The really exciting thing about the French Revolution is that it wasn’t a massive clusterfuck! It was massively complicated, that’s for sure. But it’s complicated for the same reasons that the present-day world is complicated. Popular engagement with the government! Wrangling over the basic nature of rights, and the purpose of government! Taking conscious control over culture and ideals!
Uh, I have to politely disagree. I’m going to assume you seem to be functioning under the assumption that for it to have been a clusterfuck, the term automatically negates any good it did.
Certainly, they were trying to do a good thing with the revolution, but that doesn’t change the fact that it started to fall apart after the king was deposed.
In the words of Edmund Burke,
This king, to say no more of him, and this queen, and their infant children, (who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people,) were then forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses. Thence they were conducted into the capital of their kingdom. Two had been selected from the unprovoked, unresisted, promiscuous slaughter which was made of the gentlemen of birth and family who composed the king’s body-guard. These two gentlemen, with all the parade of an execution of justice, were cruelly and publicly dragged to the block, and beheaded in the great court of the palace. Their heads were stuck upon spears, and led the procession; whilst the royal captives who followed in the train were slowly moved along, amidst the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women. After they had been made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death, in the slow torture of a journey of twelve miles, protracted to six hours, they were, under a guard composed of those very soldiers who had thus conducted them through this famous triumph, lodged in one of the old palaces of Paris, now converted into a Bastile for kings.
Obviously Burke was way off mark about their motivations and rights, but that doesn’t change the fact that he totally called the results of it.
There were riots on all sides as the country fell to pieces.
You want to tell me that the Reign of Terror (aka a dictatorship that was a democracy only in name), thousands of people being killed, a new calendar being introduced that started over from year one in 1792, an anti-clerical law that made it possible for priests to be killed on sight, and getting rid of their citizen’s rights because the government must be “revolutionary until at peace” was all just “complicated”?
That’s stupid. That’s as stupid as saying “oh, the Red Scare here in America was just complicated.”
No. People were being murdered for their beliefs, or even just perceived beliefs.
Olympe de Gouges, well-known feminist, guillotined during the Reign of Terror (post-success of the Revolution).
Madame Roland a supporter of the French Revolution, guillotined during the Reign of Terror.
Marquis de Condorcet, an advocate for a liberal economy and equal rights, died a “mysterious death” in prison after trying to escape French Revolutionary armies.
It’s really not that complicated. What may have started out as an honest desire to help France devolved into a single man so terrified of losing his power that he killed anyone and everyone that may have had sympathies for political opinions that weren’t his own.
Well—first, I think you didn’t quite take my point. My point, which I think I expressed reasonably clearly, was that it isn’t incomprehensible, isn’t something to be waved off as a “clusterfuck” where everyone “went insane.” It’s not a dismissal to call the revolution “complicated.” “Complicated” means you have to dig down pretty deep to understand what’s happening. But the message many people seem to take home from the brief nod that high school education gives them (and sometimes the slightly longer look from a university class) is that the events of the French Revolution are so bizarre and excessive that there is no possible comprehension…other than the conclusion you come to, “a single man so terrified of losing his power that he killed anyone and everyone that may have had sympathies for political opinions that weren’t his own.”
I’m going to assume you mean Robespierre here? Not one of the numerous other people with considerable power from the years 1789-1794? Because that’s who people generally mean when they try to wrap the Revolution into one man.
The thing is, “it’s all Robespierre’s fault” is a thesis that requires ignoring far too many people and events for me to accept it. You have to ignore his conflicts with other Committee members like Billaud and Collot—conflicts that he frequently lost. (See for instance, their frustration with his hesitation in the conflict with the Dantonists. See also Thermidor. Their immediate complaint on Thermidor was not Robespierre’s excesses, it was his moderation.)
You have to ignore the pre-existing violence against Jacobins (and all republicans) that created the Terror. And I do mean murderous violence, it’s not like the Jacobins woke up one morning in a paranoid sweat.
You have to ignore an entire class of people, the Paris sans-culottes, if you want to make the downfall of the Girondins (see Condorcet, de Gouges, Roland) into Robespierre’s fault. Do you know why the urban poor were frustrated with the Girondins? Those Girondins—often held up as ideals of moderation—were indeed moderate, particularly with suffrage rights. Do you think it’s okay to have financial requirements for voting? I think it’s pretty lousy, myself. So did the Parisians who surrounded the Convention and demanded the arrest of 20-some Girondin representatives. (Incidentally, Olympe de Gouges, often noted for her anti-slavery stance, was also pretty moderate about that, along with Brissot et. al. She appears to have gone along with the “clusterfuck” theory, regarding the Haitian Revolution, tut-tutting over how hard they were making it for “those who would prepare for them, through temperate means” a better life.)
So no, I’m not going to agree that the Revolution “devolved into a single man” doing anything.
I don’t quite follow where you’re going with Edmund Burke there. That shitty things happened? God yes. I’m the last person to deny it. It was a violent revolution. But a violent revolution is by no means incomprehensible.
I’d also note, when it comes to the Girondin/Jacobin conflict, that where Jacobins such as Marat and Robespierre had been against entering the war, the Girondins were pretty gung-ho. Y’know, so they could have a crusade of liberty - and, y’know, force their beliefs onto other nations. It had the added bonus, as Brissot himself noted, that the more radical men of Jacobin sympathies would be more likely to enlist, safely sending them across the borders and away from the political campaigning in Paris.
So the Girondins used a bayonet instead of a guillotine when it came to forcing their beliefs on others. I’m afraid I see little difference, except for where the bayonet was employed in a time of peace the guillotine was enforced in a time of crisis…a crisis that the bayonet, in no small part, started.
And, of course, once this war was declared (incidentally, boiling the Revolution all down to “one man seized power” completely omits this war) the Girondins absolutely refused to take any war-time measures in order to win it - this is another of the catalysts that led to their expulsion from the Convention. French men were dying and the Girondons wanted to do nothing but moan sadly about how Robespierre was a little annoying.
As to their trials and executions…yeah, pretty unfair stuff. I mean, if we just talk about the procedure. But I think it’s also pretty unfair how they had previously riled up angry mobs to lynch Robespierre, Marat, and Danton - you know, before the Terror, before even their most rabid of detractors can really accuse them of killing anybody. Pretty unfair how they tried to bundle Robespierre and Marat up and send them before the Tribunal. Pretty unfair how the Girondins are the first ones to abuse the Tribunal, shamelessly manipulate the ‘mob’, and spill first blood (Chalier, to just name one individual?), but it is only when the Jacobins react that anyone sings woeful songs about justice.