In January 1891, Victorien Sardou premiered his Thermidor at the Comédie Français. The play tells the story of a clerk working for the fearsome Committee for Public Safety who tries to save its victims from the Terror by misplacing their paperwork. The play’s title alludes to the day, 9 Thermidor, when the Committee’s sanguinary chairman, Maximilien Robespierre, was overthrown.

Thermidor’s first night was a great success. Nevertheless, when word circulated that Robespierre was portrayed as the play’s villain, everything changed. The second night’s audience was so abusive that the police were called. Faced with the possibility that more performances would be disrupted (but more likely for political reasons), the Carnot government promptly banned Thermidor. The matter did not end there, however. A few days later, two deputies questioned the government’s action during a session of the National Assembly, arguing that Thermidor’s treatment of the Revolution’s evil aspects did not justify banning. What started as a debate about artistic freedom, however, quickly changed direction when Georges Clemenceau rose to defend the Terror by calling it inseparable from the Revolution. “Gentlemen,” he said, “whether we want or not, whether it pleases us or shocks us, the French Revolution is a bloc . . . from which we can separate nothing.” L’affaire Thermidor, as it was called, illuminated the issue that had divided historians since the start of Revolution: were the events, as Clemenceau seemed to be saying, simply a case of “on ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs”? Or was it, as Edmund Burke, Thomas Carlyle, and Hippolyte Taine argued, a disaster for France? Three new books make their own contributions to this perpetual debate.

When word circulated that Robespierre was portrayed as the play’s villain, everything changed.

In grappling with the Revolution’s central paradox, how hundreds of thousands of French citizens were slaughtered in the name of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” Jeremy D. Popkin’s A New World Begins takes a warts-and-all approach, if only to emerge, marginally, on the side of the omelet.1 He describes France’s appalling difficulties prior to the Revolution before moving to the idealistic, often chaotic but increasingly repressive, efforts of a series of legislative bodies that led eventually to the Convention, Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, and its lethal agent, the Revolutionary Tribunal. Although Popkin understates matters by describing atrocities like the September Massacres, the Nantes mass drownings (“vertical deportations” to use its repulsive euphemism), the Lyon cannonades, and mob killings as merely “troubling,” his account of the Terror and the rise of Napoleon is compelling reading.

For Claude Quétel, however, the Revolution was “an execrable episode, from start to finish,” an unnecessary civil war that still divides France. In Crois ou meurs (“Believe or Die”), he argues that the Revolution, though sparked by food riots and Louis XVI’s inability to deal with them, was primarily spurred on by the Enlightenment’s abstract theories of equality.2 These theories, he says, originated in Paris’s fashionable literary salons and were spread by lawyers and journalists—with little idea of how they would work in practice. The appendix to Crois ou meurs summarizes the Revolution’s historiography, showing the deep divisions of opinion. Quétel argues that, notwithstanding the misery caused by the Revolution, those same theories of equality have influenced historians up to the present day.

Antoine Boulant’s Le Tribunal révolutionnaire, drawing on the national archives stored at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, is a readable account of the Tribunal’s origins, its staffing, its obsessively political nature, and its day-to-day workings that sent more than 2,700 people to Paris’s guillotines.3 “Revolutionary justice,” he quotes one commentator as saying, “is more obviously about revolution than it is about justice.”

One finishes A New World Begins with the sense that had things gone slightly differently, today’s France might be a much different place. As a rule, historians do not favor the element of chance in their accounts, and Popkin is no exception. Nevertheless, chance played a decisive part in the outcome of the Revolution. Until late 1792, over three years after the fall of the Bastille, many thought that France would be a constitutional monarchy and worked to that end. As Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, however, actions inevitably have unintended consequences.

In 1788, Popkin tells us, France was insolvent: it had defaulted on its sovereign debt in August of that year. Its support for the American Revolution a decade before had badly strained its finances, and it never recovered. There was a general sense of injustice. Taxes were forever rising without anything to show for them. The tax structure itself was deeply regressive, with the less wealthy and poor—workers, farmers, and merchants (the Third Estate)—shouldering the entire fiscal burden while clergy and nobility (the First and Second Estates) paid nothing. Social advancement was difficult save in the rarest cases; if one was born into the lower ranks, that was where one stayed regardless of ability. Conversely, the privileged often occupied positions to which they were unsuited—a source of bitter resentment to those aspiring to improve themselves. Much of the population was hungry. Poor harvests were exacerbated by structural problems that hindered the efficient distribution of grain.

Quétel argues that, notwithstanding the misery caused by the Revolution, those same theories of equality have influenced historians up to the present day.

These and other problems left the people crying out for reform, but Louis XVI was unequal to the task. In the words of one of his sixteen finance ministers, he “absolutely lacked the character of a king.” He had been indoctrinated from birth that the monarchy was the soul of France and that he ruled by divine right. Louis preferred to look backwards to the world of his royal predecessors rather than deal with current events. Shy and bookish, his favorite pastime was lockmaking, an art taught to him as a boy by the royal locksmith, François Gaman. As a man, he was both stubborn and irresolute—each quality displaying itself at the least opportune time. Popkin describes how Turgot’s proposals for much-needed reform, including the deregulation of the grain trade, the reform of the tax system, and the abolition of the regional estates and parlements, were given short shrift. “Louis had certainly not been brought up to stage such a sweeping revolution in his kingdom,” he writes.

Time was running out, however. Pamphleteers like Emmanuel Sieyès were openly questioning the position of the privileged classes. Bread riots were frequent, and open rebellion had occurred in Grenoble. With no money in the treasury and besieged by political, economic, and social crises, Louis agreed, in return for a financial lifeline from his bankers, to convoke the Estates-General, an ancient advisory council of elected delegates from all three Estates, and to grant it plenary power to reform France’s finances. In a remarkable piece of political jiu-jitsu, and with breathtaking speed, the Third Estate coopted the First and Second and declared itself a one-and-indivisible National Assembly acting on behalf of the nation—in effect, a coup d’état. By the end of 1789, after the storming of the Bastille, the creation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the abolition of feudal rights, Talleyrand could proudly tell his countrymen they were “raised to the rank of citizens, eligible for all jobs . . . knowing that everything is done by you and for you, equals before the law, free to act, to speak, to write.” At the same time, however, there were indications of the bloodshed to come when Camille Desmoulins and Jean-Paul Marat called for revolutionary violence—and the mobs obliged. As the Abbé Grégoire had presciently warned, when “an insurrectionary moment . . . recovers rights that had been invaded and is reborn to liberty, it can easily go to extremes.”

In 1790, the new National Assembly continued its demolition of the old order by abolishing the nobility. Having already confiscated all Church property in France, the National Assembly created a permanent rift in the population when it voted to do away with religious orders, subordinate the Church to the French government, and require clergy to swear allegiance. Warring factions beset the National Assembly. Popkin describes the proliferation of these “clubs,” including the Jacobins, the Club de 1789, the Amis de la constitution monarchique, the Feuillants, and the anarcho-leftist Cordeliers, each with their view of what France should become. These clubs would eventually consume each other as the Revolution progressed. By 1790, one concerned observer noted the “wild and dangerous effervescence” of the Jacobins, fearing that they “may soon provoke a spirit that will deluge the country in blood.” How right he was.

Despite—or because of—the growing factionalism, influential men like Mirabeau and, after his early death, Barnave and Duport, worked to build support for a constitutional monarchy, begging Louis to accept what the Revolution had achieved. Louis, however, was not apt to take advice, or if he took it, apt to change his mind quickly. When, after the October Days (a bloody 1789 protest over his guardsmen not wearing the Revolutionary tricolor), Louis was brought to Paris under guard, he sought Mirabeau’s counsel on how to deal with the National Assembly. Mirabeau advised Louis that, to avoid giving the dangerous impression that he was allying himself with foreign powers in his struggles with the Assembly, he should instead seek refuge in a friendly regional capital within France where he could negotiate a mutually satisfactory form of government—a sustainable constitutional monarchy.

Louis ignored him. In June 1791, Popkin tells us, he and his family headed for the border (the Flight to Varennes), only to be stopped just short of it. The royal idea was that, once out of France, Louis would command Austrian troops provided by Marie-Antoinette’s brother in a counterrevolution. Just weeks before, Louis had assured the National Assembly that he would accept its new constitution. When Louis and his family ignominiously returned to Paris, his political support began to collapse. Merchants’ trade signs reading “By appointment to the King” and “Royal Lottery” were destroyed or vandalized, while a supporter who shouted “Vive le Roi” when Louis’ carriage rolled by was killed on the spot by outraged bystanders. Two months later, when Prussia and Austria offered promises of support for Louis, their statement, as vague as it was, further undermined his position. Louis’ pledge of constitutional support was the basis of the charges when he was tried for treason fifteen months later.

Though the Revolution still had several years to run, the essential components for its radicalization were in place. Louis and the deeply unpopular Marie-Antoinette were on the throne but suspected of treason. Foreign armies were poised on France’s borders and believed to be preparing to invade. There was internal opposition in the form of bodies of clergy refusing to swear allegiance and nobility seeking compensation for their expropriated properties, each group having considerable support in various regions. They were suspected of wanting to reverse the Revolution’s gains. The leading factions were far progressed in their belief that political harmony could only be achieved by eliminating their opponents. To top things off, France was awash in an atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust. Even before the start of the Revolution, an indelible characteristic of the times was its explosive atmosphere of rumor, suspicion, and intrigue. A fuller explanation of the dimensions of Revolutionary paranoia than Popkin provides would be of great interest.

After France declared war on Austria in April 1792, things began to move. In July, as the Austrian Army moved towards Paris, the new Legislative Assembly proclaimed a national emergency. On August 9, Georges Danton, then a Paris prosecutor, established the Paris Commune—Popkin’s description of Danton’s meticulous planning and the seizure itself is fascinating and harrowing. The following day, August 10, Commune forces invaded the Tuileries. Forced back by an initial volley of gunfire, Commune forces then overwhelmed and killed most of the royal bodyguard and seized the royal family. While being transported to the Temple prison, Louis was stripped of his power by the Legislative Assembly, which convoked the smaller National Convention to deal with the internal and external threats to France. The next month, Popkin tells us, the remaining members of the royal bodyguard, along with a miscellany of nobles, priests, and other unfortunates, were tried by “people’s courts” under the direction of the Commune and beaten to death in the courtyard of the Abbey Saint-Germain—the infamous September Massacres.

The Convention remained in existence but, less than a year later, in April 1793, ceded power to the smaller Committee for Public Safety that Robespierre eventually headed. By that time, Louis had been executed following his trial by the Convention. The royal locksmith Gaman, Louis’ boyhood teacher, picked Louis’ armoire de fer and provided the Convention with secret and deeply incriminating correspondence between Louis, Mirabeau, and others about establishing a constitutional monarchy. Louis lamely testified during his trial that he had never seen some of the letters bearing his signature.

All hell broke loose after Louis’ execution. Within a few months, France was at war not only with Austria and Prussia, but also with England, the Dutch Republic, and Spain. Insurrections broke out all over France, especially in Brittany, Lyon, Toulon (Napoleon was made a general for his part in its recapture), and the Vendée. Convention forces eventually extinguished these uprisings and enacted savage reprisals—thousands of civilians were put to death by Convention forces, often in the most gruesome fashion. More than three hundred thousand French would die by the end of the Revolution.

Effectively leaderless but with its warring factions competing for dominance, the Convention began decreeing the death penalty for an increasing number of offenses. The Terror began in September 1792 when the Convention suspended the constitution and adopted the Law of Suspects that permitted expedited trials and executions of counterrevolutionaries. Robespierre, appointed to the Committee for Public Safety in July 1793, became the de facto dictator of France and one of the Terror’s must eloquent advocates—though in truth it had several others, including Louis Saint-Just and Georges Couthon. “The foundations of a popular government in revolution are virtue and terror,” he said; “terror without virtue is disastrous and virtue without terror is powerless.” Thousands of Parisian executions later, Robespierre was overthrown by his colleagues and executed. They were rightly terrified that it was only a matter of time before he got around to executing them.

Despite Robespierre’s role, Popkin treats him rather gently:

The temptation to put all the blame for the violence and excesses of the Terror on Robespierre’s shoulders was understandable. But thousands had played a part in those events including the remaining members of the Committee of Public Safety who all kept their positions. . . . [Robespierre] never indulged in the open advocacy of bloodshed that had characterized Marat and Hébert . . . or the campaigns of repression that many of his Convention colleagues oversaw in the provinces. But he justified such violence as inevitable and necessary if the goals of the Revolution were to be achieved.

It would be another four years before the Directory, which succeeded the Convention, would be replaced by Napoleon Bonaparte, ending the Revolution but starting a new and different type of authoritarianism.

In Crois ou meurs, Claude Quétel takes issue with the popular view, originating with Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, that there were two revolutions: the “good,” represented by The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the “bad,” symbolized by the Terror. Instead, he says, the Revolution was a “deadly and useless madness” from the outset. His view is the opposite of Clemenceau’s—though they both agree that the “Revolution is a bloc,” Quétel believes that, far from being an overall triumph, the Revolution betrayed the very principles on which it was founded. “Words!,” he quotes the Goncourt brothers as saying, “We burn in the name of charity and we guillotine in the name of brotherhood.” From its very beginnings, he states, murder and bloodshed were part of the Revolution.

Quétel believes that much of the Revolution’s poisonous “philosophisme” (Taine’s term for abstract ideas of equality) comes straight from Rousseau. In The Social Contract, as Quétel points out, Rousseau writes that “anyone who refuses to obey the general will should be forced to do so . . . which means little less than we will force him to be free” (and parenthetically Quétel adds, “Yes, Jean-Jacques really did say that!”). By itself, the admonition that people will be forced to be free is daunting, but subjection to the “general will”—as interpreted at the whim of revolutionary leaders—was terrifyingly predictive. Those unwilling to conform to the general will were, of course, on their own. “I regard as a crime against the nation anyone who seeks to resist our regeneration,” said one deputy. Despite the liveliness of Quétel’s arguments, however, they provide no answer to the question: what else could have been done to reform France? How could an unequal society and paralyzed political system reform itself?

Crois ou meurs ends with an informative essay on the Revolution’s historiography. It summarizes some of the most important of the tens of thousands books and studies about the Revolution. We read about the Abbé Barruel, who explained that Revolution was a form of divine retribution, and Burke, who warned about the fatally alluring power of abstract theories. In the nineteenth century, Michelet and Lamartine argued for a liberal interpretation of the Revolution while Tocqueville saw it as stemming from Louis XIV’s centralization of the monarchy. George Sand’s sometime lover, the socialist Louis Blanc, was among the first to praise the Terror and the workings of the Committee for Public Safety, while Taine joined Burke in the condemnation of abstract theories and deplored the Revolution for its excesses. In 1891, the Sorbonne established a chair in the History of the French Revolution, first occupied by Alphonse Aulard. This, suggests Quétel, marked the beginnings of Revolution history’s socialist and Marxist schools that influenced French popular thought for over a half century. In 1965, François Furet and Denis Richet gave the first of many, as Quétel describes them, “kicks to the Marxist anthill.” Today, other topics, such as the role of women and developments in Haiti, are the subject of new study, Popkin being one who has worked in these areas. Quétel’s bibliographic essay concludes a stylishly written and lively, though out-of-the-mainstream, history.

In Le Tribunal Révolutionnaire, Antoine Boulant tells us how that court was one of dozens of special jurisdictions established to deal with counterrevolutionary activities. Apart from the 2,700 people it condemned to death—at one point twenty-eight a day—the Tribunal keeps its place in France’s collective memory because of its location in the Palais de Justice (where parts of it still exist), its pitiless and energetic prosecutor, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, and the arbitrary justice it dispensed. Its conviction rate increased markedly after the Convention passed the decree of 22 Prairial that eliminated the right to counsel and defense witnesses.

Boulant describes the location and history of the Tribunal’s premises (several famous events in French history occurred there) and the personalities of its judges, permanent jurors, and prosecution. These men fully bought into the Tribunal’s politico-revolutionary mission. One juror, Pierre-Nicolas-Louis Leroy, changed his surname to “Dix-Août” (August 10, the day the Convention stripped Louis of his powers) because he was so ashamed of his birthname (“Leroy”—“Le Roi”—the King), while the Tribunal’s registrar, Nicolas-Joseph Pâris, changed his surname to “Fabricius” to differentiate himself from the murderer of a popular revolutionary deputy. The various crimes under the Tribunal’s jurisdiction—passing information to foreign powers, bearing arms against French authority, and conspiracy—were all punishable by death. “Soyons terribles pour éviter le peuple de l’être,” said Danton—“we must be harsh so that the people need not.”

It is grim but fascinating reading. In the chapter titled “The Revolution Devours its Children,” Boulant tells us of the increasing number of deputies, nominally protected by parliamentary immunity, who, after falling foul of the Convention, were denounced and arraigned for “complicity with enemies of liberty, equality and republican government.” In “Destroying Royalty,” he relates the trials of ancien régime figures like Marie-Antoinette, Louis XV’s aged former mistress Madame du Barry, and France’s most brilliant scientist, Antoine Lavoisier (whose judge allegedly told him that “The Republic has no need of scientists or chemists”). Boulant concludes Le Tribunal révolutionnaire by noting recent scholarship defending the Tribunal as a legitimate device to protect the young republic against its political enemies during a period of exceptional danger. But he then adds, importantly, that the Tribunal’s signature attributes—radical juries, trial by group, ad hominem charges, imaginary conspiracies, “yes or no” answers from defendants, the absence of defense counsel, and appeals to public opinion rather than evidence—unmistakably foreshadow the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s.

In concluding A New World Begins, Popkin tells us the French Revolution was “the laboratory in which all the possibilities of modern politics were tested for the first time.” Nevertheless, the ease with which the ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, all drawn from Enlightenment thinking, were so quickly toppled by many of the same leaders who initially embraced them shows how easily subverted those concepts can be. Their fragility was increased even further by the spirit of the times. Never, Tocqueville said, had humanity been more pleased with itself, nor had so much faith in its own omnipotence—and, one might add, such appetite for change. How differently things might have been if, apart from Rousseau and the other Lumières, France’s revolutionary leaders had noted what Niccolò Machiavelli wrote: “we must bear in mind that nothing is more difficult to set up, more likely to fail, and more dangerous to manage than a new system.”

1 A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution, by Jeremy D. Popkin; Basic Books, 640 pages, $35.

2 Crois ou meurs: Histoire incorrecte de la Révolution française, by Claude Quétel; Tallandier, 512 pages, €21.90.

3 Le Tribunal révolutionnaire: Punir les ennemis du peuple, by Antoine Boulant; Librairie Académique Perrin, 300 pages, €23.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 7, on page 60
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now