Just needed to write this down and publish, to be honest.
1. The Revolution and You
As with all histories of important historical events, the French Revolution in the popular consciousness has devolved into a few “highlight reel” moments: the storming of the Bastille, the execution of the King and the Terror. I can’t really dispel that belief, and as long as historical education in this country remains a bizarre conglomeration of histories that signify nothing, this idea of the French Revolution as a simplified revolt from the poor against the rich monarchy will persist.
That being said, the main takeaway you should draw from the French Revolution is the main point you probably learned in history class. The French Revolution is the start of the modern era (for the West), but the path it took to get there was immensely complicated and the upshot of the events are egregiously difficult to understand. That’s the part that I am going to write about.
The French Revolution was, at its core, a crisis of the political order. All the other distinctions–class, religion, economic etc.–feed directly into the political crisis that overtook the monarchy in the years leading up to 1789 and beyond. The political system failed, repeatedly, to solve the vast fiscal problems of a monarchy that, far from absolutist, was actually powerless in its attempts to centralize the state.
The best metaphor to describe the cause of the Revolution is that of a really bad offensive line. The O-line represents the political and legal institutions of France. The monarchy is the quarterback. The debt problems are the pass rushers. During the course of a football game, the narrative is that the quarterback has the power to change anything at will, but he is actually at the mercy of the offensive line. While the quarterback (for example, Case Keenum) looks horrible, he actually can’t control much because of the offensive line. Of course, everyone blames the problems on the quarterback anyway.
Throughout the lead-up to the French Revolution under the reign of Louis XV, the attempts to reform the government and centralize the monarchy failed. The Mopou Crisis, the failures of the Physiocrats, and most attempts to reform the state failed miserably due to various special interests, from the peasantry (in the case of the Flour War) and the nobility (the protests against the suspension of the Parlement). The only societal reform that seemed to function properly was the military reforms of Guibert, but even that reform was entirely biased in favor of the nobility.
But the French monarchy football team kept chugging along, and the debt crisis was just swept under the rug by guys like Necker and Calonne. And, in my opinion, the collapse of the political order that occurred in 1789 (and again in 1792) was not even close to inevitable. If the French had strong central leadership and a method to solving the monarchy’s problems by crushing these special interests, things might have somewhat worked out with limited reforms. A good quarterback can work with a bad offensive line. Louis XVI and his ministry just weren’t good quarterbacks. Thus, the whole team imploded.
But when the “absolutism”, which was strived to but never existed, fell apart, the factions within France took control of the Revolution. At this point, every single group leading up to Napoleon, from the Estates-General to the final days of the Directory, used the political crisis to achieve its own narrowly defined goals. You may call this tendency “freedom”, but I’d call it “inexperience” or “extremism”. The upshot of the mass “freedoms” of the French Revolution was complete chaos for about four years, and then mild chaos for the next seven.
Therefore, I agree with de Tocqueville on the basis of his argument that political neophytes really hurt the French Revolution’s attempts to modernize the nation of France. Here are a list of the problems of the “first revolution” (the more famous one) which started with the Tennis Court Oath and was run by liberal nobles.
- The Civil Constitution of the Clergy divided the nation on religious lines for almost no reason.
- The “Self-Denying Ordinance”, proposed by that greatest of political idealists with no idea how to actually govern, Maximillian Robespierre, basically doomed the Legislative Assembly to factional squabbles amongst the Feuillants, Girondins and Jacobins as the liberal nobles were kicked out.
- The failure to deal with the matter of Saint-Domingue/Haiti in a timely manner. Sugar shortages that eventually resulted from the revolt would cause some serious civil disturbances later on.
- The inability to see that Louis XVI was not really that committed to working with the Revolution.
And of course, the mistakes only continued with the Legislative Assembly.
- The War of 1792 itself was a tremendous mistake, created by lack of understanding of the European political situation amongst the Girondins and a tremendous over-confidence in the French military. The war was not just a direct cause for the overthrow of the French monarchy, but it also devastated the French economy and caused massive revolts once the central government started to conscript soldiers.
- The Feuillants’ consistent attempts to make amends with the King really stripped them of their political legitimacy due to the King’s flight to Varennes.
- The Massacre of the Champ de Mars.
- The mishandling of the situation on Saint-Domingue stripped France of its most important Atlantic colony and triggered even more shortages and economic catastrophe.
The revolutionaries were idealistic and their ideas were sound (the Constitutions of 1791 and 1793 went beyond the American Constitution in terms of equality and representation), but their inter-factional squabbling and inability to create a functioning central government along republican lines doomed the Revolution to violence and war. The decisions of the Girondin ministry directly led to the Terror and the Haitian Revolution, which is very impressive.
Of course, another massive component of the French Revolution’s inability to settle down and actually solve the problems it set out to accomplish was the city of Paris. The move to Paris after the Women’s March on Versailles had massive consequences, and the repeated influence of the ultra-radical Paris sections on the Revolution alienated just about everybody in the nation at some point. These “ultra-radicals”, first with Danton and the Old Cordeliers, and then the enragés against the Convention, constantly made their narrow and extremist positions the position of the government.
Now, were the radical sans-culottes “wrong”? No, they wanted universal manhood suffrage and creation of a social safety net for the poor, and some of their beliefs are cherished wings of modern Western liberalism in the 20th and 21st century. But they were also, undoubtedly, violent extremists. For the average French citizen in Lyon or Bordeaux, Danton’s Revolution of 1792 was the equivalent of a terrorist taking control of the central government. And although the new Convention and the Revolutionary Republic ostensibly tried to keep terror out of its government, it gave into political violence and repression within a few months. The political chaos also completely ruined the French economy (remember, the same problem that caused this whole mess), which triggered the Federalist revolts of 1793 and the revolts of the sans-culottes to ensure “the maximum” and other economic protections.
The constant overrunning of the moderate position in the French Revolution, spurred on by factionalism and extremism, essentially made the Revolution a black hole that needed a strong leader to rescue it. And of course, the utter black hole of 1793, with its long-running string of crises triggered by the defection of Dumouriez in the beginning of the year, allowed Maximillian Robespierre to believe that he could be that strong leader. It’s too bad he turned out to be a complete nut.
Say what you want about him though, he and the Committee of Public Safety did eventually stop the long-running trend of political chaos. Their attempts to continue the crackdown, however, got them run out of power.
TL;DR – Political infighting really ruined everything, but it also probably created the modern nation state in the process.