Chapter 5
What it started

The Revolution began as an assertion of national sovereignty. Nations – not kings, not hereditary elites, not churches – were the supreme source of authority in human affairs. It was this conviction which led the National Assembly in 1790 to declare that France would never make war except in self-defence, and impelled the Convention, two years later as the new Republic appeared to have survived the hostile onslaughts of the leagued despots of Germany, to offer fraternity and help to all peoples seeking to recover their liberty. It only took a few months for the Convention to recognize the impossibility of such an open-ended pledge; and the forces unleashed by the Revolution would be defeated, a generation later, by an alliance of kings supported by intransigent nobles and vengeful priests who spurned any thought that nations could be sovereign. Nevertheless a new principle of political legitimacy had been irrevocably launched, and within a hundred years of the apparent triumph of reaction in 1815, the sovereignty of nations had achieved acceptance throughout Europe and the Americas. In the twentieth century it would be invoked in its turn to expel Europeans from all their overseas colonies.

Totalitarian democracy

What constitutes a nation has remained problematic. Sieyès’ definition of 1789, used to lambast the privileges of the nobility, was ‘A body of associates living under common laws and represented by the same legislative assembly’. It proved a beginning, but no more – too loose for those who considered language, traditions, and territory at least as important. But nations, once self-defined, have seldom been content over the last two centuries to be governed by authorities not of their own choosing. The revolutionaries of 1789 assumed that national sovereignty could only be exercised representatively, but within ten years Napoleon had begun to show how it could be appropriated to legitimize dictatorship and even monarchy. Each of the steps he took between 1799 and 1804 towards making himself a hereditary emperor was endorsed by a plebiscite responding to a carefully phrased question. The results were never in doubt and all were almost certainly rigged to make them even more emphatic. His nephew Napoleon III would use the same device to give national legitimacy to his own seizure of power in 1851 and 1852; and as recently as 1958 the Fifth Republic was launched by a referendum giving vast powers to General de Gaulle. The world beyond France had to wait mostly until the twentieth century for the techniques of plebiscitary or totalitarian democracy to become widespread; but they were as firmly rooted in the great legitimizing principle of 1789 as any of the more liberal ideals also proclaimed then.


The term ‘liberalism’ was not invented until Napoleon’s power was in decline. It was first used to describe the aspirations of the Cortes of Cadiz between 1810 and 1813 to establish representative government in post-Napoleonic Spain. But what the Spanish liberals dreamed of was based on the political model first established in France by the Constituent Assembly: representative government underpinned by a written constitution guaranteeing a basic range of human rights. These would constitute the minimum demands of political reformers throughout the nineteenth century and down to the overthrow of the last absolute monarchy in Russia in 1917. The essence of liberal beliefs was to be found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. That meant freedom to vote; freedom of thought, belief, and expression; and freedom from arbitrary imposition or imprisonment. Liberals believed in the equality embodied in the Declaration, which meant equality before the law, equality of rights, and equality of opportunity. They did not, however, believe in equality of property, and one of the main functions of the rule of law which they consistently invoked was to secure property owners in their absolute rights.

Beyond that there was scope for wide disagreement. Not until the twentieth century did more than a small minority accept that women should enjoy the same liberty and equality as men; and during the Revolution the few bold spirits of either sex who made liberal claims on behalf of women were ridiculed or silenced. One reason why French women had to wait so long for the political rights they finally achieved in 1944 was that the politicians of the Third Republic feared that female voters would be dominated by their priests: ever since 1793 women had proved the mainstay of Catholic resistance to revolutionary secularism. Racial equality left liberals ambivalent too. The first stirrings of anti-slavery sentiment in France coincided with the onset of the Revolution, but slaves were property, and their labours underpinned a vast network of wealth and commerce. The dangers of loosening their bonds seemed vividly demonstrated by the great slave uprising in Saint-Domingue in 1791. In an attempt to regain control there, the Convention’s representatives proclaimed the abolition of slavery, and in February 1794 their action was confirmed in Paris. The deputies congratulated themselves on being the first rulers ever to abolish slavery – which they were, but only through recognizing afait accompli. Napoleon in any case restored it less than ten years later in islands remaining under French control, and regimes ostensibly more liberal than his maintained it until the revolutionaries of 1848 made it part of their first business to honour the legacy of 1794.

The new Constituent Assembly that made this gesture had been elected by universal manhood suffrage – a further belated homage to a principle used to elect the Convention in 1792 but never since. Even then it had excluded servants and the unemployed. The men of 1789 had been much more restrictive. They believed that only property owners had the right to political representation: if all were now citizens, only those with a minimum level of wealth could be active citizens. The distinction reflected a mistrust of popular participation in public life as old as history, but which the events of the Revolution did nothing to dispel. Revolution was born amid riot, intimidation, and bloodshed in the crisis of 1789, and popular violence or the threat of it had flickered throughout the early years before bursting out with appalling carnage in the September Massacres of 1792. Everybody recognized how much the vengeful demands of the sansculottes had done to precipitate terror a year later, so that when, after it ended, the Convention produced the constitution of 1795 it deliberately set out to exclude even more people from public life than in 1791. Thereby a pattern was set for half a century, under which representative regimes would represent only the very rich, people with something to lose; and even unrepresentative regimes, like Napoleon’s, would study their interests and seek to rule with their cooperation.

The People

The problematic paradox was that a revolution which ushered in the principles of liberalism could not have come about without popular support. The people of Paris had saved the National Assembly on 14 July, and perhaps in October 1789 as well. What only counter-revolutionaries still dared to call mobs were now manifestations of the people aroused and in action, and voices could always be found to justify their excesses. The ferocious Marat, in his newspaper The People’s Friend, built a journalistic career on doing so, and after his assassination in 1793, was revered (and commemorated in David’s most memorable painting) as a martyr to the popular cause. By 1792 popular activists were glorying in being ‘sansculottes’, and after the overthrow of the monarchy populist style and rhetoric dominated public life for about three years, polite forms of dress and address were abandoned, and political rights were equalized (at least among men). An egalitarian constitution was proclaimed or at any rate promised, vouchsafing free education and ‘the social guarantee’ of welfare support for the indigent, the sick, and the disabled. Meanwhile the rich were mulcted in a forced loan, there was talk of redistributing the property of émigrés and traitors to poor patriots, and prices of basic commodities were kept low by the maximum. All these policies were abandoned after the fall of Robespierre; but almost at once they began to be regarded by many as the lost promise of true social equality. Babeuf and his co-conspirators of 1796 proposed to base their seizure of power on the never-implemented constitution of 1793. Later, Socialists would look back to the Year II of the revolutionary calendar to find the earliest ‘anticipations’ of their ideals at the moment when the People entered politics for the first time in pursuit of their own interests, rather than as the tools of more powerful manipulators.


9. Marat assassinated: Jacques-Louis David’s revolutionary pietà


But here too there was a problematic paradox. The Year II was also the time of the terror, whose last phase at least looked very like social revenge in action. Were popular power and terror inseparable? Drawing on theoretical justifications framed at the time by orators such as Robespierre or Saint-Just, some later Socialist or Communist revolutionaries did not shrink from accepting that only extermination would defeat the enemies of the people. There could be no true revolution without terror. And although the nineteenth century shuddered at the memory of the revolutionary tribunal and the show trials it conducted, the twentieth would see them echoed under many regimes claiming legitimacy from revolutions. Many later sympathizers with the Revolution’s broad aspirations were understandably reluctant to believe that society could only be made more equal through bloodshed. They, along with liberals who were as concerned by the threats to property heard in the Year II as the threats to life, saw the terror as at best a cruel necessity, forced upon the First Republic not by the inexorable logic of the Revolution but by the force of ‘circumstances’. In a country divided by rashly imposed religious choices and the feckless behaviour of Louis XVI and his queen, the fortunes of war dictated extreme measures of national defence as the distinction between opposition and treason became blurred. But the Revolution was a warning of what might happen rather than a prescription of what must.

Left and right

All such perceptions were grounded in the conviction that, however mixed its character, there was more good in the Revolution than bad. This was the view from the left, itself a way of describing politics which originated in the Revolution, when proponents of further change tended in successive assemblies to sit on the left of the president’s chair, while conservatives congregated on his right. The right, in fact modern political conservatism, was as much a creation of the French Revolution as all the things it opposed. The instinctive inertia of the ancien régime had gone forever: those who sought to preserve governments, power structures, and social institutions from revolution in the new sense were obliged to formulate unprecedented rationales and strategies for doing so.

Conspirators and revolutionaries

The collapse of the old order, and the headlong changes that followed, took everyone by surprise. In the confusion of the next five years, with ever more horrific news of destruction, outrage, and massacre, bewildered onlookers cast about for explanations for such a boundless upheaval. Hostile observers thought it could only be a conspiracy. As a network of political clubs, the Jacobins, emerged as the vectors of the revolutionary radicalism, it began to be suspected that these were none other than the mysterious freemasons who had proliferated so spectacularly over the eighteenth century. Deistic but tolerant (and condemned twice for that by the Catholic Church) and glorying in secrecy while invoking values such as liberty, equality, and benevolence, masonic aims and ideas seemed in retrospect to be corrosive of all established values – even though the old elites had flocked to join lodges. No credible causal link has ever been established between freemasonry and the French Revolution or indeed the Jacobin clubs, but in 1797 a book purporting to demonstrate their connection in a plot to subvert religion, monarchy, and the social hierarchy was a Europe-wide bestseller. Barruel’s Memoirs to Serve for the History of Jacobinism remained in print into the twentieth century, reflecting an undying suspicion of a movement that before 1789 had alarmed nobody except a few paranoid priests. So indelibly, indeed, did freemasonry now come to be associated in certain continental countries with republicanism and anti-clericalism, that to join a lodge became a gesture of radical political conviction – which it had never been before the Revolution. Conservative regimes, right down to the Nazis and their Vichy puppets, would accordingly continue to view freemasonry with the deepest suspicion, and would periodically close its networks down.


10. The enduring legend: Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830)

Nor were such suspicions entirely groundless, in the sense that throughout the nineteenth century many political radicals had come to believe that the way to bring about revolution actually was through secret conspiracies. Before 1789 there was no such thing as a revolutionary. Nobody believed that an established order could be so comprehensively overthrown. But once it was shown to be possible, the history of France in the 1790s became the classic episode of modern history, whether as inspiration or warning, a model for all sides of what to do or what to avoid. Not even sympathizers could afford to accept that conspiracy was not a way to achieve revolution, because otherwise it would be the work of a blind fate beyond the influence of conscious human agency. And so the 1790s themselves saw secret groups plotting revolution in many countries of Europe. In Poland and Ireland they played a significant part in bringing about vast and bloody uprisings. Their defeated leaders who had turned to France for help, men like Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Wolfe Tone, have been revered ever since as prophets or martyrs of national independence. And when the Revolution in France itself began to disappoint its adherents, a genuine Jacobin plot was hatched – but against the new regime rather than the old. The first attempt in history at communist revolution, Babeuf’s ‘conspiracy of equals’ of 1796 failed miserably; but his co-conspirator Buonarroti spent the rest of a long life setting up conspiratorial revolutionary networks, and perpetuated the memory of the first one in a book of 1828 (Conspiracy for Equality) which inspired three generations of subversives and became a sacred text of successful Communism after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century, in fact, when Russia experienced two revolutions, French precedents became an obsession among Russian intellectuals, and in 1917 even the leading players brooded constantly on who were the Jacobins, who the Girondins, and whether a Napoleon was lurking among them.

Patterns and paradigms

In France itself, meanwhile, recourse to further revolution had been a standard, and for many people entirely reputable, political option for much of the nineteenth century. When in 1830 Charles X seemed poised to abandon even the attenuated parts of the revolutionary legacy accepted by his brother Louis XVIII as the price for succeeding Napoleon, he was overthrown by three days of insurgency on the streets of Paris. His cousin and successor Louis-Philippe ostentatiously flew the tricolour, and hoped to reconcile the bitterly divided traditions originating in 1789. He failed, and was driven out in his turn by more popular defiance in the revolution of 1848. Another Bonaparte closed this one off, but his defeat in the Franco-Prusssian War led to the bloodiest episode since the terror – the Paris Commune of 1871 in which perhaps 25,000 people died. The very name commune evoked 1792, and many communards saw themselves as sansculottes reincarnate, fighting the same enemies as the First Republic – Royalists, Catholics, duplicitous generals, and the greedy rich. Only the last category derived much benefit from their defeat, however, and the Third Republic which emerged from the traumas of the early 1870s would glory in revolutionary imagery and modestly pursue democratic and anticlerical aspirations first articulated in the 1790s. For half a century after 1917, many French intellectuals regarded the Russian Revolution as the belated fulfilment of the promise of their own, and the historiography of the revolutionary decade was dominated by members of or sympathizers with the French Communist party. But their grip on the Revolution began to be challenged from the mid-1950s, and, as the Soviet empire crumbled in 1989, the hegemonic interpretation of the bicentennial year was that of the neo-conservative, ex-Communist François Furet.

Although he saw terror as inherent in the Revolution from its very beginning, Furet nevertheless saw the revolutionary experience as the foundation of modern political culture. Americans have the best grounds for disputing this, with a founding revolution that preceded the French one by more than a decade. Having helped to make American independence possible, many French contemporaries certainly found the transatlantic example inspiring, but nobody thought it could be transplanted to Europe. By the time that most enduring monument to eighteenth-century political creativity, the United States constitution, was finalized, the French were engaged in their own constitution-making and claiming, with some justice, that their revolution was like no other in history, and owed little except fraternal good feeling to previous upheavals elsewhere. The Americans themselves were soon enough bitterly divided about whether the new France was in any sense the same country which had helped them to independence, and uncertain about how much of its new regime they could admire. Remote from the older continent, ambivalent about contacts with it, and speaking what was still a peripheral language, America was marginalized by the French Revolution until the twentieth century – even if it owed its westward expansion to the sale by Napoleon of Louisiana in 1803.

Conservatism, reaction, and religion

Convinced, meanwhile, that what had allowed an old regime of stability, deference, and order to be overthrown was a lack of vigilance, European conservatism struck out at the sources of subversion. Before the 1790s were out, all governments were rapidly expanding their repressive resources, with a proliferation of spies and informers and experiments with regular public police forces. Lists of suspects would be routinely kept and their movements tracked. Strict censorship would be imposed on all forms of publishing, and the press, blamed for disseminating insubordination and free thought both before and during the Revolution, subjected to the closest supervision. Among the most efficient of these repressive regimes would be that of Napoleon himself, who, although a product of the Revolution, sought to ground his appeal in reassuring property owners that the social threat of Jacobinism had been stifled. Napoleon also recognized that the original, and still the deepest, wound inflicted on France by the Revolution had been the quarrel with the Roman Catholic Church; and nothing did more to bring the Revolution to an end than his concordat with Pius VII. He was convinced, like all conservative regimes after him throughout the nineteenth century, that the firmest support for order and authority lay in a secure and recognized role for organized religion, in which he saw nothing more or less than ‘the mystery of the social order’.

Traumatized by the experience of the 1790s, which included the first attempt in history in 1793 to stamp out religious practice entirely, and then the renunciation by the Convention the next year of all religious affiliation (the first overt creation in the history of Europe of a secular state), the Church for its part was only too eager to renew its age-old alliance with secular powers. The experience proved less than satisfactory. Within eight years of concluding the concordat, Pius VII found himself, like his predecessor, a French prisoner, deprived of his central Italian dominions, and about to undergo four years of relentless bullying by Napoleon. From imprisonment on St Helena, the former emperor claimed that he had planned to abolish the papacy outright. The Bourbons who succeeded him were much friendlier towards the Church, but they had long given up any idea of returning it to its position of before 1789. An attempt to renegotiate the concordat foundered, and the new regime confirmed the loss of Church lands which Napoleon had insisted the pope accept as a precondition of the original negotiation. From now on the fortunes of the Church echoed every vicissitude in the French state throughout a turbulent century; and when eventually that state became a republic vaunting its descent from the one which had severed all links between Church and state in 1794, the course was set for a separation which eventually occurred in 1905. Beyond France meanwhile, although the pope received his Italian territories back in 1814, ecclesiastical rule was not restored anywhere else in Europe, and Italian nationalists increasingly regarded the papal states as the main obstacle to unifying the peninsula. Until the downfall of Napoleon III in 1870, monarchical France was the papacy’s main supporter; but, increasingly embattled, Pius IX fell back upon powers that were not of this world. The end of French support, and with it the absorption of former papal territories into the new kingdom of Italy, coincided with the promulgation by the Vatican Council of the doctrine of papal infallibility – never before unambiguously claimed for fear of the reactions of secular rulers. And what the experience of Church–state relations had demonstrated since 1790 was that faith was at least as likely to flourish without the backing of the state as with it. The lesson was reinforced when the new German empire launched the Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church in the 1870s. Rome would continue to anathematize the French Revolution as the origin of modern impiety and anti-clericalism, a change happily accepted by all those who gloried in these attitudes. But the traumas of the 1790s also began a process of slow recognition within the Church that it might be better off independent of secular authority, free to make its own decisions and demanding only toleration for its practices and activities. When power was offered it, as in mid-twentieth-century Spain, or in Ireland, the clergy still found it hard to resist; but in a world (again traceable to the French Revolution) where regular political change was normal and to be expected, the unwisdom of identifying too closely with any regime, however sympathetic, has become more and more obvious to thoughtful churchmen.

The Church continued, after all, to pay the penalty of clinging too closely to reactionary and repressive regimes throughout the nineteenth century. As late as the 1920s, the later stages of the Mexican revolution brought conscious echoes of the dechristianization of 1793, and the Cristero revolt of devout Indians in support of the embattled church recalled the Vendée revolt of that same year. The last great triumph of extreme anti-clericalism, however, struck not so much at the Catholic Church (or at least not until it reached Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary after 1945) as the Russian Orthodox. By 1922, Lenin had ‘reached the firm conclusion that we must now instigate a decisive and merciless battle against the clergy, we must suppress their opposition with so much cruelty that they will not forget it for several decades. The more … we succeed in shooting for this reason, the better’. Like several of the more zealous dechristianizers of 1793, Stalin had trained before the Revolution as a priest, and the Soviet Union under his rule was officially committed to atheism and the eradication of ‘superstition’. Most churches were closed, many demolished, and devotion was largely kept alive (as in France in the 1790s) by peasant women. These policies were maintained, although less ruthlessly, after his death; and yet the Church re-emerged as the Soviet Union collapsed. Its East European satellite regimes, meanwhile, knew better than to confront the Catholic Church too fiercely. The emergence of a pope from Poland in 1978 might be seen, in retrospect, as a sign of the Church’s recovering confidence at the moment when an ideology of extreme secularism first formulated almost two centuries earlier was beginning to crumble.


The revolutionary critique of religion, even before it became an all-out attack, was part of the wider commitment of the men of 1789 to promoting rationality in human affairs. The collapse of the old regime, they thought, presented them with an opportunity to take control of their circumstances and remould them according to a conscious plan or set of principles. Nobody before had ever had such an extraordinary chance. When their armies and Napoleon’s in turn overthrew other old regimes, they gave their subjects – forced upon them, indeed – the same chance. The keynote of all the new arrangements and institutions which now appeared was rationality and uniformity. Administrative maps and boundaries were redrawn, divisions equalized, anomalies of all sorts eliminated. The departments into which France was then divided remained unmodified until the twentieth century. Uniformity of means of exchange and communication was also introduced – currency, weights and measures, and language; underpinned by a centralized and carefully regulated system of education, and a simple, concise code of laws. Some of these things were only sketched out or barely begun in the 1790s; but the drive and singleness of purpose of Napoleon fixed most of them firmly in place and established them all as goals to be pursued by successive regimes. This was how modern states organized themselves. It is true that, under the inexorable pressure of interstate competition, moves in this direction had already been underway in a number of countries before 1789: but they were bitterly contentious, and it was contention over just such moves that brought down the French old regime. The Revolution swept the institutions and forces of resistance aside, both in France and wherever else French power reached. In so doing, it offered an object lesson to all regimes of how easy modernization could be, given determination.

Or so it seemed. In reality, the victories of the French Revolution had been far from easy. They had only been secured though paranoid savagery at home and military ruthlessness abroad. To the 16,000 official victims of the terror should be added perhaps 150,000 more who perished in the fighting and reprisals of 1793–4. The devastated Vendée, in fact, has been identified by some of its most recent historians as the first modern attempt at genocide. The wars against old regime Europe between 1792 and 1815 cost the lives of well over 5 million Europeans (1.4 million of them French) – a slaughter as great, although over a longer period, as that of the war of 1914–18. Such costs were overlooked, or brushed aside, by later observers inspired by the ambitions and achievements of the revolutionaries. The corollary was that when such enthusiasts triumphed, as in twentieth-century Russia or China, the carnage was repeated. Nor have the victories achieved at such cost endured.

A limited legacy

The legacy of the French Revolution to the nineteenth century, we have seen in this chapter, was momentous, but always partial and often paradoxical. The regimes of revolutionary Communism established in the twentieth century have not outlasted it in Europe, and those still surviving beyond are transforming themselves in ways which would have outraged their founding fathers. What has defeated the revolutionary impulse in the long term is the persistence of cultural diversity. Rationalizing ideologies imposed by state power, and the intellectuals and administrators who have placed such faith in them since 1789, have never succeeded in effacing the importance of less rational sources of identity in habits, traditions, religious beliefs, regional and local loyalties, or distinct languages. Perhaps the most ambitious of all the Revolution’s rationalizations was the attempt to restart time itself from the founding of the republic in September 1792. The very months were rescheduled and renamed, and seven-day weeks replaced by ten-day ‘decades’. It never caught on, and the revolutionary calendar was officially abandoned by Napoleon at the end of the year XIV (1806). It was a portent of many other failures of reason in the face of human resistance or indifference. And with the collapse since the mid-1980s of most of the world’s regimes of Communist universalism, these forces have re-emerged with renewed vigour. Even in countries where Communism never triumphed in the twentieth century, including France, decentralization and devolution, acknowledgement of linguistic diversity, and abandonment by the state of obligations too readily assumed or acquired, marked the last two decades of the twentieth century. As the bicentenary of 1989 recedes, what was intended as a celebration of the enduring values launched by the Revolution begins to seem more like their funeral.

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