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The one good day in the French Revolution – August 4th 1789

Amongst all the the bad things about the French Revolution – the murders, the mutilations, the rapes, the robbery, the paper fiat money (and so on) there were some good things… and these good things happened during one session of the ‘National Assembly’ – a session about the time of the 4th of August 1789 (there was some night work – but there is no great need to complicate matters).

Serfdom may have covered only a tiny minority of the French population and courts may not have been in the habit of enforcing it – but it was still good to have it abolished. The old taxes may soon have been replaced by worse taxes – but it was good to have so many of the old ones abolished. It was of course wrong to later rob the Church of its lands (and later to plunder other people of their land, and to rob a lot of other people of various things), but tithes were wrong – and they went in the August 4th session.

Of course such things (that some books give credit to the Revolution for) such as religious toleration and the end of torture had been granted by Louis XVI long before the Revolution (and were soon violated by the Revolutionaries anyway), but it was nice to have formal statements about the end of ‘putting the question’ and freedom of conscience.

If any day in the Revolution deserves to be celebrated (most of the Revolution being a matter of robbery and mass murder – mostly of ordinary people) it is August 4th.

Certainly July 14th should not be celebrated. The Bastille contained about half a dozen people (including de Sade) and it was not ‘stormed’ at all. The Governor of the Bastille gave up the defence of the place when he was offered safe conduct – he was then promptly murdered.

When talking of the French Revolution it is normal to make a nod to the Declaration of the Rights of Man – but I have read it (in translation) and the drafting does not compare very well to (for example) the American Bill of Rights. At first glance the French Revolutionary document looks like a defence of individual rights, but the more one reads it and thinks about the wording the less good it is. To put it American terms – the thing smells of Thomas Paine (not the libertarian a lot people think he was).

25 comments to The one good day in the French Revolution – August 4th 1789

  • Toni

    In what sense wasn’t Paine a libertarian? And who was?

  • veryretired

    I have long felt that the French revolution was a precursor to the Russian revolution more than a century later.

    Both were explosions of pent up rage at the tyranical rule of an absolutist regime, both were legitimate attempts by well meaning people to set up a reasonably representative government, both were subverted (and perverted) by despicable political intrigues and unprincipled violence by power hungry elements, and both fell into a deadly twilight zone of murder, war, and repression that lasted for decades.

    In some ways, the French are still trying to recover from the philosophical and practical errors that led to the Terror, Napoleon’s authoritarianism, and the return of the monarchy.

    If I had to pick one thing that, in many ways, led to all the rest, it would be “egalite'”. The quest for that elusive value, because it’s impossible, led directly to all the ensuing disasters and deaths.

    The other similarity between the French and the Russians was in this single, massive error.

    It is not an accident, or the missteps of otherwise well intentioned people. The demand for absolute equality in all things is a demand for absolute control of all things. No other result is possible.

    In the movie “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (a remarkable film well worth your time if some of the younger people here have never seen it), there is a scene in which the two inexperienced gold hunters see what they think are veins of gold in the rocks as they walk into the mountains.

    Excited, they begin yelling and splashing water on the streaks, calling for their guide and mentor, an experienced gold prospector. When he arrives, he quickly deflates their balloons, chastising them for being so foolish as to throw their precious water around in a desert area for streaks of iron pyrite—fool’s gold.

    And that, in the final analysis, is what happened to both the French and the Russians. Beguiled by the fool’s gold of absolute equality, they betrayed everything else their revolutions might have stood for, lost any semblence of equality, absolute or in any other form, and poured the blood of their generations out in a futile attempt to turn base metal into something precious.

    I do not admire the American founders just for what they accomplished, but even more for what they did not do. They resisted the siren song of utopia, of paradise on earth.

    Upon those treacherous rocks have been dashed the hopes, and bones, of millions upon millions who might have lived their lives in quiet dignity and freedom, had only Cincinnatus walked in their midst, and gone back to his farm.

  • I have a question: did religious tolerance ever come to France? I know that the Revolution scapegoated the Catholic clergy as a whole for the sins of the ecclesiastic officeholders, and that the French government of today has laws against peaceful religious proselytization. What about the in-between times?

    Two more questions. When did France become a true and stable democracy (defined as representative government + separation of powers + rule of law + equality under the law)? Which countries aside from the US and the UK reached that status before France did?

  • Today’s oppressed are tomorrow’s oppressors.

  • guy herbert


    The Bastille may have been stormed on July 14th 1789, but its prisoners were not all released till Easter 1790.

    Alan K Henderson,

    France has been religiously highly tolerant since the Third Republic (1870s), but it is culturally pretty intolerant. Those are social factors, not statal ones. The anti-cult law is not designed to restrict normal peaceful proselytisation, but forms of psychological, though like all such laws it has a capacity to be used against the noisy and inconvenient by the authorities. The state is resolutely non-religious, most people are Catholic, but few care what you believe privately. Cf. Britain, which has an established church, but where most people are effective atheists (a lot of them nominal theists, if asked, but who never give a thought to religion otherwise), and public religious fervour is generally regarded with suspicion.

    The UK doesn’t have separation of powers and never has had. And I’m skeptical that any of those criteria are necessarily part of democracy, though rule of law is a requirement of a liberal state (which democratic ones aren’t always).

    As for who was “democratic” (and tolerant?) before France, it depends when you start counting France. My preference would be the Third Republic, but even today there’s a lot about the French state that is fundamentally authoritarian.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Toni, if I may answer your question: some libertarians doubt Paine’s claim to be considered one of them because of his support for quite a lot of state activity, as far as I can tell. I haven’t read any Paine, which I need to correct.

    I would urge folk to read J. Talmon’s “The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy”, which nicely shows how the French Revolution paved the way for some of the later disasters, like the Russian Revolution, etc.

    And of course, everyone should read what Edmund Burke what had to say on all this.

  • Jacob

    The Bolshevic revolutuion was …
    “both were legitimate attempts by well meaning people to set up a reasonably representative government”

    Totally wrong as far as the Bolshevic revolution was concerned.
    The Bolshevic revolution was a seizure of power by a bunch of thugs. They seized power by brute force from a weak interim government (Kerensky’s) which tried to establish democracy.
    There was nothing “legitimate”, nothing “well meaning” and nothing “reasonably representative” about the Bolsheviks. Pure evil, power hungry thugs, driven mostly by personal ambition, behind a veneer of an utterly evil ideology.

  • Jacob

    A personal note:
    As a youth I was taught to venerate the French Revolution as a glorious milestone in the struggle for the lofty ideals of “libertee, egalitee, fraternitee”.
    (no accent marks on my keyboard).
    Needles to say, I’m not British, wasn’t educated in GB.

    Later I was surprised by the total contempt the British have for the French revolution.

    Then I figured out that the British are probably right, and my education suffered from leftist and socialist biases.
    The French revolution was held in high esteem in communist coutries. That fits their slogan: “Thugs of the world – unite!”

    So, to come back to veryretired – you were right: there is some similarity between the Freanch and the Bolshevik revolutions.

  • “I have long felt that the French revolution was a precursor to the Russian revolution more than a century later.”

    There can be absolutely no question about this, VR. It’s a plain fact that 1917 took explicit inspiration from 1789. Throughout the Bolshevik Revolution, Trotsky constantly worked to keep himself in an explicitly Jacobin state of mind. When the Soviets began to come to grips with looming economic disaster in 1921 and Lenin contemplated what became the “New Economic Policy” (NEP), fear rolled through Party circles that the Revolution had entered its own “Thermidor” — the month in 1794 when the Jacobins went to the guillotine.

    1789 and its aftermath are constants throughout modern revolutionary thought. Martin Malia — just for one handy reference — points out that it was the Paris Commune (1871) that “catapulted Marxism out of obscurity and into prominence”. The Second International was proclaimed in 1889: the centennial.

    My own conviction is that most people cannot properly locate “The Cold War” in history: they think no deeper about it all than, say, 1950 (Truman and NSC 68) or 1945. I had the same problem for a while even after I was unpacking all the implications of 1917: in correspondence with Michael Moriarty (“Ben Stone” on the TV series “Law & Order”) several years ago, I was developing the idea that there is no way to seriously teach twentieth century American history without exhaustive reference to 1917. “The Cold War,” I’d said, “goes all the way back to the Bolsehvik Revolution.” He chided me: “You’re not thinking deeply enough. It actually goes all the way back to 1789.” That crystallized everything for me in a flash. The central political antagonism of modern history is between collectivism and individualism, and the two seminal events in this fight are 1776 and 1789. The differences could not be more categorical. And here’s something that I began to pay attention to ever since: in all your general survey of political thinking, you will always find much more respectful regard for the latter than the former. Watch for this, and see if I’m not right.

    This is why I never fail to sneer at Francis Fukuyama and anyone who respects him.

    I’ve seen his interlocutor variously attributed as an unnamed “British diplomat” as early as 1953 and Henry Kissinger as late as 1972: Zhou Enlai was asked about the implications of the French Revolution, and is said to have answered: “It’s too soon to tell.”

    It’s a howling outrage and a crying shame that this is still true all these years later.

  • Toni: Paine went way-in for 1789. He was an advocate of, among other things, state poor relief, unemployment relief, and a pension plan for the elderly which is recognizable in general outline as what became Social Security in America. In order to finance all this, he was an early advocate of progressive income tax. “The Rights of Man” was composed as “An Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on The French Revolution”. (The quote comes from the title page of the first edition.) That book was enthusiastically applauded at Paris, but Paine was convicted seditious libel at London, in absentia.

    He got in way over his head with the French Revolution. My conviction is that he got carried away with things that he did not explicitly understand, but which appealed to his sentiments.

    “Common Sense” remains extremely valuable in the principally focused context of 1776, of which it can be rightly considered the proximate spark. But he really lost his head after that.

  • I accept the criticism. It’s particularly shaming to be remembered for progressive income tax and social security (although be fair, who knew how far the Gordon Browns of this world would take those concepts one day?).

    But I have my libertarian head on again now, over at The Last Ditch.

  • Lost his head?
    Interesting choice of words, in the context of 1789.

  • Alex

    You guys all seem very down about the French Revolution.
    With out it none of the free market ideolgies which are held so dear on this website would have had space to develop.
    I suppose its a bit like criticising capitalism beacuse with out it communism would never have been developed as an ideology.
    The french revolution unleashed a wave of liberal reforms across europe even in the countrys not conquered by the revolutionary armies.

  • Adem Kupi

    Alex, let me take that apart piece by piece:
    “You guys all seem very down about the French Revolution.”
    1. Yes. As Billy Beck said, it’s really the seminal event of collectivist revolution.

    “With out it none of the free market ideolgies which are held so dear on this website would have had space to develop.”
    2.a. Free market ideologies? It doesn’t quite work that way, we’re not picking up bundles of otherwise unrelated ideas here.
    There is a free market political philosophy that we all understand and/or accept to a greater or lesser extent.
    2.b. That’s just not so. In the US for instance, we had worked out the most free market society that had yet been developed in the world. And if you look today at Europe, the only major free-market(ish) nation there, Switzerland, explicitly modelled itself after the old US constitution. The other European nations which were to a great extent influenced by the French Revolution, are rather socialist.
    The UK is a special case. They never really took after the French, but they’ve been growing seeds of a poisonous inflationist/mercantilist quasi-fascism all their own. They really are pretty unique in Europe.

    “I suppose its a bit like criticising capitalism beacuse with out it communism would never have been developed as an ideology.”
    3. Are you arguing that the French Revolution gave counter-revolutionaries something to fight against??
    Well, see below anyway.

    “The french revolution unleashed a wave of liberal reforms across europe even in the countrys not conquered by the revolutionary armies.”
    Some reforms were liberal, some were socialist.
    Ok see, now we get to a sticky situation, historically.
    In comparison to the old systems, it is arguable which parts got better or which got worse. But as a trend and a ground for future development these revolutions were a disaster.
    The old systems would have died on their own one way or another. Had there been no French Revolution, the model for the new systems would have most likely been much less collectivist/socialist.

  • Me: “And here’s something that I began to pay attention to ever since: in all your general survey of political thinking, you will always find much more respectful regard for the latter (1789) than the former (1776). Watch for this, and see if I’m not right.”

    Alex: “You guys all seem very down about the French Revolution. With out it none of the free market ideolgies which are held so dear on this website would have had space to develop.”

    See what I mean?

  • veryretired


    I made no mention of anything but the Russian revolution, which was not led by Lenin or the Bolshies. The revolution installed the Kerensky regime, a coalition caretaker, which was quickly attacked and overthrown in a coup by Lenin and his allies.

    As in the French Revolution, a moderate administration of coalition partners proved unwieldy and slow to respond to problems, more concerned with endless argument and shifting loyalties within the ruling circles than with the true well being of the populace as a whole.

    My point, which you apparently missed, was that these revolutions were both betrayed and taken over by people whose only concern was purity of ideology, not the delivery of representative government to the people, or the protection of the rights of the citizens, despite all the flowery, fiery rhetoric.

    There is a fledgeling coalition government now in Iraq, one in Afghan, and another in Lebanon. What lessons have we learned? And our adversaries?

    The commentariat are worried the current situation is similar to the 1930’s. I think even earlier than that might be instructive.

  • Paul Marks

    “Storming” of the B. – there was no “storming”. The attack (on a decayed and undermaned complex) was going fairly well for the attacks – but the Governor settled on a safe conduct before there was a danger of an actual storming (of course this was a mistake as they broke their word and murdered him – he should have fought it out, even if had lost it would have been less horrible death).

    Bits of the building were soon up for sale (bit by bit).

    On Thomas Paine.

    A lot of his stuff looks good till one thinks about it.

    “Hereditary legislators [House of Lords] are as absurd as hereditary mathematicians”

    And elected mathematicians are better?

    “He draws attention to the plumeage and forgets the dying bird” (an attack on Burke for saying it was wrong for the Revolutionaries to murder people who had committed no crime).

    As C.C. O’Brian pointed out this is clever of Paine – because it converts the victims of the Revoultion into feathers. Although it backfired on Paine when he almost became a feather himself.

    As for the “dying bird” this is our old friend “the people” as opposed to any particular person.

    Tom Paine was O.K. as a person (he really did not like murder – for example he was shocked when that harmless weakling Louis XVI was murdered), but his knowledge of the principles of law and government was (as John Adams and son pointed out) close to zero.

    In the American context he wanted a strong central government and mocked those people who thought that it would grow in size and scope.

    On money he opposed a central bank under a Monarchy, but under a democratic government central banking and fiat money would be no threat.

    O.K. it is easy to snear after the event.

    But some things are not a matter of not guessing right what would happen in the future – some things just did not add up.

    For example, “Rights of Man” parts one and two.

    We are told that if the Monarchy and all the Royal hangers on (on pensions and so on) are got rid of we can have old aged pensions for the poor, basically free education for everyone (and so on) and all without higher taxes – indeed we are told we would have lower taxes.

    It was bunk – it did not add up. Even with the King and company put out to earn a living, taxes would have had to gone into outer space to finance all the stuff Paine promised in Rights of Man part two.

    In “Agrarian Justice” (published only a few years later) Paine seems to understand this – and proposes a tax on landowners.

    For big landowners the tax was to go up to 100% (Paine did not like them – some of the best big farmers in Britian were in Paine’s home county of Norfolk, but Paine did not have the money to be one of them and hated feeling inferior).

    In short Tom Paine was the sort of man who was fine in a bar giving a amusing speech mocking local bigwigs (or running a local newspaper exposing cases of corruption), but he is not a good political thinker.

    Of course Americans will always hold him dear for “Common Sense” one of the best selling tracts of the American Revolutionary period.

    Paine was a great man for mocking one’s enemies. Although (as is often forgotten) when he turned his voice and pen against things Americans cared about (such as Christianity in “The Age of Reason”) he suddenly became a lot less popular – and felt it was time to move on.

    Of course the British government side had their attack dogs to. The principle one was Dr Johnson.

    “When an American talks of liberty he means the liberty to rob the Indian and enslave the Negro”.

    How many enemies of the United States have used that line of attack in the last couple of centuries?

    Certainly there were many States where slavery was either accepted as unlawful or was on the way out.

    And the relations between the various Indian tribes and the Americans was a lot more complicated than a one sided American aggression against the Indians.

    But it still makes a great line.

    Just as Tom Paine’s lines against such things as the Monarchy and House of Lords (and so on) were unfair if one examined things closely – but were still very effective attacks.

  • VR — you are right, of course: the difference between “Russian” and “Bolshevik” revolution is important. If my remarks seem precipitant, however, just make the substitution and press on. 1789 was a lot more important to October 1917 than to February of the same year.

    Paul — you probably know this: almost a century after “The Age of Reason”, the florid dingbat Theodore Roosevelt was still fulminating over Paine as “that filthy little atheist”. I wonder whether he actually ever read the book.

  • Paul Marks

    I do not know whether T. Roosevelt ever read the book Billy.

    But, of course, you are right Paine was not an athiest – he just did not accept the divinity of Jesus or the doctrines of the mainstream Churches.

    And neither did Jefferson or John Adams (for all their opposition to Paine in other matters). The gap between an Unitarian like John Adams and a deist like Paine is not vast.

    Adams was quite un P.C. on the matter of Jesus – how could God be born a Jew (of all things) in some filthy stable.

    Methinks he missed the point. God (so Christians believe) could have chosen to be a Roman (rather than a despised Jew) or to be born a Prince (rather than in a poor family), but that is not how he wanted it.

    When “All things bright and beautiful” (a hymn the left hate) says that God created both the rich man and the poor man it does not mean that poor people should not get rich if there some honest way to do so.

    It means that God created everyone (and all things) and that it is neither a sign of wickedness to be poor (the Book of Job deals with this old belief as far back as the Old Testiment) or unjust to be born poor – for God ordered their estate (i.e. it is not the fault of rich people that there are poor people – the world is a hard place by nature, not by the wickedness of rich people).

    To return to Paine.

    Still, as far as I know, noone ever beat up (or whatever) Paine when he lived in the United States.

    If I remember rightly, some time after Paine died William Cobbett arranged for the body to brought back to England.

    Still it is many years since I read Paine’s works and read about his life – and it is a bit fuzzy in my mind now.

    Do not get old Billy – it is really bad thing to do.

  • veryretired

    As much as I expected to die young and stay pretty, I can’t say that getting older is so bad. It’s much better than the alternative, that’s for sure.

  • Oh, well; it’s starting to happen to me. I’ll be fifty in November.

    It’s rather interesting.

  • RobtE

    Billy Beck –

    The central political antagonism of modern history is between collectivism and individualism, and the two seminal events in this fight are 1776 and 1789.

    Thanks for this. It’s something I’d not come across before. Now I’ll have to add it to my list of ideas to read up on.

    One point, though – could it be that there is a single seminal year, 1789 being both the date of the French Revolution and the US Constitution?

  • Rob — I’m about to blast out the door to go to work, so I can’t write what I might if I had time.

    However, I will say this, briefly: I have never seriously considered ideological connections between the US Constitution and the French Revolution. I don’t even know that there are any to be seriously considered. (Consider that the Constitution only took legal effect in March of 1789, but that the Convention at Philadelphia met in 1787, over eighteen months before the Estates-General gathered at Versailles.)

    What I am convinced of is that, to people interested in freedom, the Declaration of Independence should be the high water mark of Western political thought and action. The Constitution is a bloody disaster. Everything we see in American politics today is necessarily implicit in the Constitution. It was essentially counter-revolutionary.

    My main touchstone here is Lysander Spooner.

    I’ll be home tomorrow, if you’re interested to take these matters up in greater depth.

  • Paul Marks

    Everyone (or at least a great many people) talk about “liberty” or “freedom”.

    The real touchstone is PRIVATE PROPERTY.

    Not private property for the good of the people (they way that French Revolutionaries tended to put it – which gave them an excuse to steal any property by claiming that this or that owner was not operating for the public good), but just private property.

    In British history there have many organizations with the words “freedom” or “liberty” in the title, both good or bad, but (as far as I know) there have been no bad orgaizations with the word “property” in the title.

    The Association for the Defence of Liberty and Property (late 18th century) and the Liberty and Property Defence League (late 19th century) being examples of good organizations.

    As for “rights” a man accidentially shipwreaked on a island is not the victim of a denial of his “rights” – even if he dies of thirst or from lack of medical care after some accident.

    No one has committed a crime against him. And if a doctor was on the island and refused to treat him for some illness – still no crime has been committed against him.

    A person who denies help to another human being is a bad (hands off) that he has not shown.

    Justice is one virtue it is not all the virtues.

    Trying to collapse all the virtues into justice (the area of crime and punishment) is the great mistake of our age.l

    Even helping someone who is being attacked is not, in its self, a matter of justice.

    The people who attack the innocent are unjust – but the man who does not help the victim is not being unjust (he is being a coward).

    To help someone who is being attacked (without hope of reward) one is showing both the virtue of courage (to overcome one’s fear of the attackers) and the virtue of charity (to help someone without hope of reward).

    The left hate the word “charity” (although, along with faith and hope, it was of the three great Christian virtues) – but whatever you call it (“mercy”, “benevolence” or whatever) it is a very important virtue, and it is nothing to do with law or the state.

  • Tom Perkins

    Alex wrote:

    The french revolution unleashed a wave of liberal reforms across europe even in the countrys not conquered by the revolutionary armies.

    No, its reforms were not liberal. They were anti-l’ancien regime. Liberal in this time frame is individualistic, not collective.

    or, what Adem Kupi said:

    In comparison to the old systems, it is arguable which parts got better or which got worse. But as a trend and a ground for future development these revolutions were a disaster.

    The only revolution of prominence which worked to ends I can support began in 1775.

    Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp