Letter From the Editor

Janny Wang - Editor-In-Chief
Posted on: July 10, 2019

I could not pass on the editorship
in peace if, having been granted this
platform by the grace of God and Rafi q,
I did not use it to editorialize about the
French Revolution at least once.

The French Revolution is one of those
periods of history that are paradoxically
common knowledge and completely
unknown. The phrase most commonly
associated with it is “Let them eat cake.”

The phrase actually comes from a story
initially related by Rousseau. It is often
misattributed to Marie Antoinette, who
did not say it but did embody it. More
than anyone else, she was the white
bosomed representative of a regime
which decked itself in soiled opulence
while the country around it died of cold
and hunger.

Her husband meanwhile, Louis the
umpteenth, was a fat and fatuous non
entity.

And so the curtains open: the queen
is hated, the king is useless, the treasury
bankrupt.

To raise the taxes needed to pay off
the mountainous debt, Louis was obliged
to summon the Estates General, a
meeting of the three traditional ‘estates’
of the French realm; the nobility, the
clergy, and everybody else. The estates
voted as a class, so that the clergy and
nobility, despite comprising a miniscule
percentage of the French people, had two
thirds of the vote.

Unfortunately, the middle classes had
been reading philosophy and, by 1789,
autocratic feudalism was no longer
in fashion. The delegates of the Third
Estate demanded that the delegates
should vote as individuals, which
would effectively give the commoners
a permanent majority in government.
When locking the delegates out of their
meeting room proved insuffi cient to stop
the march of democracy, the government
of Louis the umpteenth rolled over and
the Estates Generals was rechristened as
the National Assembly.

This was something of a feint; while
pretending defeat, the government
shuffl ed troops around, with the fi nal
goal of maneuvering the nascent
National Assembly into a fait accompli.
In preparation, the king sacked Necker,
a popular liberal fi nance minister and in
the Palais Royal in Paris, a broke young
radical leapt onto a table, screaming
that this was all a prelude to a Saint
Bartholomew’s Massacre.

The working people of Paris, the sansculottes,
were hungry, paranoid, and
riotous, barrels of gunpowder itching for
a spark. Camille Desmoulins helpfully
provided that spark and, in due time,
windows were smashed, guns seized,
and tricolor cockades conjured from the
abyss, all in good order. Unfortunately,
there was not quite enough literal
gunpowder lying around to match the
metaphorical powder of the political
scene. Thus, the attention of the rioters
was duly directed towards the Bastille,
a moldering medieval fortress laden
with symbolic signifi cance and- more
importantly- gunpowder. This was duly
stormed, with the help of a few mutinous
soldiers, and the King once more tripped
over himself to backtrack as graciously
as possible.

The respectable delegates of the
National Assembly, meanwhile,
congratulated themselves on their
heroic endeavours and on the evident
benevolence of the King. A decidedly
limited constitution was declared, and
all the enlightened fops settled down to
have a nice glass of Bourbon and admire
the fruits of their labour.

This attitude pleased neither those on
the left, who wanted universal suffrage
and a healthy serving of bread, nor the
right, who wanted to zip back into the
twelfth century with all due speed.
The former rioted often and with great
alacrity, most notably when a crowd of
angry fishwives forcibly relocated the
royal family to Paris, where the good
citizens could keep a better eye on them.
The royal family, meanwhile, bided
their time before trying to hightail it to
Austria.

This incident, immortalized as the
Flight to Varennes did very little to
improve the standing of the royals in the
eyes of their people. The word ‘republic’,
previously anathema, sidled its way into
the political lingo of the day. This, alone,
however, was not enough to ruin them.
What did eventually ruin them was a
collective act of stupidity by the left and
right. France, imbued with revolutionary
pride and suicidal reaction, declared war
on everybody.

The left- or more particularly, a
segment of the left called the Girondins,
thought that a war would unify France
and liberate Europe. The royals- in
particular, Marie Antoinette- thought that
a war would result in a French defeat and
a tidy Austrian purge of all the radicals.
Against this tide, only one voice stood
for peace; a young country lawyer from
Arras, a former delegate to the National
Assembly, Maximilien Robespierre.

Initially, the latter prediction hit truer
to the mark, not least because most of the
French offi cers pre- Revolution who had
defected at the fi rst breath of populism
and now fought for the other side. After
a series of stunning defeats, the good
citizens of Paris concluded that they were
being sold out from above (a not entirely
inaccurate assessment given Marie
Antoinette was eagerly sharing military
secrets with her Austrian cousins). A
cadre of revolutionaries- led by one
Georges Danton- mobilized the Parisian
militia and a handful of provincial troops
on their way to the front.

On August 10th 1792, the
revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries
Palace and brought an end to two hundred
years of Bourbon rule. The actuality of
it was a little less tidy, since the royal
family surrendered before the storming,
but neglected to tell their guards to stand
out, whereupon a wholly pointless shoot
out ensued. A month later, rumors that
the prisoners of Paris were planning to
throw open the gates to the incoming
Austrian army sparked a wholesale
massacre of the prisoners by the Parisian
sans-culottes.

This marked the beginning of the truly
radical stage of the French Revolution
the phase which granted universal
suffrage for all men, which eventually
abolished slavery, drew up plans for
universal education and redistributed
land to itinerant peasants. It was
alogether a glorious period, except for
the war, famine, and guillotining.

A new government, called the National
Convention, was called. Along with the
Girondins, it was dominated by the even
more radical Mountain, the party of
Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins.
Anchored awkwardly between the
two poles were a mass of undecided
delegates, derisively dubbed ‘the Plain’.

The Girondins had by now pretty
thoroughly worn out their welcome with
the radical Parisians, who duly stormed
the Convention and got the lot placed
under house arrest on suspicion of being
‘counter revolutionaries’. The Girondins,
it must be said, did not do much to allay
these suspicions when they escaped, fl ed
into the countryside, and promptly began
mongering an insurrection.

Meanwhile, another revolt broke out
in the countryside when radical anti
clericalism and conscription alienated
the local peasantry, who massacred a few
republican militias and took up arms in
the name of their King (who, by the by,
was now decapitated).

It was in this peaceable atmosphere
that the guillotine was trotted out. Its
favourite target was not the stiff little
aristocrat in fi lthy lace- although it
did have its fair share of those- but the
working and middle classes.

Both revolts were eventually put down
with exceptional brutality; there are
lurid records detailing mass executions
by drowning, by cannon and bayonet,
and speeches in the offi cial records
promising to reduce those insurgent areas
to ashes and dust. It ought to be noted,
however, that the worst atrocities tended
to be perpetuated by ‘representatives
on mission’, delegates of the National
Convention sent to the countryside and
equipped with exceptional emergency
powers.

On the Austrian front, the situation
had improved drastically or at least
ceased to be an unmitigated disaster;
notwithstanding the high profile
defection of the chief commander and a
few instances of mutiny, lynching, and
execution, the situation stabilized, and
Paris lived for sometime without the
imminent fear of an Austrian sack.

Meanwhile, three factions had by
now crystallized within the Convention.
The Hebertists, the extreme leftists
who wanted an ever more studious
application of Madame la Guillotine;
the Dantonists, who called for clemency
and perhaps a little money laundering;
and Robespierre’s faction, who generally
stood aloof.

After a sketchy bit of political
maneuvering, Danton and Robespierre
teamed up to execute Hebert, whereupon
promptly Danton found himself in
likewise situation, and Robespierre
breathed a sigh of relief and then went
off and had a nervous breakdown.

When Robespierre returned from
this adventure, he delivered a panoply
of speeches on virtue and terror and
helped draft a law which- whatever it
was actually intended to do- ended up
causing a decided uptick in guillotining.
At this point, his colleagues- including
the authors of the aforementioned
provincial atrocities- conspired to arrest
and execute Robespierre before he could
execute them.

Aside from their principled opposition
to being executed, the aforementioned
colleagues did not have very much going
for them, and under their slack and
incompetent gaze, France retreated into
reaction, corruption, and scandal- at least
until a little artillery officer from Corsica
went and had himself a nice coup.

This is a woefully incomplete retelling
of events, lacking even a whiff of the
brilliant odour of Marat- and so, for a
more complete and nuanced retelling, I
redirect you once more to Mike Duncan’s
Revolutions podcast. He should pay me,
so often have I shilled for him.

Comments are closed.