HistoryBits: French Revolution

HistoryBits: French Revolution

Bits and Pieces of History


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Power/French and American Revolutions

The American Revolution ordained that for the first Notwithstanding its determination to put the common man in the driver’s seat, The French Revolution degenerated into mob rule and turned a high-minded campaign for justice, liberty, and progress into a bloodbath; it was at gunpoint, and not by operation of law, that the king, the church, and the nobility gave up their lands. True and lasting change must come about by evolution, not revolution. Revolution seldom sticks to the wall—whether French, Russian, Chinese, or American (indeed, ours began as a tax revolt, not a revolution), and the graft of sudden and drastic change onto such creatures of habit as we humans does not usually put down deep roots. It was no surprise, then, that the French gave so much of what their revolution seemed to have accomplished right back to yet another tyrant: Napoleon. At the time, a major state of the Western world would have a republican form of government with no king, no established church, and no hereditary nobility. The absence of the old bulwarks of power and authority created an astonishing vacuum, and into this void poured the liberal sentiments of every disciple of the Enlightenment and John Locke and Company. What’s more, the Old World had never before seen such a thing as a Constitution—a contract between the people and their government that established a clockwork mechanism of checks and balances to ensure that government operated in accordance with its popular mandate. The American experiment was the blank slate upon which the rules of a utopian New Order might be written, and it demonstrated that men could create a government and society that put into practice the pipe dreams of the Old World.

Power/French Revolution/Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen seems to have been largely modeled on its American counterpart, as much of the French Revolution was. What’s more, the Old World had never before seen such a thing as a Constitution—a contract between the people and their government that established a clockwork mechanism of checks and balances to ensure that government operated in accordance with its popular mandate. The American experiment was the blank slate upon which the rules of a utopian New Order might be written, and it demonstrated that men could create a government and society that put into practice the pipe dreams of the Old World. The American Revolution ordained that for the first time, a major state of the Western world would have a republican form of government with no king, no established church, and no hereditary nobility. The absence of the old bulwarks of power and authority created an astonishing vacuum, and into this void poured the liberal sentiments of every disciple of the Enlightenment.

Power/French Revolution/Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen

Olympe de Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen seemed a reasonable enough proposition to advance, given the revolutionary temper of the times. But the nasty thing about revolution is that true social activism demands that one put everything on the line, with the very real possibility that one’s head may roll. Legislation in and of itself usually turns out to be a sterile proposition honored more in the breach, and it requires commitment to elicit the sort of visceral reaction from the Silent Majority that causes people to reflect and listen to themselves—the only ones that anyone will ever listen to–and to cause society to incorporate change into their values and everyday behavior. What, then, constitutes “commitment”? Put it this way: the chicken participates in your bacon-and-eggs breakfast; the pig is committed.

Power/French Revolution/Louis XVI

The guillotine—and the haircut it gave to Louis XVI–gave the lie to the revolutionaries’ proclamations of liberty, equality, and fraternity; you were either with them, or you were against them… and if you were against them, you most certainly were not their fellow lovers of liberty, their equals, or their brothers, and nothing short of forfeiting your life to their version of events would set things right. The guillotine was both the instrument of France’s murder of its own sovereign, and of history’s purge of people based on their social origins or suspected beliefs. In its determination to put the common man in the driver’s seat, the Revolution degenerated into mob rule and turned a high-minded campaign for justice, liberty, and progress into a bloodbath; it was at gunpoint, and not by operation of law, that the king, the church, and the nobility gave up their lands. True and lasting change must come about by evolution, not revolution. Revolution seldom sticks to the wall—whether French, Russian, Chinese, or American (indeed, ours began as a tax revolt, not a revolution), and the graft of sudden and drastic change onto such creatures of habit as we humans does not usually put down deep roots. It was no surprise, then, that the French gave so much of what their revolution seemed to have accomplished right back to yet another tyrant: Napoleon. People get the government they deserve.

Power/French Revolution/Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette probably went further than the king in arousing public antipathy toward royalty, and sympathy for the revolutionary cause. Reviled as “the Austrian whore”, she responded to her detractors with the same measure of contempt, reputedly going so far as to chide the starving masses with her infamous dictum, “Let them eat cake.” Every revolution needs a villain to animate its principles, and nobody could have imbued the Revolution with its unexampled vengefulness as she did.

Power/French Revolution/Reign of Terror

The Jacobin Terror gave the lie to the revolutionaries’ proclamations of liberty, equality, and fraternity. You were either with them, or you were against them… and if you were against them, you most certainly were not their fellow lovers of liberty, their equals, or their brothers. The Terror was, in fact, history’s first mass purge of people based on their social origins or suspected beliefs, and in its determination to put the common man in the driver’s seat, it degenerated into mob rule and turned a high-minded campaign for justice, liberty, and progress into a bloodbath; it was at gunpoint, and not by operation of law, that the king, the church, and the nobility gave up their lands. True and lasting change must come about by evolution, not revolution. Revolution seldom sticks to the wall—whether French, Russian, Chinese, or American (indeed, ours began as a tax revolt, not a revolution), and the graft of sudden and drastic change onto such creatures of habit as we humans does not usually put down deep roots. It was no surprise, then, that the French gave so much of what their revolution seemed to have accomplished right back to yet another tyrant: Napoleon.

Power/French Revolution/Tennis Court Oath

The Tennis Court Oath and the iron-bound resolve of its signatories represented the fatal cracks in the levy of the ancien regime—it was too late, and the dam would inevitably give way and the deluge would burst forth. Notwithstanding its determination to put the common man in the driver’s seat, the French Revolution degenerated into mob rule and turned a high-minded campaign for justice, liberty, and progress into a bloodbath; it was at gunpoint, and not by operation of law, that the king, the church, and the nobility gave up their lands. True and lasting change must come about by evolution, not revolution. Revolution seldom sticks to the wall—whether French, Russian, Chinese, or American (indeed, ours began as a tax revolt, not a revolution), and the graft of sudden and drastic change onto such creatures of habit as we humans does not usually put down deep roots. It was no surprise, then, that the French gave so much of what their revolution seemed to have accomplished right back to yet another tyrant: Napoleon.

Power/French Revolution/Emergence of Napoleon

Named after the month of Thermidore—August—in which the archfiend Robespierre fell, the Thermidorean Reaction was in response to the bloody excesses of the Reign of Terror. It proved a couple of things, one being that the excesses of the popular will (in this case, of the Jacobin rabble), in the form of anarchy and mob rule, are as ruinous as the excesses of tyranny; secondly, it showed that any reform that hinged on the upper crust—the church, the wealthy, the nobility–was a dicey proposition; try to please them, and you invite them to please themselves. When these interests then chose several of their own to form the Directory, they soon found themselves squabbling among themselves for their entitlement—which is to say, power. Meanwhile, the lot of the urban poor grew ever more desperate, squeezed in the coils of a severe inflation and greedy profiteering. While the peasants sought in vain to legitimize the lands they had seized in the revolutionary uproar, the church was dissatisfied with its diminished status in the eyes of the state. But the government was able to keep a lid on the pressure cooker as long as France was winning on the battlefield… and that, of course, is how Napoleon became the Man of the Moment.

Power/French Revolution/Women’s March

Of all the most terrifying things about the French Revolution—the mobs, the Reign of Terror, the guillotine and such—I submit that the most disconcerting of all was the wrath of the women! Once things get to the point where the women– rolling pins in hand—are marching for bread, you know things that things have gone well past the point of no return. And here’s the only lesson that you need to take from this: If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

Power/July Revolution

Notwithstanding its determination to put the common man in the driver’s seat, the French Revolution degenerated into mob rule and turned a high-minded campaign for justice, liberty, and progress into a bloodbath; it was at gunpoint, and not by operation of law, that the king, the church, and the nobility gave up their lands. It was no surprise, then, that the French gave so much of what their revolution seemed to have accomplished right back to yet another tyrant: Napoleon. But the end of Napoleon was not the end of absolutism, as the political pendulum swung back and forth from the relative liberalism of Louis XVIII to the autocratic proclivities of Charles X until at last, Louis-Philippe–as King of the French rather than King of France–brought his people lasting relief from all the bloodshed and anguish they had endured to bring the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution into being. Moral of the story: true and lasting change must come about by evolution, not revolution. Revolution seldom sticks to the wall—whether French, Russian, Chinese, or American (indeed, ours began as a tax revolt, not a revolution), and the graft of sudden and drastic change onto such creatures of habit as we humans does not usually put down deep roots.

Power/Louis IX

The long arm of Charlemagne reached into more modern times not only in its protective embrace of the intellectual heritage of Greece and Rome, but in paving the way for the development of the nation-state under Louis IX. Hoping to wean the populace from the local fealties of serfdom and win their loyalty to the state, Louis’ agents roamed the realm as his eyes and ears, much as Charlemagne’s missi dominici had some 500 years before, in the interest of promoting the peace and justice that would only prove feasible under a new national order.

Power/Louis XIV

Louis XIV went to such extremes with Versailles and all of that to glorify France, and his embodiment of France– only to fritter it away on ill-advised and unnecessary military adventures–which he seems to have undertaken largely because the vision of French grandeur that he so painstakingly wrought at court required a foreign policy profile to match. Why do so many heads of state seem to believe that affluence at home must translate into muscle-flexing abroad? In all of my perusal of history, I have yet to encounter a single episode of aggression that stuck to the wall, so to speak, and did not come back to its perpetrator in ruinous ways.

Power/Louis XIV/Absolutism

As a theory, absolutism seemed a grand notion indeed: God Himself had blessed the ruler with his right to rule, along with the authority to make laws, levy taxes, administer the heavy hand of justice, lord it over the bureaucracy, and make or break foreign policy. And would God Himself have not smilingly approved of how the Sun King exercised this mandate in spreading French culture and civilization throughout the courts and upper crust of Europe, and wielding order through war and French diplomacy (often one and the same). As you might imagine, however, the reality was somewhat at odds with the theory. Not even the Sun King could penetrate France’s bewildering system of overlapping authority: its regional courts, and local Estates, whereupon the nobles continued to be a law unto themselves. Only by engaging the nobility in the glittering whirl of Versailles—and its petty intrigues and poisonous jealousies in pursuit of the king’s favor–could Louis induce the nobility to tow the line. And only by bribing his ministers could he gain control over foreign policy, war and peace, the assertion of secular power against religious authority, and the ability to levy taxes. Louis’ lust for glory led mostly to war, and the costs of war-making outstripped the revenues of the state and debt spiraled out of control. Much as night follows day (and the King whose glory illuminated it), the demise of the Sun King left France impoverished and surrounded by enemies, and her people disillusioned.

Power/Louis XIV/Discontent

Whatever his faults (and they were legion and monumental), the Sun King was a hard act to follow, and by comparison, his successors proved doubly disappointing. Having been spoiled by the enlightened and capable absolutism of Louis XIV, the French were dismayed by his self-indulgent and feeble-minded successors. The nobility, newly-liberated by the death of the Sun King and bent and determined on the exercise of every privilege and wretched excess that had formerly been denied them, usurped and abused the powers of the professional bureaucrats that had run a relatively tight ship under Louis XIV. The government and the courts grew corrupt and operated at the whim of the king’s select sycophants. The old abuses caught up with a vengeance. Dismayed by this turn of events, the people took matters into their own hands and began to clamor for reform, and in time, vengeance itself followed.

Power/Louis XIV/Mistress

Athenias, mistress of Louis XIV, aspired to set the standard for sub-rosa statecraft, but wound up tripping over her own wiles. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it. But that’s pretty old-fashioned, isn’t it? Women must have every measure of the same opportunity that men do, and be able to exert their influence as forthrightly as men do; regrettably, though, many women seem to have a real problem rising above their own traditional expectations of themselves, and wind up like Athenias, a victim of self-diminished choices and unintended consequences.

Power/Louis XIV/Versailles

Enchanting as it was, Versailles served a very hard-nosed political purpose. The absolutism of Louis XIV was hardly absolute; in fact, the nobility—jealous of their prerogatives and conspiratorial-minded to the max, would gladly have reduced the Sun King to a much lesser light had they not been distracted and amused by the glitter and social whirl of Versailles. Louis understood that if you kept the little vipers busy at the roulette table and kept them quarreling over who sat where at the king’s table, you could then get down to the real business of governing the nation without worrying about becoming entangled—Gulliver-like–in their petty peccadilloes.

Power/Louis-Philippe

Notwithstanding its determination to put the common man in the driver’s seat, The French Revolution degenerated into mob rule and turned a high-minded campaign for justice, liberty, and progress into a bloodbath; it was at gunpoint, and not by operation of law, that the king, the church, and the nobility gave up their lands. True and lasting change must come about by evolution, not revolution. Revolution seldom sticks to the wall—whether French, Russian, Chinese, or American (indeed, ours began as a tax revolt, not a revolution), and the graft of sudden and drastic change onto such creatures of habit as we humans does not usually put down deep roots. It was no surprise, then, that the French gave so much of what their revolution seemed to have accomplished right back to yet another tyrant: Napoleon. The idea of Louis-Philippe as King of the French rather than King of France must have come as some consolation to the French, after all the bloodshed and anguish they endured to bring the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution into being.

Power/Napoleon/Demise

How ironic that the man who conquered his enemies from Madrid to Moscow may well have been done in by his friends!

Power/Napoleon/Code Napoleon

The French Revolution failed in its determination to put the common man in the driver’s seat. It soon degenerated into mob rule and turned a high-minded campaign for justice, liberty, and progress into a bloodbath; it was at gunpoint, and not by operation of law, that the king, the church, and the nobility gave up their lands. True and lasting change must come about by evolution, not revolution. Revolution seldom sticks to the wall—whether French, Russian, Chinese, or American (indeed, ours began as a tax revolt, not a revolution), and the graft of sudden and drastic change onto such creatures of habit as we humans does not usually put down deep roots. It was no surprise, then, that the French gave so much of what their revolution seemed to have accomplished right back to yet another tyrant: Napoleon. And after all of Napoleon’s hellraising, one of the few things that did stick to the wall was the Code Napoleon and the impressive array of reforms that it accomplished on behalf of a uniform legal system, legal equality, and the protection of property and individuals. This reminds me of Athens, which transformed itself from the depths of ruin from an empire that had gloried military conquest to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. Consider democracy: at the end of World War II, six nations were democracies; now, some 160 are. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for an idea, which suggests that, in the long run, ideas endure; conquest and empire do not.

Power/Napoleon/Early Successes and Defeats

Europe is too small a place to contain the ambitions of megalomaniacs like Spain’s Philip II, Napoleon, and Hitler. They predictably flounder in their lunge for the island fortress of England (as with the ill-fated invasion of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and the Luftwaffe), or dissipate themselves in the infinite wastes of Russia (as again did Napoleon and Hitler). As long as his wars went well, Napoleon could get away with raising vast conscript armies and levying heavy taxes to support their expense, and he built a legislature and bureaucracy that were all his own. While he was on a roll, he could do no wrong—and the various coalitions arrayed against him could do no right. His Grande Armee steamrolled Spain, Portugal, the Italian peninsula, Austria (several times), Prussia, and Holland, and the hordes of Russia. But Napoleon reached too far when he reached for England—his fleet was sent to the bottom off Trafalgar, and when his columns turned east they were swallowed up by the imponderable distances and bitter winter of Russia. Picked off by guerillas, just one-third made their way back to Poland, and after that it was all downhill. The culminating Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in 1813 ended in an inglorious (or was it glorious?) rout of the French at the hands of combined Russian, Prussian, and Austrian forces, and it wasn’t long before occupied Europe was rid of the French and their troops and governors. Finally, in March, 1814 Paris was occupied, and Napoleon sent packing to Elba. The whole world loves a winner. But greed is a ravenous serpent that just doesn’t stop until it has consumed its own tail… and there’s a limit to that meal.

Power/Napoleon and Josephine

For the man who conquered Europe from Madrid to Moscow, Napoleon’s true Waterloo lay with his prickly Rose. From the moment that the Emperor’s command performance was disrupted by a nasty bite on his bare buttocks from Josephine’s pet poodle, the conquest of empires was as naught compared to the winning of his woman’s reluctant heart.

Power/Napoleon/Napoleonic Settlement

The French Revolution was history’s first mass purge of people based on their social origins or suspected beliefs, and in its determination to put the common man in the driver’s seat, it degenerated into mob rule and turned a high-minded campaign for justice, liberty, and progress into a bloodbath; it was at gunpoint, and not by operation of law, that the king, the church, and the nobility gave up their lands. It was no surprise, then, that the French gave so much of what their glorious revolution had accomplished right back to yet another tyrant: Napoleon. As First Consul, he pretended to uphold the new constitution that his pet legislature cooked up, while in fact wasting no time in stamping out all political opposition and solidifying his position by implementing a series of acts known collectively as the Napoleonic Settlement. His official recognition of Catholicism as the one true faith of the real was a sop to the clergy, while in fact subjecting the Church to state control, and his ruthless extinction of Bourbon sympathizers and Jacobin remnants betrayed the dictatorial proclivities that would ultimately come into full flower in his reign of conquest and imperial absolutism. True and lasting change must come about by evolution, not revolution. Revolution seldom sticks to the wall—whether French, Russian, Chinese, or American (indeed, ours began as a tax revolt, and the true revolution of federalism and constitutional government came about as an afterthought!), and the graft of sudden and drastic change on such creatures of habit as we humans does not usually become deep rooted.

Power/Napoleon III

Napoleon I would have been a hard act for anyone to follow, but I submit that the legacy of Napoleon III sets a better example. While the name of his predecessor will always be associated largely with conquest and destruction, Napoleon III took a more constructive tack, expending the modern equivalent of a cool trillion or so on the reconstruction of Paris, transforming it from a dingy medieval warren into the architectural jewel that the world now sees as the City of Light. What’s more, his policies led to the unparalleled industrial growth in France, programs of free medical care and better housing for the working class, the legalization of labor unions, and a liberalized legislative process. All of this was to little avail, as the irresistible entanglement of France in Europe’s endless intrigues and bickering brought the regime of Napoleon II to an inglorious end.

Power/Paris Commune

Radical politics has always been associated with the lunatic fringe of dreamers and rabble-rousers, and it must be admitted that the early agitators on behalf of a better way to organize industrial society didn’t help that perception. The idea of an enlightened social welfare, educational, and tax regime and a state-managed economy that restrained the excesses of capitalism in favor of providing equitably for society’s less fortunate was well-intentioned. But the liberals grew appalled at the prospect of hordes of wage-slaves granted equality in government, and conservatives believed the socialism misunderstood the self-centered preoccupation of human nature. And when the Paris Commune began to stump for equality of opportunity for women to serve under arms and such-like, it began to look like the whole thing was destined for the rubber room. The reactionaries smelled blood, went for the jugular, and promptly put paid to the whole business. Poor old Karl Marx probably never intended for his name to become associated with uproar and subversion. After all, he was onto something that was either light-years ahead of his time, or ages behind it, in his understanding of something that the ancient Hawaiians knew all along, that the earth can no more be divided and owned than can the sky and the sea.

Power/Philip IV

In melting down and debasing the coin of the realm, Philip IV would have done the modern-day American politician proud; knowing that there’s not enough euros, yen, or gold to serve as a replacement reserve currency for the dollar, we continue to behave like a junkie paying for his habit with checks that he knows will never be cashed. His persecution of the Templars admirably anticipated our gulag at Guantanamo. And, in paving the way for the Hundred Years’ War and France’s timeless animosity with England, that adds up to quite a legacy! I doubt whether even George W. Bush, whom some would regard as the most prodigious one-man wrecking crew that this nation has ever installed in the White House, could hope to accomplish nearly as much.

Power/Protest

The French have a habit of students uniting in support of labor in mass protests that have recurred throughout recent years—which makes for an interesting contrast to the American tradition, with its usual alienation between liberal student longhairs and conservative union hardhats. I wonder what this suggests about America’s free market economy versus France’s socialized economy, and their respective bedfellows.

Power/War/Franco-Prussian War

Though the Franco-Prussian War occupied only a bit part on the stage of European politics, its consequences for France, Prussia, and Italy were enormous. Imagine then the impact of major conflicts like the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, Napoleon, the revolutions of 1848, and World Wars I and II: consider how often Europe has gone through the process of rearranging its borders! How is it that the states of America can live in close quarters with each other without being constantly embroiled in conflict, and the states of Europe cannot? Cultural homogeneity versus cultural contrast; we focus on what we have in common; they focus on how they differ. But is that changing with the EU? Can there ever be a United States of Europe? Should there be?

Power/War/Levee En Masse

France’s deployment of the levee en masse shows that a “good war” such as for defense of the homeland can elicit a heroic performance from what is essentially a citizen army, and command the willing efforts of every man, woman, and child in the nation, who can be depended upon to make every sacrifice demanded of them without hesitation or complaint. America’s experience in rising to the challenges of World War II offers an excellent case in point–a case that could be made in favor of the draft in times of genuine need, and for sending the army home otherwise. What’s more, if the need cannot be met by a citizen army, then how legitimate is that need?

Religion/Massacre of the Huguenots

The murderous hatred spawned by the Reformation exposed organized religion for the nakedly political force that it had become by the time of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. If Christianity had been practiced in accordance with how it was originally preached, its legacy might have been less conspicuous, but far more profound. In its origins, Christianity drew no lines of distinction–everyone was welcome. Amidst the general gloom and hopelessness that besieged the ordinary mortal, it held out the promise of a better life to love. To be a Christian was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power. One could be forgiven for wondering how values such as these came to serve the purposes of statecraft, but altogether too often, the name and blessings of God are invoked to lend sanction to the most base, cynically political, and ungodly of causes.


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