The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

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The French Revolution is tough to understand. I was raised in Texas and at no time was the subject discussed in any way deeper than “The French saw how wonderful freedom was in America and wanted a revolution of their own. It went disastrously because the French are untrustworthy and incompetent.”

I’ve long suspected that the full story was more complicated than that.

This admittedly very short introduction lays out the confluence of economic, political, and social problems that riled France a decade. These were the growing pains of coming into the modern world; of casting off feudal lordship in favor of representative democracy. Or at least France’s version of that concept.

The author’s thesis is that the ‘revolution’ was not one single event but was a time period of extreme social unrest and suffering that lasted from 1789-1802 ending with the ascent of Napoleon. With the consolidation of power behind Bonaparte, “the nationwide sigh of relief was practically audible. Napoleonic rule would bring its own problems and contradictions, but it endured because it began by resolving others that had torn the country apart for more than a decade.”

This book didn’t give me a feeling of overwhelming competence on the subject but certainly drove home the complexity in any social upheaval. The revolution itself is a prism through which any number of ideas can be examined. Did it give birth to liberalism? The persistent wouldn’t-it-be-nice?-ism of communism? The modern world?

All of these thoughts and more can be re-examined through a careful study of the past.

This short overview is organized into six chapters and is 108 pages long. Here are my highlighted passages and reflections on each:
1.) Echos

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The first chapter attempts to put the Revolution into a wider historical context. How did this upheaval of French society affect the world in ways that are still relevant?

The most interesting document covered here is the Declaration of The Rights of Man and of Citizens, which is an analogue to the United State’s Declaration of Independence. Together, these two documents became the foundation for civil law and rights in the Western world, which to this day instills us with the ability to think and live with more personal discretion than any other culture in human history. Instilling this revolutionary document was what Napoleon felt to be his most enduring glory, and indeed, I’m inclined to agree with him.

These were my favorite two articles from the declaration:

What a novel idea: that people should live how they’d like to live. Also, what a heavy responsibility.

Below are some further quotes and reflections on this chapter:

Society changes in chaotic and unpredictable ways. The French Revolution was, among other things, a casting off of monarchy and organized religion in favor of Enlightenment principles like reason and utility. Ironic that reason would lead to such widespread disarray, but such is civilization without any sense of order.

This is how I always pictured it before reading this book: The French Revolution as a never-ending violent riot and mass executions and indiscriminate destruction. There was a wave of that, ominously referred to as The Terror, but it is the intellectual and legal tectonic shift not the indiscriminate violence that is what is still with us today. Not to mention modern democracy instead of rule by the monarchy, clergy, and, lastly, the commons.

This was an experiment in radical government that failed quickly. Napoleon, from what I’ve heard, was pretty popular in his day because he was able to quell this revolutionary chaos that wrecked havoc on French society.

This passage calls to mind a question I’d read on the Internet a few years back, along the lines of ‘who was the cultural shorthand for evil incarnate before Hitler?’ Perhaps the it was the misguided heroes of the Revolution. That would have changed post-World War II. The death tolls from 20th century ideological turmoil is unprecedented in human history and is more fresh on our minds.

2.) Why it happened

This is a point that is easily lost to time. Our historical rear-view mirror quickly gets blurry, and it’s tough to conceive of the French Revolution as a decade-long affair. The most dramatic events are now the most accessible–the Bastille, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre and their climatic executions under the guillotine. The long-lasting societal changes that were going on are easily overlooked, being that things like democracy and equality are ideals that we can more-or-less take for granted today.

I’ve been blessed to grow up during a period of unprecedented unity and mutual prosperity among the European nations. Even with Brexit and the cracks emerging in the European Union, it’s unthinkable that the French and British would ever fight each other again. I take this is a definite sign of progress.

This is what I take to be the primary significance of the French Revolution: the overthrow of rule by Monarchy and a detached hereditary upper-class in favor of the ideals of equality and freedom that are requisites for a functional democracy. The violence and disunity were dramatic, but the revolution was an intellectual movement as much as a political one.

In one way, France at the time was quite well off. They had a strong military defending and procuring the national interest but domestic relations were a keg of dynamite just waiting to be detonated by hard times and civil unrest.

The social classes felt great bitterness toward each other and the nation as a whole faced a ruinous amount of debt. Feeling empowered by the successful American Revolution, whose success could not of been achieved without French aid and might, the nation was quick to overplay its hand.

As previously mentioned, France was a mess domestically. Their governance was unreliable and their King commanded no respect among the populace. Furthermore, the entire system smelled rotten and wasn’t working for anyone. Resentment was spread to every level of society. The ‘structure of privilege and exemption’ for the upper classes bred contempt from below while the impoverished masses were scorned by the elites. Meanwhile, everyone hated to pay their taxes.

This description of Marie-Antoinette reminded me of Hillary Clinton. The idea that she was so loathed that people happily believed untruths about her that fit their narrative of who she was. ‘Lock her up’ is the ‘off with her head’ of our time.

When you don’t see your government as legitimate the last thing you want to do is pay your taxes.

This contempt included the Catholic Church. In fact, the revolution was an explicit attempt to secularize society, and probably the first attempt to do so. This attempt only heightened divisions between citizens, between the faithful and the enlightened and reason-emboldened humanists.

The financial aspect kept society on edge this whole time. There were food shortages and the tighter money got the more tense the citizenry became.

The criminal justice system is how society executes justice. When people feel slighted, it is another strike against the order of the status quo.

This is the intellectual death of Monarchy: the idea that rule by the whims of a single person is antithetical to nature itself. Cue revolution.

Starve the poor and watch society descend into chaos.

It seems to be a law that a vacuum of power is the absolute worst thing for a country to endure. It leads to a subversion of the rule of law and death and misery in the streets. And, usually, something worse than the leadership being replaced.

Hypocrisy in leadership is a shortcut to revolt. There might be no quicker way to undermine your authority, whether as king or as a parent.

3.) How it happened

4.) What it ended

5.) What it started

6.) Where it stands

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