1. Louis XVI: The absolute monarch in all his glory

Chapter 1

‘Mr Worthing,’ says Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), ‘I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?’

Presumably Mr Worthing did. Every person of good general knowledge in the nineteenth century knew something about the great upheaval which had marked the last years of the eighteenth. Serious Victorians would have felt it a duty to instruct themselves about what had happened in France, and why, in and after 1789; and how the ensuing turmoil had been brought to an end only by the generation-long ‘Great War’ against Napoleon which had marked the lives of their parents or grandparents. Mr Worthing, nibbling his cucumber sandwiches and dreaming of marrying Lady Bracknell’s daughter, would not have been so curious. But probably even he would have had some idea of what the worst excesses of the French Revolution had been, and of how they had affronted life’s ordinary decencies. He would have known that there had been a popular uprising leading to mob rule, the overthrow of monarchy and persecution of the nobility. He would have known that the chosen instrument of revolutionary vengeance was the guillotine, that relentless mechanical decapitator which made the streets of Paris run with royal and aristocratic blood. The creator of Mr Ernest Worthing and Lady Bracknell (her ancestors, had they been French, could scarcely have hoped to avoid the dread instrument …) ended his days in morose exile in Paris. There, Oscar Wilde was surrounded by symbols and images deliberately designed by the rulers of the Third Republic to evoke the memory of the First, the Revolution’s creation. The coinage and public buildings were emblazoned with the slogan Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. On festive occasions the streets fluttered with red, white, and blue bunting, the colours of the tricolour flag adopted by the French Nation in 1789. On 14th July each year a national festival celebrated the fall on that day in 1789 of the Bastille, a forbidding state prison stormed and then levelled by the people in the name of liberty. At such moments of public jubilation French patriots sang the Marseillaise, the battle hymn of a war against tyranny launched in 1792. And undoubtedly the greatest sight in Paris when Wilde lived there was the world’s tallest building, the Eiffel Tower, the centrepiece of a great exhibition which had marked the Revolution’s first centenary in 1889.

Nobody who lived in France, or visited it, could avoid these echoes; or echoes of Napoleon, who had marched under the tricolour, had tamed and harnessed the energies unleashed by the Revolution, and whose nephew Napoleon III had ruled for 22 years before the Third Republic was established. Nobody who knew anything of France even at second hand (if only through learning what was still the first foreign language of choice throughout most of the world) could fail to imbibe some sense that this country had been marked by a traumatic convulsion only just beyond living memory. Many believed, or felt, that this must have been for the best and somehow necessary. Everybody knew and was shocked by the story of how Queen Marie-Antoinette, guillotined amid popular jubilation in 1793, had said ‘Let them eat cake’ when told that the people had no bread. (Everybody knows it still, and nobody cares that it was an old story even before she was born, heard by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as early as 1740.) New nations have been proud to proclaim their emancipation, or to anticipate it like the patriots of Brussels in 1789, or Milan in 1796, by adopting tricolour flags. This banner of liberty still flies from Rome to Mexico City, from Bucharest to Dublin. Poles, who first sang theMarseillaise in 1794 as they resisted the carve-up of their country, sang it again in 1956 in revolt against Soviet tyranny. In 1989, as France commemorated the Revolution’s 200th anniversary, the same anthem of defiance was heard in Beijing, among the doomed student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Few countries have failed to experience some sort of revolution since 1789, and in all of them there have been people looking back to what happened in France then and subsequently for inspiration, models, patterns, or warnings.

Cross-Channel perspectives

Most detached from all this have been the world’s English-speaking countries. Their last revolutions, except in Ireland, took place before 1789, and even English-speaking contemporaries who sympathized with the French saw them as catching up with liberties proclaimed in England in 1688, or America in 1776. In any case such sympathizers were always in a minority. The mould for most English-speaking attitudes was cast as early as 1790, some years before the Revolution’s ‘worst excesses’, by Edmund Burke’sReflections on the Revolution in France. Outraged at the claims of reformers that the French were merely carrying on the work of the ‘Glorious’ British revolution of 1688 and the American rebels whose cause he had supported in the 1770s, Burke asserted that the French Revolution was something entirely new and different. Earlier revolutions in the anglophone world had sought to preserve a heritage of liberty from attack. By the new French standards, indeed, they had not been revolutions at all; for the French were seeking to establish what they called liberty by wholesale destruction. With caution, and respect for the wisdom of their ancestors, they might have corrected the few and venial faults of their former institutions, and come to run their affairs as freely and peaceably as the British ran theirs. But they had chosen to follow the untried dreams of rationalizing, self-styled ‘philosophers’ who had sapped faith in monarchy, the social order, and God Himself.

The result had been anarchy and the envious rule of the ‘swinish multitude’. Burke predicted worse to come, and foretold that it would take a military dictatorship to end it all. Even he did not foresee how bloody matters would become, but he was right about the eventual triumph of a general. Burke came, therefore, to be revered as a prophet as well as a critic; even if the superiority of the British over the French way of doing things seemed only to be fully vindicated 18 years after his death, on the field of Waterloo.

But the French were incorrigible, and in 1830 the tricolour was unfurled again over a new, though briefer, Parisian revolution. Why had it come back to haunt the future? As the generation that had made or experienced the original cataclysm died away, historians began to appropriate it for analysis. Most of them are now forgotten, and the one who is not commands little respect among later practitioners of his craft. But Thomas Carlyle did more than anyone else to fix the popular idea of what the French Revolution was like. In his wild, inimitable style, The French Revolution. A History (1837) painted a vision of mindless and vengeful chaos. He did not follow Burke in trying to defend the ancien régime, the order that the revolutionaries destroyed. He thought it was rotten, and deserved its fate. While courtiers minced, and windbags prated, the hungry masses brooded on their oppression: ‘unspeakable confusion is everywhere weltering within, and through so many cracks in the surface sulphur-smoke is issuing.’ The Revolution was an explosion of popular violence, understandable if scarcely defensible resentment. Those who attempted to lead or guide it were mostly simpletons or scoundrels, all to be pitied for their presumption. The most frightful figure of all was Robespierre, who tried to rule through terror, and who was now fixed forever in non-French minds as the ‘sea-green incorruptible’ (in reference to his complexion as well as to his power). He sent his victims to their fate, and finally followed them there himself in tumbrils (a half-forgotten word for a tipping cart, never afterwards used except in this context). ‘Red Nightcaps howl dire approval’ as the tumbrils pass: this means sansculottes, men who did not wear aristocratic kneebreeches but flaunted their patriotism with red caps of liberty. They and their screaming womenfolk were driven on by visceral lust for social revenge. Carlyle only recognized three men as capable of directing these forces of nature. One was Mirabeau, whose death in 1791 left his promise unfulfilled. Another was Danton, who saved France with his energy from foreign invasion in 1792, but was engulfed two years later by the terror: ‘with all his dross he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself.’ (At the time of Carlyle’s writing, Georg Büchner was presenting German speakers withDantons Tod [Danton’s Death, 1835], a play in which Danton is depicted as too heroic a figure for the petty beings like Robespierre who combined to kill him.) Finally there was Napoleon, who brought the army into politics in 1795, ending the last Parisian insurrection with a ‘whiff of grapeshot’.


2. Cross-Channel contrasts as seen from London by the caricaturist James Gillray in the 1790s.

Dramatic depictions

The idiosyncratic vigour of Carlyle’s writing leaves an impression of years of ceaseless turmoil, with blood and violence, merciless ‘sansculottism’, and baying mobs a daily sight. It was irresistibly dramatic. But Carlyle also had an eye for the pathos of innocent victims falling prey to forces men could not control. Even Robespierre receives a twinge of sympathy as he rumbles towards the guillotine in his new, sky-blue coat. The book thrilled and appalled its readers, and it sold, as well as read, like a novel. Novelists themselves admired it, and none more so than Charles Dickens.

Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), in fact, offered by far the most influential image that posterity has of the French Revolution. From Burke it took one of its underlying themes – the contrast between turbulent, violent Paris and safe, tranquil, and prosperous London. But Dickens’ most obvious guide and inspiration was Carlyle. From him comes the lurid picture of a cruel and oppressive old order, a world of ‘rapacious licence and oppression’, where harmless and innocent victims can be confined by the whims of the powerful to years of imprisonment without trial in the grim and forbidding Bastille; where a nobleman can think the life of a child killed under the wheels of his coach can be paid for by a tossed gold coin. Worthless authorities rule over a wretched and poverty-stricken population aching with social resentment, in which Madame Defarge, impassively and implacably knitting, plans for the moment when revenge can be visited on her family’s noble oppressors. The Revolution provides that moment: ‘“The Bastille!” With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its own beach, the attack begun.’ Madame Defarge helps to lead it: ‘“What! We can kill as well as the men …!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.’ This turmoil goes on for years, but by 1792 the instrument of vengeance is the guillotine. Madame Defarge and her fellow Furies now knit around the scaffold, counting victims with their stitches. France is peopled with ‘patriots in red caps and tricoloured cockades, armed with national muskets and sabres’, sullen and suspicious, who instinctively curse all ‘aristocrats’. ‘That a man in good clothes should be going to prison, was no more remarkable than that a labourer in working clothes should be going to work.’ By the beginning of 1794,

Every day, through the stony streets, the tumbrils now jolted heavily, filled with the condemned. Lovely girls, bright women, brown-haired, black-haired, and grey; youths, stalwart men and old; gentle born and peasant born, all red wine for La Guillotine, all daily brought into light from the dark cellars of the loathsome prisons, and carried to her through the streets to slake her devouring thirst. Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death – the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!

And although the French aristocrat Charles Darnay escapes, and his persecutor Madame Defarge is killed before she can pursue him, the book concludes with the English lawyer Sydney Carton sacrificing himself on the scaffold to her vengeance.

These images, intertwined with a powerfully crafted and heart-rending story, defined the French Revolution for Oscar Wilde’s generation. For the next, and for the whole twentieth century, they were reinforced by the lesser talents of Mrs Montague Barstow, who dubiously capitalized on her birth in remote Hungary to call herself Baroness Orczy. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) and its later sequels chronicled the adventures of a foppish English knight, Sir Percy Blakeney, who led a double life rescuing innocent aristocrats from the guillotine by spiriting them, in various disguises, across the Channel to safety. But gone were the nuances found in Dickens. While the people of Paris remained ‘a surging, seething, murmuring crowd, of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate’, their victims, ‘those aristos … all of them, men, women and children who happened to be descendants of the great men who since the Crusades had made the glory of France’ were objects of pity, and in no way responsible for the supposed oppression of their ancestors. The whole episode was pure blood lust, successfully defied only by the efforts of ‘that demmed elusive Pimpernel’ and his intrepid band of secret agents, all English gentlemen. There is little hint in Orczy, unlike Carlyle or Dickens, that the old order had earned the fate that had befallen it. There is simply regret for ‘beautiful Paris, now rendered hideous by the wailing of the widows, and the cries of the fatherless children’.

The men all wore red caps – in various styles of cleanliness – but all with the tricolour cockade … their faces now invariably wore a look of sly distrust. Every man nowadays was a spy upon his fellows: the most innocent word uttered in jest might at any time be brought up as a proof of aristocratic tendencies, or of treachery against the people. Even the women went about with a curious look of fear and of hate lurking in their brown eyes, and all watched … and murmured … ‘Sacrés aristos!’

Twentieth-century parallels

The Scarlet Pimpernel began as a successful play, and was regularly re-adapted for stage and screen throughout the twentieth century. So was A Tale of Two Cities. The scope offered by both for costume drama was too rich for producers to resist for long. But for twentieth-century audiences seeking to sample revolution there were now more immediate examples. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, chronicled at once in language that echoed Carlyle by John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World (1919), offered a fresh paradigm. It was also captured by the new and more immediate medium of film. Even more abundantly, so were subsequent upheavals in Germany, China, and countless other countries experiencing revolution in the later twentieth century. Figures like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao have replaced Robespierre or Danton as quintessential revolutionaries in the popular imagination. Even the unique horror of the guillotine has been dwarfed by the gas chambers of the Holocaust, the organized brutality of the gulag, the mass intimidation of Mao’s cultural revolution, or the killing fields of Cambodia. And yet many Russians in 1917 saw themselves, and indeed were widely seen, as re-enacting the struggles in France after 1789. Subsequent revolutionaries, if less conscious of the French precedents, have nevertheless sought legitimacy in doctrines of popular sovereignty all traceable to claims first explicitly made in 1789. Many, even those like the Nazis who professed to despise traditions now especially revered by Communism, celebrated their power with rituals and ceremonies redolent of the great set-piece festivals organized first in France between 1790 and 1794.

The Corsican contribution

And one figure thrown up by the French Revolution has continued to be widely recognized – Napoleon. He remains one of the very few characters in history universally known by his first name, and by his appearance – especially if wearing his hat. He owes this recognition largely to remarkable achievements as a general, but his military prowess was built on the opportunities afforded him by the Revolution, and when he created new regimes in the aftermath of his victories, he thought it self-evident that they should run themselves on principles elaborated in France since 1789. Certainly, the nineteenth century was haunted by the memory of the way that he and the revolutionized French nation tore the rest of Europe (Great Britain excepted) apart. The Russians particularly, although they (or at least their climate) defeated him, were traumatized by the invasion of 1812. Half a century later, Tolstoy made the struggle against Napoleon the setting for War and Peace (1865–9). The novel’s characters, from Czar Alexander downwards, are at the same time impressed and repelled by the Corsican usurper and what he stands for. For good or ill, he transforms all their lives. All the inhabitants of continental Europe during Napoleon’s lifetime could have claimed as much. Even when he had gone, many of them found their everyday existence still regulated by laws which he had introduced. Napoleon claimed, when his campaigning days were over, that his most enduring glory would not be that of the battles he had won, but his Civil Code. In reality, the Code was a revolutionary project which Napoleon merely brought to fruition. But its impact was substantial enough, and not only in France. A simple, clear, and uniform set of principles for the holding and transfer of property, it remained the basis of civil law in much of Germany throughout the nineteenth century, in Poland until 1946, in Belgium and Luxembourg until the present day. Its influence still pervades the legal systems of Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany. An even greater success story has been metrication. Elaborated between 1790 and 1799, the decimal metric system of weights and measures was zealously promoted under Napoleon. Even in France it was slow to establish its monopoly, but in the subsequent two centuries it has spread to most of the world. When the United States succumbs, as sooner or later it surely will, it will mark the most complete triumph of any of the many trends and movements that the French Revolution began, its fullest and least ambiguous living legacy.


3. Enduring legacies: The Civil Code

By the National Assembly of France

‘THE Representatives of the people of France, formed into a National Assembly, considering that ignorance, neglect, or contempt of human rights, are the sole causes of public misfortunes and corruptions of Government, have resolved to set forth, in a solemn declaration, these natural, imprescriptible, and unalienable rights: that this declaration being constantly present to the minds of the members of the body social, they may be ever kept attentive to their rights and their duties: that the acts of the legislative and executive powers of Government, being capable of being every moment compared with the end of political institutions, may be more respected: and also, that the future claims of the citizens, being directed by simple and incontestible principles, may always tend to the maintenance of the Constitution, and the general happiness.

‘For these reasons, the National Assembly doth recognize and declare, in the presence of the Supreme Being, and with the hope of his blessing and favour, the following sacred rights of men and of citizens:

I. Men are born, and always continue, free, and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.

II. The end of all political associations, is, the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.

III. The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual, or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.

IV. Political Liberty consists in the power of doing whatever does not injure another. The exercise of the natural rights of every man, has no other limits than those which are necessary to secure to every other man the free exercise of the same rights; and these limits are determinable only by the law.

V. The law ought to prohibit only actions hurtful to society. What is not prohibited by the law, should not be hindered; nor should any one be compelled to that which the law does not require.

VI. The law is an expression of the will of the community. All citizens have a right to concur, either personally, or by their representatives, in its formation. It should be the same to all, whether it protects or punishes; and all being equal in its sight, are equally eligible to all honours, places, and employments, according to their different abilities, without any other distinction than that created by their virtues and talents.

VII. No man should be accused, arrested, or held in confinement, except in cases determined by the law, and according to the forms which it has prescribed. All who promote, solicit, execute, or cause to be executed, arbitrary orders, ought to be punished; and every citizen called upon, or apprehended by virtue of the law, ought immediately to obey, and renders himself culpable by resistance.

VIII. The law ought to impose no other penalties but such as are absolutely and evidently necessary: and no one ought to be punished, but in virtue of a law promulgated before the offence, and legally applied.

IX. Every man being presumed innocent till he has been convicted, whenever his detention becomes indispensible, all rigour to him, more than is necessary to secure his person, ought to be provided against by the law.

X. No man ought to be molested on account of his opinions, not even on account of his religious opinions, provided his avowal of them does not disturb the public order established by the law.

XI. The unrestrained communication of thoughts and opinions being one of the most precious rights of man, every citizen may speak, write, and publish freely, provided he is responsible for the abuse of this liberty in cases determined by law.

XII. A public force being necessary to give security to the rights of men and of citizens, that force is instituted for the benefit of the community, and not for the particular benefit of the persons with whom it is entrusted.

XIII. A common contribution being necessary for the support of the public force, and for defraying the other expences of government, it ought to be divided equally among the members of the community, according to their abilities.

XIV. Every citizen has a right, either by himself or his representative, to a free voice in determining the necessity of public contributions, the appropriation of them, and their amount, mode of assessment, and duration.

XV. Every community has a right to demand of all its agents, an account of their conduct.

XVI. Every community in which a separation of powers and a security of rights is not provided for, wants a constitution.

XVII. The right to property being inviolable and sacred, no one ought to be deprived of it, except in cases of evident public necessity, legally ascertained, and on condition of a previous just indemnity.’

Thomas Paine’s translation into English from the French incorporated
in his great attack on Burke, Rights of Man (1791)

Human rights

‘The Revolution was a grand thing!’ exclaims Pierre Bezukhov in the first chapter of War and Peace. ‘“ … robbery, murder and regicide”, … interjected an ironical voice. “Those were extremes, no doubt, but they are not what is most important. What is important are the rights of man, emancipation from prejudices, and quality of citizenship.” Certainly this was what the Revolution began with, and on 26 August 1789 the National Assembly promulgated a founding manifesto to guide its work: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This was something entirely new in the history of the world. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 had only proclaimed the rights of Englishmen. The United States did not establish its own Bill of Rights until a year after the French; and whereas the French declaration was meant as a preamble enshrining basic principles of a constitution, the American Bill was a series of afterthoughts, amendments to an already-existing constitution. Its principal architects, despite the precedent of declarations of rights prefacing a number of individual state constitutions in the 1770s, did not feel a properly drafted constitution was in need of what Alexander Hamilton, New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention, called ‘aphorisms … which would sound much better in a treatise of ethics than in a constitution of government’.

A declaration of human rights was a hostage to fortune: but that is precisely what the French citizens of 1789 intended. Since ‘ignorance, neglect, or contempt of human rights are the sole causes of public misfortunes and corruptions of Government’, a statement of the ‘natural, imprescriptible, and unalienable rights … constantly present to the minds of the members of the body social’ would ensure that ‘they may be ever kept attentive to their rights and their duties’. It would offer a yardstick against which all citizens could measure the behaviour of governments. Nor were these conceived of simply as French rights, although all French citizens were to enjoy them. Liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression; civil equality, the rule of law, freedom of conscience and expression; the sovereign authority of nations and the answerability of governments to the citizenry; all these were declared human rights, and by implication applicable everywhere. It is true that within six years the French had redrafted this list twice, extending it and then restricting it. Napoleon abandoned it entirely in his successive constitutions. But every subsequent constitution-maker has felt obliged to make a principled decision about whether or not to incorporate such a declaration; and all those who have done so have gone back at some point to the prototype of 1789. When in 1948 the fledgling United Nations decided to adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the preamble and 14 out of its 30 articles were taken in substance, and sometimes in very wording, from the Declaration of 1789. Two further articles derived from the more ambitious Declaration of 1793, and one from the more modest Declaration of Rights and Duties of 1795. The European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1953, was also full of the provisions and language of 1789. And, whereas France itself declined to ratify the European Convention until 1973, by the time of the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989, President François Mitterrand had ordained that it should be celebrated as the Revolution of the Rights of Man.

A disputed legacy

It was a vain hope. The British, as always, were determined to spoil France’s party. Their royal family refused to attend any celebration of a regicide revolution. Margaret Thatcher declared that the rights of man were a British invention, and gave Mitterrand a lavishly bound copy of A Tale of Two Cities. A British historian working in America produced a vast chronicle of the Revolution which argued that its very essence was violence and slaughter (Citizens, by Simon Schama). It was a bestseller in a market where Burke, Carlyle, Dickens, and Orczy had clearly not laboured in vain. But even within France the celebrations proved bitterly contentious. Although when the Rights of Man were first proclaimed, the terror lay more than four years into the future, and the guillotine had not even been invented, few found it easy to look back on the Revolution as other than a single and consistent episode, for good or ill. For the left, the terror had been cruel necessity, made inevitable by the determination of the enemies of liberty and the rights of man to strangle them at birth. For the right, the Revolution had been violent from the start in its commitment to destroying respect and reverence for order and religion. Its logical culmination, some argued, was not merely terror, but, in the rebellious department of the Vendée, slaughter amounting to genocide. Many Catholic clergy, meanwhile, anathematized any celebration of what had brought the first attack in history on religious practice, using language that had scarcely changed in the course of two centuries. Mitterrand, however, enjoyed it all. The Revolution, he reflected with characteristic malice, ‘is still feared, which inclines me rather to rejoice’.

A century, therefore, after thoughts of the French Revolution made Lady Bracknell shudder, people were still deeply divided about what ‘that unfortunate movement’ had led to. Everybody thought they knew, and few other historical episodes beyond living memory have remained capable of arousing such passionate admiration or loathing. That is because so many of the institutions, habits, attitudes, and reflexes of our own times can still be traced to what we think went wrong, or right, then. Greater knowledge of what occurred will not necessarily change anybody’s mind. But it might offer a sounder basis for judgement than the random accumulation of snippets and snapshots which still satisfies most people’s curiosity about this crossroads of modern history.

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