Life under the Revolution



HERE we stop time in its flight, and look at a people suffering concentrated history. Like the twenty years between Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon and the accession of Augustus (49–29 B.C.), the twenty-six years between the taking of the Bastille and the final abdication of Napoleon (1789–1815) were as rich in memorable events as centuries had been in less convulsive and remolding periods. Nevertheless, under the tremors of government, the flux of institutions, and the exaltations of genius, the elements and graces of civilization carried on: the production and distribution of food and goods, the quest and transmission of knowledge, the discipline of instinct and character, the exchanges of affection, the mitigations of toil and strife with art, letters, charity, games, and song; the transmutations of imagination, faith, and hope. And indeed were not these the reality and continuum of history, beside which the surface agitations of governments and heroes were the incidental and evanescent contours of a dream?

1. The peasantry. Many of them, in 1789, were still day laborers or sharecroppers, working other men’s land; but by 1793 half the soil of France was owned by peasants, most of whom had bought their acres at bargain prices from the confiscated properties of the Church; and all but a few peasants had freed themselves from feudal dues. The stimulus of ownership turned labor from drudgery into devotion, daily adding to the surplus that built homes and comforts, churches and schools—if only the taxgatherer could be propitiated or deceived. And taxes could be paid with assignats—government paper money—at their face value, while products could be sold for assignats multiplied a hundred times to equal their nominal worth. Never had the French earth been so zealously and fruitfully tilled.

This liberation of the largest class in a now casteless society was the most visible and lasting effect of the Revolution. These sturdy providers became the strongest defenders of the Revolution, for it had given them the land, which a Bourbon restoration might take away. For the same reason they supported Napoleon, and for fifteen years gave him half of their sons. As proud property owners they allied themselves politically with the bourgeoisie, and served, throughout the nineteenth century, as conservative ballast amid the repeated paroxysms of the state.

Pledged to equality of rights, the Convention (1793) abolished primogeniture, and ruled that property must be willed in equal shares to all the testator’s children, including those born out of wedlock but acknowledged by the father. This legislation had important results, moral and economic: reluctant to condemn their heirs to poverty by periodic divisions of the patrimony among many children, the French cultivated the old arts of family limitation. The peasants remained prosperous, but the population of France grew slowly during the nineteenth century—from 28 million in 1800 to 39 million in 1914, while that of Germany rose from 21 million to 67 million.1 Prospering on the land, French peasants were slow to move into towns and factories; so France remained predominantly agricultural, while England and Germany developed industry and technology, excelled in war, and dominated Europe.

2. The proletariat. Poverty remained, and was most severe, among the landless peasants, the miners, and the workers and tradesmen in the towns. Men delved into the earth to find the metals and minerals for industry and war; saltpeter was necessary to gunpowder, and coal increasingly replaced wood as a generator of motive power. Towns were bright and lively by day, dark and subdued at night, till 1793, when the communes installed street lighting in Paris. Craftsmen worked in their candle-lit shops; tradesmen displayed, and peddlers hawked, their goods; at the center an open market; near the summit a castle and a church; on the outskirts a factory or two. Guilds were abolished in 1791, and the National Assembly declared that henceforth every person was to be “free to do such business, exercise such profession, art, or trade, as he may choose.”2 The “Law of Le Chapel” (in 1791) forbade workers to combine for united economic action; this prohibition remained in effect till 1884. Strikes were forbidden but frequent and sporadic.3The workers struggled to keep their wages from being diluted by inflation of the currency; generally, however, they kept their wages abreast of rising prices.4 After the fall of Robespierre the employers tightened their control, and the condition of the proletariat worsened. By 1795 the sansculottes were as poor and harassed as before the Revolution. By 1799 they had lost faith in the Revolution, and in 1800 they submitted hopefully to the dictatorship of Napoleon.

3. The bourgeoisie triumphed in the Revolution because it had more money and brains than either the aristocracy or the plebs. It purchased from the state the most lucrative portions of the property that had been confiscated from the Church. Bourgeois wealth was not tied up in immobile land; it could be transferred from place to place, from purpose to purpose, from person to person, and from anywhere to any legislator. The bourgeoisie could pay for troops and governments and insurrectionary crowds. It had acquired experience in the administration of the state; it knew how to collect taxes, and it influenced the Treasury through its loans. It was more practically educated than the nobility or the clergy, and was better equipped to rule a society in which money was the circulating blood. It looked upon poverty as the punishment for stupidity, and upon its own riches as the just reward of application and intelligence. It took no stock in government by sansculottes; it denounced the interruption of government by proletarian uprisings as an intolerable impertinence. It was resolved that when the sound and fury of revolution subsided, the bourgeoisie would be master of the state.

It was in France a commercial rather than an industrial bourgeoisie. There was no such replacement of farms by pasturage as was then driving English peasants from their fields to the towns to form a cheap labor force for factories; and the British blockade prevented in France the export trade that could sustain expanding industries. So the factory system developed more slowly in France than in England. There were some substantial capitalistic organizations in Paris, Lyons, Lille, Toulouse …, but most French industry was still in the craft and shop stage, and even the capitalists delegated much handwork to rural or other homes. Except for wartime authoritarian flurries, and some Jacobin flirtations with socialism, the Revolutionary government accepted the Physiocratic theory of free enterprise as the most stimulating and productive economic system. The peace treaties with Prussia in 1795 and Austria in 1797 released the restrictions upon the economy, and French capitalism, like the English and the American, entered the nineteenth century with the blessings of a government that governed least.

4. The aristocracy had lost all power in the direction of the economy or the government. Most of its members were still émigrés, living abroad in humiliating occupations; their properties had been confiscated, their incomes had stopped. Of those nobles who had remained or had returned, many were guillotined, some joined the Revolution, the rest, till 1794, hid in precarious obscurity and repeated harassment on their estates. Under the Directory these disabilities were lessened; many émigrés came back; some recovered part of their property; and by 1797 many voices whispered that only a monarchy, supported and checked by a functioning aristocracy, could restore order and security to French life. Napoleon agreed with them, but after his own fashion, and in his own time.

5. Religion in France, as the Revolution neared its end, was learning to get along without the help of the state. Protestants, then five percent of the population, were freed from all civil disabilities; the limited freedom of worship granted them by Louis XVI in 1787 was made complete by the Constitution of 1791. A decree of September 28, 1791, extended all civil rights to the Jews of France, and set them on a legal equality with all other citizens.

The Catholic clergy, formerly the First Estate, now suffered from the hostility of a Voltairean anticlerical government. The upper classes had lost belief in the doctrines of the Church; the middle classes had acquired most of its landed wealth; by 1793 the property of the Church, once valued at two and a half billion livres,5 had been sold to its enemies. In Italy the Papacy had been deprived of its states and their revenues, and Pius VI had been made a prisoner. Thousands of French priests had fled to other countries, and many of them were living on Protestant alms.6 Hundreds of churches had been closed, or had had their treasures confiscated. Church bells had been silenced or melted down. Voltaire and Diderot, Helvétius and d’Holbach had apparently won their war against the Church.

The victory was not clear. The Church had lost its wealth and political power, but its vital roots remained in the loyalty of the clergy and the needs and hopes of the people. Many males in the large cities had strayed from the faith; yet nearly all became churchgoers for a day on Christmas and Easter; and at the height of the Revolution (May, 1793), when a priest carried the consecrated Host along a Paris street, all onlookers (an eyewitness reported)—”men, women, and children—fell on their knees in adoration.”7Even skeptics must have felt the mesmerism of the ceremony, the never-fading beauty of the tale; and they may have pondered Pascal’s “wager”—that one would be wise to believe, since in the end the believer would lose nothing, unbelievers everything, if proved wrong.

Under the Directory the French nation was divided between a people slowly returning to its traditional faith and a government resolved to establish, by law and education, a purely secular civilization. On October 8, 1798, the purged and newly radical Directory sent to all teachers in the departmental schools the following instructions:

You must exclude from your teaching all that relates to the dogmas or rites of any religion or sect whatever. The Constitution certainly tolerates them, but the teaching of them is not part of public instruction, nor can it ever be. The Constitution is founded on the basis of universal morality; and it is this morality of all times, all places, all religions—this law engraven on the tablets of the human family—it is this that must be the soul of your teaching, the object of your precepts, and the connecting link of your studies, as it is the binding knot of society.8

Here, clearly put, was one of the most difficult enterprises of the Revolution, as it is one of the difficult problems of our time: to build a social order upon a system of morality independent of religious belief. Napoleon was to judge the proposal impracticable; America was to cleave to it till our time.

6. Education. So the state took control of the schools from the Church, and strove to make them the nursery of intelligence, morality, and patriotism. On April 21, 1792, Condorcet, as chairman of public instruction, presented to the Legislative Assembly an historic report pleading for the reorganization of education, so that the “ever-increasing progress of enlightenment may open an inexhaustible source of aid to our needs, of remedies for our ills, of means to individual happiness and common prosperity.”9 War delayed the implementation of this ideal, but on May 4, 1793, Condorcet renewed the appeal, though on a narrower basis. “The country,” he said, “has a right to bring up its own children; it cannot confide this trust to family pride nor to the prejudices of individuals…. Education [should be] common and equal for all French people…. We stamp upon it a great character, analogous to the nature of our government and the sublime doctrines of our republic.”10 This formulation seemed to substitute one form of indoctrination for another—nationalist instead of Catholic; nationalism was to be the official religion. On October 28, 1793, the Convention ordained that no ecclesiastic could be appointed as teacher in state schools. On December 19 it proclaimed that all primary schools were to be free, and attendance at them was made compulsory on all boys. Girls were expected to get education from their mothers, or from convents or tutors.

The reorganization of secondary schools had to wait for peace; even so, on February 25, 1794, the Convention began to establish those “Écoles Centrales” which were to be the departmental lycées, or high schools, of the future. Special schools were opened for mines, public works, astronomy, music, arts and crafts; and on September 28, 1794, the École Polytechnique began its prestigious career. The French Academy was suppressed on August 8, 1793, as an asylum of old reactionaries, but on October 25, 1795, the Convention inaugurated the Institut National de France, which was to include various academies for the encouragement and regulation of all sciences and arts. Here gathered the scientists and scholars who carried on the intellectual traditions of the Enlightenment, and gave lasting significance to Napoleon’s foray into Egypt.

7. The “Fourth Estate”—the journalists and the press—may have been more influential than the schools in forming the mind and the mood of France in these effervescent years. The people of Paris—and, somewhat less so, of France—swallowed newsprint greedily every day. Satirical sheets prospered, goring politicians and pundits to the delight of the commonalty. The Revolution, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, had pledged itself to maintain the freedom of the press; it did so throughout the rule of the National and Constituent Assemblies (1789–91); but as the heat of party strife rose, each side signalized its victories by limiting the publications of its enemies; in effect the liberty of the press died with the execution of the King (January 21, 1793). On March 18 the Convention decreed death for “whosoever should propose an agrarian law, or any law subversive of territorial, commercial, or industrial property”; and on March 29 the triumphant regicides persuaded the Convention to decree death for “whosoever should be convicted of having composed or printed works or writings which might provoke the … reestablishment of royalty, or any other power injurious to the sovereignty of the people.”11 Robespierre had long defended the freedom of the press, but after sending Hébert, Danton, and Desmoulins to the guillotine he put an end to the journals that had supported them. During the Terror all liberty of speech disappeared, even in the Convention. The Directory restored freedom of the press in 1796, but revoked it a year later after thecoup d’état of the 18th Fructidor, and deported the editors of forty-two journals.12 Liberty of speech and press was not destroyed by Napoleon; it was dead when he came to power.13

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