French Revolution: History quickly swallowed Ideas




Key points

A/ Ideas and History – the late 18th C revolutions


Israel thesis: Enlightenment spectrum of ideas

Maurice Cranston

Fashioning democracy – Tocqueville

History swallows Ideas

French Revolution

Renaissance in Italy

Republican Rome

Ancient Greece

England 17th C

Scientific” racism

American “revolution”


Russian revolution

Birth of large cities, Sumer, c3500BC

B/ French Revolution



France in 1789

Causes of the French Rev’n? 

Revolution started well. 

 Why did French Revolution fail?  

“Failure” unfolds – foreign war, civil war  and dictatorship 

 Change pressing – but was Revolution’s bloody “failure” [Terror and war] inevitable

No? But only chance if Louis had cooperated, stopped ANY foreign royalist support

Louis as king pre-Revolution?

Louis fateful acquiescence to foreign royalist support, thus war

Louis – correspondence with Baron de Breteuil: evidence of his fateful misjudgement 

Why the Terror so bloody? Quasi-religious nature.

Why the Terror so bloody?

French military forces

Lazare Carnot [1753-1823]

French Revolutionary Wars

17th C English “revolution

Historiographical debate: J. Israel

Napoleon’s 15 year epilogue

Implications: new nationalism, but stained by unredeemed Old World loyalties

Did this “invent the modern political world”?

C./ Jonathan Israel notes, American and French Rev’ns.


TIMELINE – FRENCH Rev’n, French Rev’y Wars, Napoleonic Wars. 

Political impact of French Rev’y Wars on Europe [N Davies]

Important French Enlightenment figures involved in the FR




French Revolution: History quickly swallowed Ideas

European Enlightenment and 18th C Revolutions: American then French


History quickly swallowed Ideas: French Revolution instead uncovered Total War

18th C Enlightenment “rational” reform was enlisted by able ambitious egos to optimse 23 years of traditional Old World imperial military adventure.

Not fated: triggered by Louis 16 hearing the siren call of royalist cousins.



Louis XVI mulling at Marly June 1789 [after Sisley’s 1876, Abreuvoir de Marly le Roi]


§   The obvious puzzle is how / why  2 years of liberal “modern” reform in the French Revolution begat 23 yrs of European war, prefaced by Terror, 23 years of French imperial aggression.

§   But nothing teleological, inevitable? Rather just careless management in resolving differences.

§   Thus a witless worn out Louis XVI igniting violent foreign royalist opposition was the key, triggering large scale war by 1792, a looming existential theat, exacerbated when joined by local protest, from 1793.

§   But the backs to the wall French quickly became very good at war.

§   So war not domestic political reform became the French Govt’s abiding preoccupation for next 23 years, taking on near every other monarchy in Europe.

§   This they dressed early on in the comforting morally uplifting ruse they were seeking to bring “reform” to misguided reactionary opponents.

§   So History – traditional “tribal” war making – quickly swallowed pathbreaking liberal Enlightenment-informed “reform”: 2 years of ‘reform’ begot 23 years of war, in 2 phases [French Rev’y Wars to 1802, Napoleonic Wars to 1815].

§   So ironically the main practical dividend of new science and 18th C “rational” reformist universalist  Enlightenment [cf les Philosophes], and the associated incipient industrial revolution, was not ”peace and prosperity” but enhanced war making capability, Total War:

o     a nation of c30m by 1794 fielded a c1.5m strong military force, up over 10 times the pre-Revolution level, in about 5 uears,

o     supported by a modernised War Economy, availed of latest rational management and technology,

o     embarked on over 2 decades of Europe wide military adventure.

§   Lazare Carnot’s career spanned the 25 years; a case study of one of “best and brightest”; a “reformist” [favored public education] captured by Old Values, whose ability and skills were applied overwhelmingly to suppressing dissent and winning wars.


·       Why the Revolution?

·       Money. Louis XVI needed money and the stubborn aristocracy baulked, inviting the rest to the argument.

·       Ideas? Debate is keen on the role of pathbreaking 17th and 18th C Enlightenment thought [esp Dutch, English, French], especially following Jonathan Israel’s recent extensive published output. They certainly mattered, but in concert with on the ground reality in France: social, political, religious and economic.

·       Dissemination of ideas through printing, certainly contributed to the intense exchange and interaction of views once the gun went

·       Broadcast, shared Enlightenment thought highlighted longstanding inherited structurally entrenched privilege.


§   French Revolution “invented the modern political world”?

§   No, rather it fouled the provenance of the “modern world”, bore dangerous neo-nationalism, inspired a new “rational” tribalism, enlisting revived Old World loyalties, but now availed militarily of the latest resources and technology, boosted both by the burgeoning rational “modern”.


§   Why the “failure”? Descent from mid 1791 into the Terror and decades of war?  

§   Inevitable? Not necessarily? Could have been avoided IF c1789-91 Louis XVI had sniffed the wind early and committed himself to work with the Revolution, and under NO circumstances conspire with the family, the external royalist opposition.

§   Louis was relatively young [34 in 1789] but had ruled 15 years, and had tried hard to advance reform.

§   But bills – need for money [as for Charles I in England] – and implacable resistance by the aristocracy to any paring of their privileges opened the argument to the Third Estate, thence Revolution.

§   Despite retaining some popular support Louis dithered early [summer 1789] on ceding legislative power to a popular Assembly and flirted with external royalist support. Then fatefully – disastrously – mid 1791 he was apprehended fleeing join it.

§   Peter McPhee stresses the role of bringing the Church and clergy to heel, but seems unlikely this alone would have caused the Terror, let alone war.

§   Quasi-religious Terror inevitable? Defensible? No. Some security crackdown was rational mid 1793 as France faced existential crisis, a full scale war with neighbours, compounded by serious domestic rebellion, but this does not explain the fury and scale of the Terror.

§   Thus nothing like it occurred during England’s 17th Civil War. Perhaps it mattered France conspicuously lacked England’s much longer tradition of meaningful [if nascent and restricted] respect for individual rights, through parliaments and courts, back to 13th C.

§   Instead the French Terror was irrationally quasi-religious, with no regard at all for due process, rather offering “enemies” as sacrifice to a new “god”. In a bizarre un-Enlightened exercise during the Terror the Orwellian named [prescient by c150y] Committee of Public Safety  even proposed a new State religion.


·       But England’s “liberal” 17th Revolution succeeded.

·       There is a revealing analogy, both cases upending absolute monarchs but opening different doors.

·       England’s “liberal” Revolution broadly succeeded, emerging after the 1640s Civil War and the “coup” of 1688 by [invited] William and Mary with a constitutional monarchy, setting itself up for a expansive 18th C which proved pioneering for epochal “Western” modernisation.

·       Per contra France, England greatly benefited from

o   a/ its by then longstanding effective and efficacious parliamentary and legal system; and

o   b/ la Manche, the Channel, discouraging foreign intervention.


·          History swallowing “progressive” / “Whiggish” reform.

·          Defining History as traditional “tribal” / religious conflict / wars then there are instructive loose parallels     

between the French Revolution and:

·       a/ Ancient Greece, eg Orphist dualism arriving from the east, “re-infecting” Classical Greece with the notion of divine intercession, of caring “divine” deities; this in turn adapted and relaunched, by Christianity;

·       b/ Anc. Rome, unexpectedly successful victorious generals take over Rome’s politics, smother what there was of the oligarchic Republic and under Octavian spawn the Empire, much like Napoleon’s takeover;

·       c/ [Italian] Renaissance, French military intervention from 1494, welcomed by some, triggers generations of war in “Italy”, supplemented by the Reformation then the Church’s violent Counter Reformation.

·       d/ Russian Revolution, in some ways paralleling France, like how a/ a large monarchical, religion soaked empire lagging the West but finally embarked on reform, Stolypn et al; but b/ ambushed by WW1 [like Louis should NOT have listened to his cousins so should Tsar / Russia have NOT joined the war], allowing Bolshevik extremists to seize the reins [to this day!] during overarching civil unrest; c/ foreign opposition fed a bloody civil war after WW1 [Whites v Reds], central control ruthless in crushing dissent.


§   Lesson not learned? The French Revolution paralleled WW1 – again staining the provenance of the “modern”.

§   In both cases systemic tensions were building but in both cases key leading characters on each side misread the pertinent total circumstances and chose conflict over negotiation to resolve surfaced differences, with catastrophic results.

§   So two evenly matched opposing teams and the killing capability on both sides hugely expanded by ongoing 19th C industrialisation in Europe, condemned the antagonists to a 4 year murderous slog.


§   Oddly the outcome of French Revolution [23y of French sponsored continental war] echoes pivotal events for humankind which unfolded c5000y earlier in Sumer [S Mesopotamia, near the Gulf].

o   Then adverse regional climate shift [cold and dry] provoked unintended radical advance in societal economic performance.

o   Thus much larger cities than hitherto emerged [cf Uruk, Lagash et al], integrated economically with close by new technology-enhanced large scale irrigation.

o   The new model delivered a radical lift in economic productivity, unexpectedly.

o   The windfall surplus was quickly appropriated first by alert self-serving priests then militant kings [thence emperors]; to fund temples and palaces, then armies for kings to defend territory, or to compete with others to expand territory.

o   The new model of ambitious kings / emperors running armies [and complicit priests] quickly took hold, prevailed for next c5000y! 




A/ Ideas and History – the late 18th C revolutions

Introduction: Ideas and History.

We define History as traditional illiberal behaviours, driven by loyalties to race / place / class / religion / gender:

· bringing about autocratic entities like monarchies / empires,

· supported especially by a/ complicit aristocracies / nobility [based on inherited or ascribed rank] and b/ religious authority [priests and churches],

· coercively overseeing, restraining, exploiting most common people through variants of custom, edict, feudalism, slavery etc.

We define Ideas as essentially derived from the Enlightenment, as proposals to reform History, towards a modern universalist rational liberal model, defined in essence by:

a/ capitalistic economy: central government supervised, private property owning, competitive markets.

b/ universal individual human rights based rule of law representative democratic republicanism.


Here we consider the influence, impact of these Ideas on the political, social, and economic events outcomes in the context of two important “revolutions” doorstepping modernity, and especially consequences of interaction with History:

a/ American. This was not really a revolution as much a secession by the colonial “children”, how an energetic ambitious colonial enterprise building lives in the New World severed ties with the possessive mother country, establishing its own independent government but based on moderate reforming of the mother country’s political model [then relatively liberal in Europe] not upending it, in particular adopting a democratic republican model, ie abandoning the king.

It was certainly not a “revolution” in the sense of radical change, like in France, because England’s revolution analogous to France [ie ditching an absolute monarch] unfolded over a century earlier, mid 17th C.

However America’s democratic republican model was incomplete [eg had a limited franchise, including no vote for women] and – much worse – was fundamentally flawed by applying a racist criterion to citizenship.

The Founders were aware of moral objections to slavery, reminded of this by energetic abolition movements both domestically and Britain but they could not face freeing c600k slaves upon independence [c20% of population].

Worse they then let the problem fester, allowing slave numbers to balloon to c4m as cotton planters responded to European demand.

Then even the calamitous 1860s Civil War [over 600k dead in a population of c30m] did not fix the problem.

b/ French. This was certainly a revolution, though unfolding in ways quite unexpected, certainly by the initial leaders, promoters.

It started in mid 1789 with high hopes among its then leaders, including prominent Radical Enlightenment figures embarked on implementing radical secular liberal democratic policies which they saw having universal validity.

But it quickly soured and devolved into the Terror and 23y of war.  


Jonathan Israel thesis: Enlightenment spectrum of ideas

First, Jonathan Israel’s comprehensive European Enlightenment studies, starting with the Netherlands, led him to developing the two schools analysis, Moderates v the Radicals [hence Moderate v Radical En’ment], ie a spectrum of ideas between two poles.

Crucially the Moderates still believed in “God”, and still saw an official role for the [Christian] church, if not directly involved in Government processes.

The Radicals by contrast went rationally further by abandoning the fiction of ‘God” / dualism / divine providence, ie accepting we are on our own in understanding and building our world.

They were universalist, secular, democratic republican, equality, identity-neutral, the system based on full franchise popular sovereignty, ie open to all adult citizens] the latter

Moderates were much less radical, retaining the monarchy [const’l], in association with ranked aristocracy / nobles, and also an official Church [accorded some privileges]. They accepted a representative legislature but with a limited [propertied] franchise.

However both schools were radical by past standards, especially in both abandoning absolute monarchy [the Moderates keeping const’l monarchy, ie answerable to an elected legislative assembly] and moving towards popular sovereignty and individual freedom.


Second he explored the impact of these radical Ideas on two important revolutions, ie in America [US] 1775-83 [not so much a revolution in gov’t as secession / independence], then France 1789 etc, the French Revolution, which certainly was such.

Ideas clearly impacted the outcomes but the detail – the influence of Ideas – is hotly debated.


Maurice Cranston [1]

“.. Ed. Burke of the first to suggest .. [les Philosophes] .. somehow responsible for the French Revolution… elaborated on by [others].. Tocqueville and Lord Acton. The philosophes undoubtedly provided the ideas.’’ [though].. collapse of the old regime ..the consequence of other factors.. but in the unfolding of the Revolution.. what was .. advocated .. came from political theorists of the Enlightenment. ‘’[though diverse].. first phase of the ..Revolution [to Sep 1792]..  dominant ideas ..of Montesquieu [cf L’Esprit des lois, 1753]..  claimed that a liberal constitutional monarchy was[because] by dividing the sovereignty of the nation between several centres of power.. check on any one becoming despotic.. [thus] English achieved this by sharing sovereignty between the Crown, Parliament and the law courts.

French.. would need.. make use of the estates: the Crown, the aristocratic courts, the Church, the landed nobility and the chartered cities. .. [but] a conspicuous share of the sovereignty to the aristocracy [noblesse de robe in the courts, noblesse de race on the land]…

Louis XVI ]accepted] to replace an absolute monarch with a constitutional monarch.

comte de Mirabeau, the leading orator among the revolutionists of this early phase.. very much the disciple of Montesquieu in his demand for a constitutional monarchy. .. [but]  was out of sympathy with most of his peers.

[However] May 1789.. the privileged orders proved more eager to hold on to their privileges than to accede to the powers Montesquieu had wished them to have. …

Instead the Third Estate – the commons – demanded to share the sovereignty of the nation with the Crown…

The second phase of the French Revolution .Sep.1792 to Napoleon’s coup Nov. 1799.. the republican phase, for which Rousseau ..[the main theorist]..  was idolised and venerated for his The Social Contract, which also provided arguments which served the Terror…said a people could only be free if it ruled itself [but] also said that a man could be forced to be free.. “

.. the third, or imperial, phase [Napoleon].. the turn of Voltaire, and his doctrine of enlightened absolutism .”

1./ History Today May 1989. Ideas and ideologies.


Fashioning democracy – Tocqueville

Tocqueville near the end of his Democracy in America (1835-40) wrote, no doubt with the Revolution in his country fresh in his mind:

“The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal, but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.”

Whatever arguments about the detail there is near universal agreement the French Revolution, if nothing else, shows the danger of attempting radical societal change, of events careering out of control.

The outcome of the US sponsored 2003 Iraq War is another sobering example.

On the other hand some striking successes followed WW2, in Germany and Japan, later S Korea, Indonesia, Philippines.


History swallows Ideas – French Revolution

In France radical early democratic achievements and hopes [approx. 1789-91] were upended especially from mid 1791 by emerging reactionary “loyalty to class”, by external violent support for Louis XVI and the monarchy, by foreign royalist powers, fanning nationalistic passions.

Louis played a fateful key role in fomenting the royalist opposition.

The existential crisis was reinforced from 1793 by domestic protest.

So the initial tolerant democratic republicanism [1789-91, rooted in authentic popular sovereignty, the August 1789 Decrees [abolishing feudalism, “bonfire of the privileges”], subduing the Church, all a radical shift from the previous absolute monarchy / aristocracy / supporting wealthy Catholic Church] was displaced by violent autocracy, starting from around mid 1791, ie especially when Louis’ failed escape immediately aroused hostile opposition from foreign monarchies [Austria and Prussia in particular], opposed to the overthrow of Louis XVI and his Austrian born Queen, brother of Austrian king Leopold II].

Anticipating conflict France opened military hostilities April 1792 in the Low Countries [cf Austria’s Belgium]. Then July / Aug. 1792 Austria and Prussia invaded France, triggering radical violent response, storming the palace and jailing the king, election of a new National Convention.

By April 1793 power passed to a new dictatorial Committee of Public Safety [CPS], a lurch to violent oppressive autocracy, for the next 22 years.

Foreign opposition was reinforced by simultaneous violent domestic royalist / clerical opposition [ie de facto civil war], especially west and south, especially from c March 1793 right through to 1800. Note the sudden extra demands on the French population to resist Austria / Prussia aggression – overseen by the French executive [National Convention / CPS] – only fanned this domestic opposition.


So from about mid 1792 survival of the government – and the nation – became paramount, the government demanding unquestioning loyalty, leaving had no room for democratic niceties, in resisting foreign and domestic opposition.

Interesting is how France’s interest in war grew with success, over a period of years.


Finally in 1799 Napoleon – an able successful soldier – took advantage of the governing Directory’s wayward performance to stage a coup, take the reins by force, but only for the ambitious opportunistic neo-imperialist to then indulge his own self-aggrandisement agenda, for what became 15 years.

With Napoleon the Revolution had strayed far from its start, to the antithesis of the modernising reformist Enlightenment ideas which motivated founders in 1789. The ambitious and capable Napoleon was just the latest imperialist Big Man, a reactionary in a long line of similar grasping monarchs back 5 millennia to Sargon of Akkad.


History swallows Ideas – Renaissance in Italy

However in terms of Ideas and History there arises, broadly speaking, an odd parallel between the outcome of the French Rev. in the early 1790s and [over a longer time frame] of the Renaissance in Italy, especially into the 16th C.

In both cases important reformist ideas had strong support in some quarters began to take root amid the literate classes, including some politicians.

But in both cases early evidence of tangible progress, and hopes for more, were ambushed by History, by opportunistic leaders tapping resurgent traditional loyalties and behaviours.


The Renaissance in Italy arguably began early as the 11th C when economic activity took off in a number of city states, including maritime trading Genoa / Pisa / Venice, developed as many scholars / thinkers consciously revisited the legacy of Classical Greece and Rome [part evident in Italy], some then also questioning the Church’s then prominent role, History arrived emphatically from near end 15th C, firstly with the invasion of the peninsula by the French monarchy’s forces in the 1490s pressing territory claims [but with active local support], thus triggering decades of destructive warfare.

Second from 1515 the reactionary Rome based Church vigorously resisted “reforms” promoted by the northern Christian factions such that it became the Reformation, splitting the Church, unleashing the reactionary Counter-Reformation [a Counter-revolution] large scale religious warfare in Europe between Catholics and the rebellious Protestants.


History swallows Ideas – Republican Rome

As a successful soldier capitalising on opportunities, Napoleon’s trumping of Enlightenment hopes reminds one, broadly, of how the selfish political behaviour of the Roman Republic’s emphatically victorious generals [esp against Carthage] finished off the Republic, when Octavian, the winner of the final fight out, declared himself Emperor.

Napoleon continued to modernise the economy / society, adopting some Enlightenment reforms in doing so, but mainly to help fund his cavalier wide ranging military adventures around Europe, east to Italy / Austria / Germany / Russia, and south to Iberia, costing around 5m lives.


History swallows Ideas – Ancient Greece

Another portentous Ideas meets / makes History / Events case study was when the core religious idea of dualism [ie humans’ corporeal entities deemed each packing an immortal soul, becoming a ticket, a key to resurrection and an after-life] arrived in 5th C Classical ancient Greece on the wings of Orphism [associated with “god” Dionysus], from out of the East.

This was a general notion dating back millennia, self-evidently appealing because the proposition is so tempting to mortal earthlings, and this appeal was prone to being cynically exploited by priests and kings.

But this was a Greece then radical in parts – even quasi- or proto-modern – when some at least of its public thinkers were wrestling critically with the old ways, applying detached Reason to understanding their world, organising their lives [radically, even to the early exercise of vote based direct democracy], so in particular they saw through self serving delusions of attentive divine gods, that these “gods” they were all convenient human fictions.

But dualism’s appeal [with resurrection] was persistent and later it overturned radical Classical ideas, was adopted and repackaged by Christianity, with huge implications for millennia of History ahead.



17th C England was helped by having by then a well developed Parliament, which could more than carry a fight with Charles I, and also [again] the Channel, inhibited any complicating foreign interference.


History swallows Ideas – “Scientific” racism

An unfortunate intellectual corollary to the “rational” Enlightenment was its self-serving misguided application to anthropology in the emergence of “scientific” racism then used to justify nationalistic imperial racist predation, colonization and slavery.

This came through a string of thinkers, like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) who developed a racial schema, Caucasian whites notionally at the top. V Courtet (1813–67) and Joseph-Arthur, Comte de Gobineau (1816–82) [“‘History shows’, he wrote, ‘that all civilisation derives from the white race, and that a society is great and brilliant only so far as it preserves the blood of the noble race that created it.’ ”] fleshed out a complete theory of racial hierarchy.


Also fatefully the Moderate version for some / many came with a “white suprematist” racist codicil, restricting citizenship to those who qualified, esp based on religion [ie Ch’n Church] and race.

Hence blacks failed to qualify, as inherently less civilised peoples becoming candidates for enslavement, even on the basis this good for them, “civilising”.

This racism became a nation shattering problem in America for the famous 1776 American call “all men are created equal” was racist, effectively applied to “all Christian men”, thus excluded inferior races.

And all women!

Many American whites were unhappy with slavery, were morally queasy, but could not accept emancipation that left blacks living as neighbours, deemed this bad for both populations.


History swallows Ideas – American “revolution”

Reformist En’ment ideas clearly fed the French Rev’n, alongside unfolding events, as did by then the “revolution” case study of the Amer Rev’n [1775-1783] some 6 years earlier.

However the French Rev’n was far more ambitious, the early proponents seeing their human rights proposals having universal application.

Also in practice they went further than America in treatment of [black] slaves and women, freeing the slaves in their W Indies colonies [thus quite different to the US which faced freeing slaves at home, into their towns and countryside], and reforming rights for women.


In the US the high hopes of the Founders were squandered through the Founders of the new nation [from 1783] immediately running – opportunistically – with dramatically expanded slavery. This popular traditional behaviour quite at odds with Enlightenment ideas became the new nation’s “Original sin”. About 70 years later it triggered a calamitous civil war which did not greatly improve the lot of the “emancipated” blacks.


History swallows Ideas – WW1

The French Rev’n in “failing” [turning bloody and bellicose] paralleled the outbreak of WW1, again staining the provenance of the “modern”.

It is another clear case study in History trampling Ideas, in traditional violent [bellicose] “tribal” conflict trampling the emerging historically unparalleled material benefits of economic modernization.

This in both cases [French Rev’n and pre WW1 Europe] systemic pressures, tensions were building, straining relationships between sides.

But in both cases key leading players on each side [Louis and advisers c 1790 and in 1914 the German AND Austrian / Russian leaders] misread the total circumstances and chose formal conflict – war – over negotiation to resolve differences.

This brought [totally unexpected, with few exceptions] catastrophic results, especially because ongoing industrialization [esp in Germany and England, also France] had hugely expanded the killing capability on both sides.

In both cases the resulting protracted war devastated the instigators.  


History swallows Ideas – Russia

Interesting it is to compare the French and Russian Revolutions.

“Reformist” or “progressive” change was inevitable in both large ancien regimes.

Such change in Russia was slowly in hand but ww1 abruptly accelerated it, when drastic internal domestic disruption occasioned by WW1 [upending the slowly modernising traditional society] – which war Russia [fatefully] had volunteered to join – allowed the small extremist Bolshevik faction to prevail in the October 1917 Russian Rev’n.

So an obvious parallel with France [History swallowing Ideas] was how in both cases national existential crisis from foreign military opposition allowed the extremist madmen to take the bridge, then using the priority of survival as an excuse for violent suppression of “enemies”, the definition of which as in France was fluid.

Like France too it included a major Civil War component, especially once the foreign aggressors had left the field.

The big difference is that absence WW1 then Russia’s “liberal progress” would very likely have remained evolutionary?.


History swallows Ideas – sudden birth of large cities, Sumer, c3500BC

Oddly the unexpected 23y of French sponsored continental war in the wake of the 1789 Revolution echoes pivotal events for humankind unfolding c5000y earlier in Sumer, S Mesopotamia, by the head of the Persian Gulf.

Then adverse regional climate shift [cold and dry] provoked unintended radical advance in societal economic performance.

Large cities [cf Uruk, Lagash et al] emerged, integrated with close by new tech-enhanced large scale irrigation along the Euphrates River.

The new model – which included nascent artisan “manufacturing” activity in the new cities – delivered a radical lift in economic productivity, and quite unexpectedly.

Villages / towns / some small cities had then been around for near 5000y, in wake of the ice caps / sheets melting, as had knowledge of river based irrigation. But it was adverse climate shift presenting populations with an existential threat which forced innovation, building on existing knowledge.

The societal windfall surpluses were quickly appropriated by alert ambitious self-serving priests and militant kings [thence emperors]. By temples, palaces and then armies which kings used [along with complicit religion] to extend ruled territory.

The new model of ambitious kings / emperors running armies, supported by religion [ideas and institutions], seeking to build kingdoms / empires – longstanding traditional behaviours we can call History – prevailed for next c5000y! 




B/ French Revolution


·          After only a couple of years did recrudescing Old World History – rediscovered traditional militant nationalism – quickly swallow the French Revolution, and its 18th C Enlightenment inspired early reformist achievements and hopes.

·          Crucially war was sparked 1791-92 by reactionary foreign monarchical opposition [led by Austria, their king the brother of M Antoinette], military interference from east supporting for the monarchy, the king.

·          Only a clear thinking Louis XVI could have avoided this. But after dithering early, obstructing the Assembly he crossed his Rubicon June 1791 trying to flee and join his external support, and failing.

·          The counter-revolution was analogous to the Catholic Church’s Counter Reformation of 16th and 17th C.

·          Secondly, especially from early 1793, erupting domestic opposition added a ‘civil war’ component, local revolt [esp west and south] stirred especially by

o   the attack on clergy / Church;

o   increased war demands to meet foreign aggression, ie men / materiel, especially conscription.

·          The result was bloody internal suppression, > 200k dead.

·          After a faltering start in 1792 the French Rev’y Army [FRA] consolidated 1793 and quickly developed into a large and effective military force, became very good at war making, growing numbers from c130k 1792 to c645k by 1793, then c1.5m by Sep. 1794, reinforced especially by Aug 1793 conscription.

·          Success bred success because:

o     a/ backs to the wall, the existential threat, survival, was a big incentive to succeed,

o     b/ some help from the old guard, surviving “professionals of Louis XVI’s royal army”.

o     c/ learning on the job. The French forces were quick to learn from experience, like early mistakes, eg in Low Countries.

o     d/ the FR Governments were focused and ruthless in pursuit of victory, rewarding success and punishing failure

§  economy: took advantage of the modernising Revolution – the New Rational – upending traditional hierarchical society, a new meritocracy, the best person for the job, and extracting more from the economy;

§     political: purging perceived enemies, promoting Francophilic patriotic fervor.

·          Hence war quickly became French Government’s core preoccupation, the main mission, for next 23 years: a/ first under the CPS [1791- Oct. 1795], b/ then Directory [to 1799], c/ Napoleon [1799-1815.

·          This included a goal of actively exporting the “revolution” through sowing, promoting a bunch of new “colonial” or puppet “republican” statelets, presumably allied with France.

·          Having quickly secured the homeland the FRA embarked on wide ranging successful campaigns far beyond its borders, first into Low Countries / Rhineland [1794 and 1795], N Italy [1796-97], thence Egypt [1798-1801], Switzerland [1799], Germany / Austria [1800] etc.

·          This culminated in the ambitious self absorbed Napoleon’s 15 year rampage across Europe, costing near 5m lives.


·          The 1815 Congress of Vienna heralded near a century of peace in Europe [except the Crimean War] but the French Rev’n and the 23 years of war it unfolded fathered emergence of potent regressive nationalism, tapping dangerous traditional Old World anti-modern tribal loyalties, the likes of which had plagued Europe for millennia, seeding countless wars.

·          Napoleon’s ransacking disrupted, shattered traditional authority structures in Germany and Italy, encouraging their eventual unification later in 19th C, creating two new nations, one of whom became an economic powerhouse, and aggressive externally.

·          Also during the 19th C competitive nationalism intensified among European powers, first in imperial activity outside Europe [Africa, Asia], then closer to home, in N Africa and the Balkans.

·          But thanks to industrialization and economic growth the nations were better armed than ever before, so when disagreements between countries turned hot, triggering war in 1914, the outcome was devastating.

·          The French Rev’y Wars [esp. Napoleon’s phase] – full mobilisation of men and materiel, the war economy – effectively became a template for later global conflicts.



The key initiating circumstances in France were the French Crown short of money, to which [ironically] the French support for the American colonists had contributed but which mainly related to France losing in its 18th C imperial contest with Britain [esp in N America] and also to Louis XIV’s debts.

So 1789 the Estates Generale were called, summoned, but the Crown’s demands for $ were met immediately by radical counter-demands, which drew directly on ideas from Rad’l E’ment thinkers, some of whom led early stages of the FR, issuing the Decln of Rts of Man and of the Citizen, the first Constitution etc.


But famously after a promising start the revolution failed, thus after about 2 years control of events passed to a violent repressive autocracy [especially from approx. mid 1791] – trumping any popularly sanctioned liberal democratic reform – from which it never recovered, succeeded 1799 by Napoleon.


The French Revolution started May 1789, pursuing radical Enlightenment-inspired reform, but by contrast especially with the 17th C English ‘revolution’ [ie 1640s Civil War and 1660 Restoration / 1688 Glorious Rev’n] it failed emphatically, ambushed particularly by foreign military intervention from 1792 after Louis XVI’s failed flight mid 1791, which grew into protracted warfare with European neighbours, became the main mission of the French governments, overseen first the French National Convention then the Directory, then from 1799 by dictator Napoleon.

French governments also faced staunch domestic opposition, especially in rural west and south, from early 1793.

So the country was on a full war footing from early-mid 1792, stern central authoritarian central command burying any notion of ongoing liberal reform.

Suppressive violence stepped up Sep. 1792, graduating to the Terror, Sep. 1793 to July 1794.


France in 1789

Population numbered near 28m, with c650k living Paris, and was still more of an informal federation than a cohesive nation.

It was “a society in which people’s deepest sense of identity was attached to their particular province..”

French was the daily language only of those involved in administration, commerce and the professions…

Several million people in Languedoc spoke variants of Occitan; Flemish was spoken in the NE; German in Lorraine. There were minorities of Basques and Catalans along the Spanish border, and c 1m Celts in Brittany.” [McPhee].


Causes of the French Revolution? 

1/ Injustice of ancien regime.

There was deep pent up popular frustration with perceived systemic injustice within the French monarchy, like with ”the injustices of the seigneurial system..delegitimizing the monarchy and the aristocracy..

There was a powerful rebellious mood for change, symptomatic of which was the sudden outbreak of violent popular protest across France in the summer of 1789 – Great Fear [La Grande Peur} – immediately on the heels of the eruption in Paris. Panic and violent protest which swept France, especially 22 July through 6 August, also following a poor spring in 1789 and 1788, and generally poor harvests since the 1783 Laki volcanic eruption.

It began Franche-Comté, west of the Alps, and spread quickly south to Provence, east to Alps and west to centre. Another panic started SW, thence Pyrenees and east to Auvergne.

The protest included town and rural people and targeted the aristocracy and a common objective was destroying “documents of feudal privileges”. It was unusual in covering near all France, except Brittany in far NW, and Alsace/Lorraine


2/ Money

Money brought the French ancien regime to its knees, the “costs of empire”, back to Louis XIV’s waste, thence wars with England and helping the American colonists.

2a/ Debt [but no bigger than earlier times] and need for reform

Thus: “.. immediate cause of the collapse of the ancien regime was crisis [which finance minister Calonne revealed to Assembly of Notables in 1787]… However, the royal debt in 1787 (after the successful American war) was no greater than 1763 (after the disastrous Seven Years’ War) and [much] less than 1713 (after the equally disastrous War of Spanish Succession).” [J Black 1996]

“… calls for reform began long before the French Revolution, but …[were] stalled by the upper classes ..

Turgot was the earliest vocal call for reform…. anonymous submission in 1757 to Diderot’s Encyclopedie.  criticized the existing order, especially the nobles…. [his] 1776 Memorandum on Local Government to Louis XVI .. described France’s problems.. [required] ..government reformed on every level… … [M McHugh]

2b/ But nobles [First Estate] implacably opposed to “reform”


Louis was at a dead end by 1787, all reform effort blocked by the stubborn unshifting aristocracy.

The “absolute monarchy” was dead, facing the revolte nobiliaire, forcing Louis to recall the E-G and in so doing he opened the argument to, “enfranchised” the Third Estate.


Louis’s debt problem was not unusual but the difference in 1787 was “less resources for dealing with the problem” [JB], and ongoing pig headed nobles resistance to accommodation.

Louis early in reign had “ended the practice of reducing the rate of interest paid by the Crown at the end of a war”, thus increasing Crown debt.

Second, “he replaced the compliant Parlement Maupeou with the old Parlement [but] which.. resisted Turgot’s measures..

By 1786 the Parlement was blocking all the Crown’s financial taxes or loans…and the expiry of a tax [the third vingtieme].. [forced] Louis to call an Assembly of Notables..” [JB].

But the Notables [the aristocracy] then finished the “absolute monarchy” by refusing to budge.

“Louis discovered …the ideological basis of the absolute monarchy had gone. … the aristocracy was in the ascendant. defeat of his cherished reform plans .. was the watershed of [his] reign” [JB]

Earlier, “Louis XVI .. immense opposition from the Parlement of Paris .. 1776, they objected to edicts that “under[mine] the essential principles of the traditional social order.”.. opposed the outlawing of the corvée and the creation of a tax on landowners and the nobility and dissolving the guilds. ..even the most basic efforts to reform Louis XVI were stymied by his nobility.” [M McHugh]

Louis personally was shattered by his final defeat in 1787, became more dependent on wife MA.

Thence from early 1787, period of revolte nobiliaire, Louis opened the argument to Third Estate, enlisted their support.

Hence Easter 1787, an Avertissement defending his reform plans was read from the pulpits on Palm Sunday 1787, then 5 July 1788 a declaration, lifting censorship of the press, inviting comment, eg re future organization and composition of the Estates.

Dec. 1788 the Resultat du conseil accorded the Third Estate double representation in the forthcoming E-G meeting

But when May 1789 the E-G met Louis erred – lost valuable popular support – on the question of increased Third Estate representation, “silent for 6 weeks” [bringing forth the Tennis Court Oath on 20th June] then responding 23 June with “unsatisfactory compromise”.

Louis was half hearted here, esp on “question of legislative power”, resisting the Assembly view “Louis should have no part in the legislative process”. This “provoked.. the October Days..” when he and family moved to the Tuileries, yes “under effective house arrest”.

3/ Bad harvests.

4/ Enlightenment ideas, via les Philosophes.


Revolution started well. 

The Revolution started well, boldly, especially 1789 with the abolition of the seigneurial system and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen [established the equality of citizens before the law..” though “ was vague about the meaning of social and political equality.”].

“Of the elaborate set of dues peasants owed landowners under the old regime, the most important were levies on the major crops produced on all land within a particular seigneurie, bolstered by monopolies over village ovens, mills, grape and olive presses. McPhee presents the abolition of this archaic system as “the single most significant social change brought by the Revolution”.


Why did French Revolution fail? 

Revolts and revolutions have a long and diverse history, within Europe to start.

Some are well known, quickly brought to mind [like France and America] but there are many others, plus many more rebellions or revolts that did not graduate to revolution, ie sustained radical change.

As D Andress notes Wikipedia lists near 100 revolts / rev’ns for 19th C, over 200 for the 20th C. Thus in 19th C France they succeeded in 1830 and 1848, but not 1831, 1832, 1834 or 1871.

By their nature – ie open conflict between parties far apart – the outcome is more uncertain than otherwise.


It’s clear the French Revolution failed [looking at the wider context, 1789-1815] in that early hopes for peaceful radical liberal reform were swallowed by sustained autocratic violence, starting especially from about mid 1791, following Louis’ failed escape, then when new [constitutional monarchy] Legis. Assembly took effect [from 1 oct 1791], which “degenerated into chaos less than a year later”.


But why?

A/ The single crucial factor was foreign opposition to the upending of the monarchy [culminating in Jan. 1793 execution of the king, later the Queen too], which tipped France into full scale war.

Here Louis XVI played a crucial role, vacillating early – despite significant residual support in France –  then blundering June 1791 when finally he abandoned working with the Revolutionaries and tried to flee France to join foreign royalist supporters. But was caught.

His foreign supporters immediately threatened France with war if Louis was harmed [cf Padua Circular [10 July], Decl’n of Pillnitz [27 Aug.], led by the Austrians [Queen M Antoinette sister of Leopold II], joined by Prussians, later British and Dutch, amounting to a full Counter-revolution. Working also with this opposition were many offshore French emigrées.

France pre-empted a foreign strike by declaring war first, April 1792, and invading the Low Countries. Matters quickly escalated, drawing the admonitory 25th July 1792 Brunswick Manifesto and finally a Prussian led invasion 19th Aug. 1792, led by Duke of Brunswick.

The Girondins were keen on not just defending the Revolution from external attack but on exporting it to receptive foreign countries, thus Brissot “proposed ..ambitious military plan to spread the Rev’n, called on the National Convention [from 22 Sep. 1792] to dominate W. Europe by conquering Rhineland / Poland / Netherlands.. create protective ring of satellite republics in GB, Spain, Italy by 1795”, AND called for war against Austria.


B/ Secondly domestic opposition grew, erupted March 1793 with Vendee rebellion in rural west, especially because:

a/ attack on clergy and Church [esp encapsulated by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy]: subordinating it to the Govt; and selling Ch lands, shutting monasteries, including charities;.

P. McPhee stresses the disciplinary treatment of the Church by the Revolution, writes of the “fateful decision…  to impose an oath of loyalty to the constitution on the clergy, forcing them to choose between keeping faith with the Catholic Church and allegiance to the Revolution.” [M. Linton]. It was ‘the moment that fractured the Revolution’ (McPhee).

b/ increased demands [including taxes] on people [men and materiel] to feed the war effort.

c/ economic distress, inflation.

Domestic protest was obviously serious, the treatment of the Church certainly mattering.

But perhaps if could have been accommodated, defused if major enveloping wars had not been triggered by Louis’ actions.


“Failure” unfolds – foreign war, civil war and dictatorship 

After reactionary foreign opposition commenced say mid 1791 and the start of war in 1792 then 1793 finally saw the country on a full war footing against external opponents [the armed forces soaring to near 1.2m, fed part by conscription, and also facing a major rebellion inside France, mainly west [Vendee[, which claimed over 200k lives, far more than the 1793/94 Terror.

On a wave of fear the government veered by July 1793 to full dictatorship [CPS, led by MR, calling itself “Rev’y Gov’t”], fiercely resisting both foreign and domestic armed attack, violently suppressing any perceived dissent, especially from Sep. 1793 through the Terror [in town and country, “..began [mid 1792] with vicious popular reprisals against perceived wartime enemies…transformed a year later into an instrument of government” [LRB].].

This included turning on many foreigners who had earlier welcomed the Rev’n.

The “central task of the emergency dictatorship set up in 1793, the Committee of Public Safety, was to save the revolution and preserve the integrity of France..” [LRB].

The “Robespierre problem”? There is much debate about how much of the Terror’s violence was dictated by “circumstances” and how much by the people in charge.

By summer 1794 : “the Austrian and Prussian invaders had been repelled.. [and] now this sanguinary ministry was no longer required, the Convention could finally turn against Robespierre, scapegoating him and his associates for the excesses of the past two years..”.

The July 1794 Thermidor coup was orchestrated by some of R’s colleagues – other “ardent terrorists” – and was near equally savage: “vicious reprisals .. to former Jacobins in the Midi claimed 30k… the White Terror almost as destructive..”.

The succeeding executive Directory [1795-99}: “ power.[was].  taken away from the street and the village.. conferred on propertied stakeholders, bureaucrats and scientific experts… ‘liberal authoritarian’ system.. restricted franchise, conquest and plunder abroad and an ever vigilant security apparatus. .”


The sudden relaxation of press controls [and improved printing technology] saw an explosion in print media, in the number of new papers and journals. These were vehicles for conveying views from the government, and dissemination of discussion and opinion from many commentators across a wide spectrum.

These factors reflected in a sharp rise in demagogic populism epitomised by fictional but symbolic Père Duchêne, a character representing the violent “populist impulses of the revolution”, expressed especially in killing “enemies of the revolution”, and looting the wealthy.

Journalist Jacques-René Hébert was so successful promoting PD that fearful Robespierre and the CPS framed and executed him.


Populist political violence was a feature from the start, from the Paris riots April 1789, the 14th July Bastille storming and the Great Fear in countryside later 1789.

 The growing murderous populist violence [especially from later 1792] became a perverted expression of the 6th article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, affirming that ‘the law is the expression of the general will’, allowing that ‘all citizens have the right to participate personally, or through their representatives, in its establishment’.


Change pressing – but was Revolution’s bloody “failure” [Terror and war] inevitable?                            Sat 21 nov 2020

No? But only chance if Louis had cooperated, stopped ANY foreign royalist support

In hindsight the outbreak of war with major foreign royalist opposition was crucial, set Louis on the road to the scaffold and the country to the Terror and decades of war.

So the question is was this inevitable. We’ll never know but there must have been a good chance if instead a clear headed Louis had recognized this danger, a/ cooperated with the new democratic government, and b/ in particular forestalled ANY external armed royalist support.


Louis as king pre-Revolution?

Louis acceded as a young man, only 19.

As king he was “fairly intelligent (and fairly hardworking). .[but] indecisive …. exacerbated by the structure of decision-making… before 1787 firmly kept Marie-Antoinette out of policy-making but thereafter [less so]..when .. traumatized by the rejection of his reform programme by the Assembly of Notables..” [J Black 1996].

Thus he was “indecisive” re 3 big moves, 1774 recall of Parlement, the 1778 entry into American War of Independence, and 1787 convocation of the Assembly of Notables, the latter exacerbated by his main Minister’s [Necker, “popular finance minister 1776-81”, recalled Aug. 1788] similar foot dragging.

Change was clearly coming in France, as noted under “Causes”, the monarchy and aristocracy facing growing tensions, especially because the aristocracy would not budge regarding any trimming of their privilege, especially financial.


Louis fateful acquiescence to foreign royalist support, thus war

Change was clearly coming in France, as noted under “Causes”, the monarchy and aristocracy facing growing pressure from the large over-taxed rural workforce and growing urban based commercial businesses, “middle classes”.

So the key question is could the resolution of tension been better managed.

In particular the obvious crucial question is could the concerted foreign opposition and the fateful wars they triggered have been avoided?

The answer is probably yes but only with careful passage through a narrow opening

The crucial figure then was King Louis XVI, if he had proved capable and cooperative, perceptive enough to realise that inviting external martial support from his royal family and friends in effort to prolonged his French monarchy would prove not just futile but calamitous and deadly for him.

However it seems the witless Louis did the opposite, treacherously inveigled foreign support, despite at the beginning “commanding considerable loyalty” [M Linton], perhaps enough as a base from which to survive long term.

In not doing so he joined 17th C England’s Charles I in ominously not correctly sniffing the political breeze.


Seeking “new monetary reforms” Louis XVI convoked the Estates-General on 8 August 1788, to open 1 May 1789 [actual 5th May], last met 1614.

But Louis did not cooperate with the Third Estate, representing c 95% of the people.

First tried to have voting by “orders” not heads, thus nullifying the Third Estate.

Second, after the TE ignored him and unilaterally declared themselves the National Assembly [on 17th June, restyled the Nat’l Constituent Assembly on 9 July] and 20th June [now in the Tennis Court after Louis locked them out of Salle des Etats] they resolved not to disband till a Constitution was agreed, effectively stripping Louis of his official executive powers

But Louis still did not relent and on 23rd June stayed with “separate deliberation by the three orders”..

In another mistake Louis had called in troops on a pretext of deterring protest but with quite the opposite result, helped by him sacking Necker, thus popular rebellion boiled over in Paris, the Bastille stormed 14 July.

This sparked waves of protest across rural France, 22 July through 6 August, The Great Fear. Then 5th October a people’s mob marching on Versailles, “infilitrating the palace at dawn [6th}, attempting to kill the queen”.  So Louis and family were quickly moved to [confined in] the Palace des Tuileries in central Paris.

But from the start, Oct 1789, Louis did not try to work with reformers and accept an accordingly radically diminished role for the monarchy, instead worked with a “secret council” of advisers “trying to preserve the monarchy”, though L was much less reactionary than his 2 brothers.

Finally mid 1791, in a devastatingly fateful step, Louis abandoned any effort to accept the const’l monarchy model and threw his lot in with violent Counter-revolution, enlisting foreign royalist support to try recover his rule. So “the fatal blow against the constitutional monarchy was dealt by Louis XVI himself when he took the ill-judged decision to flee with his family.” [M. Linton}

Thus, after some delays, on 21 June 1791 he tried to flee France, to the NE border to there join émigrés.and the protection of Austria, having “appointed Breteuil to act as plenipotentiary, dealing with other foreign heads of state in an attempt to bring about a counter-revolution”.

Meanwhile back in Paris Louis had left [on his bed!] “a 16-page written manifesto, Déclaration du roi, adressée à tous les François, à sa sortie de Paris [Testament politique de Louis XVI (“Political Testament of Louis XVI”)] explaining his rejection of the constitutional system as illegitimate”, which was published in press.

This was quickly compounded 27 August 1791 by the Decl’n of Pillnitz [issued by Austria’s Leopold II and Prussia’s Fred Wm II, consulting with various emigres], threatening “severe consequences” if Louis was harmed.

The attempted flight, the published Testament and the Decl’n of Pillnitz amounted to a key turning point, at a stroke slashing what support he had and boosting republicanism.

France now saw war with royalist opposition as inevitable and April 1792 decided to pre-empt the matter, invading the Austrian Netherlands.

Prussia’s Duke of B’wick led the response, assembled an army at Koblenz and July 1792 commenced invasion, also issuing on 25th July the B Manifesto, “written by Louis’s émigré cousin, the Prince de Condé, declaring the intent of the Austrians and Prussians to restore the king to his full powers”.

Protest erupted in Paris, and fearing the treasonous King was in league with attacking external monarchies, the Tuilleries palace was stormed 10th August and Louis moved to jail at Tour de Temple. The monarchy was abolished and 21st Sep. France was declared a Republic. In Nov 1792 more documents compromising Louis were found in an armoire de fer at Tuilleries. Louis’s trial [from 11 Dec.] was a foregone conclusion and 21 Jan he was executed.


Louis – correspondence with Baron de Breteuil: evidence of his fateful misjudgement                                               26 nov 2020

Correspondence of Baron de Breteuil with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was found by British historian Professor Munro Price in an Austrian castle, covering crucial period in unfolding of the Revolution.

Breteuil [1730-1807] fought in the 7 Years War, became a diplomat [eg Cologne, St Petersburg, Stockholm, Vienna and Naples, with mixed reviews?].

Circa 1783 he joined Louis’ administration as Minister of King’s Household, “liberal and humanitarian”, resigned “exhausted” July 1788.

But to help Louis he returned as PM 12 July 1789 [2 days before Bastille!] then fled France soon after. Partly at the Queen’s insistence he was appointed PM-in-exile, in Switzerland. There [at Soleure] Nov. 1790 he “received from Louis XVI exclusive powers to negotiate with the European courts ..”. Soon after it was B who organised the ill-fated attempted Varennes flight of Louis and family.

B’s correspondence suggests: 1/ from 1787 Louis’s judgement was impaired by “acute intermittent depression”; and 2/ from Oct. 1789 Louis had decided on “escape and the maintenance of royal authority” while ostensibly cooperating with the ongoing Revolution.

Price also suggests that in summer 1792 the stubborn Queen persuaded Louis to reject Lafayette’s proposal Louis accept a full constitutional monarchy. Louis’ last [slim] chance?


Why the Terror so bloody? Quasi-religious nature.                                                                                                           21-23 nov 2020

The Terror took hold later 1793 as France’s fight to survive royalist foreign attacked gathered pace, ie in the context of total war.

Question is why was it so irrationally bloody? Circa 40k died.

Particularly given the rational Enlightenment ideas which inspired some of the early Revolutionaries.

As R Scurr [FT] notes: “McPhee provides a conventional explanation for the..  Terror…  a pragmatic response to foreign and civil war. “, ie to “counter-revolution and the ‘foreign plot’ ….two faces of the double-headed monster of the ancien régime.”

So in this context it was simply “ a question of ‘Liberty or Death’.”, ie either take this action to defend “Liberty” or face “Death”.

Which clearly is not the full answer.

Yes the war demanded countering any relevant opponents, external and internal, and so was a trigger for increased domestic security measures, but the French Terror of Sep 1793-July 1794 clearly got out of hand, clearly exceeded the bounds of a rational response to security threats.

Instead, though dispensed by secular authority, the nature of the Terror was irrationally quasi-religious in:

a/ the obvious near total disregard for any meaningful judicial due process in determining “guilt” of victims. 

b/ effectively dedicating the victims as sacrifices to the faux-god of Liberty. 


The religious nature of the Terror clearly accords with the CPS dictatorship undertaking “extreme efforts of de-Christianization.. including the imprisonment and massacre of priests and destruction of churches and religious images throughout France..”.

In particular in a bizarre and irrational exercise [completely at odds with the Enlightenment] they even proposed to replace the Catholic Church altogether with a new atheistic State “religion”, the Cult of Reason devised by J Hérbert et al., “worshiping” Reason, with civic festivals replacing religious ones. Thus 10th Nov. 1793 they celebrated the Goddess of Reason at Notre Dame, re-dedicated as the Temple of Reason.

Sillier and sillier.

M Robespierre was “appalled” at the atheistic rejection of “godhead” and – shades of American DIY religion – devised his own new religion, to replace “the Cult of Reason, a new deist non-Christian Cult of the Supreme Being [Culte de l’Être suprême]” [by Nat’l Conv. Decree 7th May 1794], complete with a god and immortal human souls. Reason he saw as means to an end, to wit virtue, through “active fidelity to liberty and democracy”.

Robespierre’s view of Liberty had nothing to do with rights, let alone freedom, rather was a new nebulous god-like entity to be protected from “enemies”, “Revolutionary de-Christianisers” like Hebert who were accordingly dispatched to Place de la Concorde. 8th June 1794 was the first Festival of the Supreme Being, organised by painter JL David on Champ de Mars, near [later] Eiffel Tower.

But this bloody fantasy and the ongoing bloodbath finally triggered Robespierre’s demise, the Thermidor Reaction, a coup by some colleagues who in this mayhem feared for their own lives, so on 28th July he himself was guillotined.


The Terror outcome recalled earlier similar maniacal collective murderous religious behaviour in Europe:

a/ Catholic Church inquisitions [cf Cathars in 12th and 13th C, Span. Inqu. from 1478 [home and in colonies abroad, not abolished till 19th C], Portuguese 1536, Rome 1542, ie part of post 1515 Counter-reformation]

b/ and the European witch-burning mania, in which the Church was complicit [esp c1450-1700, cf Malleus Maleficarum of 1490, peak c1560-1660, rise ironically concurrent with High Renaissance, including humanism, Neoplatonism].


It seems relevant to compare the Terror with events in England during its 17th Civil War, when the Parliamentary side was fighting for its life against the Crown and where indiscriminate violent oppression on anything like the same proportionate scale or intensity as France did not occur.

Why not?

Perhaps it had something to do with:

a/ England’s then already much longer meaningful tradition in, experience with parliamentary process and courts, [realistically back to 13th C] which imparted some restraint in adjudicating cases of suspected opposition, even betrayal.

b/ France’s stronger Catholic / religious mindset?


French military forces

[Refer: “‘Friends, Fellows, Citizens, and Soldiers’: The Evolution of the French Revolutionary Army, 1792-1799”, William Scupham, Volume III: Issue I (Fall 2012), Primary Source.]

French Rev’y Army: “.. began as a fragmented forced decimated by revolution and ended victorious on a wave of patriotism and professionalism..”

The French Rev’y governments were energetic, ruthless and above all rational in taking action to respond to crisis, to [from 1791] the rapidly materialising serious threat of foreign intervention, in

a/ boosting numbers;

b/ training. Importance of patriotism.

c/ military tactics.

d/ developing a war based economy to provide arms, ordinance;

Interesting and ruefully ironic is that in conducting the war, meeting obvious challenges, the French Revy Govt applied rational Enlightenment thinking to the pressing tasks, thus traditional approaches were thoroughly overhauled, inherited ranks were abandoned, meritocracy ruled.

a/ Numbers

At this time France was the biggest single country in W Europe, population 1790 c28m, versus Britain c12m, then Russia 35-40m

Lazare Carnot [on CPS] led reorganisation of the army, 1793-94, seeing drastic change in officer corps [3-4% nobles v 90% pre Rev’n]. Most of the officers in the pre-Revolution French army fled.

Feb. 1793 Carnot ordered by decree of Nat. Convn. each département to provide quota of new recruits, totaling c300k, boosting the FRA from c130k in 1792 to c645k by mid-1793.

Then, given the apparent gravity of the country’s predicament, 23 Aug. 1793 in a drastic move to build numbers the NC [Nat. Convn] proclaimed the levee en masse [LEM]: ALL unmarried 18-25 men into army. So by Sep. 1794 c 1.5m under arms.

The LEM was revisited 1797.

Rural areas provided about 84% of the LEM and towns / cities 16% [Lynn].

So making war was democratized through involving all “citizen soldiers”: “friends, fellows, citizens..” [Camille Desmoulins].

So army numbers peaked in 1790s c1.5m. Total c2.8m French served on land, 150k at sea, across c25 yrs of war. About 1m French soldiers became casualties.

Compare Britain c750k, 1792-1815. Army peaked 250k in 1813, c250k in Navy.

Large battles, c300k at Wagram 1809, 500k at Leipzig 1813 [150k k/w].

b/ Training.

The Gov’t stressed patriotism in inspiring men to fight.

And a key training strategy was l’amalgame whereby inducted new troops [especially via conscription] would immediately serve alongside experienced troops.

c/ Tactics

The FRA used skilled / motivated guerilla warfare type shock troops [skirmishers] to probe opposing front, look for or create weak points where main forces could penetrate.

Carnot also promoted idea of armies being mobile, flexible and proactive, which approach bore early dividends, in 1793 and 1794.

Making war became a political activity too, the Government keen, taking a close hands on interest, to see [through training and stern discipline] that officers / generals remained loyal to France, wary that the growing army not become a threat to the Government.

d/ War economy: arms and supplies provisions, to provide arms, ordinance;

The French economy was mostly pre-industrial in 1789, but developed strongly in response to exigent demands.

“new industries were created virtually out of nothing by government mandates…” .


Lazare Carnot [1753-1823]

The well born [son of judge and royal notary], educated and bright Carnot was a key figure in overseeing all these aspects of improving the Revolution’s military capabilities and performance. He was a member of the Legislative Assembly [there stressing need for public education], then elected to the Nat’l Convention in 1792, active late that year improving defences near Bordeaux in case of Spanish attack. Aug 1793 he was elected to Comm. Of Public Safety and there “took charge of the military situation”, hands on, even credited with helping win at Wattignies late 1793.

Carnot survived Robespierre’s fall [who he knew in Arras before the Rev’n] and became one of the 5 initial directors in the Directory, 1795.

He was an early supporter of Napoleon, thus 1795 appointed N to lead army into Italy, then to be ousted by N in his Sep 1797 Coup of 18 Fructidor]. But he was too useful to waste and after a spell in Geneva was 1800 appointed N’s Minister of War, but briefly, till June. He objected to N in 1802 claiming Consular for life till, but rejoined service for Napoleon later, one of the few lasting from 1789.  


French Revolutionary Wars

The single most important catalyst for sustained populist violence was serious foreign military intervention from the east which emerged in 1791/1792 – especially after Louis was caught fleeing June 1791 – which quickly found France fighting a major war with Prussia, Austria and then Britain, tapping powerful nationalist sentiment, such that tangible fear of foreigners – ‘enemies’ of the nation and the revolution – persuaded the Paris Commune [PC] to erupt.

Thus soon after the start of the Prussian invasion a PC mob stormed the king’s palace 10-13th Aug. 1792, capturing and imprisoning the king, then soon after, 2-7th Sep., the September Massacres killed numerous [imprisoned] suspected “traitors” in Paris.

The foreign military threat to the new French governing regime was real, and was materially reinforced by aroused domestic opposition, becoming a ‘civil war’ component, which intensified in 1793 [especially start of Vendee rebellion in March 1793] then 1794 the Chouannerie revolt in the west, bloody [genocidal?] suppression west and south.


This united violent opposition meant regime survival was now the paramount priority, meaning

a/ the French Revolution shifted crucially towards dictatorship which was formalised mid 1793.

b/ no time and resources for policy reform 

c/ ruthless suppression of perceived opponents.

However the quick and sustained French military success starting 1792 [esp Valmy in Sep.] saw war becoming the main business.

Thus French military success – first into Low Countries / Rhineland [1794 and 1795], then N Italy [1796-97] – fed on itself, and importantly included the notion of exporting the “revolution” through sowing a bunch of new French overseen  “colonial” or puppet statelets,

From 1799 it culminated in the ambitious self absorbed Napoleon’s 15 year rampage across Europe.


A key difference with the analogous 17th C English “revolution” was that England by then had a long meaningful history [over 400 years, back to the 13th C] with an evolving parliamentary system whereby rights and interests of at least of the landed gentry and some merchants could be represented in relations with the Crown, such that when open conflict did finally arrive in the 1640s Civil War the rebelling party was well enough resourced to defend its stance militarily and eventually prevail.

The cause they fought for was far short of full franchise representative democracy [which lay about 300y in the future] but wresting power from the king and supporting nobles was an historic rupture and set the country on the road to modern democracy.


Oddly M Robespierre early on was an authentic radical reformer, said all citizens have right to participate, denounced aristocracy, the church [though – against radicals like Herbert – he recognised the popular appetite for religion, hence 1794 he supported a new state religion! The comic “cult of the Supreme-Being”], and slavery. In 1792 he was even wary of foreign wars.


Intense historiographical debate followed J Israel’s 2014 book which stressed the importance of ideas in triggering the Revolution, much questioning his thesis.

But hard to see why. Obviousy it was a combination of factors. Events mattered, especially foreign invasion, but obviously too Enlightenment ideas manifested, not least early in guiding important documents, Rights of Man and Constitutions.


Napoleon’s 15 year epilogue

The grand epilogue to the adventure that started May 1789 was the ambitious self absorbed Napoleon’s 15 year rampage across Europe, so by “1810 the 83 departments of the Republic had been increased to the 130 departments of the Empire, with a population of 44m.”.

“A whole panoply of new states was erected, each closely tied to France and each possessing its own model constitution and French-style administration, included

·          the Batavian Republic (1795–1804), transformed into the Kingdom of Holland (1804–10),

·          the Kingdom of Etruria (1801–5),

·          the Confederation of the Rhine (1806–13),

·          the Grand Duchy of Berg (1806–13),

·          the Kingdom of Westphalia (1807–13),

·          the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (1806–13),

·          five Italian republics, and the so-called Kingdom of (northern) Italy (1805–14). 

And “after Napoleon’s later conquests, a number of old-established states were allowed to survive, but with severely modified frontiers and with tightly controlled internal arrangements. .. included Austria, Prussia, Spain, Naples, and Portugal.

“..  only parts of Europe to escape the revolutionary remodelling of Napoleon’s enlightened despotism were the British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia, and the Ottoman domains. “


A tasteless but time-honoured aspect of Napoleon’s Monopoly board moves was his nepotistic bent in appointing CEOs for some of the new entities.


Implications: new nationalism, but stained by unredeemed Old World loyalties

Ironically Napoleon’s ransack facilitated the later unification of Germany, by:

 a/ sundering the multitude of small and larger traditional entities, states, princedoms, secular and ecclesiastical, esp from 1803. This scrambled the old HRE which was formally disbanded Aug. 1806; and

 b/ demonstrating the [pyrrhic] success of France’s nationalism.

Here were also similar implications for 19th C unification in Italy.

So the FR bore a vigorous new nationalism.


Did this “invent the modern political world”?

No, the new nationalism proved dangerous, a new rational tribalism, retaining Old World loyalties [racism / slavery / imperialism / colonialism, inherited hierarchy], but availed of latest resources and technology.




C./ Jon. Israel notes, American and French Rev’ns.

Amer. Rev. 1775-83 raised lot hopes in Europe, cited Am Rev as useful, for freedom, democ’n etc

Though half baked, compromised esp by slavery [N and S, eg New J worst in N, slaves nos doubled there to 1800].

But British [Welsh] rad dem Richard Price 1784 [1 yr anniversary] sang praises of Am Rev.

Gp of British reformers, Tom Paine, J Priestly, John Jeb, J Bentham and Mary W! Eg they opposed Brit Empire, role of Church

TP called for General Rev’n.

Factions in America, esp rural anti Govt Democrats [J] v aristocrat / oligarchic [J Adams, A Hamilton]

Democ mood in Europe. Eg movement in Holland, Switz.

Britain? Many / most thinkers, writers supported FR initially, till mid 1793 Terror. But minority reactionary, Ed Gibbon and Edmund Burke.


France – Revolution – how Ideas interact with Events?

FR really 3 Revs, factions, 1/ democ repub.’ 2/ liberal monarchists, 3/ A Populists

Start May 1789 with E-Generale, then bold 1789 with Decln of Rights of Man, clear roots in RE, including by then the Am Rev [Mirabeau], hence key role of Ideas in FR, downplayed by many social historians.

Roots in mid 1700s Encyclopedie of Diderot, then from d’Holbach school post c1770, esp Histoire des deux Indes (“History of the two Indias”), encyclopaedia on commerce between Europe and the Far East, published anonymously in Amsterdam in 1770 and attributed to Abbot Guillaume Thomas Raynal [1713-96]. considerable popularity, numerous editions, 3rd 1781 censored in France.

But 1791 print shows Louis 16 replaced by “philosophy”.

Count of Mirabeau key figure, strong orator, favored Rts of Man as universal document. Also Sieyes, Brissot, Condorcet, who dominated dem repubs..

Dem Repub. policies: 1/ free speech, press, free theatre [but NOT then in England]; 2/ univ secular education, b and girls, together. 3/ free slaves. 4/ reform marriage and prop laws, 1792, equal rights, old v restrictive. Now civil contract, allow divorse.

With strong support among “intelligentsia”, esp sudden free press and vibrant, outburst of new journals, writers, eg Prudhomme, Louvet. pro Rev’n, pro En’ment. Many editors became Deputies in NA. 90% favored DRep. Summer 1789.

In middle liberal monarchists, eg Montesquieu, eg Britain, keep king, arict’y. Faction 1790/91.

Church, lot oppos’n to FR in France, object to secular shift, de-Christianisation, opposed hence to Dem. Repub.

Late 1791/92 swing back to Condorcet, dem repubs. By 1792 Brissotins had c200 Deputies, big faction. Eg Aug 1792 win

But events crucially impacted by foreign policy, war with neighbours east, Austria / Prussia threatening [Aug. 1791].

Key event was failed flight of royal family June 1791, which roused foreign [Austrian / Prussian] concern, hence Aug. 1791 Decl’n Pillnitz.

Pressure grew but France pre-empted and declared war April 1792, Prussia Brunswick Manifesto July 25th then invaded 19th August. Wins east, threatening Paris.

Triggered storming of king’s palace at Tuileries 10th Aug., then September Massacres, murder many “suspect” prisoners. New Nat’l Convention elected September. Abolished monarchy.

Nov 1792, Brit Club in Paris celebrate FR, banquet, Tom P, Joel Barlow, Irish, and Helen Maria Williams who toasted women!

Feb. 1793 Const’n mainly written by Condorcet, v unfairly treated, was world’s 1st democratic constitution. He also main reformer for education, helped by wife.

Rts of Man expanded Feb 1793, 35 articles, increased press freedom.

Plebiscite approved ne Contsn, then suspended

Then big battle between dem rep and Auth Populists [AP], which AP win June 1793 in Robespierre [1754-94] led Coup,\.

But armed revolt against AP summer 1793, Vendee, esp south, Toulouse, Lyons, Montpelier, Bordeaux, Marseilles]

Terror, Brissotin and Girondins guill. Oct 93, till mid 1795, Thermidor,

Separation Church and State 1795, till 1799 and Napoleon.

AP guiding idea was NOT reforming IDEAS, but their dogmatic interp of Gen Will of ord people, was enemy of En’ment.

Stoked by J-P Marat [journalist, assas. July 1793] in his paper? And since THEY knew GW then NO dissent because People in power, NO need for free press etc.

1794 abol slavery, revived 1802.

Women role mattered, Sophie de Condorcet and esp Marie Olympe de Gouges [brave, esp to free blacks, Rts of Women in 1791, rejected, satirical style, executed], also Mary W [moved to F too, string favor emanc’n.], Etta Palm [vigorous Dutch reformer, in P 1770s, womens groups, progress 1791-92, reversed by R autumn 1793]. Helen Maria Williams, also some Germ women. Big impact in US, Letters from France”.


TIMELINE – FRENCH Revolution, French Rev’y Wars, Napoleonic Wars.  25-31 Oct, 1-7, 9, 11-25 Nov. 2020 ; 3787w

In 3 phases:

1789-94 [to Thermidor],

1794-99 to Brumaire];

1799-1815, Napoleon.


1/ June 89 to Sep 92                                      Const’l monarchy;

2/ Sep 92 Nov 99                                           First Republic;

3/ 18 Brumaire [Nov.1799] to 1815               Nap dictatorship.

Gov’t phases:

1789, 17th June, National Assembly [9th July reconstituted as National Constituent Assembly, NCA]

1791, 1st Oct. Legislative Assembly succeeds NCA.

1792, Sep. National Convention [NC] elected, monarchy abolished, Republic launched.

1793, April, Committee of Public Safety [CPS] appointed by NC. July 27th it formed a provisional govt. Terror: 5th Sep. 1793 – July 1794.

1794, July. Thermidor.

1795, Nov., NC dissolved, replaced by Exec Directory

1797. Sep. Coup of 18 Fructidor, by 3 of 5 Directors, defeating monarchists / Royalists. Shift towards autocracy / dictatorship.

1799, Nov. coup of 18 Brumaire, end of Directory, Dec. Napoleon rule under Consulate


Events, by year

Important preambles: Seven Years’ War, American Revolution


Jan. 1789. Abbé Sieyès published What is the Third Estate?

28th April Réveillon Riots in Paris, caused by low wages and food shortages, c25 dead.

5th May, Estates-Generale [summoned 24th Jan.] convened, after elections held to select delegates.

First Est., Clergy: 303 delegates [2/3 parish priests]; c100k. Church owned c10% land, collected taxes [tithe] off peasants.

Second Est., Nobility: 291 delegates; c400k, owned c25% land, collect seigneurial dues / rents from peasant tenats.

Third Estate [TE], rest: 610 delegates; c50% educated lawyers, officials, 1/3 trades, industry, 51 “wealthy land owners”.

Tried to reform taxation, difficult because first 2 Estates exempt.

Delegations arrive with cahiers de doléances / catalogues of complaint; mainly concerned taxes!

At opening the TE found the King was keeping “traditional voting “by orders”“ [ie each Estate vote as a bloc], rather than by head, so the TE could always be outvoted 2 to 1, ie despite having a majority of delegates.

The TE demanded double weighting, ie matching 2 “votes” of other Estates, but were rejected.

Louis was “silent for 6 weeks on this [important] question of..” voting by orders or head, ie till 23 June.

Finance Minister Necker spoke only about taxes not matter of representation.

The TE unhappy, now insisting on Estates meeting as one body, with one vote per delegate.

28th May, the TE began to meet on its own.

13th June the TE “arrived at a resolution to examine and settle the powers of the three orders… invited the clergy and nobles ..”, ie other Estates, to join them. Some did.

17th June the TE [now styled as the Communes, Commons] completed verification of delegates and voted to “redefine” themselves as the Nat’l Assembly, representing the people, to pass legislation. Again they invited other Estates to join them.

The King baulked, advised by privy council, “resolved to go…to the Assembly, annul its decrees, command the separation of the orders… dictate the reforms to be effected by the restored Estates-General. “

20th June, King [at Marly, prevaricating, preparing address] ordered the hall where the National Assembly met [Salle des Etats] be closed, so they decamped to the Tennis Court, and in Tennis Court Oath “agreed not to disband until they had settled the constitution of France..”

22nd June, TE deprived of Tennis Court, shifted to Church of St Louis, now joined by most of the clergy, and 47 of Nobility [including Duc d,Orleans]

23rd June, King [at Royal Session, séance royale] finally utters, addresses 3 Estates, but unrepentant, still resists TE, announces another const’l plan, “, the right of separate deliberation for the three orders..”.

Louis ignored by NA. Rest of the nobility joined the NA and the Estates Generale were dead.

Just as shortly before the aristocracy [Second Estate] a few years before ignored his calls for tax reform.

Louis had ordered troops moved near to palace and Paris, but arousing much popular protest.

9th July. Nat’l Assembly reconstituted as National Constituent Assembly [NCA], dominated by Mirabeau constitutionalists, support by liberal nobles, eg Lafayette.], then ‘the most inclusive and participatory system in the world’ [P McPhee[.

TE requested removal of troops (now including foreign regiments, far more loyal to Louis than French troops].

11th July Louis sacked Necker, displeasing the Paris populace

13th July Comm. Of Public Safety created, 48k Nat’l Guard raised, under Lafayette.

14th July storming of Bastille, triggered spread of unrest in countryside. La Grande Peur [the Great Fear], “summer of unprecedented social hysteria”.

Night 4-5th , thence 11th. August Decrees, 30 decrees, NCA announced “The National Assembly abolishes the feudal system entirely.” 19 re abolition of feudalism, other privileges of the nobility, and seigneurial rights.

26th August, historic Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen [drafted by the Abbé Sieyès and Marquis de Lafayette, in consultation with Thomas Jefferson, influenced by the doctrine of “natural right”, rights universal”], preamble to Constitution of 3 Sep. 1789, generalizations about rights, liberty, and sovereignty, adopted popular sovereignty and const’l monarchy. But 2 classes citizenship, active [over 25 and paid taxes, pol. rights] and passive [civil rights], which upset radicals, incl M Rob.

EXTERNAL CONFLICT: August. Austrian Netherlands. Archbishopric of Liege seized by “patriots”.

“Patriotic army raised by Gen’l de Mersch raised to confront Austrians.

Nov., protest in Ghent “ended in bloody massacre.

Dec., Belgium expelled Austrian garrison, declared independence. Till Austrians returned Feb. 1791.

October.  Paris mob; Liberal monarchical constitution; Women’s March on Versailles

2nd Nov. Church property nationalised, otherwise expropriated.

Dec. Nat’l Constituent Assembly decrees ‘active’ (monied) citizens [could vote] and ‘passive’ (property-less) citizens, who couldn’t.

Dec. Provinces abolished.

Newspapers, explosion in newspapers, approx. 250 established by end 1789, following July 1788 lifting of censorship.


Feb.  Suppression of monastic vows and religious orders

May 19 Nobility abolished by Nat’l Constituent Assembly

May: Societe de 1789 formed by moderate members of Club Breton. Became 2nd club after Jacobins. Included .. Lafayette, Mirabeau, Sieyès and Condorcet. Failed by mid 1791, when Feuillants formed.

July. Fête de la Fédération, year after Bastille. “The Revolution began in a spirit of enthusiasm, unity, excitement and exhilarating optimism. At the Festival of the Federation….  the king took an oath to support the constitution..” [M. Linton].

July: Suppression religious orders [Civil Constitution of the Clergy, issued by Nat’ Assembly], immediate subordination of Catholic Church to Govt. Bishops and priests elected.

Mid year. Clubs, growing popularity, influence of clubs, Jacobins, Cordeliers etc.


March Abolition of trade guilds

March / April.  Pope attacks Civil Constitution of the Clergy

20-25 June, Louis and family flee the Tuileries Palace, for Montmedy [Lorraine] but failed, caught at Varennes.

In “final stages of drafting of Constitution”

16 July 1791 Society of the Friends of the Constitution [Feuillants Club] formed by c264 moderates [supporting const’l monarchy] leaving the Jacobins, where radical republicans stayed. Published pamphlet.

Favored: 1/ keeping clubs out of politics; 2/ hence stress on reps elected to legislative assembly; 3/ const’l monarchy; 4/ NO emancipation for blacks! [France then had 800k slaves in W Indies]; 5/ no citizens joining Nat’l Guard; 5/ no war against Austria in March 1792 [hence fell out with Girondins]. 

Later [Aug. 1792] 841 members listed, arrested, tried. Some later executed.

Girondins, cf group deputies from Bordeaux [Gironde river], centrists in early years but leaned democratic and republican, met at Mme Roland’s, ran King’s last gov’t, led transition to Republic.

Jacobins. Arose 1791. King error, appointed Jacobin Mayor of Paris, so controled local gov’t, the Commune.

 For “unlimited democracy, rev’y dictatorship and violence..”. Name from site of their Club on Rue St Honore, old Dominican convent. Dominicans in Paris called Jacobins because earlier residence on Rue Saint-Jacques! Approx. 3000, who later ran 20m France! Membership diverse, included some nobles. Danton. Camille Desmoulins. Antoine Saint-Just. And Max Robespierre.

15th July NCA ruled Louis XVI would keep throne under a constitutional monarchy, after failed flight. Republican leaders objected. Jacques Pierre Brissot [editor, Le Patriote français] drew up a petition demanding the removal of the king

17 July 1791, Champ de Mars massacre. Crowd of 50k gathered 17 July, led by Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, royalist Marquis de Lafayette ordered troops to fire, dozen to 50 dead.1791 Final session of the NCA 30th Sep,

1791 10 July Padua Circular [Austria’s Leopold II [M Antoinette brother] calls for royal houses to support Louis].

27 August 1791 Leopold and King Frederick William II of Prussia issued Declaration of Pillnitz, concern of the monarchs of Europe for Louis and his family, threatened vague but severe consequences. Leopold reluctant to act but Declaration alarmed revolutionary leaders who denounced it.

July. Voltaire reburied at Pantheon.

13-14th Sep, 1791 Constitution [const’l monarchy,  King shares power with elected LA; executive power answerable to legislative assembly; restricted voting in the assembly to the upper and middle classes accepted by Louis.

Elections, for new Leg. Assemb., “original moderate leaders swept aside”. Less keen on monarchy, dominated by republican Girondists.

1st Oct. first meeting of gov’t of Legislative Assembly [LA], ‘young, inexperienced’ (Oct.1791-Sep. 1792).

Comprised c165 Feuillants [constitutional monarchists], 330 on Left: Girondins [liberal republicans] and Jacobins [radicals]; and c250 other]

Nov. émigrés ordered to return by the Assembly


20th April, France declared war on Austria, (War of the First Coalition, 1792-97). Girondins in NCA now supported “exporting revolution” through war. See Decree of 21st April, “Justification for war”.

28th April France invades Austrian Neth. [Belgium], but suffers early military setbacks, in April and June, as further south a large Prussian / Austrian army gathers, under the Duke of Brunswick.

1792 Women: law redefining marriage and legalising divorce in 1792 granted women equal rights to sue for separation and child custody

1792 25th July. Prussia allied with Austria. Prussia’s Duke of Brunswick took command July, issued the Brunswick Manifesto on 25th July [intention to restore Louis], Prussians start.

1792, Looming foreign invasion crucial, a fateful trigger for radical Jacobin action, declaring “fatherland in danger” {!?]

1792 10-13 Aug. Storming of king’s Tuileries Palace by Paris Commune [“with 500 Massilians in the van”], Swiss Guard killed, capture the king and family [imprisoned at Temple], revolt led by G Danton etc. PC included Montagnards and Jacobins not in LA.

1792 16 Aug. P Commune petitions LA for “revolutionary tribunal” and Nat’l Convention.

1792 19 Aug. Duke of Brunswick led coalition [Prussians etc] invade France. Verdun taked 3 September.

The Prussian invasion 19th Aug. then encourages “September Massacres” [3-7th Sep.], again by the Paris Commune [organised by JP Marat [editor his paper L’Ami du peuple], c235 Sans-culottes murdered 100-1600? 1000s, approx half prison population];

1792 Sep. M Robespierre elected Deputy, help lead Paris Commune.

1792 2-6 Sep., new National Convention elected, met 20th Sep., charged with devising new constitution.

Busy, “passed 11,250 decress in just over 3 years”.

Dominated by Robespierre’s Jacobins.

1793 20th Sep. pivotal well timed morale boosting unexpected French army victory at Battle of Valmy [approx 30k on each side] stops Coalition, esp. thanks to Kellerman’s artillery. Goethe was present with Prussians.

Army kept winning. Occupied Duchy Savoy, County of Nice, invaded Germany, took Speyer, Worms, Mainz on Rhine, far as Frankfurt.

Attacked Belgium, big win at Jemappes 6 Nov. 1792, then occupied country.

By 1792 French land forces numbered near 250k.

 Following Valmy on 21st Sep. Nat. Conv. abolished the monarchy [royalty] and declared a French Republic on 22nd Sep.

1792 11 Dec. 1792 Committee assembled to prepare new Const’n. Draft 15th Feb. 1793.

1792. Economic position deteriorating, rapidly by early 1793

1792 3rd Dec., start trial of Louis XVI.


1793 Jan. 21st King executed after tried and convicted [Girondins against death penalty].

Opposition to Revolution. Royalists, opposed to const’l monarchy, dispossessed nobles, many émigrés. Clergy, esp “after 1792 when Rev’n atheistic not just anti-clerical”. Peasantry too.

Intellectual / ideological oppos’n from conservatives, eg nationalist J de Maistre.

Several Provinces “staunchly royalist”, esp west.

Offended by August 1793 conscription.

1793 7th March, rebellion starts in Vendée;

OPPOSITION Vendee rebellion last near 3 years. “Started March 1793 St Florent sur Loire. ‘Royal and Catholic Army of Saints”, 21 battles, won at Cholet, took Angers, besieged Nantes, into Maine, Anjou…[but] Oct 1793 foolhardy 30k armed force north over Loire to Normandy, to port of Granville.. [disaster] port sealed.. [retreat].. 15k died in streets Le Mans.. [cleaned up by Xmas, near Nantes].”

Meanwhile Gen’l Kleber and army transferred from Rhine harried “V heartland”, through 1794. “10s of 1000s shot, guill., or burned..”. At Rochefort, Angers [“1000s shot”], Nantes [“1000s drowned”]. Big fort built Roche sur Yon, to help control rebel lands.

Overall, > c200k died, far more than in the Terror, “a terrible story of populicide, genocide franco-francais”.

1793 11th March Paris Rev’y Tribunal formed.
1793 April 1st  Nat. Conv. Decree, condemned anyone with “strong presumptions of complicity with the enemies of Liberty.”

1793 April 6th Committee of Public Safety [CPS] formed, forced on Girondins by Montagnards;

 insurrection 31 May – 2 June, led by Danton, leading Montagnards, Girondins overthrown, 29 arrested; 3rd insurrection after 14th July 1780 and 10th Aug 1792;

1793 30 May. Revolt in Lyon.

1793 – big lift in forces, holds line. 18th March. Charles Dumouriez loses Battle of Neerwinden, Belgium, surrendering Belgium and Dutch territory, “leaving the French army in chaos”. Dumouriez’s position weakened, April 1793 he defected to the Austrians, ending up in Britain 1804, dying at Henley in 1823!

By mid 1793 F Rev. Army c645k.

France under pressure elsewhere:

0/ Domestic rebellion, Caen north, and Lyons and Marseilles in south, also Vendee rural west;

1a/ Spanish armies cross Pyrenees;

1b/ British take Toulon [till December], destroy F. fleet;

2/ Piedmont-Savoy cross Alpine borders east; Fr invasion Piremont failed;

3/ Austrian armies cross in far N, towards Paris;

4/ British naval blockade from 31 May.

1793 23rd Aug. mass conscription [levée en masse, LEM] launched, important boost to army.

Later 1793 French recovery north: wins at Hondschoote [Sep.] and Wattignies [mid Oct.].

By end year 1793: “republic had …14 armies, and 1.2m soldiers.” [Mignet’s History of FR”]

French armies won battles later in 1793, and on through 1795 and 1796.

1793 10 June, after 8 days a new “super-democratic” 1793 Constitution submitted to Nat. Convention, accepted 24th June, passed by public referendum. It expanded on 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man etc, adding several rights: popular sovereignty over national sovereignty; several new economic and social rights, universal suffrage [6m could vote], right of association, right to work and public assistance, right to public education, right of rebellion (duty to rebel when the govt. violates rights of the people), abolition of slavery, all written into Decl’n of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793.

But then, ironically, given the national war emergency it was set aside 10 October. A “dead letter”.

1793 13th July JP Marat killed.

1793 June. Opposition supporting Girodins. “insurrections Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux etc.”

1793 27th July Committee of Public Safety restructured, formed a provisional government, M Robespierre elected, appointed member of, reorganized the Revolutionary Tribunal.

1793 5th Sep., Terror starts, sans-culottes militia formed, 21 Girondist deputies guillotined 31st Oct. October, Committee declared itself a Revolutionary Government.

MR led suppression Girondins to the right, Hébertists to the left, then Dantonists in the centre. Personally signed 542 arrests, especially in spring and summer 1794.

1793, 25th Dec. M. Rob. speech on “revolutionary gov’t, uncompromising case for legitimacy of extreme measures [against] the enemies of liberty’.”


1794 Feb. major repression begins in Vendee [west and south, c200k killed?]; the Aug. 1793 conscription [LEM] a major trigger.

1794 5th April Danton, Desmoulins executed;

1794 7th May, Nat’l Con’, Robespierre, decree to establish Cult of the Supreme Being; Festival on 8th June.
1794 27/28th July ‘Thermidor’. Robespierre [and others of CPS] arrested, executed. Commune of Paris abolished.

Reaction to Robespierre violent extremism encouraged by military victories [eg Fleurus]

1794. “By the end of the year French armies had won victories on all fronts..”

Mid 1794 summer, “dramatic French victories” in Flanders and Rhineland.

Several battles in Flanders against Austrians [esp important victory at Fleurus [26 June], also Kortrijk and Tourcoing, in June], thus won all of Belgium / Netherlands.

Then drove against Austrians, British and Dutch occupied Rhineland, ie area west of Rhine. Advancing into Netherlands by end year.

Alpine front no change, Piedmont invasion failed.

Spanish border: drove Sp out of Roussillon, invaded Catalonia.

Following 1793 conscription F Rev. Army increased to c1.5m by Sep. 1794 [Wiki]

1794 H2. White Terror, reaction against remaining Jacobins. Club shut November.

1794. Slavery. Faced with a massive uprising… slaves in France’s most valuable Caribbean colony, Saint-Domingue, the National Convention abolished slavery, made them full citizens. Blacks as deputies to the French legislature. 1796, black general Toussaint Louverture was CIC French in Saint-Domingue [saw off an British invasion], became independent nation of Haiti in 1804.

OPPOSITION. Chouannerie, Another royalist counter-revolt, against the First Republic, Initially provoked principally by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and the levée en masse (1793.

So similar motives to Vendee, and “overlapped geographically”, but more widespread: in 12 of the western départements, most of Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Maine. Name from chat-huant, catcalling to communicate in forests. First leader a ranger from near Le Mans who took sobriquet Jean C.

3 phases, spring of 1794 until 1800.

1/ Oct 1793 – Apr 1795, sparked by Vendeans thru Normandy, 5000k Chouans joined.

2/ June 1795 – Apr 1797, start with raid in Brittany. Joined by force landed by British.

3/ Sep. 1797 – July 1801. Provoked when elections results ignored.

Oddly many in the western areas initially supported reform, opposed tithe, clergy etc.


Surprise winter attack against Dutch succeeded, with local support, Prussia fled by end 1794 [Peace of Basel, April], Treaty of Hague in May, ceded N Brabant etc to France, France established Batavian Republic as puppet state.

Peace treaty with Spain in July.

31st May Paris Rev’y Tribunal suppressed. 

22nd Aug. New Constitution ratified. Exec Directory of five, appointed by the legislative assembly.

5th October, Napoleon [“whiff of grapeshot”] leads rebuff of Paris insurrection.
2nd Nov. Exec Directory takes power.  Nat’l Convention and Committee of Public Safety dissolved.

Despite plantation owners protest, Directory maintained rights granted to freed blacks in W Indies. And kept rights for women too.


2 French armies crossed Rhine, advanced into Germany. But Jourdan defeated August. Moreau reached Bavaria. Both retreated.

1796-97. Napoleon won series of battles in Italy etc after “daring invasion” [10 May, Battle of Lodi, 4 June starts siege Mantua], captured most of N Italy, driving out Austrians

First Coalition [War of the First Coalition] collapsed Oct. 1797.

Hoche “crushed” Vendee revolt.


Feb. Nap finally got Mantua. Signed Treaty of Campo Formio 17th October,

Austria ceding Belgium, recognising French control Rhineland and N Italy.

Venice “partitioned” between A and France.

Feb, 1400 French troops landed Wales under Irish American Col. Wm. Tate!

End of War of First Coalition.

1797 4th Sep. Directory “muzzles”, overthrew Leg. Assembly. Fructidor. After election results unfavorable.  


War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802), led by Britain, Austria and Russia, and including the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Naples, various German monarchies and Sweden, though Prussia did not join this coalition and Spain supported France.

Their goal was to contain the expansion of the French Republic and to restore the monarchy in France. They failed to overthrow the revolutionary regime and French territorial gains since 1793 were confirmed. Hence Treaty of Lunéville 1801, France held all of its previous gains and obtained new lands in Tuscany, Italy, while Austria was granted Venetia and the Dalmatian coast.

Britain and France signed the Treaty of Amiens March 1802, peace for 14 months.

May 1803 Britain and France again at war, 1805 Britain assembled 3rd Coalition.

Summer 1798 Bonaparte led army to Egypt, trapped, returned to France, surrendered. 21 July Battle of Pyramids, 1st August B of Nile!

In his absence violence in Switzerland drew French support against the old Swiss Confederation, overthrew the cantonal government Bern, FRA [French A of the Alps] invaded, ostensibly to support the Swiss Republicans.

In Germany, Austria drove the French under Jean-Baptiste Jourdan back across Rhine.

Dec. Alliance Russia and Britian.

Second Coalition [1799–1801] triggered by Russia’s new Tsar, Paul I, keen to explore opportunity.

“Suvorov’s Russian army recovered most of Austrian Italy before Bonaparte… [restored] the balance”. Eg 17-19 June wins B. of the Trebia.

Paul I was assassinated, and allies fell away, hence Treaty of Lunéville (1801) and Britain’s Peace of Amiens (1802).

In northern Italy, 1799, Russian general Suvorov won battles [1799], driving the French under Moreau out of the Po Valley, back to F Alps, coast near Genoa. But Russian armies in the Helvetic Republic were defeated by French [1799], Suvorov eventually withdrew.

22 October. Russians left the Coalition.

24th August. Nap leaves Egypt. Back France 9th October.

Napoleon made “further conquests in Italy..  Piedmont, Parma, and Piacenza. “. And invaded Germany.

Napoleon led Nov. 9, “Coup of 18 Brumaire”, 3 man “Consulate”, confirmed by national plebiscite.

The coup has since been copied many times. It consolidated violent French autocracy, in flagrant contradiction to Enlightenment ideals which helped spark the FR, Napoleon becoming effectively dictator, later [1804] Emperor, preposterously crowning himself.

He reversed reforms on women’s right, reintroduced slavery in the colonies, abolished elections, banned any free press, and restored the public status of the Catholic Church [a 5 millennia old association between ruler and religion], all to serve his autocracy.

12 Dec. Napoleon elected First Consul.

24th Dec. Constitution of the Year VIII, Napoleon rule established under the Consulate.


Nap. sent Moreau to campaign in Germany.

Nap. raised a new army at Dijon, marched through Switzerland to attack the Austrian armies in Italy from behind.

Narrowly avoiding defeat, he defeated the Austrians at Marengo [14 June] reoccupied northern Italy.

Moreau meanwhile invaded Bavaria, won battle against Austria at Hohenlinden, continued toward Vienna, Austrians agreed peace.


Ottomans and British invaded Egypt, French surrender after the fall of Cairo.

Britain continued the war at sea.

A coalition [Prussia, Russia, Denmark, and Sweden] joined to protect neutral shipping from Britain’s blockade, resulting in Nelson’s attack on the Danish fleet, B of Copenhagen

Dec. 1801, France sent force to recapture Santo Domingo, independent since the 1791 Haitian Revolution, over 30k troops, “catastrophic failure”, by end 1802, c15-22k died of yellow fever etc,


 May. Napoleon first Consul for life.

Treaty of Amiens between France and Britain finished the French Rev’y Wars.


3 May. Napoleon sells the Louisiana territory to the U.S

18 May. Britain declares war on France

26 May. Napoleon invades Germany [Hanover].


18 May. Napoleon Emperor.


6 Aug. Holy Roman Empire abolished

21 Nov. Berlin Decree (1806), initiated the Continental System.


Third Coalition [1805–14] “Pitt’s final diplomatic masterpiece”, if slow, then achieved a decisive victory off Cape Trafalgar (21 October 1805). After France wins at B of Ulm, 19 Oct.

Napoleon wins clearly on land, in 1805 at Austerlitz [2 Dec., total defeat of Austria, retreat of Russia.

Sep. 1806, Prussia joins with Britain and Russia.

“in October 1806 Jena and Auerstadt” crushed Prussia.

1807 at Eylau [Feb.] and Friedland [June] saw off all Russian troops and “within 18 months Vienna, Berlin, and Warsaw were  occupied”.

July 1807 he made his peace with Russia and Prussia on the River Niemen at Tilsit, leaving Britain “alone for the third time”.


Napoleon invaded Spain, big mistake.


Political impact of French Rev’y Wars on Europe [N Davies]

1/ Vastly extended the territory of France itself, directly annexing large parts of the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

By 1810 the 83 departments of the Republic grew to 130 of the Empire, with a pop. growth from c20m to 44m.

2/ Panoply of new states erected, each closely tied to France, possessing its own model constitution, French-style administration.

the Batavian Republic (1795–1804), transformed into the Kingdom of Holland (1804–10), under Louis Bonaparte, before the whole of the Netherlands were directly annexed

the Kingdom of Etruria (1801–5),

the Confederation of the Rhine (1806–13),

 the Grand Duchy of Berg (1806–13),

the Kingdom of Westphalia (1807–13),

 the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (1806–13),

 five Italian republics [1797-99, Cisalpine in Lombardy, the Ligurian in Genoa, the Parthenopaean in Naples, and the Republics of Lucca and Rome], Principality of Piombino, and so-called Kingdom of (northern) Italy (1805–14, for N’s stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais).

3/ Papal States were abolished, the Popes detained, “treatment.. specially shocking to contemporary opinion, particularly in Catholic countries”. “Pius VI (1775–99), who condemned the Rights of Man, was deprived of his temporal powers, and died in French custody at Valence.. Pius VII (1800–23), who ..declared that Christianity was not incompatible with democracy” 5 years under French arrest.

4/ After N’s later conquests, number of old states were allowed to survive, but with severely modified frontiers, with tightly controlled internal arrangements. Included Austria, Prussia, Spain, Kingdom of Naples, and Portugal.

Only parts of Europe to escape “revolutionary remodelling of Napoleon’s enlightened despotism:, British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia, and the Ottoman domains.


Important French Enlightenment figures involved in the FR included:

Denis Diderot                                 5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784

Claude Adrien Helvétius  26 January 1715[2] – 26 December 1771)

Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm (26 December 1723 – 19 December 1807[1]) German-born French-language journalist, art critic, diplomat and contributor to the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers

Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (French) (8 December 1723 – 21 January 1789

Guillaume Thomas Raynal            12 April 1713 – 6 March 1796) was a French writer and man of letters

Marquis Condorcet [1723 – died in prison 1794, 71; leading role early, favoured “rationalist liberal reconstruction of society”,1791 elected as a Paris representative in the Leg. Assemb. became its secretary]. French philosopher, mathematician, major proponent of En’ment ideas: “.liberal economy, free and equal public education, constitutional government, equal rights for women and for races..” Wrote landmark Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1795), advancing idea of progress, that rational cooperative man can steadily improve society, through science, education etc.; rejecting any idea of divine intervention.
Count Mirabeau [1749 – April 1791, 42; despite spotted history he was hard working leading moderate in early stages, esp in launching National Assembly [elected President 1 Jan. 1791], favored const’l monarchy. Died early, of poor health! And became reason Pantheon was built. 1792 “his secret dealings with the king were uncovered, 1794 his remains were removed from the P, replaced with Jean-Paul Marat. His remains then buried anonymously in graveyard of Clamart. In 1889 they were not not re-found”!;

Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754 – guillotined 31 Oct 1793]; leading member of [liberal] Girondins, suppressed by Jacobins “Through his writings … important contributions to “pre-revolutionary and revolutionary ideology in France”. His early works on legislation, many pamphlets, speeches in the Leg. Assembly and the Convention…dedication to the principles of FR, [his] own idea of a fair, democratic society, with universal suffrage, living in moral as well as political freedom, foreshadowed many modern liberationist ideologies.”



Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet (French 17 September 1743 – 29 March 1794), known as Nicolas de Condorcet

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès                                           3 May 1748 – 20 June 1836

Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau              (9 March 1749 – 2 April 1791

Jacques Pierre Brissot                                                 15 January 1754 – 31 October 1793

Louis XVI                                                                      1754 – January 1793

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre   (6 May 1758 – 28 July 1794

4 15pm… tweet 20 11 12 thurs

FRENCH REV’N: 2 years of ‘reform’, 23 years of war.

1789 Ideas green shoots quick swallowed by war.

[Triggered by opposition, foreign then local]

But French quickly became v good at it!

So war not politics was the game, for 23 years.

The New Rational’ meant bullets not bread.


11 30am… tweet 20 11 20 FRI

FRENCH REV. birth of the Modern? NO [1]

Universalist ideals swallowed by war.

Vigorous new nationalism.

New rational tribalism, retaining Old World loyalties

cf racism / slavery; imperialism; inherited hierarchy.

But availed of the latest econ. resources, war making technology.


9 30AM … tweet 20 11 25 WED 1/

FRENCH REV. birth of the Modern? [2]

NO, fouled the provenance of the Modern

Bore a dangerous neo-nationalism

Inspired a new “rational” tribalism

on revived Old World loyalties

But availed of latest mass resources, technology

Ironically armed by burgeoning “rational “modern”


9 30AM … tweet 20 11 25 WED 2/

FRENCH REV’N lessons. Presaged WW1

Fouling the provenance of the Modern.

Both cases 1/ systemic tensions, 2/ leaders misread total circumstances, 3/ chose conflict to resolve differences.

Catastrophic results: industrial killing capability condemned all to 4 yr bloody slog.


9 30AM … tweet 20 11 25 WED 3/

FRENCH REV’N, echoes pivotal Sumer c5000ya

Climate shift provoked “radical advance”.

Lge cities integrated with tech-enhanced lge scale irrig’n

Radical lift econ. prod’y

Windfall surplus captured by self-serving kings / priests

New model: kings running armies, next c5000y!

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