History of Liberty: The French Revolution, a Critical Analysis
“To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency, to forgive them is barbarity” – Maximilien Robespierre, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution is commonly seen as an example of rebellion against tyranny, and it’s mentioned in every history book as a victory for freedom. The revolt against the Ancien Régime and the effective step forward of the Third Estate into the political life, reminds all of us of our history lectures during primary or secondary school, which promoted the marxist doctrine of the oppressor versus the oppressed; thus dividing the situation into only two factions. Thanks to this effective marketing, the French Revolution has been getting more credit than it truly deserves, while other revolutions that were less violent, more effective in reaching their objectives, and had a more solid, developed and fair ideological basis, get shoved into the background.
The French Revolution is celebrated as a triumph of Enlightenment thought, developed by great philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Franklin or Jefferson, who, through rationalism, wanted to suppress ignorance and combat tyranny. They wanted to build a more just and peaceful world, respecting certain unalienable rights of all human beings, and the French Revolution is considered the peak of the ideas of (among others) Locke’s, Smith’s or Bentham’s liberalism. But this vision probably suits the American Revolution better than the French one.
Myths about the reign of Louis XVI
While France was an absolute monarchy during the reign of Louis XVI, the propaganda of the time and subsequent critics of the monarch and monarchy itself may have exaggerated the situation that the country was going through. Contrary to popular belief, the France of Louis XVI was not bankrupt, in spite of the great amount disbursed on the American Revolutionary War, and the monarchy wasn’t the extremely terrible regime its citizens are nowadays said to have feared. France was actually the most prosperous country in Europe, and the French language was the one used in diplomacy, music and culture. Furthermore, French people were living in better conditions than other countries’ inhabitants: rural and urban populations were growing fast and French intellectuals were at the forefront of European philosophy.
Ad hominem attacks towards the monarchs were very frequent; the king was accused of being effeminate and the queen of behaving immorally, while actually, as Simone Bertiere explains, both of them were discreet about their marriage because Marie Antoinette was incapable of enjoying sexual relations due to the “narrow vagina” condition that she suffered from.
Once in office, as one of his first acts, King Louis XVI expelled the most unpopular members of the government. He reformed laws to decrease the sentences for desertion, he released political prisoners and abolished torture. The King named Robert Jacques Turgot Controller-General of Finances, a politician who wanted to exempt poor people from fiscal burdens and to tax both the clergy and nobility because of their land accumulation. Furthermore, Turgot was expected to deliver on equal religious freedom for protestants, to unify measurement and weight systems, to even out freedom of trade and business, and to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment. But Turgot’s plans faced opposition from the owners of the grain monopolies, nobility politicians and some other privileged individuals – including the queen – which caused the proposals to be abolished just two years after they were proposed.
Up until the revolution, several enlightened Ministers, among whom Turgot, were forced to step down because the French nobility opposed them.
The start of the Revolution
The institution of a National Assembly by the people to substitute the Estates Generales, combined with their demand for a constitution, induced the monarch to respond with the use of military force. Public opinion regarded this as unacceptable, and part of the population of Paris rose up in arms (around 900 men, according to Schama). The revolters took the Bastille, a medieval fortress with minor significance. Nowadays, the Bastille is regarded as a symbol of the Ancien Régime, because it was used for the imprisonment of political detainees. At the moment of its siege by the people of Paris, seven prisoners were detained in the not-so-unassailable fortress, among whom there were forgers, a mentally-ill person, a noble, and an accomplice to a Louis XV assassination attempt. Its maintenance costs were high, and the government had just recently decided to demolish the fortress entirely.
While the Revolution progressed, the Enlightenment ideas that inspired it started to progressively dispel. The despotic monarchy was replaced by an enlightened technocracy. Nothing remained of the ideas of Montesquieu, Voltaire or even Rousseau. The respect for mankind as promoted by the enlightened philosophers, did not lead to respect for human beings as individuals among the people. The movement was overtaken by populism and propaganda was spread to justify massacres, brutality and carnage. A new regime was put in place, purporting itself to be a government of reason, which nobody could escape. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a crystal clear copy of the one written years before by the founding fathers of the United States, was used just as a gag to win popular support and was rapidly taken apart and forgotten by those who wrote it once they gained the popular support.
Robespierre and his Reign of Terror
In 1793, Robespierre, a well known lawyer, politician and leader of the Revolution, took power as President of the National Convention. As Burke explains, in line with the objectives of Enlightenment dogmatism Robespierre sought to break with the past by removing all traces of it, and to create an entirely new society based on abstract universal principles and ideas, that had to be respected by everyone. Ideas of rationality. One prominent example of the break with the old regime that the French Revolution implemented, was the change of calendar by one based on the decimal system, because this new method would be held by reason.
Although the economic situation didn’t change at all, the burden of taxation grew heavier during the Revolution, for example by the implementation of higher harvest taxes. Government instability led to protests and social unrest, and Robespierre started a bloody purge on anyone who had any kind of relationship with the Ancien Régime. Whether you were suspected of having sided with the regime, or whether you just did not share the revolutionary ideas, any reason could be enough to be labeled an anti-revolutionary. Thousands of innocents lost their lives under the guillotine because of this ideological intolerance, presented as “rationalism” by the same people who were ignoring the ideals of tolerance that Voltaire had inspired.
With Robespierre began the Reign of Terror. Robespierre was the driving force behind the idea of beheading the monarchs. Forty-thousand people are estimated to have been killed in a period of 10 months, under the autocratic rule of Robespierre, 70% of whom were peasants. He ordered the execution of both enemies and friends alike for good and continuity of the Revolution.
Robespierre finally fell into the hands of his opponents, who condemned him to death and buried his body in quicklime in a mass grave. After him, political instability seized the country, only to end with Napoleon taking power.
The French Revolution did not establish the basis of modern democracy, nor did it create any new remarkable ideas, and it was carried out by a group of barbarians. We cannot attribute the principles of the modern Declaration of Human Rights to the French Revolution, nor consider it as an example of what a people’s claim against tyranny should be. The French Revolution was a revolt by private interests that had nothing to do with humanity, resulting in one of the scariest episodes in the history of the French society. The French Revolution should be considered as an example of populism, intolerance, corruption of enlightenment ideas, and carnage only. It’s closer to Russia’s October Revolution or to the Cuban Revolution, than to any other.
The Revolution finally ended in the only possible way to bring such a situation to an end: by a coup, which satisfied the countries need for order instead of chaos and carnage, and raised Napoleon as Consul and later as Emperor.
To consider the French Revolution the most studied and enhanced liberal Revolution pushes other revolutions to the background, such as the English 1688 Glorious Revolution, or the 1776 American Revolution, which were much less violent and brought peace and liberty to their respective societies. Besides the lesser degree of violence and corruption in these revolutions, their ideological motivations have also proven to be of much greater weight in history, and mark the beginnings of the modern world: democracy and human rights, guaranteed by fundamental texts.
I want to encourage the reader to always question the status quo and given truths, and not to be influenced by marketing propaganda, intuitive statistics or heuristic availability, beginning with my own articles. Furthermore, I recommend Pierre Gaxotte book ‘The French Revolution’ to anyone interested in this historical event.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, you can submit your own piece to firstname.lastname@example.org.