The Singular Revolution

March 17, 2008

Although France experienced several uprisings and philosophical changes between 1789 and 1794, individual episodes were not distinct revolutions. Defining the Jacobin phase as a second revolution rather than an extension of the events up to that point implies that, the second half of the Revolution was a rebellion against the ideals fought for in the first half. This document will demonstrate why, despite the constant shifting of power, the goals of each period were to establish a republic, but the approach changed as often as the leadership. The French Revolution began on June 20, 1789 when the Third Estate, made up of the Bourgeoisie, were locked out of the Estates General, and therefore reconvened their session at a tennis court and renamed themselves the National Assembly. They took an oath they would not disband until they established a constitution. The lock out occurred because the Third Estate refused to vote as a group in a separate gathering rather than as part of the Estate General which included the First (ecclesiastical) and Second (nobility) Estates. The monarch, Louis XVI, called the Estates General in order to extract more taxes from the people to pay for the army. The Third Estate, made up of the Bourgeoisie, paid the greatest amount of taxes, whereas, the First and Second Estates did not pay the taille (the principal tax). If forced to vote as a group, the Third Estate would be out-voted by the other Estates, who would vote to increase the amount of taxes members of the Third Estate would have to pay. Unwilling to accept that the largest population group in France would be hit with yet another tax for a war that would benefit no one but the King, they insisted that they should vote by head. Created and ratified by all members of the National Assembly, the seventeen-item “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens1” became the first constitution in France. The document established amongst other things, the equality of men and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty; however, the inclusion of freedom of speech, of the press and

Course Pack, “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens”


religious freedom, were revolutionary. The distribution of the document to rural and urban centres set the wheels of an aggressive action in motion. The peasants, including women whose rights were not included in the document, took up arms in the shape of farm tools and marched to their local churches to demand the cessation of tithes and other financial obligations2. The peasants took up arms on several occasions, responding with alacrity causing the King to capitulate to the demands of the National Assembly. Stripped of their privileges, young nobles and less senior members of the Church supported the Bourgeoisie whilst the other members of the Church and nobility had to cope with paying taxes and the loss of feudal power. As the new monarchical government struggled with new changes and the threat of war from other countries who now viewed France as unstable, women rose up against the King whenever he raised the cost of bread to fill the war chests. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges imitated the original constitution to write “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman3” but she also included a contract for property division, ensuring that a woman or the couple’s children not be left destitute should death or divorce occur. She also states, “…and since national education is an issue at this moment, let us see if our wise legislators will think sanely about the education of women.” Although the male dominated government quashed her document, it illustrates that the initial stages of the Revolution did not in fact include all citizens despite the constitution’s title, but signified that some within the middle-class felt the changes made by government were not sufficient. Shortly after the National Assembly created the constitution in 1789, a group of artisans and trades people gathered in an old convent in Paris primarily to discuss current events, calling themselves the Jacobin. Soon after, similar groups were started in other provinces throughout

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Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization, (Toronto, 2006), 540 Course Pack, “From Declaration of the Rights of Woman”, 397-399


France establishing their own branches, most of which where known as the Girondins4. In favour of a monarchical government, the Girondins feared their Parisian counterparts, the Mountains who aggressively sought the dissolution of the monarchy. Although it took three and a half years, the Mountains got their wish when they narrowly won a vote to execute Louis XVI. The insistence that France become a Republic rather than a monarchical government was therefore, not an idea that began when the newly elected National Convention took over governing of the country in September 17925. The violence did not start only when the sansculottes, combined their resources and became the Paris Commune. Examples include when the citizens of Paris stormed two armouries in July 1789 and when the women marched to Versailles in October of the same year. However, the use of violence increased once the Paris Commune did take control of the country and even more so once the National Convention took office. Neither the National Convention nor the Paris Commune tolerated the idea that there were parts of the country that still supported the idea of a monarchy. In response to those who did subscribe to counterrevolution, a high-ranking member of the Committee of Public Safety, a specialised group within the Convention, Maximilien Robespierre penned the Law of Suspects6. The document decreed that any persons or their associates supporting the re-establishment of the monarchy be held, tried and punished for their sedition. In the areas of the Vendée, Marseille, Lyons, Calais and Paris tens of thousands of ‘suspects’ were arrested and immediately put to death, initially by the tool of choice, the guillotine. However, when a backlog occurred, massacres by shootings or drowning occurred7. In not providing a trial for these citizens, the Committee of Public Safety not only ignored the constitution and their own edicts in the “Law of Suspects” but also the doctrine set out in the
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Spielvogel, Western Civilization, 544-545 Spielvogel, Western Civilization, 544 6 Course Pack, “From the Law of Suspects” 7 Course Pack, “Uprising in the Vendée”, 118


“The Republic of Virtue8”. This last document, also written by Robespierre, re-affirms the necessity for “…liberty and equality…” and “…liberty against tyranny…” items noted in both the Constitution written by the Assembly and the suggested amendments by Madame de Gouges in her feminised version. Although the Committee was equally as brutal as the nobility was when they were in power, it was indiscriminate in its sanguineness. The executions during the Terror affected the peasant population in greater proportion than all of the other social groups9 suggesting that the peasants were either not interested in change or unwilling to obey the laws created by those they perceived to be lesser than the King or Church. In order to ensure that the freedom of religion was respected, the Convention dechristianized France10, upsetting those who not only were staunchly Christian but Catholics who appealed to the Church for help. Viewed as a tactical error by historians, at the time the Convention was in keeping with both the Assembly’s doctrine as well as their own for religious freedom, again establishing a continuity of original ideas regarding the direction of the Republic. William Doyle postulates in “An Evaluation of the French Revolution11” that the reason for the extreme measures taken by the Convention and its Committee is in direct relation to the war against other European nations. Rather than sending out a conventional army, they armed the people who in turn affected the deaths of thousands, predominantly outside their own borders. In his own Speech on Revolutionary Government, Robespierre encourages the initiative to disseminate their cause to all, “It behoves us to explain it to all in order that we may rally good citizens, at least, in support of the principles governing the public interest12”. He then explains that a nation requires two governments, a constitutional government that preserves the rights of
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Course Pack, “Republic of Virtue” Course Pack, 188-189 10 Spielvogel, Western Civilization, 549 11 Course Pack, “An Evolution of the French Revolution” 12 Spielvogel, Western Civilization, 549


man, and a revolutionary government to police it. He uses this to rationalize the brutality of the executions. As one of the leaders of the Terror, Robespierre himself did not see the events between 1792 and 1794 as a secondary revolution when he stated, “The object of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic, the object of the revolutionary government is to establish it”. The continued debate regarding the number of revolutions that occurred in France between 1789 and 1794 is likely to continue for some time. However, we find in the texts written by the people who lived during this period reflect that they perceived it as one long revolution, albeit with the occasional amendment or philosophical adjustment to a previous ideal. Despite stating that they wished equality for all men and citizens, those involved initially did not wish any newly acquired freedoms to benefit the peasants, whereas once the Convention took the mantle peasants were included in the definition. The demands for equality, liberty and fraternity in 1794 were the same as those made by the National Assembly in June of 1789. This is clearly demonstrated when the Convention decided to execute the tyrannical Robespierre out of fear on July 28, just as they had Louis XVI a year and a half before.


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