Having told the story of the French Revolution as impartially as old age allowed, it remains to face, within the same limitations, the questions that philosophy would ask: Was the Revolution justified by its causes or results? Did it leave any significant gains for the French people or humanity? Could its gains have been achieved without their cost in chaos and suffering? Does its record suggest any conclusions about revolutions in general? Does it shed any light upon the nature of man? We speak here only of political revolutions—rapid and violent changes of government in personnel and policy. A development without violence we should call an evolution; a quick and violent or illegal change of personnel without a change in the form of government would be a coup d’état;any open resistance to an existing authority is a rebellion.
The causes of the French Revolution were, in summary: (1) the rebellion of the parlements, weakening the authority of the King and the loyalty of the nobility of the robe; (2) the ambition of Philippe d’Orléans to replace Louis XVI on the throne; (3) the rebellion of the bourgeoisie against the financial irresponsibility of the state, the interference of the government with the economy, the uncooperative wealth of the Church in the face of national bankruptcy, and the fiscal, social, and appointive privileges of the aristocracy; (4) the rebellion of the peasantry against feudal dues and charters, state taxes, and church tithes; (5) the rebellion of the Paris populace against class oppression, legal disabilities, economic shortages, high prices, and military threats. The bourgeoisie and Philippe d’Orléans supplied the money that paid for the propaganda of journals and orators, the management of crowds, the reorganization of the Third Estate into a National Assembly which dictated a revolutionary constitution. The commonalty provided the courage, muscle, blood, and violence that frightened the King into accepting the Assembly and the constitution, and the aristocracy and the Church into surrendering their dues and tithes. Perhaps we should add as a minor cause the humanity and vacillation of a King averse to shedding blood.
The results of the French Revolution were so many, so complex, various, and lasting, that one would have to write a history of the nineteenth century to do them justice.
1. The political results were obvious: the replacement of feudalism by a free and partially propertied peasantry; of feudal by civil courts; of absolute monarchy by a property-limited democracy; of a titled aristocracy by a business bourgeoisie as the dominant and administrative class. Along with democracy came—at least in phrase and hope—equality before the law and in opportunity, and freedom of speech, worship, and press. These liberties were soon lessened by the natural inequality of men in ability, and their environmental inequality in homes, schools, and wealth. Almost as remarkable as these political, economic, and legal emancipations was their extension to north Italy, the Rhineland, Belgium, and Holland by the armies of the Revolution; in those regions too the feudal system was swept away, and it did not return when Napoleon fell. In this sense the conquerors were liberators, who tarnished their gifts with the exactions of their rule.
The Revolution completed that unification of semi-independent provinces —with their feudal baronies and tolls, their diverse origins, traditions, moneys, and laws—into a centrally governed France with a national army and a national law. This change, as Tocqueville pointed out, had been going on under the Bourbons; it would probably have been achieved, without the Revolution, by the unifying influence of a nationwide commerce which increasingly ignored provincial boundaries—very much as a national economy in the United States compelled the erosion of “states’ rights” by a federal government compelled to be strong.
In like manner the emancipation of the peasantry, and the rise of the bourgeoisie to economic ascendancy and political power, would probably have come without the Revolution, though more slowly. The Revolution under the National Assembly (1789–91) was amply justified by its lasting results, but the Revolution under the governments of 1792–95 was a barbaric interlude of murder, terror, and moral collapse, inadequately excused by foreign conspiracies and attacks. When, in 1830, another revolution ended in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, the result was approximately what had been achieved in 1791.
The gain made by the Revolution in unifying France as a nation was offset by the growth of nationalism as a new source of group animosity. The eighteenth century had tended, in the educated classes, to a cosmopolitan weakening of national differences in culture, dress, and language; armies themselves were largely international in their leaders and men. The Revolution replaced these polyglot warriors with national conscripts, and the nation replaced the dynasty as the object of loyalty and the font of war. A military brotherhood of generals succeeded to an aristocratic caste of officers; the power of patriotic troops overcame the spiritless employees of old regimes. When the French Army developed its own discipline and pride it became the only source of order in a chaotic state, the sole refuge from a babel of governmental incompetence and popular insurgency.
The Revolution unquestionably promoted liberty in France and beyond; for a while it extended the new freedom to the French colonies, and emancipated their slaves. But individual freedom contains its own nemesis; it tends to increase until it overruns the restraints necessary for social order and group survival; freedom unlimited is chaos complete. Moreover, the kind of ability needed for a revolution is quite different from the kind required for building a new order: the one task is furthered by resentment, passion, courage, and disregard for law; the other calls for patience, reason, practical judgment, and respect for law. Since new laws are not buttressed by tradition and habit, they usually depend upon force as their sanction and support; the apostles of freedom become, or yield to, wielders of power; and these are no longer the leaders of destructive mobs but the commanders of disciplined builders protected and supervised by a martial state. Fortunate is the revolution that can evade or shorten dictatorship and preserve its gains of liberty for posterity.
2. The economic results of the Revolution were peasant proprietorship and capitalism, each begetting endless effects of its own. Wedded to property, the peasants became a powerful conservative force, nullifying the socialistic drive of the propertyless proletariat, and serving as an anchor of underlying stability in a state—and through a century—turbulent with aftershocks of the Revolution. So protected in the countryside, capitalism developed in the towns; mobile money replaced landed wealth as an economic and political power; free enterprise escaped from governmental control. The Physiocrats won their battle for the determination of prices, wages, products, successes, and failures by competition in the “market”—the play of economic forces unimpeded by law. Goods moved from province to province without being harassed or delayed by internal tolls. Industrial wealth grew, and was increasingly concentrated at the top.
Revolution—or legislation—repeatedly redistributes concentrated wealth, and the inequality of ability or privilege concentrates it again. The diverse capabilities of individuals demand and necessitate unequal rewards. Every natural superiority begets advantages of environment or opportunity. The Revolution tried to reduce these artificial inequalities, but they were soon renewed, and soonest under regimes of liberty. Liberty and equality are enemies: the more freedom men enjoy, the freer they are to reap the results of their natural or environmental superiorities; hence inequality multiplies under governments favoring freedom of enterprise and support of property rights. Equality is an unstable equilibrium, which any difference in heredity, health, intelligence, or character will soon end. Most revolutions find that they can check inequality only by limiting liberty, as in authoritarian lands. In democratic France inequality was free to grow. As for fraternity, it was knifed by the guillotine, and became, in time, an agreement to wear pantaloons.
3. The cultural results of the Revolution are still influencing our lives. It proclaimed freedom of speech, press, and assembly; it severely reduced this, and Napoleon ended it, under stress of war, but the principle survived and fought repeated battles through the nineteenth century, to become an accepted practice or pretense in twentieth-century democracies. The Revolution planned and began a national system of schools. It encouraged science as a world-view alternative to theology. In 1791 the Revolutionary government appointed a commission, headed by Lagrange, to devise, for a newly unified France, a new system of weights and measures; the resultant metric system was officially adopted in 1792, and was made law in 1799; it had to fight its way through the provinces, and its victory was not complete till 1840; it is painfully displacing the duodecimal system in Great Britain today.
The Revolution began the separation of Church and state, but this proved difficult in a France overwhelmingly Catholic and traditionally dependent upon the Church for the moral instruction of its people. The separation was not completed till 1905, and today it is weakening again under the pressure of a life-sustaining myth. Having attempted the divorce, the Revolution struggled to spread a natural ethic; we have seen that this failed. In one aspect the history of France in the nineteenth century was a long and periodically convulsive attempt to recover from the ethical collapse of the Revolution. The twentieth century approaches its end without having yet found a natural substitute for religion in persuading the human animal to morality.
The Revolution left some lessons for political philosophy. It led a widening minority to realize that the nature of man is the same in all classes; that revolutionists, raised to power, behave like their predecessors, and in some cases more ruthlessly; compare Robespierre with Louis XVI. Feeling in themselves the strong roots of savagery perpetually pressing against the controls of civilization, men became skeptical of revolutionary claims, ceased to expect incorruptible policemen and saintly senators, and learned that a revolution can achieve only so much as evolution has prepared and as human nature will permit.
Despite its shortcomings—and perhaps because of its excesses—the Revolution left a powerful impression upon the memory, emotions, aspirations, literature, and art of France, and of other nations from Russia to Brazil. Even to 1848 old men would be telling children of the heroes and terrors of that exciting time, that reckless, merciless questioning of all traditional values. Was it any wonder that imaginations and passions were stirred as seldom before, and that recurring visions of happier states spurred men and women to repeated attempts to realize the noble dreams of that historic decade? Tales of its brutalities led souls to pessimism and loss of every faith; there were to be Schopenhauers and Leopardis, Byrons and Mussets, a Schubert and a Keats, in the next generation. But there would be hopeful and invigorating spirits too—Hugo, Balzac, Gautier, Delacroix, Berlioz, Blake, Shelley, Schiller, Beethoven—who would share intensely in the Romantic uprising of feeling, imagination, and desire against caution, tradition, prohibition, and restraint. For twenty-six years France would wonder and waver under the spell of the Revolution and Napoleon—the greatest romance and greatest romantic of all; and half the world would be frightened or inspired by that event-full quarter century in which an exalted and suffering nation touched such heights and depths as history had rarely known before, and has never known since.
FIG. 1—JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID: Unfinished portrait of Bonaparte. Louvre, Paris. (Cliché des Musées Nationaux).
FIG. 2—ENGRAVING AFTER A DAGUERREOTYPE: The Palace of Versailles. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 3—ENGRAVING: The Destruction of the Bastille, July 14, 1789. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 4—ENGRAVING: Louis XVI. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 5—ENGRAVING AFTER A PAINTING BY CHAPPEL: Marie Antoinette. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 6—MINIATURE ON IVORY BY AVY: Vicomte Paul de Barras (dated Year XII—1804). Muséum Calvet, Avignon.
FIG. 7—SKETCH: Georges Jacques Danton, April 5, 1789. (The New York Society Library)
FIG. 8—JEAN-ANTOINE HOUDON: Mirabeau. Musée de Versailles. (Cliché des Musées Nationaux)
FIG. 9—ENGRAVING BY HENRY COLBURN AFTER AN 1808 PAINTING BY FFRANÉOIS GÉRARD: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1845). (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 10—BOZE: Jean-Paul Marat. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 11—ANTOINE-JEAN GROS: Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole, DETAIL. Louvre, Paris. (Cliché des Musées Nationaux)
FIG. 12—STUDIO OF FRANÉOIS GÉRARD: The Empress Josephine. Musée de Malmaison, Paris. (Cliché des Musées Nationaux)
FIG. 13—Napoleon’s study at Malmaison. (Cliché des Musées Nationaux)
FIG. 14—JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID: Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (1801). Musée de Malmaison, Paris. (Cliché des Musées Nationaux)
FIG. 15—FRANÉOIS GÉRARD: Emperor Napoleon I in His Coronation Robes (1805). The Dresden Museum. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 16—JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID: The Coronation of Napoleon. Louvre, Paris. (Cliché des Musées Nationaux)
FIG. 17—MME. VIGÉE-LEBRUN: Madame de Staël as Corinne. Collection Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. (Gift of Mme. Necker of Saussure)
FIG. 18—GIRODET: François-René de Chateaubriand (1809). Musée de S. Malo. (Photo J. C. Philippot)
FIG. 19—FRANÉOIS GÉRARD: Madame Récamier. Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (Photo Giraudon)
FIG. 20—JJACQUES-LOUIS DAVID: Self-Portrait July, 1794). Louvre, Paris. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 21—ENGRAVING: François-Joseph Talma. (The New York Society Library)
FIG. 22—SÈVRES PLAQUE: Baron Georges-Léopold Cuvier. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. (Cliché Bibl. Mus. Paris)
FIG. 23—ENGRAVING: Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 24 —ENGRAVING BY B. METZEROTH: Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, Paris. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 25—ENGRAVING: Napoleon I (1807).
FIG. 26—FRANÉOIS GÉRARD: Empress Marie Louise. Louvre, Paris. Cliché des Musées Nationaux)
FIG. 27—WOODCUT: Edmund Kean as Hamlet. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 28—S KETCH BY C. M ARTIN: J. M. W. Turner. The National Portrait Gallery, London.
FIG. 29—JOHN CONSTABLE: The Hay Wain (1824). The National Gallery, London.
FIG. 30—J. M. W. TURNER: Calais Pier. The National Gallery, London.
FIG. 31—ENGRAVING BY WILLIAM SHARP AFTER A PAINTING BY GGEORGE ROMNEY: Thomas Paine. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 32—SKETCH: Robert Owen. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 33—Portrait of Erasmus Darwin. (The New York Society Library)
FIG. 34—ENGRAVING: Sir Humphry Davy. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 35—LITHOGRAPH AFTER A PAINTING BY JOHN OPIE: Mary Wollstonecraft. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 36—Caricature from a drawing by Machse: William Godwin, “The Ridiculous Philosopher.” (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 37—ENGRAVING BY JOHN LINNELL: Thomas Malthus (1830). (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 38—J. WATTS: Jeremy Bentham. Collection of Millard Cox. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 39—ENGRAVING: Jane Austen. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 40—WILLIAM ALLAN: Sir Walter Scott (1832). The National Portrait Gallery, London.
FIG. 41—P. VANDYKE: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1795). The National Portrait Gallery, London.
FIG. 42—F. L. CHANTREY: Robert Southey (1832). The National Portrait Gallery, London.
FIG. 43—R. WESTALL: Lord Byron (1813). The National Portrait Gallery, London.
FIG. 44—ENGRAVING BY THOMAS LANDSEER AFTER AN 1818 DRAWING BY BENJAMIN R. HAYDON: William Wordsworth. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 45—WILLIAM BLAKE: Percy Bysshe Shelley, WATERCOLOR. (The Bettmann Archive)
FIG. 46—WILLIAM BLAKE: The Flight into Egypt (1806), WATERCOLOR. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (The Bettmann Archive)