Modern history



THE CONVULSION WHICH SHOOK FRANCE IN 1789 WAS TOTALLY different from the revolutions that the world had seen before. England in the seventeenth century had witnessed a violent shift in power between the Crown and the People; but the basic institutions of State had been left untouched, or at any rate had soon been restored. Nor as yet had there been in England any broadening of popular sovereignty in the direction of universal suffrage. The liberties of the ordinary Englishman were well understood and had often been asserted. He could not lay claim to equality. The lack was not felt to be a very serious grievance, since the classes mingled together and transition from one class to another was, if not easy, at least possible, and quite often achieved. America in her Revolution had proclaimed the wider rights of mankind. Across the Atlantic shone a noble example of freedom which in the end was to exercise a formidable influence upon the world. But in the late eighteenth century America’s commanding future was scarcely foreseen, even by her own statesmen. In Europe the impulse towards liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty had to come from elsewhere. It came from France. The English Revolution had been entirely a domestic affair. So in the main had the American. But the French Revolution was to spread out from Paris across the whole Continent. It gave rise to a generation of warfare, and its echoes reverberated long into the nineteenth century and afterwards. Every great popular and national movement, until the Bolsheviks gave a fresh turn to events in 1917, was to invoke the principles set forth at Versailles in 1789.

France in the reign of Louis XVI was by no means the most oppressively governed of countries, though this is often alleged. She was rich and many of her people prospered. Why then did revolution break out? Volumes have been written on this subject, but one fact is clear. French political machinery in no way expressed the people’s will. It did not match the times and could not move with them. It had been given its form and shape by Louis XIV. Under his majestic hands the machine had worked, almost to the end. His successors inherited all his panoply of power but none of his capacity. They could neither work the machine nor would they alter it. At the same time the growing middle classes in France were reaching out for the power that was withheld from them. They felt they should have a say in how they were governed. An intellectual ferment filled the land which was denied a political outlet. An explosion was inevitable and had long been expected by all inquiring minds. As a British official reported from Paris, the French people had been “infused by a spirit of discussion of public matters which did not exist before.” At some moment the widespread frustrations of Frenchmen were bound to seek active expression. They merely needed an igniting spark. This was supplied by the royal Government’s incorrigible system of faulty finance.

The Government of France had long been bankrupt. Louis XIV had exhausted the nation in a procession of wars which had lasted for thirty years, and when he died in 1715 the public debt was more than sixteen times the annual revenue. From this burden the French never contrived to escape. Many men had laboured, but without success, to make France solvent. The obstacles were formidable. A substantial section of the population, which included the most prominent if not always the most powerful of French citizens, were largely exempt from taxation. Of these the nobility numbered about four hundred thousand. Their privileges might once have been justified by the services they had formerly rendered to the community as landlords and military leaders; but this was no longer true. In England the armed aristocracy had destroyed itself in the dynastic civil wars of the fifteenth century. France had been less well served by her history, and the French monarchy had long endured the assaults and insurrections, both real and threatened, of a warlike, virile, and ambitious nobility. Successive French kings and their Ministers had been driven to policies that in the long run proved harmful. If the nobles were allowed to live on their estates they would rebel, but if they were made to live at Court they could be supervised. Idleness and luxury were effective methods of disarmament. Both could be provided at Versailles, largely at the expense of the victims, and at Versailles most of the nobles had been compelled or persuaded to live. In the glitter of the great Court, which at one time numbered about two hundred thousand people, they could squander their time and money, and the most formidable weapon they needed was the duelling sword. Thus arose a class of absentee landlords forbidden to meddle in politics, far from their estates, unbeloved by their tenantry, yielding no services either to the soil or to the State, and drawing large and mainly untaxed profits from the lands they no longer tended.

The privileges of the clergy were no less remarkable. The Church owned about one-fifth of the land of France, with many valuable buildings upon it. From these sources the ecclesiastical authorities received an annual income of perhaps £45 millions sterling. This was augmented by as much again in tithes. Yet for three generations about 140,000 priests, monks, and nuns had paid no taxes on their properties or their fortunes. Their sanctity was as uneven as their share of the national wealth. Most of the rank and file were devout, self-denying, and upright, but a crust of politically covetous, worldly, and cynical prelates had weakened and degraded the dignity and influence of organised Christianity. The Catholic Church in France was powerless against the forces of anarchy and atheism, which, in the most cultured state in Europe, were seething and fomenting.

The heaviest fiscal burden lay upon the peasants. Their plight must not be exaggerated. Since the beginning of the century they had been buying land, and on the eve of the explosion which was to shatter the stability of Europe and engage its peoples in a generation of mortal struggle they owned a third of the soil of France. Nevertheless their grievances were substantial. The tax on “peasant” land was nearly five times as much as on “noble” land. They and they alone paid the most hated tax of all, the taille, fifty-three livres in every hundred, and much abused and perverted by the tax-farming to which the parched Government had been compelled. A multitude of indirect taxes and impositions added their weight of misery. The winter of 1788 was very severe. Many died of starvation. Yet it has been well said that revolutions are not made by starving people. The peasants were no worse off and probably slightly more comfortable than a century before. Most of them were uninterested in politics. They desired only freedom from oppressive landlords and antiquated taxes. The revolutionary impulse came from elsewhere. The nobles had lost their energy and their faith in themselves. The clergy were divided. The Army was unreliable. The King and his Court lacked both the will and the ability to govern. Only the bourgeois possessed the appetite for power and the determination and self-confidence to seize it.

The bourgeois were not democratic as we understand the word to-day. They distrusted the masses, the crowd, the mob, and with some reason, but they were nevertheless prepared to incite and use it against the “privileged” nobility, and, if necessary, in the assertion of their own status, against the monarchy itself. Rousseau in his famous Social Contract and other essays had preached the theme of equality. Every man, however humble, was born with a right to play his part in the government of State. This is doctrine long since acknowledged by all democracies, but Rousseau was the first to formulate it in broad and piercing terms. Voltaire and the group of scholars and publicists who contributed to Diderot’s Encyclopedia had long been casting doubt on all accepted values, religious and social. The rule of reason and the quest of knowledge for its own sake were the aims that the Encyclopedists held up before Frenchmen. In the cramped political world of the Old Régime these ideas worked as a powerful leaven. No one could tell in the reign of Louis XVI how far they would lead the middle classes in their pursuit of power.

Unfortunately it was not easy to capture or even discover the seat of power in eighteen-century France. The country was administered by a multitude of civil servants, some paid by the Government, some subsisting on the commissions and profits of their posts, some privately hired. The system had long floundered in decay and inefficiency. Files and complications flourished. A French historian, writing soon after the event, relates how it took forty years of correspondence to mend a broken tile on a church roof. Confusion, not despotism, oppressed and exasperated the nation, and on the eve of the Revolution a Minister reported to the King that the country was “impossible to govern.”


There had been many attempts at reforming this expensive muddle, and even more to find money to pay for it. During the long reign of Louis XV the public debt had been much reduced. When Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774, dimly imbued with good intentions, he appointed the able and upright Turgot as Controller-General of Finance. Turgot’s plans were simple, and might well have been effective if he had been permitted to carry them out. He proposed to meet the national deficit by fierce economies in the civil service and at Court. The corvée, or compulsory peasant labour on the roads, was to be abolished, together with sinecures and local customs duties. Wealth and enterprise were to be stimulated by the suppression of craft-guilds or corporations and by the promotion of internal free trade in corn. But free trade in corn led to speculation, sudden rises in the price of bread, and riots. The nobility were affronted by Turgot’s attack on their privileges. Headed by the Queen, Marie Antoinette, the Court denounced him as a revolutionary, and in four years he was dismissed. Nearly all his reforms were swept away. Their necessity was obvious. It was also obvious to the nation that their new King was incapable of carrying them out.

Turgot fell in 1778, and in the same year France allied herself with the embattled American colonies. His disappearance solved nothing. More money was needed for war with Britain. The national deficit was five hundred million livres, or about twenty-five millions sterling. Even in those days this was not a staggering sum. A reasonable system of taxation could have dealt with it. But where at Versailles was reason to be found? In desperation Louis XVI made Necker, a Swiss Protestant, “Director-General of Finance.” Necker comprehended the significance of Turgot’s fate. He realised that it was impossible to touch the privileges of the nobility. He accordingly turned his energies to the reform of prisons and hospitals and the abolition of torture for extracting confessions from suspected criminals. He did more. He set up provincial Assemblies to discharge and animate the work of local government; but they were gorged with new and impractical ideas and blind hatred of the central Government. They sank amid uproar and few survived. Thwarted and disappointed, Necker resigned in May 1781.

The birth of the American republic had none the less inspired the mass of Frenchmen with a new taste for liberty. If the United States could achieve it why not they? French volunteers under Lafayette and a royal army under Rochambeau had played their part in the struggle. Why must the Ancien Régime stifle the pride and energy of France? But the Court remained extravagant, the administration chaotic, the treasury empty. Louis XVI, without Turgot, without Necker, and with no taste for rule and no passions beyond hunting, clockmaking, and gluttony, was left with but one expedient, to borrow. By 1785 the credit of the Government was exhausted. In the following year an Assembly of Notables was asked to agree to a tax on all properties alike and the abolition of fiscal privilege. The Assembly refused. The Notables declined to pay taxes till they knew the causes of the disaster. The clergy were adverse. They all went home. Collapse of the public administration was imminent. Paris was in riot. The Queen and the chief Minister were burned in effigy. The Government could raise no loans except on the promise of calling together the States-General. Louis bowed to the storm. In 1788 Necker was recalled amid acclamation. He faced the urgent financial predicament, and the States-General was summoned. A British Member of Parliament, visiting France at this time, prophetically wrote, “So much perturbation and heat will not easily subside. . . . The whole kingdom seems ripe for a Revolution.”


The States-General was the Parliament of France. It had been convoked to lead the nation and support the Crown at every great crisis in French history. But it had not met for a hundred and seventy-five years. There was no living tradition to guide its conduct of business. What it might now accomplish and where its powers stopped were matters for conjecture. The King’s Ministers had drawn up no policy on which its deliberations could be centred. Before the deputies assembling at Versailles there lay unlimited opportunities of decision, whether for wisdom or folly. They could set themselves to reform and regenerate France, or through factious struggles for power plunge the country into anarchy and war. As it happened, in less than three years the States-General and its successors had carried out a sweeping revolution and started a momentous European conflict. But there was no foretelling on the spring day of May 5, 1789, how far and how quickly political passions were to drive the hearts of men. There seemed every prospect that the ancient representative body of France would make its terms with the monarchy, which at this stage hardly even a fanatic had dreamt of overthrowing. The hope was that each institution would sustain the other in common purpose and that France would soon take her place among the growing number of the world’s constitutional states. When the deputies went to Mass at Notre Dame on May 4 none dreamed that their work would lead to the first of the ruthless dictatorships of modern Europe, which would earn without cavil the name of “the Terror.” Nor did they imagine that their incapacities would prepare the way for the rule of the greatest man of action born in Europe since Julius Cæsar.

About fifteen hundred deputies had been elected by five million voters under the broadest franchise yet enjoyed by any European country. The clergy and the nobles made their choice separately. The Third Estate, who numbered half the total Assembly, included landed proprietors, men of business, numerous lawyers, doctors, administrators, and members of the other professions. They came to Versailles armed with the complaints of their constituents. Their feelings may be summed up in familiar English terms: redress of grievances before they would vote supplies to the Crown. They represented the middle class; their property, education, and natural talents gave them a stake in the realm for which they now claimed to exercise a voice. They were disciples of the Enlightenment; some of them had read Voltaire, Rousseau, and the writings of the Encyclopedists. They were well acquainted with abstract reasonings about liberty and equality; now within their own practical spheres they were determined to apply them. A few drew inspiration from the great experiment in democracy taking shape across the Atlantic Ocean. All were intent to assert their rights, not only to be heard but to take the due part in government so long denied them. The views of the Third Estate were shared by many of the humbler clergy and a minority of liberal-minded nobles.

The opening question for the States-General was how it should vote. The Third Estate saw at once that if all three houses met and voted together there would be a substantial majority for reform. But the Court had now awakened to the dangers it had evoked. By compelling the Estates to vote separately it could retain the power to play off the two privileged ones against the Third. Urged on by his exigent Queen, Louis XVI took action. He called up troops, closed the doors of the Parliament House against the Third Estate and threatened to dissolve them. By these steps he brought about the first turning-point in the Revolution. The Commons were undaunted. They had already changed their name and proclaimed themselves the National Assembly. Faced with locked doors, they now withdrew to an adjoining tennis court, and there on June 20 took the famous oath never to suspend their deliberations and “to go on meeting wherever circumstances may dictate until the constitution of the realm is set up and consolidated on firm foundations.” Thus came into being a single Constituent Assembly, soon reinforced by its sympathisers among nobles and clergy. Henceforth the other two Estates ceased to exist.

At this crisis the King wavered. He would have liked to use force, but he hesitated to shed blood. His irresolution was compounded of natural lethargy and genuine goodwill. He tried delivering a stern lecture to the deputies. It was of no avail. “No one,” he was firmly told by their President, “can give orders to the assembled nation.” Not for the last time Louis gave way. An English commentator on these events has aptly expressed the opinion formed by the world. He was Author Young, farmer and student of agriculture, then on a tour of France. “They have at one stroke,” he wrote of the Assembly, “converted themselves into the Long Parliament of Charles I.” It was a prophetic remark. But in France history was to march faster than it had done in seventeenth-century England. King Louis had only three years to live.

The scene now shifts to Paris. This great metropolis, with six hundred thousand inhabitants, had for half a century been the buzzing intellectual capital of the nation. Here, and not amid the stiff ceremonies of Versailles, were focused the hopes, ideas, and ambitions of the French people. Paris was alarmed by the concentration around it of royal troops. Spontaneously in all its sixty districts a citizens’ militia began to enrol. “Aux armes!” was the cry. There were volunteers in plenty, but few arms. A remedy was quickly found. Early in the morning of July 14 a mob forced its way into the Invalides and seized a large stock of muskets and some guns. These were distributed. Now for powder and shot. The capital’s main store of powder was lodged in the Bastille, a grim medieval fortress, long used as a royal prison. All the morning till past noon parleys took place with its Governor, de Launey. No one knows how fighting started. By treachery or mistake de Launey fired on the crowd outside, whose leaders bore white flags. His action gave the signal for general assault. Guns were brought up; there was a cannonade; the citizen militia fought with reckless valour, and after two hours’ struggle the fortress surrendered. It was immediately sacked, and stone by stone its demolition began. De Launey was murdered, and his bleeding head raised aloft on a pike, a portent of atrocities to come.

Thus fell a prime symbol of royal authority. The Bastille held only seven prisoners, one of them a lunatic. But their release from the cells was hailed throughout France. Louis XVI, the most benevolent of the Bourbons, had hitherto issued no fewer than fourteen thousand lettres de cachet,consigning his subjects to prison often with good reason but always without trial. The fall of the Bastille marked the end of such royal absolutism. It was a triumph for the cause of liberty, and for the Parisian mob. With this victory for violence the Revolution had taken a bloody step forward.


To the world outside in the summer of 1789, and to foreigners in France, the Revolution seemed to have fulfilled its aims. All was over, it was thought: privilege had been overthrown; the people’s rights had been asserted; King and National Assembly would settle down to draft a new future for their country. The British Ambassador in Paris put a common view when he reported that “the greatest revolution that we know anything of has been effected with the loss of very few lives; from this moment we may consider France a free country.” Burke, meditating in England, was more far-sighted. In his Reflections on the French Revolution, soon to be published, he discerned the shape of things to come. The convulsion in France, as he eloquently pointed out, was not a dignified, orderly change, carried out with due regard for tradition, like the English Revolution of 1688. A complete break with the past had been made. For two years further the monarchy was to survive while the Assembly deliberated upon the ideal constitution under which twenty-five million French men and women might freely pursue their affairs. But in the name of reason irrational forces had been let loose. These were not easily to be assuaged. France was fated to undergo every form of revolutionary experience. The pattern has been repeated in other countries, at later times, but with not very different results. France was the crucible in which all the modern elements of Revolution were first put to the test.

The King at Versailles was not unduly perturbed by the fall of the Bastille. But its significance was plain to his youngest brother, the Count d’Artois, much later, as King Charles X, to be the victim of another Revolution. Artois and a following of recalcitrant nobles fled the country. The first emigration of reactionaries then ensued. Some two hundred thousand members of the nobility and their dependants are said to have asked for their passports during the next three months. These émigrés, as they were called, took refuge in Germany and Italy, many at Coblenz and Turin. From beyond the frontiers they busily intrigued against the new order in France. With them the King, the Queen, and the Court were in clandestine correspondence. The National Assembly and the mobs of Paris stood in constant fear that their newly made constitutional King would betray them by joining with the émigrés and, supported by foreign aid, reimpose the Old Régime. Nor were their fears groundless. Like Charles I of England, the King counted duplicity as a royal prerogative. He saw nothing wrong in outwardly accepting many distasteful reforms while secretly at the instigation of the Queen working for their overturn.

Paris was not slow to realise this. Its municipal leaders were now setting the pace. In October they resolved to recall the King from Versailles and to keep him and the Assembly under surveillance and in their midst. In the meantime the citizens’ militia had become the National Guard. Its commander was Lafayette, the hero of the American War of Independence. He was a soldier of high ideals who now cast himself for the rôle of referee of the Revolution. But it was not a game in which there were rules to be observed. On the 5th a procession of Parisian women set out for Versailles in protest against the high prices of bread. The National Guard, comprising many of their husbands, decided to accompany them. Why should they not? It made for a family outing. Lafayette was reluctantly at their head. At midnight they reached the palace. There disorderly scenes took place and the King and Queen were obliged to confront the mob. They bore themselves with dignity. Lafayette gave his personal word that if Louis came to Paris he would guarantee his safety. The King complied, and on the next day was joyfully received in his capital. Paris had won another victory, and at Versailles the shutters were put up and the blinds drawn for the first time since the reign of Louis XIV.


The Assembly followed the King back to Paris. But not before some three hundred members had resigned or begged leave of absence. Alarmed by the speed of events and fearful for their safety in the capital, they retired to the provinces or went into exile. Already the Assembly had decreed the end of feudalism and drawn up a Declaration of the Rights of Man, proclaiming equal citizenship for all. It proceeded to abolish hereditary titles and to nationalise the lands immemorially belonging to the Church. These lands were now freely sold and distributed. There came into existence a solid new class of peasant proprietors who owed their all to the Revolution. They were to form the backbone of its armies and of those of Napoleon’s Empire.

The zeal of the deputies did not stop at this. They reformed the administration of justice; they turned the clergy, or such of them as would accept the change, into paid servants of State; they wiped off the map the proud old French provinces and parceled out the country into the eighty-six departments that still exist. The Old Régime was torn up by the roots and a new order planted. Compromise was unknown to the men of ’89; they would permit no interplay of fruitful assimilation. Europe was amazed and increasingly alarmed by the headlong courses pursued in Paris. Shortly the principles of the Revolution were to reach out from France and be forcibly imposed upon the most ancient states of the Continent. The French Revolutionary leaders began to dream of spreading the gospel of the brotherhood of man by resort to arms.

One figure might perhaps have controlled the swell of events, had he been granted the power. The Count de Mirabeau was an ugly, loose-living man, who yet possessed within him a true grasp of affairs. Macaulay has well described him thus: “Resembling Wilkes in the lower and grosser parts of his character, he had in his higher qualities some affinity to Chatham.” Mirabeau towered above his fellow deputies in ability, eloquence, and judgment. For that reason he aroused widespread jealousy and distrust. Nor would the Court listen to him or take his frequently proffered advice. In April 1791 he died, his prodigious ambitions unfulfilled. In him a man almost of Cromwell’s calibre was lost to France.

Leadership in the Assembly now passed to demagogues and extremists: first to the Girondins, called after the department round Bordeaux from which their chief men came; next to the Jacobins, who took their name from a former monastery near the Tuileries which now supplied them with the amenities of a political club.

To all the actions of these zealots the King had so far assented. He feigned to put up with the position thrust upon him. But though he said “Yes” in public “No” was the word in his heart. At his side stood his masterful Habsburg Queen, ever convinced that she could and would reverse the march of history. For long the King had been secretly advised to quit Paris and in some provincial centre rally around himself the conservative elements of the nation. Kings of France had successfully done so before when Paris became too hot for them. Louis resolved upon a desperate venture. He would escape from his bondage to the north-eastern frontier; he would place himself at the head of the émigrés and with the support of Austrian arms re-establish royal authority. Disguised as a valet, he slipped out of the palace at midnight on June 20. He was joined by the Queen, dressed as a governess, and by the royal children. Together in a fast four-horse coach they drove through the night and throughout the following hot summer day. It was the longest day in the year. Late that evening, at the town of Varennes, a hundred and forty miles from Paris, and only thirty from the frontier, they missed by a series of accidents the loyal escorts awaiting them. While the horses were being changed Louis showed himself at the window of the coach to get some air. He was recognised by a fervid revolutionary posting-master, who identified him from the royal head on the slips of paper money with which he was paid. King, Queen, and children were forced to alight, placed under guard, and next day ignominiously conducted back to Paris. The flight had failed, and its failure doomed the monarchy. The Chief of State in the eyes of the revolutionaries had tried to betray his trust. Nothing now could save him. Eighteen months of uneasy life lay before Louis. His every action was closely watched. Mobs broke into the Tuileries and insulted him to his face. Soon he was imprisoned; formally deposed; brought to trial as Citizen Capet; and on January 21, 1793, executed by the machine of death recently invented by Dr Guillotin. Courage and dignity walked with him to the last; but as his severed head fell the Republic triumphed.

By now Europe was at war. A conflict had begun in the previous April which terminated twenty-three years later on the field of Waterloo. The anxious Girondin Ministers, perpetually looking over their shoulders in dread at the fanatical Jacobins who were to supplant them, had declared war upon Austria. They hoped to buttress their tottering Government by a crusade of liberation. Across the Rhine Austrian, Prussian, and émigré armies had for sometime been gathering. Their resounding proclamations threatened the extinction of Revolutionary France. Some idle months passed by while the Austrian and Prussian monarchs dismembered Poland and swallowed more of that unhappy republic’s territories than they could quickly digest. In the autumn the invasion of France began. To the world it seemed plain that the hastily assembled French citizen armies would never withstand the professional might of Prussia and Austria. But France was rapidly becoming a nation in arms. The whole country was inspired when General Dumouriez unexpectedly repulsed the Prussians by the cannonade of Valmy. He went on to invade and occupy the Austrian provinces of the Netherlands. At one stroke the revolutionary republic had overrun the lands for which Louis XIV had for forty years struggled in vain. For the first time in history the entire man-power and resources of a state were being marshalled for total war. New figures came forward to lead and direct the forces of France. Among them was Danton, a figure of tumultuous power and dedicated energy; Robespierre, a ruthless, incorruptible tyrant; Marat, a venomous rabble-rouser of genius; and Carnot, who survived them all, the War Minister and organiser of victory. In Dumouriez’s army were to be found young enthusiastic officers and sergeants whose names were to be legends: Ney, Soult, Murat, Lannes, Davout, Marmont, Masséna, Victor, Junot, and Bernadotte. For France the epoch of her greatest military glory was opening. Before the rest of Europe lay a long ordeal.

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