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3. The French Revolution I

3. The French Revolution I

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: 3. The French Revolution I

Author: Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison

Publication date: 15/09/2012

Civilisation and Society I: Politics of Power

3. The French Revolution I - Sat. 15th Sept. 2012

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation & Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the third of 12 sessions which make up the Politics of Power module. The entire session will last approximately 1 hour and comprise a lecture of around 40 minutes followed by a 5 minute interval and ending with a short question & answer period. You are encouraged to make a written note of any questions that may occur to you, in the interests of clarity and ease of delivery. 

This is the first of four consecutive lectures focusing specifically on the matter of the French Revolution. The purpose of this session is to build a solid platform from which to embark upon this journey by providing a clear exposition of the key events and the circumstances in which they occur beginning with the accession of Louis XVI (r. 1774-1792) to the rise of Napoleon, but with particular emphasis on the defining period from 1788-1799. We will also aim to become familiar with the common terminology relating to the revolutionary period.

With regard to the French Revolution, fewer events have attracted more speculation, analysis, interpretation and ongoing historiographical outpourings on the part of professional historians and social scientists. This can hardly be surprising given its seminal importance as the source and crucible for the central political, social and ideological modalities and institutions of modern Western civilisation, including, it has been argued, the initiation of the practice of total war during the Revolutionary War (1792-1815). Norman Davies states the matter as follows:

“There is a universal quality about the French Revolution which does not pertain to any of Europe’s many other convulsions. Indeed, this was the event which gave the word ‘Revolution’ its full modern meaning: that is, no mere political upheaval, but the complete overthrow of a system of government together with its social, economic and cultural foundations… in 1789 there was reason to believe that changes were taking place which would affect people far beyond France and far beyond mere politics. Paris was the capital of a dominant power, and the centre of an international culture. The revolutionaries had inherited the Enlightenment’s belief in the universal abstraction of man. They felt that they were acting on behalf of people everywhere, pitting themselves against universal tyranny. Their most noble monument was not some parochial pronouncement on the rights of the French but a ringing declaration on the Rights of Man.” [Europe ND p. 675]

If that were possible, Ian Dallas makes the same point while placing even greater emphasis on the unprecedented depths of the Revolution’s radicalism:

“Here was a Revolution without precursors. Even in the thinking of its exponents it was consciously viewed as a new beginning in the history of mankind. It ripped apart the fabric of time. It declared its repudiation of tradition and the past. It claimed that for the first time society was being created on rational principles. They were starting from zero. 1789 saw the emergence of a unified set of beliefs. The limitless power of the will. The efficacy of reason. The indefinite capacity to mould reality. It was not utopian. Political will could change reality and reconstruct society.” [ToB p. 17]

These developments have had an enormous historical and ongoing impact upon the Muslim world. Through the politics of the modern liberal democracies it has given rise to, the French Revolution has played, and continues to play a significant part in the domination, suppression, co-option or corruption of any new or emerging competitor. All the more reason, therefore, that we as Muslims living under this dispensation are obliged to understand the path of its ascendancy, the symptoms of its deterioration and the indications of the new nomos.

Brief Outline

Before turning to the more detailed chronology of events, it may be useful to start off with a brief sketch in order to gain the overall picture. The generally accepted starting point of the French Revolution was the convocation in 1789 of the Estates-General (a general assembly representing the three estates of the realm, respectively: the clergy; the nobility; the common people). That year saw: the proclamation of the Tennis Court Oath (where representatives of the Third Estate pledged themselves to the establishment of a new Constitution); the assault on the Bastille; and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. 

The following two or three years were taken up with continued wrangling between the monarchy and the various tendencies until 1792 when the monarchy was abolished and a republic declared. That year also saw the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars and the sensational rise of France’s most successful General, Napoleon Bonaparte. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793 and the uncontrollable wave of popular radicalism led by the Jacobins (the main political club associated with the leading figures of Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre) culminated in the ‘tyranny’ of the Committee of Public Safety and the beginning of the Reign of Terror (1793-94). The Jacobins decimated their own ranks in a frenzy of denunciations until, finally, Robespierre himself was executed in 1794. In 1795 power passed to the Directory (a new executive body) which governed the French state until it was replaced by the Consulate under Napoleon in 1799.

Chronology of Events 1774-1799

Year 1774

On the death of his grandfather Louis XV (r. 1715-1774), Louis XVI succeeded to the throne of France and Navarre aged twenty. He had already been married for four years to Marie Antoinette (Archduchess of Austria), one of the many children of the formidable Empress Maria Theresa and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I.

Beginning in this year a succession of Louis’ Ministers of Finance would eventually lead France into the national insolvency crisis which instigated the King’s fateful summoning of the Estates-General in 1789 with a view to raising emergency revenues. The first of these appointments was Jacques Turgot (1774-76), scion of an old Norman family, Latin scholar and economist, whose entry into the field began with a refutation of paper money.

Year 1776

Turgot proposes a raft of economic and financial reforms which aimed to reinforce the position of the monarchy. However, under pressure from political infighting and the opposition of the Paris Parlement (regional legislative/advisory council) the dismisses Turgot.

Year 1777

Turgot was replaced in charge of the Exchequer for the first of two separate tenures as Contrôleur général (1776-81 and 1788-9), by the Protestant Swiss banker Jacques Necker, who managed to secure huge loans as well as take proper charge of the royal accounts.

Year 1778

France declared war on Britain during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), sending aid and assistance to the rebellious colonies which would shortly thereafter become the United States of America. However, this outlay was instrumental in precipitating the financial crisis.

Year 1781

The publication of Necker’s Compte Rendu (statement of accounts) of the royal treasury gave rise to court infighting and opposition resulting in his dismissal.

Year 1783

Alexandre de Calonne, an aristocratic statesman of proven political acumen and commercial ability, was appointed as the new Contrôleur général (1783-7). He set about the task of raising revenues with energy and imagination - even re-coining the gold coinage - to little avail.

Year 1786

After making the King aware of the parlous state of the royal treasury proposed a number of reforming financial measures which included the elimination of certain fiscal advantages of the privileged classes (the First and Second Estates).

Year 1787

The Assembly of Notables, a body hand-picked by Calonne and consisting almost entirely of aristocrats, rejected his proposals. Calonne was dismissed by Louis and forced to leave France for Britain. The Chief Minister, Archbishop Loménie de la Brienne (1787-8) was called into the breach. The Assembly of Notables was discontinued and the Paris Parlement was exiled to the provinces for refusing to ratify new taxation. In response Louis resorted to the Lit de justice, an old procedural device for enforcing royal decrees, in order to insist on a new five-year loan.

Year 1788

The Parlement of Paris, still in exile, called for the abolition of lettres de cachet (sealed orders from the monarch by which someone could be sentenced to imprisonment without trial, opportunity for defence or possibility of appeal) and a convocation of the Estates-General. In the meantime the Estates of Dauphiné met illegally as an act of autonomous defiance of royal authority. The repercussions resulted in the resignation of Brienne, which opened the way for the reappointment of Necker to tackle the financial crisis. To popular acclaim the Parlement was permitted to return to the capital but this welcome quickly evaporated when it insisted on the Estates meeting and voting separately, rather than as one body. This year also saw a disastrous harvest and constantly rising food prices.

Year 1789

At the end April the Revéillon riots took place in Paris when against a backdrop of cold, hunger and unemployment amongst the city’s poor, the eponymous industrialist stated publicly that his workers could easily manage on half the (meagre) daily sum he paid them. His house was surrounded, buildings were demolished. Soldiers were called in and by all accounts someone fired a shot, which caused the soldiers to open fire leaving over three hundred dead.

On 4th May the Estates-General convened at Versaille. The delegates ignored the official agenda. The Third Estate, who had been allowed to double the number of their representatives, could clearly see their own advantage in having the three orders to vote together as one body. There was little opposition from the clergy and nobility to this way of proceeding. On 17th June the Third Estate made the illegal but decisive move of declaring itself as the National Assembly. Three days later on 20th June, occurred the event which is taken as marking the beginning of the Revolution. Having been locked out of their usual venue, the deputies met instead on the nearby tennis court and swore the famous ‘Tennis Court Oath’ never to desist until France had a Constitution. The resulting developments were chaotic.

On 23rd June at the Royal Session at Versaille, Louis XVI offered various concessions but refused to recognise the National Assembly; but by 27th June Louis yielded and directed the Clergy and the Nobles to unite with the Third Estate.

On 11th July Necker was dismissed and replaced by Louis-Auguste de Breteuil, a conservative aristocrat who turned out to be the last Chief Minister of the Bourbon monarchy. On 13th July Marauding gangs roam the city in search of arms. A Committee of Public Safety was instituted and a National Guard consisting of 48,000 men was formed under General Lafayette.

On 14th July rioters seized 30,000 muskets and cannon stored in the cellars under the imposing hospital for veterans at Les Invalides. These were used later in the day during the symbolic Storming of the Bastille and the brief conflict which ended with the death of the governor of the royal fortress. At this point it was clear that Louis had lost his hold on Paris.

On 17th July as a last attempt to keep his grip the King drove from Versaille to Paris openly wearing the revolutionary tricolour cockade. 

From now on the ‘Great Fear’ begins to sweep across the countryside. Davies describes it as follows:

“In the provinces… news of the fall of the Bastille triggered an orgy of attacks on ‘forty thousand other bastilles’. Castles and Abbeys were burned; noble families, indiscriminately attacked by hungry peasants, began to emigrate; cities declared for self-rule; brigandage proliferated. France was dividing into armed camps. It was the season of la Grande Peur, the Great Fear - a summer of unprecedented social hysteria fired by rumours of aristocratic plots and peasant atrocities across the country.” [Europe ND p. 694]

On 4th-5th August thirty decrees are issued abolishing serfdom and all feudal privileges.

On 26th August “… in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being,” the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was passed. Consisting of seventeen articles, it preserved and developed elements contained in England’s Bill of Rights of a century earlier (1689), and in the pronouncements pertaining to the independence of America.

On 5th-6th October Louis XVI and the National Assembly were made to move from Versaille to the centre of Paris. The royal family resided in the Tuileries Palace until 1792. In November Church properties were nationalised. It is interesting to note here that the Assignats, the paper money that came into circulation from 1791 onwards, have their origins in the bonds issued for the purchase of former Church lands.

Year 1790

In June the complete civil re-constitution of the clergy was enacted. August saw the reform of the French legal system and the abolition of the Parlements.

Year 1791

On 20th June - dressed as servants while their servants dressed as nobles, the royal family attempt the ‘Flight to Varenne’ and the King is arrested and all are taken back to Paris under armed guard. In August Austria and Prussia issued a declaration (Pillnitz) demanding the release of the King, with an implied threat of invasion that proved to be empty. In September Louis accepted the new Constitution and a new Legislative Assembly was elected with all of the previous moderate leaders replaced by more radical, anti-monarchist deputies. Nevertheless, for twelve months they failed to bring the situation under firm control.

Year 1792

On 20th April to the great satisfaction of the Assembly, Louis XVI declared war on Austria, which was now ruled by Marie Antoinette’s nephew, Francis II (r. 1792-1835) who was to marry his daughter Marie Louise to Napoleon in 1810.

On 11th July in reaction to the Manifesto of the Duke of Brunswick (Austro-Prussian Commander-in-Chief) threatening to free the King and to execute the entire population of Paris if the Palace was endangered, the Assembly proclaimed “La Patrie en danger” or ‘the fatherland in danger’ and called for the abolition of the monarchy.

On 9th August the Sans-culottes (the lower class radicals and manpower behind extreme Jacobin and Girondin factions) set up a revolutionary commune in Paris (the Paris Commune).

On 10th August led by the Sans culottes, the Tuileries Palace was stormed, the Swiss Guard were slaughtered and the royal family shortly afterwards removed to the Temple, which had been functioning as a prison.

On 20th September - the same day on which the French defeated the Prussians at the battle of Valmy, the first meeting of the National Convention occurred, taking over the reins of control from the Legislative Assembly.

On 21st September (later to become Day 1 of the Revolutionary Calendar) the Convention votes to abolish the monarchy and declares the establishment of a Republic.

On 10th December charged with betrayal of the French nation, the trial of Louis XVI began before the Convention. (Of course, what he was actually being accused of was being the King, as was the case 150 years earlier in England with Charles I).  

Davies usefully summarises the Revolution’s rapid political progression from relative moderation to outright extremism, vis-à-vis the monarchy and national government, in the following way:

“… if the Estates-General and the National Assembly (1789-91) were dominated by Mirabeau’s constitutionalists, and the Legislative Assembly (1791-2) by republican Girondins, the National Convention (1792-5) took its orders from Robespierre’s extremist Jacobins.” [Europe ND p.695]

Years 1793-95

From the beginning of this period, commencing with the purge and eventual execution of the core members of the hitherto leading Girondist faction of the Convention, under accusations of betraying the Revolution, it could well and truly be said that the Jacobin ‘Reign of Terror’ under Robespierre’s direction was properly under way. The instrument of dictatorial power was the Committee of Public Safety, initially taken up by Danton (1759-94) and then subsequently taken over by Robespierre. However, we will see in subsequent lectures how the misleading idea of the Reign of Terror as a specifically limited episode within the revolutionary arc, becomes clear once it is appreciated that the entire revolutionary process represented the very unfolding of terror as a political modality.

On 21st January 1793 Louis XVI was publicly executed by guillotine having been condemned to death for high treason by a majority vote of the Convention. (Later that year Queen Marie Antoinette was also tried, convicted of treason, and executed by guillotine on 16 October).

In March 1793 the ‘counter-revolutionary’ rising broke out in the Vendée. The merciless suppression of the Vendéans (and others elsewhere in France such as the Chouans) provide the most harrowing permanent evidence of the almost limitless blood-lust inflicted on the country at large at the peak of the Terror; in the Vendée alone resulting in deaths estimated between 120,000 - 250,000. It is said that for every victim of the Terror in Paris there were ten in the Vendée.

Year 1794                  

The following is a description of the infamous‘noyades’ (drownings):

“In the spring of 1794, French Republican officers in Nantes had so many rebels from the Vendée to kill that they didn’t know how to do it. They had unleashed the ‘infernal columns’; they had starved and massacred their captives; and they had been shooting batches of prisoners by the thousand. But it was not enough. They then hit on the idea of drowning. Nantes was an Atlantic slave port; and a fleet of large, shallow hulks was to hand. By sinking a loaded hulk in the river at night, and then refloating it, they devised an efficient and inconspicuous system of reusable death chambers. These were the terrible noyades. Necessity proved the mother of invention in the technology of death.” [Europe ND p. 706]

The notorious General Westermann is said to have sent the following report back to his political masters in the Convention:

“The Vendée is no more… I have buried it in the woods and marshes of Savenay… According to your orders, I have trampled their children beneath our horses’ feet; I have massacred their women, so they will no longer give birth to brigands. I do not have a single prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated them all. The roads are sown with corpses. At Savenay, brigands are arriving all the time claiming to surrender, and we are shooting them non-stop… Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment.” [Quoted in Europe ND p. 105]

In April Danton was denounced and sent to the guillotine for corruption and calling the severity and purposes of the Terror into question.

On 28th July Robespierre, having been denounced for tyranny amongst other things was guillotined without trial.

In November 1995 after a period of sixteen months rule by the Thermidorians, those who had eliminated Robespierre, a five-man executive called the Directory effectively took control of France for the next few years.

In November 1799 Napoleon took control by coup d’etat forming a three-man Consulate which was confirmed by national plebiscite. In May 1802 he appointed himself First Consul for life and in May 1804 took the title of Emperor.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. The subject of our next lecture is The French Revolution II where we will be taking a biographical look at the major figures of the Revolution. For preparatory reading I would recommend ToB part I section II (pp. 45-92). Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

Bibliographical References

Dallas, Ian (Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi). The Interim is Mine. Cape Town: Budgate Press, 2010

Davies, Norman. Europe - A History. London: Pimlico, 1996

Interesting Viewing

Danton (1983),

Dramatic French language film portrayal of the last months of Georges Danton and the events leading up to his execution. Contains an excellent depiction of the contrasting personalities of Danton and Robespierre.

La Reine Margot ( Adult film: Jury Prize, Cannes 1994)

Based on the 1845 historical novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas, (father). A vivid depiction of late 16th century conflict between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots over political control of France, including the notorious St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572.