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4. The French Revolution II - Biographical Survey

4. The French Revolution II

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

Title: 4. The French Revolution II

Author: Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison

Publication date: 22/09/2012

Civilisation and Society I: Politics of Power

4. The French Revolution II - A Biographical Survey

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation & Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the fourth 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 for clarification after the lecture. 

This lecture is the second of four consecutive lectures focusing specifically on the matter of the French Revolution. Last week we endeavoured to establish a sound chronological map of the key events and the phases of the Revolution beginning with particular emphasis on the defining period from 1788-1799, and we also aimed to familiarise ourselves with the common terminology relating to the period. 

This week we will aim to acquaint ourselves with, let us say, the ‘flesh and blood’ of the story; the actors, the people, the atmosphere, the personalities… Hence, you will find that today’s session will have something of a ‘literary’ flavour to it, but of course, this is entirely in line with the Faculty’s approach to these matters, and I take this opportunity to refer you to our familiar motto which you might be able to see displayed behind me: 

ا يَدْخُلُ فِينَا إِلَّا مَنِ اهْتَمَّ بِالْأَدَبِ وَالسِّيَرِ وَطَلَبَ عِلْماً نَافِعاً

Let none come among us except those who are concerned with adab and siyar and who seek useful knowledge

The reference to ‘adab’ here, as we know, carries the meanings of courtesy and discipline but our explanation of this motto (which may be found on the Faculty website and which I strongly recommend you to examine closely) also emphasises the relevance of its literary dimension:

“Literature is of vital significance on a number of levels. Firstly, it cultivates and transmits the relationship to language without which all knowledge and science are reduced to technical applications and exercises in pragmatism; a road leading to destinations which include 'total war', 'collateral damage' and genocidal 'final solutions' the abhorrent instances of which we see being carried out with greater and greater efficiency almost daily. Secondly, it is through literature that great authors and poets have transmitted their deep insights into the inner drives, actions and reactions of the human being, and have recognised the workings of history and new directions whose stirrings we must also assist through literature and poetry amid the otherwise dismal landscape of world politics.” [MFAS website: About Us> Our Motto]

Another very important reason why it is necessary for us to take proper account of the human actors in the interpretation of political and historical events, is in order to redress an imbalance that has gained enormous ground since the 19th century, with the desire for scientific legitimacy giving rise to the subjugation of history to the proliferation of social sciences such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science and economics. The result of this ‘scientific’ approach (though not entirely without merit in terms of emphasis on evidential accuracy) has been the modern ascendancy (whether of the Marxist or Whig variety) of historical (and political) explanation in terms of large structurally determined mechanisms and clearly defined ideologies. Implicit in this approach to understanding history is that people are the product of events and therefore, studying the event becomes paramount and the individual merely incidental. Dallas is incisive in addressing this point:

“What has to be recognised is that political processes, however structured and however internally logical, are dependent on an individual or individuals to set them up, set them in motion and ultimately to set them down. It could be said that the great failure of 20th century thinkers and indeed politicians was their inability to link the practice to the person, and then to analyse the person as actuator, not just a participant. There could have been neither Communism without Stalin, nor a bank without a banker.” [ToB p. 83]


“It has proved necessary to prevent a close-up study of the characters in the drama. They have to be, in short, de-personalised. They are, in the current world-view, masked with indicative masks that tell us at a glance not their ‘who’ but their ‘what’.” [ibid. p. 103]

When it comes to the matter of the pursuit of scientific objectivity and its limiting effect upon the range of the tools and the scope of the sources available to the historian, Davies makes the following:

“The divorce between history and literature has been particularly regrettable… There is absolutely no reason why the judicious historian should not use literary texts, critically assessed, or why literary critics should not use historical knowledge… Equally, the study of the geological strata of history must never be divorced from doings on the ground. In the search for ‘trends’, ‘societies’, ‘economies’, or ‘cultures’, one should not lose sight of men, women, and children.” [Europe ND p. 4]

And further:

“In this supposedly scientific age, the imaginative side of the historical profession has undoubtedly been downgraded. The value of unreadable academic papers and of undigested research data is exaggerated. Imaginative historians such as Thomas Carlyle, have not simply been censured for an excess of poetic license. They have been forgotten.” [ibid. p. 6]

We, on the contrary, will give pride of place to Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) as our point of departure for today’s excursion into the living ‘heart’ of the revolutionary drama. Carlyle was a man of letters and essayist whose literary preoccupations encompassed philosophy, poetry, history and politics, and whose publications and commentaries achieved prominence during the Victorian era in which he was active, but also gained a certain notoriety for his political criticism and manner of expression. His French Revolution, written in 1837,  embodies much of what was daring and refreshing about Carlyle’s particular approach to observing history, which is nicely summed up by another multi-faceted literary exemplar of the following Edwardian generation, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) who writing in 1906 said:

“Here is the peculiar merit of this book, and here is what may preserve it even when taste has so changed that its rhetoric shall have become tedious and that a classical reaction shall have rendered repulsive the anarchic outbursts of his prose. He was inspired (italics added).” [Introduction to Vol.I]

Ian Dallas, who in many ways has taken up for our generation where Belloc left off, puts it as follows:

“Of all the great writers who have meditated on the events of the Revolution and the Terror, only Carlyle grasped the actual tenor or texture of what happened. He saw that in it there was a tempo and atmosphere of intensity, a rushing of events, a hurtling from one day to the next. An urgency, a frenzy fired by quotidian crises. In it all, capping its anti-rational atmosphere, a frothing foam of talk, speeches, curses, imprecations, slogans - the renowned rhetoric of the Revolutionary discourse.” [ToB p. 109]

For our purposes today therefore, I have selected a substantial passage that describes in Carlyle’s telling of it, the arrival procession in Paris of the various delegations of the Estates-General on those fateful gatherings of 4th-5th May 1789 which had been called by the King primarily to remedy his bankrupt treasury, but as events would have it, led in short order to the self-appointment of the National Assembly and the declaration of the Tennis Court Oath. It is also particularly appropriate since he produces a short ‘roll-call’ identifying a number of the leading activators, and providing us with incisive, epigrammatic pen-portraits which, almost unerringly, capture the essential human character of the subject. All in all, it is a conspicuous example of what was intended by the American writer and political commentator, the late Gore Vidal, when he said:

"...the writing of history is our only heuristic principle. The Germans have a word for it, einfühlen. It is the ability to experience the past in the present and to recreate it."


So, I recommend you sit back and listen as if to the news of an eye-witness account rather than to an academic presentation. I, on the other hand, in reading it out will do my best to come to grips with his florid literary style and the English language of the day - though I stop short at attempting his Scots accent! Now, make yourselves comfortable:

“But now finally the Sun, on Monday the 4th of May, has risen; - unconcerned, as if it were no special day. And yet, as his first rays could strike music from the Memnon's Statue on the Nile, what tones were these, so thrilling, tremulous of preparation and foreboding, which he awoke in every bosom at Versailles! Huge Paris, in all conceivable and inconceivable vehicles, is pouring itself forth; from each Town and Village come subsidiary rills; Versailles is a very sea of men. But above all, from the Church of St. Louis to the Church of Notre-Dame: one vast suspended-billow of Life, - with spray scattered even to the chimney-pots! For on chimney-tops too, as over the roofs, and up thitherwards on every lamp-iron, signpost, breakneck coign of vantage, sits patriotic Courage; and every window bursts with patriotic Beauty: for the Deputies are gathering at St. Louis Church; to march in procession to Notre-Dame, and hear sermon.

Yes, friends, ye may sit and look: boldly or in thought, all France, and all Europe, may sit and look; for it is a day like few others. Oh, one might weep like Xerxes: - So many serried rows sit perched there; like winged creatures, alighted out of Heaven: all these, and so many more that follow them, shall have wholly fled aloft again, vanishing into the blue Deep; and the memory of this day still be fresh. It is the baptism-day of Democracy; sick Time has given it birth, the numbered months being run. The extreme-unction day of Feudalism! A superannuated System of Society, decrepit with toils (for has it not done much; produced you, and what ye have and know!) - and with thefts and brawls, named glorious-victories; and with profligacies, sensualities, and on the whole with dotage and senility, - is now to die: and so, with death-throes and birth-throes, a new one is to be born. What a work, O Earth and Heavens, what a work! Battles and bloodshed, September Massacres, Bridges of Lodi, retreats of Moscow, Waterloos, Peterloos, Tenpound Franchises, Tarbarrels and Guillotines; - and from this present date, if one might prophesy, some two centuries of it still to fight! Two centuries; hardly less; before Democracy go through its due, most baleful, stages of Quackocracy; and a pestilential World be burnt up, and have begun to grow green and young again.

Rejoice nevertheless, ye Versailles multitudes; to you, from whom all this is hid, and glorious end of it is visible. This day, sentence of death is pronounced on Shams; judgment of resuscitation, were it but far off, is pronounced on Realities. This day it is declared aloud, as with a Doom-trumpet, that a Lie is unbelievable. Believe that, stand by that, if more there be not; and let what thing or things soever will follow it follow. 'Ye can no other; God be your help!' So spake a greater than any of you; opening his Chapter of World-History.

Behold, however! The doors of St. Louis Church flung wide; and the Procession of Processions advancing towards Notre-Dame! Shouts rend the air; one shout, at which Grecian birds might drop dead. It is indeed a stately, solemn sight. The Elected of France, and then the Court of France; they are marshalled and march there, all in prescribed place and costume. Our Commons 'in plain black mantle and white cravat;' Noblesse, in gold-worked, bright-dyed cloaks of velvet, resplendent, rustling with laces, waving with plumes; the Clergy in rochet, alb, or other best pontificalibus: lastly comes the King himself, and King's Household, also in their brightest blaze of pomp, - their brightest and final one. Some Fourteen Hundred Men blown together from all winds, on the deepest errand.

Yes, in that silent marching mass there lies Futurity enough. No symbolic Ark, like the old Hebrews, do these men bear: yet with them too is a Covenant; they too preside at a new Era in the History of Men. The whole Future is there, and Destiny dim-brooding over it; in the hearts and unshaped thoughts of these men, it lies illegible, inevitable. Singular to think: they have it in them; yet not they, not mortal, only the Eye above can read it, - as it shall unfold itself, in fire and thunder, of siege, and field-artillery; in the rustling of battle-banners, the tramp of hosts, in the glow of burning cities, the shriek of strangled nations! Such things lie hidden, safe-wrapt in this Fourth day of May; - say rather, had lain in some other unknown day, of which this latter is the public fruit and outcome. As indeed what wonders lie in every Day, - had we the sight, as happily we have not, to decipher it: for is not every meanest Day 'the conflux of two Eternities!'

Meanwhile, suppose we too, good Reader, should, as now without miracle Muse Clio enables us, - take our station also on some coign of vantage; and glance momentarily over this Procession, and this Life-sea; with far other eyes than the rest do, -  namely with prophetic? We can mount, and stand there, without fear of falling.

As for the Life-sea, or onlooking unnumbered Multitude, it is unfortunately all-too dim. Yet as we gaze fixedly, do not nameless Figures not a few, which shall not always be nameless, disclose themselves; visible or presumable there! Young Baroness de Staël - she evidently looks from a window; among older honourable women. Her father is Minister, and one of the gala personages; to his own eyes the chief one. Young spiritual Amazon, thy rest is not there; nor thy loved Father's: 'as Malebranche saw all things in God, so M. Necker sees all things in Necker,' - a theorem that will not hold.

But where is the brown-locked, light-behaved, fire-hearted Demoiselle Theroigne? Brown eloquent Beauty; who, with thy winged words and glances, shalt thrill rough bosoms, whole steel battalions, and persuade an Austrian Kaiser, - pike and helm lie provided for thee in due season; and, alas, also strait-waistcoat and long lodging in the Salpêtrière! Better hadst thou staid in native Luxemburg, and been the mother of some brave man's children: but it was not thy task, it was not thy lot.

Of the rougher sex how, without tongue, or hundred tongues, of iron, enumerate the notabilities! Has not Marquis Valadi hastily quitted his quaker broadbrim; his Pythagorean Greek in Wapping, and the city of Glasgow? De Morande from his Courrier de l'Europe; Linguet from his Annales, they looked eager through the London fog, and became Ex-Editors, - that they might feed the guillotine, and have their due. Does Louvet (of Faublas) stand a-tiptoe? And Brissot, hight De Warville, friend of the Blacks? He, with Marquis Condorcet, and Clavière the Genevese 'have created the Moniteur Newspaper,' or are about creating it. Able Editors must give account of such a day.

Or seest thou with any distinctness, low down probably, not in places of honour, a Stanislas Maillard, riding-tipstaff (huissier à cheval) of the Châtelet; one of the shiftiest of men? A Captain Hulin of Geneva, Captain Elie of the Queen's Regiment; both with an air of half-pay? Jourdan, with tile-coloured whiskers, not yet with tile-beard; an unjust dealer in mules? He shall be, in a few months, Jourdan the Headsman, and have other work.

Surely also, in some place not of honour, stands or sprawls up querulous, that he too, though short, may see, -one squalidest bleared mortal, redolent of soot and horse-drugs: Jean Paul Marat of Neuchâtel! O Marat, Renovator of Human Science, Lecturer on Optics; O thou remarkablest Horseleech, once in D'Artois' Stables, -as thy bleared soul looks forth, through thy bleared, dull-acrid, wo-stricken face, what sees it in all this? Any faintest light of hope; like dayspring after Nova-Zembla night? Or is it but blue sulphur-light, and spectres; wo, suspicion, revenge without end?

Of Draper Lecointre, how he shut his cloth-shop hard by, and stepped forth, one need hardly speak. Nor of Santerre, the sonorous Brewer from the Faubourg St. Antoine. Two other Figures, and only two, we signalise there. The huge, brawny, Figure; through whose black brows, and rude flattened face (figure écrasée), there looks a waste energy as of Hercules not yet furibund, - he is an esurient, unprovided advocate; Danton by name: him mark. Then that other, his slight-built comrade and craft-brother; he with the long curling locks; with the face of dingy blackguardism, wondrously irradiated with genius, as if a naphtha-lamp burnt within it: that Figure is Camille Desmoulins. A fellow of infinite shrewdness, wit, nay humour; one of the sprightliest clearest souls in all these millions. Thou poor Camille, say of thee what they may, it were but falsehood to pretend one did not almost love thee, thou headlong lightly-sparkling man! But the brawny, not yet furibund Figure, we say, is Jacques Danton; a name that shall be 'tolerably known in the Revolution.' He is President of the electoral Cordeliers District at Paris, or about to be it; and shall open his lungs of brass.

We dwell no longer on the mixed shouting Multitude: for now, behold, the Commons Deputies are at hand!

Which of these Six Hundred individuals, in plain white cravat, that have come up to regenerate France, might one guess would become their king? For a king or leader they, as all bodies of men, must have: be their work what it may, there is one man there who, by character, faculty, position, is fittest of all to do it; that man, as future not yet elected king, walks there among the rest. He with the thick black locks, will it be? With the hure, as himself calls it, or black boar's-head, fit to be 'shaken' as a senatorial portent? Through whose shaggy beetle-brows, and rough-hewn, seamed, carbuncled face, there look natural ugliness, small-pox, incontinence, bankruptcy,--and burning fire of genius; like comet-fire glaring fuliginous through murkiest confusions? It is Gabriel Honoré Riquetti de Mirabeau, the world-compeller; man-ruling Deputy of Aix! According to the Baroness de Staël, he steps proudly along, though looked at askance here, and shakes his black chevelure, or lion's-mane; as if prophetic of great deeds.

Yes, Reader, that is the Type-Frenchman of this epoch; as Voltaire was of the last. He is French in his aspirations, acquisitions, in his virtues, in his vices; perhaps more French than any other man; - and intrinsically such a mass of manhood too. Mark him well. The National Assembly were all different without that one; nay, he might say with the old Despot: "The National Assembly? I am that." [Vol.I Part I Book IV Chap. IV: The Procession]

It would be a shame at this point to leave Carlyle without getting a sample of his treatment of Robespierre. This he brings off to great effect by contrasting the “sea-green” Robespierre (a reference to his cadaverous shade of complexion) against the enormous “Reality” of Danton during their final months before they are both devoured in the frenzy of denunciations and executions which mark the bloody end of the first phase of the Revolution (or some have said the end of the Revolution itself, since the ground was now cleared for the construction of Napoleon’s centrally administered, modern European state):

“A Danton, a Robespierre, chief-products of a victorious Revolution, are now arrived in immediate front of one another; must ascertain how they will live together, rule together. One conceives easily the deep mutual incompatibility that divided these two: with what terror of feminine hatred the poor sea-green Formula looked at the monstrous colossal Reality, and grew greener to behold him; - the Reality, again, struggling to think no ill of a chief-product of the Revolution; yet feeling at bottom that such chief product was little other than a chief windbag, blown large by Popular air; not a man, with the heart of a man, but a poor spasmodic incorruptible pedant, with a logic-formula instead of a heart; of Jesuit or Methodist-Parson nature; full of sincere-cant, incorruptibility, of virulence, poltroonery; barren as the eastwind! Two such chief-products are too much for one Revolution.” [Vol.II Part III Book IV Chap. II: Thermidor]

To continue with our survey we must remain a while with the ‘incorruptible’ Robespierre, once again, for the purposes of comparison and contrast with other leading personalities; this time under the penetrating and unforgiving lens of possibly the foremost contemporary Muslim commentator and man of letters writing in the English language who, under his original family name as Ian Dallas, brings his own unique combination of the literary, the historical and the analytical to bear on the vital question of the human who as opposed to the materialist what. The picture he presents us with is not at all a cemented mosaic of human relationships, nor yet a pliable patchwork quilt of characters, but rather, he captures the shifting kaleidoscopic image of broken pieces in which some fragments of personality have displaced or imposed themselves over others at a fateful juncture in time and place. We see the strange convergence between the vaulting bourgeois ambition of the youthful, handsome and determined ‘Angel of Death’ Saint-Just (1767-1794) and the bottled up repression of the unprepossessing, bourgeois lawyer Robespierre. Their combination of zealous intensity and puritanical fears and misogynistic resentments pushed the Revolution to the limits of the Terror. 

He also explains to us the vengeful consequences for the contrastingly moderate and life-affirming figures of loving husband and wife, Camille Desmoulins and Lucile Duplessis. A brilliant political journalist and passionate orator (in spite of a speech impediment), the sincere Desmoulins (1760-1794) literally collapsed in court with remorse when he realised the direct part his writings had played in assuring the death sentence of the prominent Girondist, Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793). He subsequently found it within himself to call for the formation of a ‘Committee of Clemency’ to nullify the brutality of the Committee of Public Safety, writing to Robespierre in terms that would put the inexorable seal on his own doom under the guillotine:

“"My dear Robespierre... my old school friend... Remember the lessons of history and philosophy: love is stronger, more lasting than fear." [R. Scurr, p. 298]

Dallas is trenchant in his exposure of the Robespierre psyche:

“After Robespierre’s mother’s death his father abandoned his children and took off for Germany, leaving the young Maximilien as head of the house. So it is that before considering his political career the inevitable consequences of his desolate childhood must be recognised. To the child who loses its mother early, that departure is known to be seen in many cases not as a tragedy but as a betraying, an abandonment, as if chosen to punish a wicked offspring. In the same way the desertion of the father is openly offensive, one might say in family terms, political. The former merits a judicial punishment, but the latter could indicate a revenge, a perhaps never confronted or known revenge but that one day had to be acted out.” [ToB p. 94]

Furthermore he continues:

“A far from original politique and psychology can be discerned in Robespierre. It is that of the ascetic, virginal monk of medieval christianity whose reforming zeal to raise people up from paganism muddily mixed with the repression resulting from celibacy led inescapably to torture and burning of witches and the full horror of the Inquisition…” [ibid. p. 95]

This is a good point at which to be drawing to a close, but before doing so I am aware, of course, that there are many other individuals and circumstances that are equally deserving of close attention which it would not have been possible to do proper justice to in this lecture. In this regard I would suggest by way of further reading a look at the excellent study, Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France by Lucy Moore which covers a number of outstanding female figures ( including  Germaine de Staël and Théroigne de Méricourt) whom we have barely managed to touch on today. Secondly, for an essential study of Napoleon I suggest the insightful essay by Furet contained in the Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (pp. 273-86). Thirdly, I would strongly recommend to students that you read through today’s long extract from Carlyle once more at your leisure, and take the time to carry out your own research into the individuals whose names are highlighted in bold and/or underlined in the text. Finally, in the interests of our continued development as an academic fellowship organisation, students are encouraged to share, discuss or recommend any useful, interesting or unusual materials you may come across in the course of your investigations on the online Faculty study forum (/education/login/index.php).


Davies provides us with the perfect note on which to end:

“… effective historians must devote as much care to transmitting their information as to collecting and shaping it. In this part of their work, they share many of the same preoccupations as poets, writers, and artists. They must keep an eye on the work of all the others who help to mould and to transmit our impressions of the past - the art historians, the musicologists, the museologues, the archivists, the illustrators, the cartographers, the diarists and biographers, the sound-recordists, the film-makers, the historical novelists, even the purveyors of ‘bottled medieval air’. At every stage the key quality, as first defined by Vico, is that of ‘creative historical imagination’. Without it, the work of the historian remains a dead letter, an unbroadcast message.” [Europe ND p. 6]

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. In addition to what I have already mentioned by way of further reading, I would recommend the useful essay by Mark Cumming on the “perilous delights” of Carlyle’s picturesque writing to be found in Haydon and Doyle (edit.) pp. 177-93. The subject of our next lecture is The French Revolution III where we will be looking at the French Revolution as a template for modernity. For preparatory reading I would recommend ToB part I section I (pp. 13-44) and part II section I (pp. 125-156). Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

Bibliographical References

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 

(Online: Classic Reader

Dallas, Ian. The Time of the Bedouin: On the Politics of Power. 

Cape Town: Budgate Press, 2006. (Kindle Edition: Time-Bedouin-ebook/dp/B004HD6A6Oref=sr_1_1ie=UTF8&qid=1345247371&sr =8-1)

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

Furet F. and Ozouf M. (edit.) A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution 

(trans. Arthur Goldhammer) Belknap Press, 1989

Haydon C. and Doyle W. (edit.) Robespierre. Cambridge: CUP, 1999

Moore, Lucy. Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France 

London: Harper Perennial, 2007

Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity – Robespierre and the French Revolution 

London: Chatto and Windus, 2006

Complementary 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.