In the 18th century, two revolutions occurred and both unleashed forces that reverberate even today. The American Revolution brought into being a American Republic that still stands. The French Revolution became the incubator of ideas that began with virtuous proclamations and ended in a reign of terror. What began as a revolution against a broke and corrupt royalty ended in the establishment of a dictatorship. The French Revolution traded one autocratic government for another and the Revolution would launch a European war that would last a quarter of century. It would become a model for other even more bloodier revolutions of the 20th centuries that saw the murder of hundred of millions.
In 1789, France was broke. Throughout the 18th century, France engaged in competition with Great Britain for supremacy and this competition essentially bankrupted the French government. French support of the American Revolution added to the indebtedness and in the 1780’s, many voices advocated reforms of finances and government. Economist A. Robert Jacques Turgot was given the job of instituting strict economy of government expenditures but these reforms proved short lived and were withdrawn. After Turgot failure, financier Jacques Necker was given a shot at reform but his efforts fell short as well despite personal popular support.
By the of the decade, financial crisis worsened along with the plight of the French populace and in 1788, Louis XVI authorize national elections. Pamphlets flooded Paris as new ideas spread throughout the populace. The third estate representing the commoners had as many representatives in the new assembly as either the clergy or nobility but class antagonisms kept reforms from being enacted. These reforms may have saved the monarchy and brought true reform to France.
While the Estates-General assembly debated on who would control the Assembly, insurgents proclaimed themselves the National Assembly and the Assembly drafted a new Constitution. The King was weakened by widespread defiance and potential mutiny of royal army; resulting in the King’s capitulation to the Assembly. The insurgents stormed the Bastille and embarked on open rebellion. (The storming of Bastille freed seven inmates and no political prisoners but it symbolism proved more devastating to the crown.)
Local disturbances and peasant uprising alarmed both the nobility and propertied bourgeoisie. From this point, the revolution took on a life of its own. The tricolor of red, white and blue replaced the Bourbons standards as the national flag. National Constituent Assembly passed laws to abolishing the old tax and tariffs systems, eliminated the privileges of the nobility and the Catholic Church became a servant of the state. Priests and Bishops were to be elected and the state would pay the clergy. Meanwhile, the King and his family were kept under house arrest in Versailles and the royal family was saved from a mob only through the intervention of Lafayette and his National Guard. The assembly drafted a constitution that included the Declaration of the Rights of Man in the preamble including the ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
While the King was escorted to Paris, radical sentiment began to take control. In the beginning the pronounced goal was a constitutional monarchy. The original constitution restricted the right to vote by property but outlawed hereditary titles and added trial by jury in criminal cases. Seized land of the church and nobility were used to relieve financial crisis.
From the time that Louis accepted initial drafts of the Constitution to its final draft, the revolution became more radical as the commoners insisted on more power and relief from economic distress. Led by the organized Jacobins, the radicalisms accelerated along with rumors that the royal family was in contact with Marie Antoinette’s brother, Austrian Emperor Leopold II. When the King was captured as he attempted to reach the Austrian border, radicalism increased within the government. The King’s capture ended any chance of a constitutional monarchy and set in motion the beginning of the terror at home and war abroad.
Outside France, Prussia and Austria threaten military action against the revolution. Within the government, there was debate on the nature of the new French state including imitating the America Republic or a more centralized republic that many of the radicals favored. War came to France and the revolution now was imperiled from the outside as Austria and Prussia choose to choke the new Republic in its embryonic state.
Austrian armies won initial victories and insurgents within the government took more ironclad control. From this point, the fate of the royal family was sealed as the government found Louis guilty of treason. Louis met his fate at the guillotine as would his wife a year later. From this point, the revolution would descend into a reign of terror. While the government promised more freedom, the result was the opposite as the more radical Jacobins formed the Committee of Public Safety. Under Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins instituted extreme policies to crush enemies of the state. With external enemies on French soils, internal opponents were dealt with harshly. The revolution started to eat it own children as the numbers executed were in the thousands, with nearly three quarters of victims belonging to peasants and workers along with the clergy.
The revolution decided to create the new French man as a new calendar was instituted and a new religion worshiped the cult of the Supreme Being and the goddess of Reason. Whatever democratic impulse existed disappeared as blood ran through the street of Paris.
The French army turned the tide against its enemies and the battle for the soul of the revolution turned factionist as Robespierre moved against his political enemies. Purges and wholesale reprisals became the rule. Robespierre’s terrorist measures would boomerang with Robespierre losing his own head at the guillotine. After Robespierre death, the reign of terror ended but widespread dissatisfaction continued. Outbreaks were ruthlessly suppressed.
As the revolution wound down and France successfully defended its border, control fell to a Directory. From this point, coups became prevalent and eventually, Napoleon took control. Napoleonic Wars ensued and affected all of Europe. The Napoleonic wars would finally end at Waterloo.
The French Revolution abolished the absolute monarchy and the feudal vestiges that existed. Wealth would be more evenly redistributed from the upper class through the whole of society. While some would proclaimed that the Revolution separated state and church, the final result was the freedom from worship itself. The Revolution became a war on Christianity and in this way, it resembled much of the revolutions of the 20th century that produced communism, Nazism and its cousin, fascism. Equality before law was declared but such ideals would essentially have to wait until the end of the century. Over the last 200 years, the French have seen the establishment of five Republics along with rule by Napoleon and later, his nephew. The French Revolution never established Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Why did the French fail whereas the Americans succeeded? The reason may lie in the nature of the revolution. Americans only demanded what they felt owed them as Englishmen. They were not interested in creating a new man but understood the limitations of government to recreate the human experience. The French, like many of its successors, was not merely interested in reforms of institutions but a complete change in human nature itself. It set impossible goals that no government could ever accomplish.
While many would hail the French Revolution as France and Europe beginnings into a more equal society, the reality is that the Revolution proved a model for those 20th century upheavals that destroyed more than it created. French Revolution is more judged on its sentiments than on its results.
While America revolution resulted in a society based on liberty, the symbol of the French Revolution would forever be the guillotine. The bloody blade of the guillotine would overshadow the words of Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity. The symbol of the American Revolution is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that still stands as symbol of what true freedom can produce.