After helping America in its Revolutionary War, France was in dire economic straits. The price of bread was rising and protests were were becoming more common. The anger focused upon the aristocracy, who nonetheless fought against yielding their power or money. This set the stage for the French Revolution. This book gives a moderately fast recounting of events that serves as a strong starting point for further self-study.
…the struggle between the monarchy and the aristocracy was transformed into a social and political conflict between the privileged and unprivileged classes. As the issues broadened, the solidarity of the privileged orders weakened.
Bread was the people’s staple diet. Most workers, who consumed about three pounds a day, spent half their wages on it, as opposed to about fifteen per cent on vegetables, oil and wine, five per cent on fuel and one per cent on lighting. Skilled workers such as locksmiths and carpenters earned about fifty sous a day in 1789, masons about forty, labourers no more than twenty to thirty, so when the price of bread, normally about eight sous for a four-pound loaf rose above ten or twelve sous they had to face the prospect of hunger, and disturbances became commonplace.
…the coffee-houses in the Palais Royal present yet more singular and astonishing spectacles; they are not only crowded within, but other expectant crowds are at the doors and windows, listening à gorge deployée to certain orators, who from the chairs or table harangue each his little audience. The eagerness with which they are heard, and the thunder of applause they receive for every sentiment of more than common hardiness or violence against the present government, cannot easily be imagined.
He had fastened a green ribbon to his hat as an emblem of spring and hope and liberty. And he urged everyone else to wear some sort of green cockade in token of their support for the ‘common cause’. Hundreds did so, some of them pulling off the leaves of the horse chestnut trees for the purpose, until, as Gouverneur Morris discovered, it became dangerous to be seen out of doors without a hat garnished with foliage. Then they all marched off into the city to search for arms. The crowd was becoming an irresistible force.
The modern French have done a good job manipulating public opinion that their culture is sophisticated and civilized, but they did unspeakable horrors to quench their bloodlust during the revolution, which I must remind you took place less than 225 years ago. You will not find written accounts of Americans behaving in such a manner.
The leader of the mob rushed up to one of the carriages and plunged his sabre twice through the open window. As the passers-by gasped in horror, he waved the reddened blade at them and shouted, ‘So, this frightens you, does it, you cowards? You must get used to the sight of death!’ He then slashed at the prisoners again, cutting open the face of one, the shoulder of another, and slicing off the hand of a fourth who endeavoured to protect his head. Others of the mob then joined in the attack, as did some of the fédérés; and soon blood was dripping from all the carriages as the horses dragged them on their way to the doors of the prison. Here another mob was waiting; and when those prisoners who had escaped unscathed or only slightly wounded tried to escape inside, nearly all of them were cut down and killed before they could reach safety.
…each priest was summoned before a makeshift tribunal before being executed. He was asked if he was now prepared to take the constitutional oath and when he said that he was not – as all of them did – he was taken away to be killed. Some bodies were removed in carts, the rest thrown down a well from which their broken skeletons were recovered seventy years later.
One prisoner who did not escape the assassins’ blades was Marie Gredeler, a young woman who kept an umbrella and walking-stick depository in the courtyard of the Palais Royal. Charged with having mutilated her lover, she was herself mutilated, her breasts were cut off, her feet were nailed to the ground and a bonfire was set alight between her spreadeagled legs. As the heaps of corpses mounted, carts drawn by horses from the King’s stables were obtained to take them away to the Montrouge quarries. Women helped to load them, breaking off occasionally to dance the Carmagnole, then stood laughing on the slippery flesh, ‘like washerwomen on their dirty linen’, some with ears pinned to their dresses.
‘Do you want to see the heart of an aristocrat?’ asked one assassin, opening up a corpse, tearing out the heart, squeezing some blood into a glass, drinking part, and offering the rest to those who would drink with him. ‘Drink this, if you want to save your father’s life,’ commanded another, handing a pot of ‘aristocrats’ blood’ to the daughter of a former Governor of the Invalides. She put it to her lips so that her father could be spared. Women were said to have drawn up benches to watch the murders in comfort and to have cheered and clapped as at a cock fight.
The Queen’s emotional friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, who had been held in La Petite Force, was one of the most savagely treated victims. She had been stripped and raped; her breasts had been cut off; the rest of her body mutilated; and ‘exposed to the insults of the populace’. ‘In this state it remained more than two hours,’ one report records. ‘When any blood gushing from its wounds stained the skin, some men, placed there for the purpose, immediately washed it off, to make the spectators take more particular notice of its whiteness. I must not venture to describe the excesses of barbarity and lustful indecency with which this corpse was defiled. I shall only say that a cannon was charged with one of the legs.’ A man was later accused of having cut off her genitals which he impaled upon a pike and of having ripped out her heart which he ate ‘after having roasted it on a cooking-stove in a wineshop’. Her head was stuck on another pike and carried away to a nearby café where, placed upon a counter, the customers were asked to drink to the Princess’s death. It was then replaced upon the pike and, its blonde hair billowing around the neck, was paraded beneath the Queen’s window at the Temple.
Joseph Fouché, a frail former teacher who had become one of the most dreaded of the Jacobins, decided that the guillotine was too slow an instrument for their purpose and had over three hundred of their victims mown down by cannon fire.
Here’s a group of men preparing for their death:
The most important matter that employed our thoughts was to consider what posture we should put ourselves into when dragged to the place of slaughter in order to suffer death with the least pain. Occasionally we asked some of our companions to go to the turret window to watch the attitude of the victims. They came back to say that those who tried to protect themselves with their hands suffered the longest as the blows of the blades were thus weakened before they reached the head; that some of the victims actually lost their hands and arms before their bodies fell; and that those who put their hands behind their backs obviously suffered less pain. We, therefore, recognized the advantages of this last posture and advised each other to adopt it when it came to be our turn to be butchered.
It was all a big Gladiator show for the mob:
In Paris thousands of people went out regularly to witness the operations of what the deputy, J. A. B. Amar, called the ‘red Mass’ performed on the ‘great altar’ of the ‘holy guillotine’. They took their seats around the scaffold with the tricoteuses, buying wine and biscuits from hawkers while they waited for the show to begin.
‘The time has come which was foretold,’ as Madame Roland had said, ‘when the people would ask for bread and be given corpses.’
The fat, weak-willed king at the time, King Louis XVI, had neither the ability nor the strength to fight the revolutionary forces that would eventually take his head. When the revolt was bubbling to the surface, he sat on the sidelines delaying action or made concessions to the opposing forces that helped build their confidence and power. He phoned it in and paid with his life.
People ended up losing their lives for the most trivial of reasons, not unlike what happened in Stalin’s Soviet Union:
Another who had lost his temper while playing cards and, when reprimanded for behaving as no good patriot should, had shouted, ‘Fuck good patriots!’ was also brought before the Tribunal, condemned and executed.
Jean Baptiste Henry, aged eighteen, journeyman tailor, convicted of having sawed down a tree of liberty, executed 6 September 1793… Jean Julien, waggoner, having been sentenced to twelve years’ hard labour, took it into his head to cry ‘Vive le Roi’, brought back to the Tribunal and condemned to death… Stephen Thomas Ogie Baulny, aged forty-six, convicted of having entrusted his son, aged fourteen, to a garde du corps in order that he might emigrate, condemned to death and executed the same day… Henriette Françoise de Marboeuf, aged fifty-five, widow of the ci-devant Marquis de Marboeuf, convicted of having hoped for the arrival of the Austrians and Prussians and of keeping provisions for them, condemned to death and executed the same day… François Bertrand, aged thirty-seven, publican at Leure in the department of the Côte-d’Or, convicted of having furnished to the defenders of the country sour wine injurious to health, condemned to death at Paris and executed the same day… Marie Angelique Plaisant, sempstress at Douai, convicted of having exclaimed that she was an aristocrat and that she did not care ‘a fig for the nation’, condemned to death at Paris and executed the same day.
‘A man is guilty of a crime against the Republic,’ declared Saint-Just, ‘when he takes pity on prisoners. He is guilty because he has no desire for virtue. He is guilty because he is opposed to the Terror.’
The Tribunal was no longer required to interrogate the accused before their public trial, since this merely ‘confused the conscience of the judges’; now, in the absence of positive proof, juries must be satisfied with ‘moral proof’. ‘For a citizen to become suspect,’ said Georges Couthon who had been elected President of the Convention the previous December, ‘it is sufficient that rumour accuses him.’ After the law of 22 Prairial everything, indeed, went on much better, in the opinion of Fouquier-Tinville: heads fell ‘like tiles’. ‘Next week,’ he said one day, ‘I’ll be able to take the tops off three or four hundred.’
A performance at the Comédie Française was interrupted by a Jacobin who stood up to object to the line, ‘les plus tolérants sont les pardonnables’. When the audience told him to be quiet he went off to the Jacobin Club to denounce the actors who were all arrested.
In spite of all the murder and upheavel, the French people were no better off than before:
To the sans-culottes it seemed that the gap between rich and poor was becoming almost as wide as it had been before the Revolution. Sudden fortunes were being made by profiteers and speculators who spent money as rapidly as they made it.
The cost of living had by then risen almost thirty times higher than it had been in 1790. The police were accordingly not surprised when the annual celebrations commemorating the fall of the monarchy passed off in what they termed ‘a state of apathy’.
One politician makes the strong case against the notion of equality:
Absolute equality is a chimera. If it existed one would have to assume complete equality in intelligence, virtue, physical strength, education and fortune in all men… We must be ruled by the best citizens. And the best are the most learned and the most concerned in the maintenance of law and order. Now, with very few exceptions, you will find such men only among those who own some property, and are thus attached to the land in which it lies, to the laws which protect it and to the public order which maintains it… You must, therefore, guarantee the political rights of the well-to-do… and [deny] unreserved political rights to men without property, for if such men ever find themselves seated among the legislators, then they will provoke agitations… without fearing their consequences… and in the end precipitate us into those violent convulsions from which we have scarcely yet emerged.
Those in power at the time, the National Assembly, was composed of multiple factions. They played a putrid political game where everyone tried to get everyone else killed with endless scheming, intrigue, and denouncement instead of actually alleviating the plight of the lower classes who ushered them into power. Like a pinball, the power center went from right to left and back again until finally settling upon the middle class in the end, a group who wasn’t a huge improvement over the artistrocrats. Many of those who helped start the revoultion did not live to see the end, when a general by the name of Napoleon Bonaporte used his army to gradually usurp control of the country.
This book was a fine introduction that gives you a basic history and feel for what happened, but if you want to really understand the French Revolution, you’ll have to dig deeper.