‘A liberal revolution that was blown off course’. Is this an adequate description of what happened in France?

“Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; – the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!”1 In its use of the death penalty, the French Revolution was perhaps more liberal than any other. This, however, certainly did not grant man and citizen his or her unalienable rights to “liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.”2 How do we explain both the Rights of Man and the Guillotine in the same revolution? The quotation challenges, or avoids, this question, by firstly asserting the “liberal” beginning to the revolution – perhaps this period being the revolution –, but also by, secondly, asserting a point of discontinuity, occurring between 1789 and 1793. This paradigm, in removing the paradox, is certainly tempting. Another, however, contests both points, suggesting firstly that from the start, the revolution was never “liberal”, and, secondly and consequently, that the seeds of the Terror were present from the beginning, and thus they must be taken together. This paradigm, rather than just removing the paradox, attempts to explain and describe it. The first, that of the quotation, then, becomes inaccurate, and moreover, not an “adequate description”, but rather a lack of description altogether. In challenging this quotation, then, I seek to achieve a challenge to the liberalism of the revolution and an explanation and description of its so-called “blowing off course.”

What exactly was “what happened in France”? Was revolution “blown off course” in 1793, and the period under consideration that until 18-19 brumaire, 1799? Or was it blown off course in 1799? Indeed, had this revolution already blown off course by 1789? The specifier “liberal”, though, points to it being before the beginning of the Terror. I shall interpret the quotation in this way, and it is this that I seek to challenge. Just when did this “liberal revolution” end its liberalism?

This was never, in fact, a truly “liberal revolution” in the first place. The assertion of the term “liberal revolution” can be attacked on two fronts: a dismissal of the liberal intentions and the achievements of the revolution; and an assertion of the substantial excesses of the revolution. This second front is in two stages: the claim that “violent” is a more fundamental specifier of the “revolution” than “liberal”; and the dismissal of the justifiability of this violence as a consequence of, or sideline to, supposed liberalism. This latter front relies, however, on an explanation of the Terror as a consequence of the events of 1789, an explanation that is best served after a description, and dismissal, of the “liberal” revolution.

A “liberal” revolution – what is that? Alan Grimes attempts a definition of “liberalism” appropriate today: “a system of ideas that aims at the realization of the pluralistic society […] in politics, economics, religion, and our cultural life”; “[favouring] the widest possible degree of self determination” and “increasing [man’s] area of choice”. In being “motivated by a sense of compassion for mankind”, and in being “antiauthoritarian and [arising] as a protest of those out of power”, it “seeks to support the weak and curb the strong”.3

The liberalism of today is not exactly the same as the “liberalism” of the eighteenth century. Indeed, “the term ‘liberalism’ was not invented until Napoleon’s power was in decline.”4 Fundamental principles held by liberalism today were not then present. In political life, even in 1789, only property owners were believed to have the right to representation. Even in the election of 1792, servants and the unemployed were excluded from the vote. Equality of the sexes was not accepted even by many revolutionaries; women were regarded as – and were – the backbone of religious resistance. Equality of race was disagreed upon, and the abolition of slavery was largely legitimization – and only in 1794 – of the Haitian uprising.”5

Furthermore, the actual achievements of any liberalism are in question. Firstly, the ancien régime is often unfairly characterised as the antithesis of the revolution’s ideas. Many of the changes made de jure by these supposed revolutionaries had already happened. “The abolition of feudalism was more in the way of a legal than a social change and merely completed the evolution from lords to landlords that had been well under way in the old regime.”6 “Louis XVI […] had always been genuinely committed to reform.”7  Secondly, its achievements’ practical affects were illiberal: “the end of the seigneurial regime and the abolition of the guilds” meant that artisans were “even more nakedly exposed to […] economic inequities”8, and “the rural poor gained very little at all from the Revolution.”9 Worse, “it was exactly those sections of the population who had been gaining economically under the old regime that profited most from the sale of noble and church lands.”10 On a slightly longer time frame, “no sooner had this hypothetically free person”, the citizen, “been invented than his liberties were circumscribed by the police power of the state.”11

The revolution, indeed, does have clear elements of liberalism. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens – ignoring the calls of those that it did not go far enough, such as the Droits de la Femme et du Citoyen12 –, already quoted, stands still today as a fundamental expression of core liberal beliefs. Many of the above examples, despite their shortcomings, can also stand on their own as examples of liberalism.

However, the question of whether this was a “liberal revolution” – a revolution defined by its liberalism – is different to the question of its liberal elements. The French revolution is often forgiven all of its excesses in light of its beliefs and and their supposed legacy. Yet the core challenge to the liberalism of the revolution is the scale of its excesses. We are faced with a choice: what was more fundamental to the revolution, its liberalism and ideals, or its chaotic emergence and all subsequent violence?

“Revolution was born amid riot, intimidation, and bloodshed in the crisis of 1789”.13 As we have defined liberalism as a protest of the weak, it is inevitably bound up with violence, and this, perhaps, excuses the early revolution of some of its excesses. Yet we cannot forever forgive violence as a defence of the revolution – once power is established, liberalism and violence become contradictory.

The violence of the Terror leads from the revolution of 1789, and as such, demonstrating this violence becomes an indictment of 1789. This demonstration is barely appropriate here: it does not take one long to gather the enormity of the Terror. Perhaps 40,000 people were executed in less than a year. Nor was the end of the Terror the end of terror; this period was not just an anomaly: “The winter of 1794-95 was almost as murderous”, where “republican officials; army officers; members of departmental administrations; conspicuous militants of the popular societies; and in the south, Protestant farmers and merchants – all became prey for the sabreurs of the year III.”14 Nor did the end of the Terror continue what had preceded it: 1794-1804 sees the “White Terror”; another constitution creating a five-man Directory, which eventually assumed all practical power; and the further concentration on war.

We must ask ourselves whether such a revolution, purely due to its passing of “liberal” reforms that go unimplemented, can ever be termed, as its primary identifier, “liberal.” Grimes argues that “to extend the freedom of some to make socially consequential decisions often curtails the freedom of others to make opposing decisions on the same subject […] we must always ask whose freedom was curtailed and whose extended […] To work in the direction of a free society we must therefore maximize the freedoms of the many”.15 This, however, was not the spirit of the Terror. The executions of the Terror, and the organised military violence of succeeding periods, were, even ostensibly, a dedication to the patrie, an institution newly separated from the People. “Liberal,” as opposed to simply “violent,” as the first descriptor of the French revolution, seems inappropriate.

All argument so far, however, rests on the assumption that violence was, in fact, a consequence of 1789. This latter strand of argument is tied up with the second part of the quotation: the assertion that the revolution was “blown off course”. This quotation has singular implication: that the path upon which 1789 could proceed was not that heading towards 1793. This is demonstrably not true if a path exists – if violence was not merely incidental to liberalism, and even follows from it, then the “course” that 1789 was originally on was in fact that very path directly headed for the Terror.

Of course, the argument for discontinuity is tempting, for it is easy. One simply restates the problems of the question – for example, how did a government stating “No man ought be molested on account of his opinions” come, four years later, to pass the Law of Suspects? – and solves it by dismissing the question as ill-founded – one surely did not lead to the other; the revolution was rather “blown off course.” It is the argument formed immediately after the Terror by the Thermidorians; a convenient excuse.17

There are many, albeit perhaps superficial, differences between 1789 and 1793. However, the “blown off course” explanation, at best, explains 1793 as the result of a series of historical “accidents”, rather than processes, in a meandering and unpredictable way. This argument is often put forward to excuse liberalism of its unplanned child. There is perhaps something to be said for this argument. We can form chains of events between one date and another, which apparently have no overarching process to them – election of the new Legislative Assembly; the deposition and execution of the king; monarchist reaction; leading, with setbacks in war, to expulsion and arrest of the Girondins; protest such as the assassination of Marat; leading to the infamous retaliation in the form of the Terror. Yet one does not have to be a Marxist teleologist to find this unsatisfying. If events were random, how was the same connection also made, for instance, in Poland-Lithuania, where “events followed the same progression from constitutional reform to revolutionary terrorism [… in] little more than a year”18? Furthermore, as we shall see, more important overarching processes do exist to explain this transition.

Georges Clemenceau declared the Revolution “was a bloc. It had to be accepted in its totality, terror and all. It could not be disaggregated.”19 Schama goes further; events from 1792 were not just connected to, but the “logical consummation” of 1789.20 There is not even a convenient point of demarcation in this period: the revolution can be divided into three stages, of which “revolution” and the terror both come under the first, ending in 1794.21 The transition towards Terror was a process, not a sudden random event. The transition is observable in September 1791, with the new, considerably more radical Legislative Assembly; in July 1792, with the reaction to the Brunswick manifesto, in August, with the storming of the Tuileries; and in January 1793, with the execution of Louis XVI.

The primary theme of the revolution is violence. This was “from the very beginning […] the motor of revolution”,22 “the source of its energy.’23 From the chaos of July 14th 1789, when the People, in François Mignet’s words, “intoxicated with liberty”24, stormed the Bastille, the people and their collective violence fed off each other. Even those who excuse the revolution of its excesses that day – the fixing of the head of de Launay on a stick, and its parade through the streets – as necessary for “liberty” thereby admit the connection between the two.

Tied up with this is a fundamental mistrust of administration. We are reminded of Grimes’s definition of liberalism as “antiauthoritarian.” This opinion was reflected in the rejection of the proposal to draw ministers from the assembly; from here, “the executive and legislative branches of the constitution of 1791 simply intensified the war with each other until their mutual destruction in 1792.” The sense that the government could only be changed by violence was grounded in 1789 – and, sensibly enough, a government whose origin was in this naturally feared its own destruction by the same method.25

“The nation”, rather than the king, therefore, was “essentially the source of all sovereignty”26. The French Revolution was borne from the claim of the revolutionaries of 1789 […] that they could better regenerate the patrie than could the appointees of the King.”27 This same national sovereignty was also the justification for the Terror – a war against “traitors within” – and the military campaigns in the periods following.

“Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death” – the revolution had made its choice from the beginning. The bases of the revolution could not be created or destroyed in a revolution. Of course, the explanation of a Revolution “blown off course” is certainly tempting. Yet it becomes evident that this is really only a lack of explanation – how did this revolution blow off course? A history of the French Revolution should demonstrate continuities. It does so: the “liberal” use of power led demonstrably to the liberal abuse of power. Violence runs through from 1789 to 1793 without pause. It was the consequence not of meandering accidents, but of persistent beliefs: mistrust of administration, fear of counter-revolution, the sovereignty of the nation, and the fundamental belief in violence as curative. Therefore, as we dismiss the “blowing off course”, the revolution’s “liberal” status is simultaneously discarded. An adequate description of the revolution should not lie in its questionable liberal beginnings but in its violent outcomes.

  1. Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities. Book III, Chapter V.
  2. The National Assembly of France. Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, Section II. Translation by Thomas Paine, in part one, section four of his Rights of Man, 1791.
  3. Alan P Grimes. “The Pragmatic Course of Liberalism”. The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Sep., 1956), pp. 633-640.
  4. William Doyle. The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press (2001). p. 82.
  5. Ibid. p. 83.
  6. Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin (2004), pp. 719-20.
  7. Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Pimlico (1997), p. 689.
  8. Schama op. cit. pp. 719-20.
  9. Ibid. p. 721.
  10. Ibid. p. 720.
  11. Ibid. p. 724.
  12. Davies op. cit. p. 716.
  13. Doyle op. cit. p. 84.
  14. Schama op. cit. p. 718.
  15. Grimes op. cit. p. 634-5.
  16. Rights of Man op. cit., Section X.
  17. Schama op. cit. p. 717.
  18. Davies op. cit. pp. 699-701.
  19. Doyle op. cit. p. 105.
  20. Schama op. cit. p. 523.
  21. e.g. Davies op. cit. p. 695.
  22. Schama op. cit. p. 725.
  23. Ibid. p. 523.
  24. Mignet, François. History of the French Revolution (1824), Chapter I.
  25. Schama op. cit. p. 723.
  26. Rights of Man op. cit., Section III.
  27. Schama op. cit. p. 724.

Originally written as an essay in my History undergraduate for the module Making History (now called Making Histories) at the University of York.

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