"There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them - it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognising these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law."
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "The Social Contract" (1762), Chapter VIII
It was begun with the best of intentions, but it ended with the worst of results ...
It is a revolution that is both celebrated and despised, sometimes even by the same people. It was begun with the best of intentions and the noblest of ideals, but it ended with the worst of results after thousands of deaths by mob violence and the guillotine. And it started out as a rebellion against one monarch, and replaced it with the de facto dictatorship of another - Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon Bonaparte during this time
The History Channel gives it a fine treatment here ...
In the English-speaking world, the best documentary I know of about this subject is the History Channel's presentation simply entitled "The French Revolution." It has the usual problem for a History Channel program - namely, a touch of sensationalism, and excessively dramatic music at times. (The attempt to add drama through intense music is often overdone, with one feeling like they could have actually achieved greater impact through understatement.) Nonetheless, this film is a fine treatment of the events in France; and it belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the French Revolution. Thus, I thought I would offer a review of this film here.
Marquis de Lafayette
How much did the American Revolution influence the French Revolution?
The fans of the French Revolution often say that it was influenced by the American Revolution; and to a certain extent, this is true. People like the Marquis de Lafayette had fought in the American War of Independence, and carried home the democratic ideals that they had acquired in America. (This is something the documentary doesn't cover as extensively as it should, in my opinion; but it's still quite good despite this.) Furthermore, some of America's Founding Fathers even got involved in the French Revolution; and supported it during its more moderate phases. (More on that later in this post.) The French Revolution began very differently than it turned out - a testament to how quickly things can change.
King Louis XVI
The Storming of the Bastille: The flashpoint of the French Revolution
The more direct effect the American Revolution had, though, was to empty the French treasury through an expensive war with Britain. King Louis XVI bankrupted the French government both through fighting the war with Britain, and supporting the Americans in that cause - something which turned out well for the Americans, but not so much for the French. This contributed to an already bad economic situation in France, making the country ripe for a revolution. King Louis called the Estates-General into session, which was a legislative assembly somewhat comparable to England's Parliament; and found that the French people had some serious grievances about their situation. I won't go into all the particulars of the events that followed; but suffice it to say that revolution was sparked when a French mob stormed the Bastille (a medieval fortress used as a prison). The anniversary of the event is still celebrated in France, and Bastille Day is basically comparable to our Independence Day.
Storming of the Bastille, 1789
Executions by the guillotine, including King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette
There were a few years of relative calm, as factions struggled for control of France; but European powers became suspicious of King Louis' imprisonment, and soon responded by declaring all-out war on France. Soon after, the new French government executed King Louis XVI, and the chaos the Revolution is so known for soon broke out. During the Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre was responsible for countless executions of ordinary people by the guillotine. Later on, they executed Queen Marie Antoinette, Maximilien Robespierre himself, and many thousands of common people. The most enduring image of this time is mass executions by the guillotine, and the image is (unfortunately) accurate - the Revolution even executed its own leaders by this method.
Queen Marie Antoinette, executed by the guillotine
Maximilien Robespierre, Revolutionary leader who was executed by the guillotine
(the same method he had employed against countless others)
After the Reign of Terror, the revolution came full circle to the dictatorship of Napoleon
Between the wars with foreign nations and the chaos at home, this period in French history is a turbulent one; and the Reign of Terror is ample evidence against the desirability of anarchy, put forward as a "plausible idea" by some self-described anarchists. Even a dictatorial government is better than no government at all, as some order is better than none; and as it turns out, a dictatorial government is exactly what France got, in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is not really much different than any other dictator, but he often comes across looking all right because of his ending the Terror. Nonetheless, he was a dictator; and the revolution that had begun against one monarch soon ended up crowning another. The Revolution had come full circle, and the democratic dreams of the Revolution were snuffed out, buried in tyranny and oppression.
Some of America's Founding Fathers supported the Revolution in its earliest phases ...
The documentary's focus is understandably European, with nearly all of the film taking place in France. But for my fellow Americans reading this post, it may be interesting to note some things the documentary does not; such as that our country's Founding Fathers were still alive at this time, and had remarkably varied reactions to the events in France. Some - like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine - were swept up in the ideals and stated aims of the French Revolution, with Thomas Jefferson even going so far as to help author their "Declaration of the Rights of Man." (He once declared that the American and French Revolutions were "one and the same.") Thomas Paine even lived in France during part of this time, and took part in the more moderate parts of the French Revolution - even spending time in a French prison for it. After Napoleon came to power, though, he went back to America; sick and tired of the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, and disenchanted with what the revolution had become.
... while others were suspicious of it from the beginning (as they should have been)
Other Founding Fathers - like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams - were suspicious of the French Revolution from the beginning, arguing that it was a fundamentally different kettle of fish from the American Revolution. They had no illusions about the chaos in France, and did their best to keep America neutral in the war between France and Britain. Washington even accused Thomas Jefferson at one point of having more attachment to France than to his own country (which may have been true for a time). To his credit, though, Jefferson eventually came around after the chaos in France disillusioned him; and by the time he became president, Napoleon had become dictator, and his opinion of the situation had changed. He told John Adams that "your predictions proved truer than mine" (or words to that effect), admitting that he had completely misread the events in France. One has to admire Jefferson's courage in admitting his mistake.
The debate over the French Revolution continues today, and J. J. Rousseau is at the center of it
Many liberals today still misread the events in France, with reactions all over the map about what its legacy really is. Some admit that it had its excesses, but will say that it ultimately realized its promise of freedom (a vision at stark odds with reality). Others will acknowledge that it went wrong, but have an endless supply of revealing excuses about why the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau are not to blame for it; often saying that this was merely "a failure of implementation." (Yeah, forty thousand executions is just "a failure of implementation" - that sounds really convincing.) And some will even defend the actions of the mobs, excusing things that they would never condone in anyone else - a testament to how far their dogmas can take them. Thus, perhaps more than any other, the French Revolution is misunderstood; with more emphasis put on its ideals than its results - a great mistake, given the horrific nature of the results.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, chief philosopher of French Revolution
Conclusion: Good intentions are a poor substitute for clear thinking
If there's one thing the French Revolution should teach us, it's that good intentions are a poor substitute for clear thinking. One can describe a rosy vision of the future with astonishing clarity, and it can be made to sound very plausible and very possible. But our soaring up to lofty ideals has to be checked by a firm grasp of how the rough-and-tumble of reality actually works, and we should not confuse achievable real-world goals with utopian pipe dreams.
DVD at Amazon
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Marie Antoinette movie
American Revolution miniseries