Chapter 4
What it ended

The initial impulse of the French Revolution was destructive. The revolutionaries wanted to abolish what, by the end of 1789, everybody was calling the old or former order, the ancien régime. When, in the summer of 1791, the Constituent Assembly finalized the constitution on which it had been working since June 1789, the deputies thought it would be useful in such a fundamental document to list the main things that their revolution had got rid of, what they called ‘the institutions which wounded liberty and equality of rights’. And so the constitution declared that:

There is no longer either a nobility or a peerage, or hereditary distinctions, or distinctions of orders, or a feudal regime, or any of the corporations or decorations for which proofs of nobility were required, or which implied distinctions of birth, or any other superiority but that of public officials in the exercise of their duties.

There is no longer venality or heredity of public office.

There is no longer for any part of the nation or for any individual any privilege or exception to the common law of all the French.

There are no longer either guilds, or corporations of professions, arts and crafts.

The law no longer recognizes either religious vows or any other engagement contrary to natural rights and the constitution.

The list was far from exhaustive. In the constitution, it came immediately after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which by proclaiming a number of principles of political and civil life, implicitly condemned practices opposed to them in previous times. The extended declaration which prefaced the never-implemented constitution of 1793 made this even more clear: ‘The necessity of declaring these rights presupposes the presence or the recent memory of despotism.’ As the Revolution proceeded, the range of its destructive ambitions widened. By 1793 they were so comprehensive that an outraged priest coined a new word to describe them: vandalism, evoking the anti-Christian depredations of ancient barbarians. On the other hand, the Revolution’s destructive achievements often fell far short of its ambitions; and what the men of 1789 or 1793 thought they had abolished forever often reappeared, and quite soon, in forms ostensibly different but which those who had survived had no difficulty in recognizing with dismay.


The Revolution began as an attack on despotism. Montesquieu had defined it in De l’Esprit des lois (1748) as the rule of one, according to no law. Obeying no law, despotic authority was arbitrary, and its animating spirit was fear. As usual, regular usage soon diluted the original rigour of the word’s meaning. Already by 1762, Rousseau was implying in his Social Contract that there was no meaningful difference between the authority of a despot and that of a monarch. By the end of that decade despotism was widely understood as the abuse of monarchical power, and indeed of any sort of authority. By 1789 this had come to mean above all imposing taxation without consent, arbitrary powers of arrest and imprisonment, stifling freedom of expression and opinion, and the activities of all who served these purposes, such as ministers and intendants. In a word, no distinction was now drawn between despotism, tyranny, and absolute monarchy.

The Revolution provided an opportunity to dispense with it all. By locating sovereign power in the Nation, it made the king France’s servant, not its master. By subjecting him and all other officials to a constitution, it sought to replace the rule of arbitrariness by the rule of law. There was of course plenty of law under the old regime – too much, the revolutionaries thought. They saw one of their longer-term tasks as its simplification and codification. But the king had appeared able to override any of it with impunity. That was why the Bastille was such a powerful symbol – it was where unnamed state prisoners could be confined without trial, under the notorious lettres de cachet, sealed warrants signed by the king and revocable only by him. Once demolished, the Bastille was never rebuilt, and all that remains where it once stood is the outline of its plan in the cobblestones. Almost as powerfully symbolic was the abandonment of Versailles on 6 October 1789, the great palace which Louis XIV had made the seat of absolute monarchy. It was too big to demolish (though not to vandalize) but not even Napoleon, whose real power dwarfed that wielded by Louis XVI, thought it wise to move in there when he became a crowned ruler with a court. It evoked too many undesirable memories. Nor did Louis XVI’s brothers return there after the Bourbons were restored in 1815. Even they recognized that the old nerve-centre of absolute monarchy was an inappropriate residence for constitutional rulers. Louis-Philippe, who followed them, saw that its only possible use now was as a museum.


But Versailles was more than a symbol of political authority. With its glittering population of titled courtiers, it also symbolized a whole social system dominated by a privileged nobility. From the autumn of 1788, the Revolution acquired a social thrust, and that thrust was anti-noble.

By the middle of 1789, aristocracy was the term used to encapsulate all that the Revolution was against. It was the quarrel over the form of the Estates-General which brought these preoccupations to the surface, and the loud and prolonged resistance of most nobles to giving up the guaranteed share of future political power that the ‘forms of 1614’ held out to them. Insults and exaggerations exchanged then could not be expunged; and despite the constructive role played by many noble deputies once the orders were merged, the emigration of others, and the gratuitously obstructionist behaviour of some who remained, ensured that suspicions about the nobility never died away. In June 1790 nobility itself, and the display of its appurtenances like titles and coats of arms, were forbidden by law, which only increased the sense among most nobles that they were aliens in the land of their birth. After fructidor in 1797, in the reaction against the renewed threat of royalism, nobles were indeed legally made aliens, and deprived of their rights as French citizens. They were now ci-devants, relics of a former time, no better than the thousands of their traitrous relatives who had emigrated rather than live in a country so changed.

Once war began, émigrés who refused to return, and for a time even those related to them, were deprived of their property. It was added to the saleable stock of national lands. But noble property was under attack almost from the beginning, in the form of the ‘feudal regime’ abolished on the night of 4 August 1789. Feudal rights were not always very lucrative, and their incidence varied enormously. But there was no doubt of their vast symbolic significance, as earlier peasant attacks on weather vanes and other lordly appurtenances bear witness. And although, recognized by the Assembly as a form of property, dues were supposed to go on being levied until bought out, most peasants stopped paying them at once and never offered compensation. In 1793, the Convention confirmed the fait accompli, and the ‘time of the lords’ rapidly became a mere folk memory. But the abolition of the feudal regime was only the most direct blow suffered by nobles as a result of the night of 4 August. What began as an attempt to pacify thepeasantry soon broadened out into an attack on privileges in general. Nobles were already resigned to the loss of their separate fiscal status, and to a regime of careers open to talents rather than to birth or inheritance. These had been the overwhelming demand of the third estate cahiers, and many noble ones had also endorsed them. Now they passed into law. More subtle was the impact of the abolition of venality of offices. The ostensible point was to open the judiciary to talent and ability; but venality had been the source of many of the privileges that had proliferated since the sixteenth century, and through the sale of ennobling offices it had become the main avenue of entry into the nobility. The whole character of the French nobility had been transformed by these procedures; but now it simply ceased to recruit – a recipe for eventual extinction.

Corporatism and privilege

But the bonfire of privileges on 4 August was general. As the implementing decree of 11 August put it: ‘All particular privileges of provinces, principalities, countries, cantons, towns and communities of inhabitants, whether pecuniary or of any other nature, are irrevocably abolished, and will remain absorbed into the common law of all French people.’ This was to consign the whole chaotic and luxuriant variety of the old regime to oblivion and open the way to a more rational and uniform organization of the country and of society. The old order had been corporative, every organization defining itself by its privileges and monopolies. But the revolutionaries of 1789 did not believe in monopolies of any sort, which they saw as conspiracies against the public or national interest. This included all types of professional organizations and trade guilds, which were abolished by the Allarde Law of 23 April 1791; and combinations of artisans, primitive trade unions, forbidden by the Le Chapelier law of 14 June following, which declared ‘the annihilation of all sorts of corporations of citizens of the same calling or profession’ to be ‘one of the fundamental bases of the French constitution’.

The greatest corporation of all was of course the Church: independently wealthy, largely self-governing, and owing part of its allegiance to a foreign potentate beyond the Alps. As with the nobility, the clergy’s loss of separate representation in the Estates-General heralded far more substantial damage. Clerical electors had hoped that the new regime would strengthen the role of the Catholic Church in national life after two generations of philosophic erosion, but instead the clergy found themselves appalled and apprehensive at the uncompensated abolition of tithe on 4 August. Religious freedom, vouchsafed a few weeks later in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, was a further blow to their spiritual monopoly. The confiscation of Church lands in November spelled the final end of the Church’s independence; and made inevitable too the dissolution of monasteries and the abrogation of monastic vows in the following spring. The elective civil constitution of the clergy then destroyed the hierarchical autonomy of the Church, and priestly protests that one way or another it must give its consent to any such changes only aroused the anti-corporative fury of the National Assembly.

The confessional state

It was not surprising that the pope anathematized the civil constitution, and his enmity was only confirmed in September 1791 when France annexed his territories of Avignon and the Comtat-Venaissin. All this meant that, when France went to war the next year, French soldiers would make a particular point of attacking ecclesiastical institutions and installations wherever they went. By the Year II the Republic had even abandoned the ‘constitutional’ church created under the Constituent Assembly, and had become the enemy of all religious establishment. In September 1794, although the extremes of dechristianization were over, the Republic renounced all religious affiliations; but throughout the Directory there were periodic crackdowns on suspect refractory clergy, when hundreds were sent to the ‘dry guillotine’ of Guiana in South America, while in Germany and Italy territories ruled by the Church were secularized. The young Napoleon, still making his reputation, was too cautious to do more than bully the pope. But generals who succeeded him in 1798 dissolved the papal states, set up a secular ‘Roman Republic’, and carried the pontiff off to captivity in France. Many thought that when Pius VI died there in August 1799 the papacy itself had come to an end.

Dynastic diplomacy

It was saved by the Austrians, who allowed a conclave to meet in Venice several months later. They did it mainly to spite the French enemy which had plagued them since 1792. In diplomatic terms the wars of the French Revolution brought to an end an uneasy and unpopular alliance with Austria which went back to 1755 and was blamed both for the disasters of the Seven Years War and for bringing Marie-Antoinette to France. But even before the break with Austria, the revolutionaries had begun to spurn the old dynastic diplomacy. When in May 1790 the King of Spain called upon France, in the name of the long-standing ‘Family Compact’ between the Bourbon rulers of the two kingdoms, to back Spain against Great Britain in a territorial dispute over Nootka Sound (on the Pacific coast of North America), the National Assembly refused. The new France, it declared, would only fight to preserve its national territory from attack and not to honour the private compacts of dynasts. ‘It is not’, one deputy later declared, ‘the treaties of princes which govern the rights of nations.’ This seemed to turn into something like principle the diplomatic nullity that France had fallen into in 1787, and which the decay of her army in the meantime had only compounded. That decay proved irreversible, as early defeats in the war of 1792 showed; and even if it was the trained artillery of the old regime which saved the new republic at Valmy, by the beginning of 1793 it was obvious that an entirely new sort of army would be required to fight the war of national survival that the conflict so thoughtlessly launched the previous April had become. The new army, capitalizing on the advantage of France’s vast population, would be made up largely of citizen conscripts. No longer would its recruitment depend on the volunteering of drifters, its numbers sustained by regiments of foreign mercenaries. Nor would its tactics and behaviour be the self-contained, tightly controlled manoeuvres of old regime forces, dependent on their baggage trains and more concerned to preserve their own expensive existence than to take battle to the enemy. The restraint and timidity of old regime warfare can easily be caricatured and exaggerated; nevertheless it was mild indeed compared with the all-out conflict waged by the French – and, increasingly, their adversaries – over the next generation. So dynastic diplomacy, and the style of warfare which had underpinned it, scarcely survived the 1790s. When Napoleon, who built a career on mastery of the new way of fighting, attempted to buttress his monarchical pretensions by marrying an Austrian princess in 1810, it took only three years before he found himself once more at war with his father-in-law in Vienna.

Colonial slavery

It was of course the costs of war that had brought down the old monarchy, but the crucial element in the escalation of those costs had not been the army. What had been really ruinous was the added burden of naval competition with Great Britain, where the stakes were not dynastic advantage, but worldwide economic hegemony. French hopes here had been blighted by the defeats of the Seven Years War, but not destroyed. And even if helping the Americans to their independence had not yielded the hoped-for benefits, fortunes in the Indian Ocean revived, French islands were the most flourishing in the Caribbean, and the ports serving them, such as Bordeaux and Nantes, were the most spectacularly expanding cities in the kingdom. The Revolution ruined all this for ever. A movement proclaiming equality and freedom provoked turmoil in islands built on slavery and racial discrimination. In Saint-Domingue, the most valuable territory on earth in 1789, chaos among whites and mixed-race creoles opened the way three years later to a massive uprising among the 450,000 black slaves – the greatest slave revolt in history, and the most successful. Attempts to re-establish control in 1793 culminated in the first abolition of slavery in modern times, endorsed by the Convention in Paris in February 1794. But by then renewed war against Great Britain had severed links with overseas colonies. Attempts by Napoleon during the peace of Amiens in 1802 to reimpose slavery by a military expedition to Saint-Domingue also failed, and in its aftermath the former slaves established the independent state of Haiti. Meanwhile the French slave trade had collapsed, and the economy of the great Atlantic ports shrivelled. The population of Bordeaux shrank by 15 per cent between 1790 and 1801, and seven years later Napoleon was shocked by the emptiness of its immense quayside. By then, the main impediment to maritime trade was the British navy, which had completely destroyed its French rival between 1798 and 1805, and used its triumph to impose the tightest blockade ever known on the continental coastline. But when the wars finally ended, there was no hope of ever reconstructing the old Atlantic economy of slaves, sugar, and coffee. When, a generation later, French imperial ambitions revived, Africa and Indochina would be the main targets, and commercial incentives, which had driven the creation of the pre-revolutionary empire, were secondary.

Redrawn maps

And by then not only the French empire had fallen apart. As early as 1795 French armies destroyed the Dutch Republic and, by forcing its successor ‘Batavian’ sister-republic into an alliance against the British, opened Dutch colonies in three continents to the hostile depredations of the tyrant of the seas. Meanwhile the oldest political entity in Europe, the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, was steadily dismembered, a process accelerated by Napoleon and brought to a conclusion in 1806 when he forced Francis II to resign the imperial crown and retreat into a purely Austrian hereditary monarchy. Nobody ever thought seriously of trying to revive the corpse when Napoleon fell nine years later. When, finally, Napoleon deposed the Spanish Bourbons in 1808 and flooded Spain with French troops, the world’s largest and furthest-flung colonial empire absolved itself from any obligation to obey orders from Madrid. Some parts, such as Venezuela, declared their independence almost immediately. Bolívar, the ‘Liberator’ who led this movement, had once idolized Napoleon as a republican hero and saw the establishment of the French empire as a betrayal of revolutionary ideals. But in any case attempts by the reactionary Ferdinand VII to reimpose the old regime after the Bourbon restoration in Spain merely provoked the whole of Spanish South America into republican resistance. It had triumphed everywhere by the mid-1820s, the last ripples of the republicanism launched in Paris in 1792.

Achievable dreams

For those who lived through all, or even part, of these vast upheavals, the shock was overwhelming. From June 1789 onwards, the diaries and observations of contemporaries echo with wonder and increasing horror at the scale of what was occurring. Nobody was prepared for it. And although from the start revolutionaries were happy to depict their movement as the triumph of eighteenth-century ‘philosophy’ and Enlightenment (an analysis ruefully accepted by most of their critics and enemies), it is hard to imagine either Voltaire or Rousseau revelling in the events which, from only eleven years after their deaths, were often so glibly attributed to their influence. Robespierre, as proud a disciple as any of the Enlightenment, declared: ‘Political writers … had in no way foreseen this Revolution.’ They had expected that reform, if it came at all, would occur gradually and piecemeal, and would be the work of enlightened authoritarians rather than elected representatives. In these circumstances, the sort of headlong, comprehensive change undertaken by the revolutionaries was exhilarating. The English poet Wordsworth was far from the only person to feel it a blissful moment to be alive, and that change was possible:

Not in Utopia, subterranean fields

Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!

But in the very world, which is the world

Of all of us …

Nothing, in other words, needed to be accepted any more as set in the nature of things. If the mighty French monarchy, the nobility and the feudal law from which it justified its pre-eminence, not to mention the Catholic Church itself, could be challenged and rejected on grounds of rationality, utility, and humanity, then nothing was beyond challenge. Dreams of all sorts were achievable. Rousseau had taught that human society was hopelessly corrupt and corrupting, and that only total change could redeem it. That was why he was such a hero to the revolutionaries: they had proved his vision to be possible. Never again would institutions, habits, or beliefs be accepted merely because this was how they had always been or were (another way of putting it) ordained by God. The Revolution overturned for ever an innocent world of unquestioning compliance where most things seemed beyond change or remedy. The German philosopher Kant, in a famous essay of 1784, had defined Enlightenment as mankind’s emancipation from self-imposed immaturity, and unwillingness to think freely for oneself. The proposition was purely intellectual. Kant thought Enlightenment could only progress slowly, and that a revolution would never produce a true reform in ways of thinking. Five years later, he changed his mind. Although he believed that no revolution was ever justified, he convinced himself that what had happened in France was a voluntary surrender of power by Louis XVI, because he recognized that the moment of emancipation from unthinking routines and supine reflexes had suddenly arrived.

Resistance and persistence

And yet: although the Revolution symbolized the assertion of political will against the constraints of history, circumstance, and vested interest, revolutionaries soon found themselves learning the hard lesson that will alone was not enough to destroy the old regime. It fought back; and it is the strength and determination of resistance and counter-revolution that largely explains the ferocity of the terror. And when all the strength that the revolutionaries could muster had been spent, terror abandoned, and Napoleon finally defeated, many of the things that revolutionaries had sought to destroy in and after 1789 were still there, or had rapidly re-emerged. Napoleon himself, whose career is inconceivable without the Revolution, was responsible for many of the revivals. He in turn saw them as the mere recognition of political realities.

Despite dechristianization, religious practice had not been stamped out. In fact, it was the mainspring of opposition to the new order, and showed no sign of abating. The concordat with the pope, however, reconciled Catholics with the new regime by re-establishing their Church. Similarly with nobility. Born a noble himself, Napoleon knew as well as anyone that blue blood could not be abolished short of exterminating all those who believed they possessed it. And so he encouraged émigrés to return, and ignored directorial legislation depriving ci-devants of their citizenship. He also knew that the orders and distinctions particularly associated with nobility were the sort of ‘baubles by which men are governed’. That was why he introduced the Legion of Honour, with its scarlet ribbons and insignia, in 1802. Finally, in 1808, he set up a full-blown imperial nobility, making special efforts to recruit authentic nobles from the old order to it. By then, of course, he had made himself a hereditary monarch, and he believed that no crowned head could look authentic without a court and a nobility. And his rule was even more absolute than that of the Bourbons, with prefects even more omnicompetent than those hated agents of the old ‘despotism’, the intendants.

When he fell, moreover, none of this disappeared. Although the line of hereditary succession would twice be interrupted, with the exception of the years 1848–52 France would be a monarchy down to 1870, under either Bourbons or a Bonaparte. Noble status would be officially recognized throughout that time, and in the 1820s émigrés would be compensated by the state for the lands they had lost in the Revolution. Prefects continued to represent authority in the country at large, and even a form of venality of offices re-emerged among notaries and other legal functionaries. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, remained established in its Napoleonic form, its priests paid out of state funds, until 1905. In 1825, Charles X, last surviving brother of Louis XVI, even underwent an elaborate coronation, in the traditional setting of Reims Cathedral, to reconsecrate the bond between his dynasty and God. A casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that all the destructive zeal of the Revolution had achieved nothing.

Illusory restorations

But nothing would be more superficial. Apart from its gaudy trappings, the monarchy of Napoleon had little in common with that of Louis XVI. Consciously imperial, it sought to evoke Charlemagne rather than the Bourbons. There were no built-in vehicles of opposition such as the parlements or provincial estates. The nobility which the Emperor created to decorate his monarchical pretensions was much smaller than its pre-revolutionary namesake, enjoyed no legal privileges, and titles were not even hereditary without a certain level of wealth. Entry was by imperial nomination, not by purchase of venal office. More old nobles shunned the chance of joining such a factitious creation than succumbed to Napoleon’s inducements.

Nor was the restored monarchy of Louis XVIII and Charles X at all like that of their martyred brother. In many respects, as has often been said, it was not his throne but Napoleon’s that they inherited. None of the old regime governmental apparatus was brought back and the Civil Code remained the backbone of French law. For much of the restoration period the state was compelled to rely on men who had established themselves under the Emperor. And if the old nobility was formally recognized once again, imperial titles were still accepted and the Legion of Honour maintained. On the other hand, the Charter proclaimed by Louis XVIII in 1814, which served as the basis of a constitution down to 1848, was imbued with the spirit of 1789. In practice the restoration monarchy was constitutional, with regular elections to the lower house of a two-chamber legislature, guarantees of individual and press freedom, and equality before the law and in taxation. Above all, perhaps, the Charter, just like Napoleon when his rule began, explicitly confirmed the revolutionary land settlement. Lands confiscated from the Church and the émigrés and then sold on would not be returned to their original owners. Indeed, by granting the indemnity of 1825 to those who had lost lands, the government of Charles X unwittingly endorsed the loss. And so successive regimes professing to deplore the work of the Revolution accepted and guaranteed the massive transfer of property that it had effected.

This alone was enough to ensure that the Catholic Church restored under the concordat bore little resemblance to the former Gallican church. Without lands, endowments, or titles it was dependent on the state for all its material support apart from the pious donations of the faithful. All beneficed clergy were now state nominees. The old chaotic and uneven ecclesiastical geography had gone, too, as had the Church’s exemptions and fiscal privileges, and the institutional independence of regular assemblies of the clergy. Nor were monastic orders allowed to re-establish themselves – although without endowments there would in any case have been little prospect of that. Finally, religious toleration ensured that the official confessional unity of the old regime (already crumbling, to clerical outrage, by 1789) had also gone for ever.

Although it liked to depict itself as a restoration of throne and altar, the Bourbon regime that succeeded Napoleon changed little of this. The more extreme, or ultra, supporters of the Bourbons would have liked not so much to restore the pre-revolutionary Church, as to make it even stronger than it had been then. They blamed the Revolution on the undermining of religious authority under the old regime. But their only success was the passage of an unenforceable act in 1825 stipulating the death penalty for sacrilege. Meanwhile the pious behaviour of Charles X at his coronation aroused more ridicule than reverence. The cousin who succeeded him as Louis-Philippe after the Revolution of 1830 never made any claims to rule by the grace of God, but merely as the choice of the French Nation.

A world transformed

Attempts outside France to restore what the French Revolution or its influence had smashed were similarly doomed. Here Napoleon made no contribution. His strongest claim, indeed, to be the instrument of the Revolution is perhaps the way he systematically demolished the old order in Italy, Germany, and Spain, annihilating whole states, introducing the Civil Code and the concordat. Only in Poland, wiped off the map by partitioning powers in 1795 in the face of French impotence, and perhaps indifference, did he resurrect an echo of the old order in the Duchy of Warsaw. After all this, there was no prospect that the Congress of Vienna which met to establish a post-Napoleonic Europe could restore anything like the international old regime. In fact, it redrew frontiers and reallocated sovereigns quite as confidently as he had, and did nothing to restore any ecclesiastical principalities except the pope’s own in Italy. It is true that all the great powers of the 1780s had re-emerged stronger than ever; but the ‘concert of Europe’ by which they sought to prevent future conflicts on a Napoleonic scale was entirely new, and owed little beyond a vaguely expressed desire for ‘balance’ to the ruthless and opportunistic international order of the eighteenth century. Similarly, the ‘Holy Alliance’ touted by East European monarchs after 1815 was more redolent of the sixteenth century than the eighteenth, and was formed to pre-empt the disruption of Europe by the forces of any other Godless revolution.

Even, therefore, when attempts were made to bring back the old regime or elements of it, these attempts could never be innocent. They were always infused, not only by awareness that it had once fallen, but also by convictions about what had brought it down, and by what might have prevented the disaster. There would be no point in restoring an old regime that was just as vulnerable as before. So no true restoration was ever possible, and although monarchies, nobilities, and churches might all reappear after revolutionary attempts to annihilate them, none of them really resembled their generic namesakes of before 1789. Despite appearances, few of the things attacked by the Revolution truly survived unscathed.

Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions were now provisional, valid only so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and utility. In this sense, the French Revolution really did represent the triumph of the Enlightenment, and ushered in the mental world in which we still live.

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