Must radical political adjust generate uncontainable violence? The French revolution is both a cautionary and also inspiring tale

by Jeremy Popkin + BIO


The execution the Robespierre and also his accomplices, 17 July 1794 (10 Thermidor Year II). Robespierre is depicted holding a handkerchief and also dressed in a brown coat in the cart immediately to the left the the scaffold. Photo courtesy the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris


Jeremy Popkin

is wilhelm T Bryan Chair Professor in the university of Arts and Sciences at the university of Kentucky. His books include A Concise history of the Haitian Revolution (2012), From Herodotus to H-Net: The Story the Historiography (2015) and also A brand-new World Begins: The history of the French change (2020).

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If the French change of 1789 was such an essential event, travellers to France’s funding city the Paris frequently wonder, why can’t they find any type of trace of the Bastille, the medieval fortress who storming on 14 July 1789 to be the revolution’s many dramatic moment? identified to damage what they witnessed as a price of tyranny, the ‘victors of the Bastille’ immediately began demolishing the structure. Even the obelisk in the center of the busy ar de la Bastille isn’t connected to 1789: it commemorates those who died in one more uprising a generation later, the ‘July Revolution’ the 1830.

The heritage of the French revolution is not discovered in physical monuments, however in the ideals the liberty, equality and also justice the still inspire modern-day democracies. An ext ambitious than the American revolutionaries of 1776, the French in 1789 to be not simply fighting for their own national independence: they wanted to establish principles that would certainly lay the basis for freedom for humans everywhere. The United states Declaration of freedom briefly pointed out rights come ‘liberty, equality, and the quest of happiness’, there is no explaining what they meant or exactly how they were to be realised. The French ‘Declaration the the civil liberties of Man and also Citizen’ spelled the end the civil liberties that comprised liberty and also equality and outlined a device of participatory government that would certainly empower citizen to defend their very own rights.

Much much more openly 보다 the Americans, the French revolutionaries recognised that the principles of liberty and equality they had articulated posed an essential questions about such problems as the condition of women and the justification the slavery. In France, uneven the US, these questions were disputed heatedly and also openly. Initially, the revolutionaries made decision that ‘nature’ denied females political rights and also that ‘imperious necessity’ dictated the maintenance of enslavement in France’s overseas colonies, whose 800,000 enslaved labourers outnumbered the 670,000 in the 13 American says in 1789.

As the change proceeded, however, that is legislators took much more radical steps. A legislation redefining marriage and legalising divorce in 1792 granted females equal civil liberties to sue for separation and also child custody; by the time, females had developed their own political clubs, some were openly offer in the French army, and also Olympe de Gouges’s eloquent ‘Declaration the the civil liberties of Woman’ had insisted that they must be enabled to vote and also hold office. Women completed so much influence in the highways of revolutionary Paris the they drove male legislators to try to outlaw your activities. At virtually the very same time, in 1794, confronted with a massive uprising among the enslaved blacks in France’s most an important Caribbean colony, Saint-Domingue, the French national Convention abolished slavery and also made its former victims full citizens. Black men were seated as deputies come the French legislative branch and, through 1796, the black general Toussaint Louverture was the official commander-in-chief that French pressures in Saint-Domingue, i beg your pardon would come to be the independent country of Haiti in 1804.

The French Revolution’s initiatives concerning women’s rights and also slavery are just two instances of just how the French revolutionaries experimented through radical new ideas about the meaning of liberty and also equality that are still relevant. But the French change is no just necessary today since it took together radical actions to increase the interpretations of liberty and equality. The movement that started in 1789 additionally showed the dangers inherent in trying to remake an entire society overnight. The French revolutionaries to be the first to approve the ideal to poll to every adult men, however they were additionally the first to grapple with democracy’s shadow side, demagogic populism, and with the effects of an explosion of ‘new media’ that reinvented political communication. The revolution saw the an initial full-scale attempt to i charged secular concepts in the confront of vocal opposition from citizens that proclaimed us defenders that religion. In 1792, revolutionary France became the an initial democracy come launch a war to spread its values. A major consequence of that war was the development of the very first modern totalitarian dictatorship, the rule of the Committee of public Safety throughout the reign of Terror. 5 years ~ the end of the Terror, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had obtained fame as a result of the war, led the very first modern coup d’état, justifying it, choose so numerous strongmen since, by declare that only an authoritarian regime could guarantee society order.

The reality that Napoleon reversed the revolutionaries’ development of women’s rights and also reintroduced enslavement in the French swarms reminds us that he, choose so plenty of of his imitators in the previous two centuries, defined ‘social order’ together a denial of any expansive an interpretation of liberty and also equality. Napoleon likewise abolished meaningful elections, finished freedom of the press, and restored the public condition of the Catholic Church. Figured out to keep and also even expand the revolutionaries’ foreign conquests, he continued the battle that they had actually begun, yet French militaries now fought to create an empire, dropping any kind of pretence of bringing liberty to other peoples.

The relevance of the French change to present-day arguments is the reason why I decided to compose A new World Begins: The history of the French Revolution (2020), the an initial comprehensive English-language account of that event for general readers in more than 30 years. Having actually spent my job researching and teaching the history of the French Revolution, however, i know very well the it was an ext than one idealistic crusade for human rights. If the autumn of the Bastille remains an indelible prize of aspirations because that freedom, the other universally recognised prize of the French Revolution, the guillotine, reminds united state that the motion was also significant by violence. The American starting Fathers whose refusal to consider granting rights to women or finishing slavery we now rightly question did have actually the an excellent sense not to let their distinctions turn into murderous feuds; nobody of them had actually to reflect, together the French legislator Pierre Vergniaud go on the night of his execution, that their movement, ‘like Saturn, is devouring its very own children’.

It is tough to protect against concluding the there to be a relationship in between the radicalism of the ideas that surfaced during the French transformation and the violence that marked the movement. In my book, I introduce readers come a character, the ‘Père Duchêne’, who came to represent the populist impulses that the revolution. Nowadays, us would contact the Père Duchêne a meme. He was no a actual person: instead, he to be a character familiar to audience in Paris’s well-known theatres, wherein he operated as a representative the the country’s plain people. Once the revolution began, a variety of journalists started publishing pamphlets supposedly written by the Père Duchêne, in which they demanded the the national Assembly do an ext to benefit the poor. The tiny newspapers that provided his name carried a crude woodcut on your front web page showing the Père Duchêne in rough workers’ clothing. Hold a hatchet end his head, v two pistols stuck in his belt and a musket at his side, the Père Duchêne to be a intuitive symbol that the association between the revolution and popular violence.

The elites had actually enriched themselves at the price of the people, and also needed to be forced to share your power

Although his crude oil language and his consistent threat to will to violence alienated the an ext moderate revolutionaries, the Père Duchêne was the living embodiment of among the an easy principles included in the declaration of the legal rights of Man and Citizen. The sixth article of that document affirmed the ‘the law is the expression that the basic will’ and also promised the ‘all citizens deserve to participate personally, or with their representatives, in that is establishment’. The fictitious Père Duchêne’s post to readers, no matter how poor and also uneducated they might be, was the an ordinary human could insurance claim a voice in politics.

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The an excellent Anger and The good Joy of Père Duchêne, Hébert’s radical and also rabble-rousing pamphlet. Courtesy Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Like present-day populists, the Père Duchêne had a simple political programme. The elites who ruled France before 1789 had enriched themselves at the price of the people. They required to be required to share your power and also wealth. As soon as the change did not instantly improve the lives of the masses, the Père Duchêne blamed the movement’s more moderate leaders, accusing lock of exploiting it for their own benefit. The journalists who wrote as the Père Duchêne supplied colourful language laced through obscenities; castle insisted that their vulgarity showed that they were ‘telling it choose it is’. Their tone was vindictive and also vengeful; they wanted to watch their targets humiliated and, in numerous cases, sent out to the guillotine. The many successful Père Duchêne journalist, Jacques-René Hébert, built a politics career with his success in using the media. At the height of the power of Terror, he thrust through the development of a ‘revolutionary army’ managed by his friends to intimidate adversaries of the revolution, and seemed ~ above the verge of acquisition over the government.

Maximilien Robespierre and also his much more middle-class colleagues on the Committee that Public security feared the Hébert’s populist movement might drive them from power. They chose that they had no choice but to face Hébert and his followers, even if it expected alienating the ‘base’ of simple Paris residents, the famous sans-culottes. Using the same smear tactics that the Père Duchêne had perfected, castle accused Hébert that dubious intrigues v foreigners and also other questionable activities. Like numerous bullies, Hébert quickly broke down when he discovered himself up against serious opponents identified to hit back; the crowd the cheered his dispatch to the guillotine in march 1794 was larger than for countless of the executions that he had incited. But he and the other Père Duchênes, and their mrs counterparts, the Mère Duchênes who grew at part points in the revolution, had actually done much to turn the motion from a high-minded crusade for human being rights right into a free-for-all in which just the loudest voices can make us heard.

The ambivalent tradition of the French Revolution’s democratic impulse, therefore vividly brought to life in the number of the Père Duchêne, underlines the means in which the movement begun in 1789 stays both motivation and a warning for united state today. In the more than 200 years because the storming the the Bastille, no one has formulated the human yearning for freedom and also justice more eloquently than the French revolutionaries, and also no one has shown more plainly the dangers that a one-sided search of those goals can create. The job of the most famous of the radical French revolutionaries, Robespierre, is the many striking demonstrate of that fact.

Robespierre is remembered since he to be the most eloquent defender that the dictatorship created during the revolution’s most radical period, the months well-known as the regime of Terror. Robespierre’s decided on the values of revolutionary government, ceded on 25 December 1793, do an uncompromising instance for the legitimacy of extreme measures to loss those he called ‘the adversaries of liberty’. Paradoxically, the insisted, the only way to create a culture in i m sorry citizens might exercise the separation, personal, instance freedoms promised in the declaration of legal rights was to suspend those legal rights until the revolution’s enemies were conclusively defeated.

Robespierre’s partner on the all-powerful Committee of public Safety chose him to defend their policies because he was an ext than just a spokesman for harsh measures versus their opponents. From the moment he very first appeared top top the scene as among the 1,200 deputies to the Estates general summoned by Louis XVI in might 1789, his other legislators recognised the young provincial lawyer’s intelligence and also his unswerving commitment to the ideals the democracy. The renegade aristocrat the comte de Mirabeau, the most influential spokesman that the revolutionary ‘patriots’ in 1789 but an often downhearted pragmatist, easily sized increase his colleague: ‘That man will walk far, due to the fact that he believes every little thing he says.’ uneven the Père Duchêne, Robespierre constantly dressed carefully and spoke in pure, education French. Various other revolutionary leaders, like the rabblerousing orator Georges Danton, to be happy to sign up with insurrectionary crowds in the streets; Robespierre never ever personally took component in any type of of the French Revolution’s explosions of violence. Yet nobody remains more associated v the violence the the regime of Terror 보다 Robespierre.

To mitigate Robespierre’s tradition to his association with the Terror is come overlook the prominence of his function as a one of history’s many articulate advocates of political democracy. Once the majority of the deputies in France’s revolutionary nationwide Assembly tried come restrict complete political rights to the wealthier male members the the population, Robespierre reminded them of the explanation of Rights’ delinquent that freedom meant the right to have actually a voice in do the laws that citizens had to obey. ‘Is the law the expression the the basic will, once the greater number of those for whom that is do cannot contribute to its formation?’ he asked. Long prior to our contemporary debates around income inequality, that denounced a device that put real political power in the hands of the wealthy: ‘And what one aristocracy! The most unbearable of all, the of the rich.’ In the at an early stage years that the revolution, Robespierre firmly protected freedom that the press and called because that the abolition that the fatality penalty. When white colonists insisted that France could not survive financially without slavery, Robespierre cry out: ‘Perish the colonies rather 보다 abandon a principle!’

The bulk of the population was not all set to adopt a radical secularist movement

Explaining how Robespierre, the principled defender of liberty and also equality, became in simply a couple of short year the leading support of a mechanism of revolutionary government that foreshadowed the 20th century’s totalitarian dictatorships is maybe the greatest difficulty in defending the heritage of the French Revolution. Robespierre was no innocent, and also in the last months the his quick political job – the was just 36 once he passed away – his clumsy confrontations with his partner made that a dangerous variety of enemies. Uneven the Père Duchêne, however, Robespierre never taken on violence together an end in itself, and a close examination of his career mirrors that the was regularly trying to discover ways to border the damages caused by policies he had actually not originally endorsed. In 1792, when many of his other Jacobin radicals taken on the contact for a revolutionary battle to for sure France’s defense by toppling the hostile monarchies neighboring it, Robespierre warned versus the illusion that various other peoples would certainly turn against their own federal governments to assistance the French. ‘No one loves equipped missionaries,’ he insisted, a warning that recent US leaders can have done well to heed.

When radicals such as Hébert started a project to ‘de-Christianise’ France, in stimulate to quiet opposition come the movement’s effort to reform the Catholic Church and sell off its property for the advantage of the revolution, Robespierre reined lock in. That recognised that the bulk of the population was not all set to take on a radical secularist movement bent on transforming churches into ‘temples that reason’ and also putting up indicators in cemeteries calling fatality ‘an eternal sleep’. Robespierre proposed instead the arrival of a purified and also simplified ‘cult of the can be fried Being’, which he assumed believers could take on without abandoning their belief in a greater power and also their belief in the immortality of the soul.

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To inaugurate the new state religion, Robespierre claimed 8 June 1794 (20 Prairial Year II) to be the Festival that the can be fried Being. The festival was organised by the artist Jacques-Louis David and took place approximately a man-made mountain on the Champ de Mars. Courtesy Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Robespierre knew that many of the revolution’s bitterest enemies were encouraged by commitment to the Catholic Church. The transformation had not started as one anti-religious movement. Under the rules supplied in the elections to what ended up being the French nationwide Assembly in 1789, a 4th of all the deputies were clergy native the Catholic Church, an institution so woven right into the towel of the population’s life the hardly anyone could imagine that disappearance. Criticism the the Church had grown also wealthy and also that plenty of of its beliefs failed come measure as much as the standards of reason advocated by the knowledge was widespread, even among priests, however most hoped to see religion, like every other aspect of French life, ‘regenerated’ by the impulses the the revolution, not destroyed.

The revolutionaries’ confrontation through the Church began, not through an argument about beliefs, but because of the urgent need to fulfill the situation in federal government revenues that had compelled king luigi XVI come summon a national assembly in the first place. Identified to stop a chaotic publicly bankruptcy, and reluctant come raise taxes on the population, the legislators decided, four months after the storming of the Bastille, to put the huge property of the Catholic Church ‘at the disposition of the nation’. Numerous Catholic clergy, specifically underpaid parish priests who resented the high-end in which their aristocratic bishops lived, supported the expropriation of Church property and the idea that the government, which now took end the responsibility for resources the institution, had the appropriate to reform it. Others, however, saw the reform of the Church as a cover for an Enlightenment-inspired campaign versus their faith, and also much the the lay populace supported them. In one an ar of France, peasants created a ‘Catholic and also Royal Army’ and also revolted versus the transformation that had actually supposedly been brought out for their benefit. Women, who discovered in the cult that Mary and also female saints a resource of psychological support, were frequently in the head of this religiously influenced resistance come the revolution.

To pendant of the revolution, this religious opposition to their motion looked prefer a nationwide conspiracy staying clear of progress. The significantly harsh procedures taken come quell resistance come Church reform prefigured the policies of the reign of Terror. The plunge right into war in the feather of 1792, justified in component to show domestic enemies of the change that they could not expect for any kind of support native abroad, enabled the revolutionaries to define the disruptions caused by diehard Catholics as forms of treason. Suspicions that Louis XVI, that had embraced the demand for a statements of war, and also his mam Marie-Antoinette were privately hoping for a fast French defeat that would enable foreign armies to restore their powers brought about their imprisonment and also execution.

Accusations of foreign meddling in revolutionary politics, a so-called foreign plot the supposedly connected the payment of huge sums of money to leading deputies to promote special interests and also undermine French democracy, were another resource of the fear that fuelled the regime of Terror. Awash in a sea of ‘fake news’, politics leaders and ordinary citizen lost any sense the perspective, and also became progressively ready to think even the most far-fetched accusations. Robespierre, whose an individual honesty had actually earned the the nickname ‘The Incorruptible’, was particularly quick come suspect any type of of his colleagues who seemed ready to forgive those who enriched us from the change or had actually contacts v foreigners. Quite than any lust for power, it was Robespierre’s weakness for seeing any type of disagreement v him as a sign of corruption that led the to assistance the elimination of plenty of other revolutionary leaders, including figures, such together Danton, who had actually once been his near allies. Other, much more cynical political leaders joined Robespierre in widening the regime of Terror, calculating the their own ideal chance of survival was to strike down their rivals before they themselves might be targeted.

Although the toxic politics of its many radical step did much to discredit the revolution, the ‘Reign of Terror’, i beg your pardon lasted little much more than one year out of 10 between the storming the the Bastille and also Napoleon’s coup d’état, was also a time of necessary experiments in democracy. When thousands of simple French men and also women uncovered themselves unjustly imprisoned throughout the Terror, hundreds of others – admittedly, only guys – held public office because that the very first time. The exact same revolutionary legislature the backed Robespierre and the Committee of Public safety took the an initial steps toward producing a contemporary national welfare system and passed plans for a an extensive system of public education. Revolutionary France ended up being the first country to create a mechanism of universal military conscription and to promise plain soldiers that, if they showed themselves ~ above the battlefield, there to be no location to i beg your pardon they might not aspire. The idea that society needed a privileged leadership class in bespeak to role was challenged as never before.

Among the guys from usual backgrounds who increased to positions they might never have attained prior to 1789 to be a young artillery officer whose strong Corsican accent significant him as a provincial: Napoleon. A just lieutenant once the Bastille to be stormed, that was supported to general just 4 years later, ~ impressing Robespierre’s brother Augustin with his ability in beating a brother invasion force on France’s southerly coast. 5 years after ~ the fall of Robespierre ~ above 27 July 1794 – or 9 Thermidor Year II, according to the brand-new calendar the the revolutionaries had embraced to underline their full break with the previous – Napoleon joined through a variety of revolutionary politicians to overthrow the republican program that had actually come out of the change and change it through what soon ended up being a mechanism of one-man rule. Napoleon’s seizure of power has been quote ever because as evidence that the French Revolution, unlike the American, was essentially a failure. The French revolutionaries, that is frequently said, had tried to make also many changes too quickly, and the movement’s violence had alienated too much of the population to allow it to succeed.

To expropriate this decision on the French revolution is to overlook a critical but little-known facet of that legacy: the method in i beg your pardon the movement’s very own leaders, determined to escape from the destructive politics of the regime of Terror after Robespierre’s death, functioned to ‘exit native the Terror’, as one historian has actually put it, and also create a stable kind of constitution government. The years that background books speak to the period of the ‘Thermidorian reaction’ and the period of the Directory, from July 1794 to November 1799, comprise half of the decade of the French Revolution. They provide an instructive great in how a society can shot to put itself ago on an even keel after an experience throughout which all the ordinary rules that politics have actually been broken.

The post-Robespierre republic was lugged down by the disloyalty that its own political elite

One simple lesson indigenous the post-Terror year of the change that many subsequent politicians have actually learned is to blame every mistakes on one person. In death, Robespierre was accumulated into a ‘tiger thirsty because that blood’ who had supposedly wanted to do himself a dictator or even king. All too mindful that, in reality, thousands of others had helped to do the revolutionary federal government function, however, Robespierre’s successors discovered themselves under push to carry at the very least some of the Terror’s other leaders to justice. In ~ times, the procedure escaped from control, as as soon as angry crowds massacred political prisoners in cities in the south throughout a ‘white terror’ in 1795. Top top the whole, however, the republican leader after 1794 flourished in convincing the populace that the excesses of the Terror would not be repeated, also if few of the guys in power had actually been as deeply implicated in those excesses as Robespierre.

For 5 years after Robespierre’s execution, France lived under a quasi-constitutional system, in which legislations were discussed by a bicameral legislature and also discussed in a relatively totally free press. On numerous occasions, the is true, the Directory, the five-man governing council, ‘corrected’ the election outcomes to ensure its own host on power, undermining the government of the constitution, but the massive arrests and arbitrary trials the had marked the reign of Terror were no repeated. The Directory’s policies permitted the country’s economic climate to recuperate after the disorder that the revolutionary years. Harsh towards the bad who had established themselves through the Père Duchêne, that consolidated the educational reforms started throughout the Terror. Napoleon would develop on the Directory’s success in creating a modern, centralised mechanism of administration. He himself was one of the plenty of military leader who allowed France to defeat its continent enemies and force them come recognise its territorial gains.

Although legislative disputes in this duration reflected a swing versus the expanded rights granted to women previously in the revolution, the legislations passed previously were no repealed. In spite of a heated campaign waged by displaced plantation-owners, the thermidorians and the directory maintained the legal rights granted to the freed blacks in the French colonies. Black men from Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe were elected as deputies and also took part in parliamentary debates. In Saint-Domingue, the black basic Louverture commanded French pressures that defeated a brothers invasion; by 1798, he had actually been named the branch of the colony. His power was so great that the American government, by this time locked in a ‘quasi-war’ through France, negotiated directly with him, hope to carry pressure ~ above Paris to finish the harassment the American vendor ships in the Caribbean.

The post-Robespierre French republic was brought down, more than anything else, by the disloyalty that its own political elite. Even prior to Napoleon unexpectedly went back from the expedition to Egypt on i beg your pardon he had been dispatched in mid-1798, numerous of the regime’s vital figures had decided that the constitution they themselves had helped to draft after Robespierre’s fall listed too many opportunities for rivals to an obstacle them. What Napoleon discovered in the fall of 1799 was not a country on the verge of chaos but a group of politicians completing with each other to arrangement coups to make their location permanent. He was able to choose the allies that struck him together most most likely to offer his purposes, learning that nobody of them had actually the popularity or the charisma to hold their own against him once the brochure had been overthrown.

One cannot merely conclude, then, the the history of the French revolution proves the radical attempts to change culture are doomed come failure, or the Napoleon’s dictatorship to be the inevitable destination at i m sorry the transformation was doomed to arrive. However neither can one just hail the French movement as a forerunner of contemporary ideas about liberty and equality. In their quest of those goals, the French revolutionaries discovered how vehemently some world – not just privileged elites but additionally many simple men and also women – might resist those ideas, and how attention the impatience of their own supporters can become. Robespierre’s justification the dictatorial methods to get over the resistance come the revolution had a specific logic behind it, yet it opened up the door to plenty of abuses.

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Despite all its violence and contradictions, however, the French transformation remains meaningful for us today. To ignore or refuse the heritage of that calls because that liberty and also equality amounts to legitimising authoritarian ideologies or debates for the inherent inequality of specific groups the people. If we want to live in a world characterised by respect for basic individual rights, we require to discover the lessons, both positive and also negative, that the an excellent effort to encourage those ideals the tore down the Bastille in 1789.