The French Revolution (The Reign of Terror) 1789-1799
The story of the French Revolution is the story of a country collapsing in on itself.
It’s unfair to compare these events to the colonial uprising of the American Revolution, because that conflict did not take place at the center of power, and King George wasn’t exactly removed from the throne and decapitated… which is kinda how things went down in France in the 1790’s between the royalty and the common folk who’d had enough of their $#!& – spoiler alert: things got ugly real fast.
Towards the end of the Eighteenth Century, France was dissected into three distinct classes / estates: the Nobility, the Clergy, and the smelly broke peasants who really didn’t count (aka everyone else). This is how things had been for longer than anyone could remember, and no one really second guessed it… at least until a dangerous new idea came along…
The Enlightenment was a grass-roots movement that caused the underrepresented 99% to question EVERYTHING. Kinda like if Morpheus was going door to door with red pills and pamphlets about how the machines are harvesting our bodies as living batteries while we’re living our lives in virtual reality, “No one can be told what <The Enlightenment> is, you have to see it for yourself.”
The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, was an extension of the Italian Renaissance (meaning ‘Rebirth’), which brought new emphasis on discovery, and a search for truth and meaning through critical thinking, rather than just listening to what ‘they’ wanted you to think. This began an unprecedented drive for equality and individual rights which would ultimately challenge the hierarchy of the monarchy based government system.
The Catalysts of
Enter: the Bourbon King, Louis XVI (yes, that’s Louis the SIXTEENTH). Prince Louis (the 16th) was a reluctant ruler, with little to no interest in politics, and became the default king of France during the worst crisis of his country’s history in 1765.
The Bourbon monarchy reigned from the palace of Versailles, Louis the 14th’s palatial estate built 20 miles outside the districts of Paris, the nation’s capitol, far enough away from the stench of its open sewer system, and the complaints of the commoners. This truly monstrous mansion would put every single house on MTV’s Cribs to shame. Versailles: a 2,300 room, gold-plated, Sixty-Seven-THOUSAND-Square-Meter estate of PURE unadulterated EXCESS.
Not only did Louis get to be King, and live in a gigantic theme park dedicated to him, but he also married the young and beautiful, (albeit a little ditzy), Marie Antoinette, the Archduchess of Austria, in 1770. Louis XVI had won the lottery of arranged marriages and couldn’t really care either way. Meanwhile, back in the real world: France was simmering in a toxic mixture of hunger, and anger.
To make matters exponentially worse, the French lost against Great Britain during the Seven Years War in North America, effectively draining the bank as it were. The French people were the ones who ultimately paid the price, starving in the streets while their privileged leaders partied around the clock like it was already 1999.
Then, when America rose up against France’s long term nemesis (they were still bitter about that whole Hundred Years War affair), Louis bankrupted the country to send money and troops to help out the revolutionary colonists, an oversight that worked out rather well in America’s interest, but not so much for the French people. All the while, Louis’s Queen (Marie Antoinette), ran up the credit card bills with her increasingly extravagant purchases to the point where she earned the title: Madame Deficit.
France had grown significantly in a short period of time, putting increased pressure on the government. Bakery raids, and riots swept the country. So between the food shortage, increased taxes, economic crisis, and political discourse, France was one gamma-inducing-accident away from Hulking out.
That’s when a man named Maximilian Robespierre, leader of the Third Estate, came forth as the voice of the poor and disenfranchised. Max reasonably demanded that the wealthy paid their fair share in taxes. In his address, he blamed the royal court for their pile of problems, and essentially called Louis XVI a greedy jerk, which he definitely was.
1789: During an appeal to the courts, the nobility and clergy completely ignored their pleas. Since legal channels didn’t work, they decided to take a different route. The representatives of the Third Estate got up during the meeting, and walked out. After being locked out of a meeting, the members of the Third Estate regrouped outside the court house in a tennis court (randomly), and announced an Oath against the King’s authority and formed The National Assembly. The aptly named Tennis Court Oath was basically like a French version of the Declaration of Independence.
King Louis, unsure of how to proceed, attempted to make both sides happy, which he failed to do, on both ends. Then as a last step, he called in troops from abroad to ‘keep the peace’. Within days 30,000 troops surrounded Paris. In response, The People formed a guard to fight the power! Sheer revolt had taken hold at long last. Paris erupted into violence as the people of Paris demanded retribution. Revolution had come at last, and things were about to get fugly…
The only problem? The make-shift militia had plenty of muskets, minus the gun powder…
The solution: Raid the Armory!!!
THE FRENCHMEN REVOLT!
“Storm the Bastille!” they cried (in French, presumably). And so the 99% marched towards the Bastille, ready to dish out some old school justice on some fools. The Bastille was a literal fortress, a dungeon that symbolized the monarchy’s absolute power, and the citizens of Paris were about to tear it apart, quite literally brick by brick!
The soldiers stationed at the Bastille crapped their collective pants as the entire population of Paris came down on them shouting ‘Vive La France!’ Those that were too stupid to abandon their posts met a gruesome death at the hands, knives, and pitchforks of the angry mob that swarmed the castle like a colony of killer bees!
Meanwhile, ¡Vive la Revolución! had reached the gates of Versailles. The angry mob of mothers and bakers tore into the palace, pillaging the flour storage… and royal blood! Accounts of the time claim that more than one of the palace guards was literally ripped limb from limb.
According to an urban myth of the time, when Marie Antoinette was approached by her servants about the starving, angry, people rioting outside, the Queen dismissively pointed to the leftovers from the party, and told her advisors, “Let them eat cake.” As funny as that is, she never actually said it. In reality Marie was shocked. She had no idea just how bad things had gotten, from her sheltered lifestyle in the palace. Some claim that as she was running for her life, she may have said something in panic, along the lines of “If they’re hungry, can’t we give them some Brioche?” not fully grasping the severity of the situation.
King Louis XVI looked out the window, saw the torches and pitchforks, and immediately set about dipping his quill in ink to sign their Declaration of the Rights of Man, relinquishing his power. The King and Queen attempted to sneak away, but were captured, and marched unceremoniously back to Paris in a parade of revolutionaries waving red, white, blue – oh and the severed heads of the royal guards on pikes. The National Assembly took control of the system, aristocracy was thrown out for democracy (by extreme means) and a Constitutional Monarchy was established by the people of France.
If you think that’s the happy end of our triumphant story you’re dead wrong.
THE REIGN OF TERROR Begins…
In 1791, the King and Queen attempted an escape to Austria, disguised as servants. Unfortunately they kinda sucked at acting. They were found out, arrested, and dragged back to Paris to await trial.
All the while, Jon Paul Marat became the voice of the Revolution. As it turns out, Marat was a voice of insanity.
His solution to every problem was the rolling of heads. In his newspaper (entitled, “The Friend of the People”), he claimed that betrayal was everywhere. He was sort of the Glenn Beck / Bill O Reilly of Eighteenth Century France. Jon Paul Marat demanded the execution of hundreds, and when that wasn’t enough, he upped it to hundreds of thousands!! As it turns out, people believed every angry word he put into his one-sided tabloid, and took up arms to carry out his will…
1792: War breaks out between Prussia and Austria! The Revolution back home in France takes a turn for the worse: The September Massacre – 1600 prisoners are slaughtered by crazed revolutionaries. Many are given quick, biased show-trials before being hanged, or worse. Enemies of the revolution are made an example of. Criminals and aristocrats alike are killed without mercy.
A noble woman, Charlotte Corday, eventually got sick of all the death and destruction brought about by Jean-Paul Marat’s poisonous words. So with a concealed knife she set about silencing him. Charlotte shanked Marat (in the bathtub, mob-style) with hopes of bringing peace to her country. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way – seeing as he was praised as a martyr, while the bloodshed only increased.
Eat This: Guillotine Cuisine!
Speaking of bloodshed… There was A LOT of it going around, which was not only work, but (as you can imagine) created quite a mess. The French janitors were tired of mopping up crimson streets. Turns out, Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin had just the invention to streamline the whole mass execution process. His shiny new killing machine was christened, ‘The Guillotine’!
The Guillotine was created as a ‘humane’ form of decapitation. I can only imagine Doctor Guillotine giving a demonstration like a day time TV commercial, “It’s quick, efficient, (effortless), and ‘painless’!” CHOP! (Thud.) The Guillotine was placed in the center of a town square in Paris, for all to see. This unsanitary death-dealing device soon became the bloody symbol of the French Revolution, with a name that evokes a cross between a pro-wrestler and a death-metal band: “The Nation’s Razor”!!
Maximillian Robespierre, a former adversary of the death penalty, did a 360, flip flopping with the times, and became the Guillotine’s most outspoken supporter overnight. Robespierre would help fulfill Marat’s blood lust as the people demanded it. By the end of the century, 40,000 would lose their heads to the dreaded Guillotine!
1793: The King is tried as a traitor. He is declared guilty of treason.
The punishment: Death.
A few argued that the death of the former King would only excuse violence as a means to happiness. Those who spoke against it however were drowned out by the savage calls for his head. King Louis, the 16th, was led to the maroon-stained scaffold. He turned to his people in remorse and attempted to give a dignified final speech. The crowd toned him out, booing and throwing rotten cabbage. They had come for blood (especially those in the splash zone).
Poor Marie Antoinette was also put on trial. When she was brought into the courtroom, she barely resembled her former self, as a list of made-up charges was rattled off. At 38 her hair had gone gray while awaiting her sentencing in a dungeon. She too was led to the Guillotine.
Then, without warning, Britain began invading and panic filled the streets! (More so then before.)
An emergency government was put in place, the constitution suspended, and a police force of spies were institutionalized. A revolutionary tribunal – a 12 men council – the ironically titled ‘the Committee of Public Safety’ was a collective dictatorship. The government became extremely paranoid. The Catholic Church was abolished, religious icons and statues were destroyed, thousands of priests drowned. People were rounded up and sent to the guillotine on the most mundane of charges. Even a lack of enthusiasm could be seen as traitorous.
The Reign of Terror was in full swing.
“Terror without Virtue is disastrous. But, Virtue without Terror is powerless!” Maximillian Robespierre spoke before his groupies. In 1794, Robespierre helped sponsor a cult based on the Goddess of Reason in place of Christianity. In his free time he established a new holiday: The Festival of the Supreme Being.
During the festivities, Maximillian Robespierre symbolically descended from atop a paper-machete mountain in the clouds, clad in robes. This was seen as a thinly veiled attempt at making himself appear divine. People were convinced that he’d lost his marbles, and began to get suspicious.
Robespierre chose this moment to deliver a speech of threats, with an all new list of enemies against the Republic. This (of course) backfired in his face when the people flipped out and silenced him. He was immediately arrested, and sentenced to death before he could finish reading off his latest hit list. While in captivity, Robespierre attempted suicide. His advisors succeeded in getting him a gun, but Max only managed to shoot off his jaw. The revolutionaries carted him off to the guillotine to finish the job for him.
As poetic justice would have it, Maximillian Robespierre was killed by his own revolution. FAIL
By 1804, a guy by the handle of Napoleon had risen through the ranks from General to Emperor. France had gone full circle, trading one monarchy for another. After the rise and fall of Napoleon, the other European powers reestablished a constitutional monarchy in France. King Louis XVIII (the 18th) was followed by Charles X (not to be confused with Professor Charles Xavier), and Emperor Napoleon III. During this time France would go on to have a few more Revolutionary movements.
The subsequent French Revolutions were minor in comparison to the first, and were by and large unsuccessful: The July Revolution of 1830, the June Rebellion of 1832 (which was a complete disaster – as seen in the play / multiple movie adaptations of ‘Les Misérables’, by Victor Hugo), and the French Revolution of 1848 which established the Second Republic of France, which lasted until Napoleon the Third’s coup in 1851, effectively establishing the Second French Empire.
The Second French Empire eventually collapsed, and the Third Republic of France was established in 1870. Everything was peachy until of course World War II when Hitler’s Nazi Party went around their massive defensive perimeter (the Maginot Line) to invade and temporarily conquer France (1940-1944). The *FOURTH* Republic of France that followed ended up imploding in 1958 due to the Algerian Crisis (long story) to finally be replaced by the current administration: The FIFTH (and Final?) Republic of France.
THE (first) French Revolution may have been a bloody mess that seemingly accomplished little, but it’s arguable that it had a greater impact on the world at large than the American Revolution, by challenging the old ways, and making way for the modern era.
Continued in… NAPOLEON – Part One
“The Days of the French Revolution” by: Christopher Hibbert
“The French Revolution” (2005) – History Channel Documentary
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