Robespierre and the French Revolution (Part 3)
Robespierre suffered retribution for his violence on 10 Thermidor (July 28), 1794 along with twenty one others, Saint-Just, his sidekick, among them. We can be assured they went to their deaths utterly befuddled as to suddenness of their demise. The Sections of Paris (Parisian mob), so integral to the actors of the Revolution, did little to assist them. Their heads roll into the basket below the guillotine efficiently and speedily. Fouche, Tallien and Barras, those even more dedicated to using Terror against opponents of their revolution, worked behind the scenes to cobble together a coalition to overthrow him. The Convention rose against them.
The parliamentary, mechanisms of the Terror would be dismantled beginning in August 1794. The Convention would repeal the Law of 22 Prairial; end the surveillance committees in the provinces. They weakened the Revolutionary Tribunal. They took away power of the Committee of Public Safety, restricting it to War and Diplomacy. The doors to prison opened with the release of 3500. Incidentally, Tom Paine (English born, American Patriot, elected to the Constituent Assembly) was on schedule for execution 3 days before Robespierre was executed, but the chalk mark indicating for him to be taken to execution was put on the inside of this door not the outside. He was released from prison in November 1794 upon the urging of James Madison.
His political philosophy was based on Rousseau’s belief in natural virtue of the people, whose general will directs the government, not republican institutions that shackled popular will as seen under the U.S. Constitution. It’s as if the French didn’t know their own Montesquieu, albeit a monarchist; with his sagacious system of three separate branches of government so influential in America.
The contrast with the American Constitution could hardly be starker. An upper chamber (originally elected by state assemblies) granting each state no matter how diminutive, equal representation is separated from the lower popular representative assembly. A Supreme Court, a handful of lifetime appointees, has final voice on the legality of Legislation; few political bodies are less democratic unless members were seated under inherited privilege. A President elected by the Electoral College, selected by popular vote by state. In contrast, insurrection of the people (mob violence) was enshrined in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1793) thus granting public upheaval the approval under law. And of course in practice at times during the French Revolution, the Parisian mob intervened directly into the popular assembly’s workings, assailing the chamber itself. The French concentrated power into a single Legislative Assembly, no executive, no independent courts. America treated completely differently. Power that arose from the people was highly dispersed under the American Constitution, that saw so little appeal in Revolutionary France. The Founding Fathers were students of history and not just the Ancient Greeks and Romans. They studied the Venetian Republic among others. They saw the fragility of the Athenian Democracy, centered exclusively on the Assembly of citizens, the purest form direct form of democracy. The Founders were not democrats.
The sagacious economist and social commentator, Thomas Sowell, expresses it far better than I in his Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles; there are constrained visions like the American Revolution, working within the limitations of a individual plagued with foibles and unconstrained ones like the French Revolution that sees no boundaries to the progress of humankind. One system didn’t last the decade; the other has survived with warts and all for 230 years.
So the primary question becomes, how did the Revolution become a bloody, violent nightmare? Much of the reason, according to this humble pundit, is the pace at which the Revolution was able to make enemies. Many apologists for the Terror argue that with the ingrained aristocracy and ecclesiastical interests, absent in the American Revolution, had to be destroyed, presenting an ever present danger to the Republic. Though in fact there were any number of ci-devant (former) members of the nobility that participated as agents of the Revolution. A counter argument can be made that striking at foreign powers that backed the émigré nobility (thousands of nobles had fled the country in hopes that foreign powers could reinstate the Ancien Regime) and attempting to crush religious sensibilities created powerful countercurrents. These countercurrents could have been avoided. It was the Revolution that initiated the wars against Austria, then eventually with most of Europe. Robespierre even himself cautioned against these foreign adventures.
For that matter, a duplicitous Louis XVI could have been deposed and replaced by someone more open to sharing power, possibly his minor son, or even a relative, an Orleanist (the line originated with Philippe, duke d’Orléans, younger brother of Louis XIV) sympathetic to constitutional monarchy, to act as regent. The English in 1688 in their Glorious Revolution saw William of Orange become their king and a Declaration of Rights issued. Instead his execution under the guillotine enraged Europe and set the monarchs upon Republican France. In the tumult of the French Revolution the peaceful deposition would have been difficult to achieve, I admit.
will, and in practice this was the Paris mob. The people’s right to protest their government was enshrined in 1793 Constitution. The Montagnards, Robespierre as their spokesman, incorporated the sans-coulottes, economic thinking in contrast to the Girondins , who adhered to classic economic practices of the free market. The raging inflation produced by unrestrained issuance of assignats, was blamed on shopkeeper greed. A price Maximum was instituted. This did nothing to alleviate shortages nor offer true market prices (goods began to be offered in a Black Market).
At the start of May 1793, the Jacobins in Paris began to side with the sans culottes over food policy. It was a calculated shift, designed to gain public support and finish off the Girondins for good. On May 4, 1793, the National Assembly imposed price controls on grain and specified that it could only be sold in public markets under the watchful eye of state inspectors, who were also given the authority to break into merchants’ private homes and confiscate hoarded grain and flour. Destruction of commodities under government regulation was made a capital offense.
During the Jacobin Republic of 1792–1794, a swarm of regulators spread across France imposing price ceilings and intruding into every corner of people’s lives; they imposed death sentences, confiscated wealth and property, and sent men, women, and children to prison and slave labor. The Revolution was bent on rash, often times violent measures to attain its goals, thereby generating tremendous counter currents, only granting the Revolution excuse for more crackdowns.
There are many instances where the violent Revolution could have been averted; the Assembly of Notables (1787-88) is my choice. Here the aristocracy punted their chance to reform the tax and financial system; instead they left responsibility to the Estates, a catastrophic blunder. Not only for them but all of France. And this hesitancy was a product of a residual hostility by the aristocracy, predicated on the Absolutism of French Monarchy that enfeebled the Nobility in the aftermath of The Fronde (1648-1653). The Fronde was a revolt of the Nobility and the Parlement that was suppressed and muzzled by the young King. Fatigued, they eventually came to live with Louis XIV at Versailles.
The only ones successful at directing the Revolution stood at the forefront of the upheaval, pandering to the Parisian Mob and that includes both the Girondins (Danton and Desmoulins), who supported representative government and constitutional monarchy. Plus we must include the Jacobins (Robespierre among many others), who all became republicans, after the flight of the King. There was no one active who can hope to successfully accomplish a gradual reform of the monarchy. It was a full bore charge into democracy (something the American Founders had dread fear of) and economic and political chaos and then eventual tyranny and twenty years of war.
Wars are expensive which is what sent the French Monarchy into the abyss in the first place. The Revolutionary government had the same difficulty in financing its wars; considerable amounts of paper currency, called “assignats”, backed by Church confiscated lands, were issued to pay for it. It was argued land was better than gold or silver as a backing for money. Of course land unlike metals isn’t portable or fungible either. And their unrestrained issuance ignited inflation, which the Parisian mob blamed on the small shopkeeper. The authorities printed these to suit the excessive demands of a war time government. Soon their value had become a fraction of their original issue, which is most often the path of fiat currency of this type. Few understood it at this time but it was the chief cause of massive inflation of prices in the economy. Cost of basic living staples far outpaced the slow to rise income of the poor, as always happens in an inflationary cycle. Price maximums were instituted which is an imprudent gesture, akin to stopping the tides. In this case the tides were volumes of printed currency introduced into the economy. It can be safely stated, the Revolutionaries management of the economy was incompetent and destructive.
An additional blunder was the assault on the Church. As did Henry VIII in 16th Century England who took extensive church lands (some say 25% of the country) and closed monasteries three centuries before, so did the French Revolution on November 2, 1789. There was much public support to divest the Church of its massive wealth. In addition the buyers of Church property, as with England’s Landed Gentry, would become immediate enthusiasts of the regime. It was a win-win for the Revolution. It was a compelling and inviting grab. Nonetheless, thousands of the religious were thrown on to their own devises and welfare services like hospitals and schools that the church provided ceased. And the French lost a spiritual resource, admitting that many in the society looked upon these religious organizations as leeches on a working body politic. The society lost a most visible moral anchor as well. But this would not have represented an existential misstep for the Revolution.
But the Revolution went further; they strived to make the Faithful the enemy. They insisted that the Church become a quasi-department of the State. The Revolutionaries invaded the spiritual arena and banned religious vows on February 13, 1790. On July 12, 1790 the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was proclaimed. Knowing that deep opposition to the Revolution resided in the Clergy, the clergy were forced to swear their highest allegiance to the French State, not the Roman Pope, in order to preside over the Holy Sacraments of the Church. They would be paid a salary. Clergy would be elected, whether Protestant or Jews. Vast numbers of the clergy abjured. They would no longer be allowed to lead their congregation. This created great opposition and unrest in many parts of the country.
Finally, a campaign to de-Christianize the society was launched. The anti-Christian program spawned violent opposition in many parts of the country, including an outright civil war in the Vendee. Churches were desecrated as was Notre Dame, where the Cult of Reason was celebrated (Fête de la Raison), featuring a seductively attired female Liberty at the Altar. Fouche, one of the conspirators toppling Robespierre, previously led a fanatical de-Christianizing campaign in jurisdictions, where he held sway as representative-on-mission. He ordered all crosses and statues removed from graveyards, and he gave the cult one of its elemental tenets and he decreed that all cemetery gates must bear only one inscription—"Death is an eternal sleep”. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens were killed suppressing it, if one includes the slaughter in the Vendee. *
I forget to mention the Federalist revolt. May 31 to June 2, 1793 upon intimidation and threats of the Parisian mob the National Convention expelled Girondins. Opposition arose in response to expulsion of the Girondins from the National Convention. The revolts appeared in Lyon, Bordeaux, Nantes, Rouen and others locations (France was re-organized into 83 departments then districts, cantons and communes in 1790). These too were excuses for Robespierre and the Jacobins to pursue a policy of Terror. The revolts had temporary success but soon representatives on mission sent from the National Convention re-gained control and brutally crushed these revolts. On instance of the crackdown of the Federalist an astounding 1600 homes, largely of the commercial elites, were destroyed. 1604 were shot or guillotined in the suppression were executed. Joseph Fouche (infamous in several ways but eventually he found himself useful to Napoleon, as police chief) would arrive in November and commit more atrocities.
The opposition to these became all the more forceful granting excuse for even more continue Terror.
The Robespierre, the principal spokesman of the Terror, was one among many who rode upon the wave of popular Revolutionary upheaval. He cheered the destruction of foreign and monarchial opposition to the Revolution and directed violence against his political opponents (the Girondins, Herbert, Danton and Desmoulins). He like many others was destroyed by this Revolutionary mechanism he’d helped to create, once all began to fear they’d fall under the executioner’s blade.
A final observation, I notice parallels between Robespierre and the Russian Revolutionary Trotsky (Bronstein). Both were intellectually inclined, both were journalists, Robespierre published Le Défenseur de la Constitution beginning May 1792, a Republican journal. Trotsky wrote a biography of Stalin and an extensive History of Russian Revolution. Neither was from the class of common working folk they claimed to represent. Robespierre’s father as an attorney, worked in close association with provincial court elites, as did Maximilien. Trotsky was a son of a wealthy Jewish farmer and was sent to the large city, Odessa, to obtain an advanced education. Unlike Dickens they never were made to suffer the indignities of hellish factory work. Both were the leading lights of their Party. Their key downfall was that, being self-assured in the superiority of their abilities and ideals, neither one worked to construct a political coalition and were outmaneuvered by those that had the political ingenuity to cobble confederates together. Trotsky was readily outmaneuvered by one, Stalin. Robespierre was outflanked by Fouche, Billaud, Tallien, Collot d'Herbois, and others, many of whom were more bloodthirsty than Robespierre himself. Both men readily relied on violence to achieve their ends. They lived frugally and had no truck with luxury. They both isolated themselves for periods of time, which in Trotsky’s case allowed Stalin to work his machinations. Neither, actually maintained a constituency of support in the polity or led a faction of the party, whether Jacobin or Communist. They were easily outmaneuvered by what were supposed to be their political allies.
*Freedom for Economic Education
Robespierre typified a variety of the French
Revolution that granted upmost confidence in the people’s