Revolutionary Tribunal"

"...and never heads enough..."

Domestic carnage, now filled the whole year
With feast-days, old men from the chimney-nook,
The maiden from the busom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warrior from the field - all perished, all -
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall.
William Wordsworth

      Wordsworth came to suffer the disillusion of young revolutionaries in all ages who discover that in shedding an ocean of blood they have more often than not done more harm than good. If the French revolution was the end of monarchy and aristocratic privilege and the emergence of the common man and democratic rights, it was also the beginnings of modern totalitarian government and large-scale executions of "enemies of the People" by impersonal government entities (Robespierre's "Committee of Public Safety"). This legacy would not reach its fullest bloom until the tragic arrival of the German Nazis and Soviet and Chinese communists of the 20th century.

      In fact, Rousseau has been called the precursor of the modern pseudo-democrats such as Stalin and Hitler and the "people's democracies." His call for the "sovereign" to force men to be free if necessary in the interests of the "General Will" harks back to the Lycurgus of Sparta instead of to the pluralism of Athens; the legacy of Rousseau is Robespierre and the radical Jacobins of the Terror who followed and worshipped him passionately. In the 20th century, his influence is further felt by tyrants who would arouse the egalitarian passions of the masses not so much in the interests of social justice as social control. Let us take Rousseau for the literary genius he was and appreciate his contribution to history; let us look at his political philosophy with great skepticism.

      Can you force a person or people to be free? Can one person - or small group of people - truly discern a clear "General Will" which represents the entire people? Is this not in practice a call for dictatorship? Can we read "The Social Contract" and find any of the spirit of Athens and parliamentary democracy in those pages? I cannot. It seems to me all Sparta and the austere egalitarianism of the collectivist society and ideological justifications for the nightmare regimes of modern totalitarianism.

      Rousseau presages the rise of the Romantic movement in art and caused a sensation among the aristocrats of Bourbon France. Later on Napoleon is supposed to have claimed, "If there had been no Rousseau, there would have been no Revolution, and without the Revolution, I should have been impossible." Stalin and Hitler could say the same in recognizing their debt to the concept of "the Sovereign" of Rousseau and its mystical identification with the people. 200 years later we have only millions and millions of innocents murdered in the "name of the people," etc. ad nauseam. Robespierre looked upon him like a spiritual father. If I had to choose between two evils, I would choose the opportunistic diplomats such as Maurice de Talleyrand of France, Clemens Metternich of Austria, Tsar Alexander of Russia, or Lord Castlereagh of England over Napoleon and Revolutionary France. For Napoleon was only the seed which was to bloom widely in the bloody 20th century in dynamic dictators like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. "Nobody can rule guiltlessly," claimed Saint-Just. This may be true, but political violence is the worst evil of this century of spectacular crimes and Robespierre, to my knowledge, was the first European intellectual to put forth this absurd idea that terror is the best and most effective manner for bringing about "justice."

      The French Revolution was the deserving death knell for the old system of monarchy in Europe. Unfortunately, in too many places the governments which replaced ancien regimes was as bad or worse than those which preceeded them (from Napoleon on up to Lenin and the fascists). The chaos and violence which Napoleon helped bring about has (let us hope) only in the last fifty years been succesfully worked out of the European system. Let us learn from the past, so that we may not repeat its errors. Let the 20th century (and the Jacobin Terror) be a warning!

...'Twas in truth an hour
Of universal ferment; mildest men
Were agitated; and commotions, strife
Of passion and opinion fill'd the walls
Of peaceful houses with unquiet sounds.
The soil of common life was at that time
Too hot to tread upon; oft said I then,
And not then only, 'what a mockery this
Of history; the past and that to come!
Now do I feel how I have been deceived,
Reading of Nations and their works, in faith,
Faith given to vanity and emptiness;
Oh! laughter for the Page that would reflect
To future times the face of what now is!'

William Wordsworth

The mysterious and menacing figure of Maximillien Robespierre;
"The government of liberty is the despotism of liberty against tyranny."
Robespierre's legacy of "despotism" was not to bloom fully until the pogroms of the 20th century.
Of course, Robespierre himself was guillotined during the Terror.

Robespierre's Malevolent Legacy:
Terror as "Justice"

"Terror is nought but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is less a particular principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to the most pressing needs of the fatherland."
Maximillien Marie Isidore de Robespierre
Address, National Convention, 1794

"Robespierre, with his cruel moral relativism,
embodied the cardinal sin of all revolution, the hearlessness of ideas."

Paul Johnson
"The Spectator"

"He [the revolutionary] is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves by whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it - an abstract and geometric love."
Arthur Koestler
"Darkness at Noon"

"The French Revolution had opened an era of intense politicization. Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the dawning modern world, and in this respect it was a true child of Rousseau, was the tendency to relate everything to politics. In Latin America, every would-be plunderer or ambitious bandit now called himself a "a liberator"; murderers killed for freedom, thieves stole for the people."
Paul Johnson
"Modern Times"

"What we learn from the study of the Great [French] Revolution is that it was the source of all the present communist, anarchist and socialist conceptions."
Prince Petr Kropotkin
Russian naturalist, author and soldier
writing in 1909 on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution

Some discussions....

"Robbespierre's sin was to be absolutely honest to the Revolution idealist ...true believer."
"I judge him to be the 'uncorruptable one' .... the honest politican we all say we want when in reality we want someone who will be kind to our personal agenda."

"I believe Robespierre was a good, virtuous, honest, and principled man. He is a hero!"
"Terror without virtue is bloody (e.g. Oklahoma City bombing), virtue without terror is impossible."