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On this day let us commemorate…

… the victims of the French Revolution. Today is 20th Brumaire in the year CCXXII. On this day in in Year Two, 10th November 1793 in the former calendar, the Festival of Reason was inaugurated in the Temple of Reason, before and afterwards known as the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

When reading his description of the first Festival modern readers may find it difficult to share the outrage expressed by the highly partisan nineteenth century politician and historian of the French Revolution, denounced alike by Carlyle and Marx, Adolphe Thiers. The Catholic Church under the ancien régime was oppressive and parasitical, and the Festival can seem to modern eyes like nothing much worse than an embarrassingly amateur charity pageant run by the Women’s Institute:

The first festival of Reason was held with pomp on the 20th of Brumaire (10th of November) It was attended by all the sections, together with the constituted authorities. A young woman represented the goddess of Reason. She was the wife of Momoro, the printer, one of the friends of Vincent, Bonsin, Chaumette, Hebert, and the like. She was dressed in a white drapery; a mantle of azure blue hung from her shoulders ; her flowing hair was covered with the cap of liberty. She sat upon an antique seat, intwined with ivy and borne by four citizens. Young girls dressed in white, and crowned with roses, preceded and followed the goddess. Then came the busts of Lepelletier and Marat, musicians, troops, and all the armed sections. Speeches were delivered, and hymns sung in the Temple of Reason ; they then proceeded to the Convention, and Chaumette spoke in these terms :

“Legislators ! Fanaticism has given way to reason. Its bleared eyes could not endure the brilliancy of the light. This day an immense concourse has assembled beneath those Grothic vaults, which, for the first time, re-echoed the truth. There the French have celebrated the only true worship, that of liberty, that of reason. There we have formed wishes for the prosperity of the arms of the republic. There we have abandoned inanimate idols for reason, for that animated image, the masterpiece of Nature.” As he uttered these words, Chaumette pointed to the living goddess of Reason.

Whatever the semblance, nothing about the French Revolution was harmless. The Goddess Reason ascended her throne two months into the Terror. When the Catholic peasants of the Vendée were so ungrateful for the blessings of the Goddess as to attempt counter-revolution, Momoro, the man whose wife had played the role of the Goddess, was deeply involved in its brutal suppression. Chaumette, too, was one of the leading enragés, and soppy modern “liberals” inclined to praise the Cult of Reason as an ancestor of their own views might like to read more about its teachings regarding women. Neither Momoro nor Chaumette had long to enjoy their status as founders. By spring of the next year Robespierre decided to replace the Cult of Reason with the Cult of the Supreme Being. From then on it was the People’s Front of Judea scene from Life of Brian with real deaths. The Committee of Public Safety sent Momoro to the guillotine on 24th March 1794 and Chaumette followed him on 15th April. Robespierre himself fell from power in June and was guillotined in July.

A few paragraphs later Thiers describes “restraints” being imposed on a people that he thought were unprecedented in all prior history. They were not, alas, unrepeated in subsequent history:

If then we survey the state of France at this period, we shall see that never were more restraints imposed at once on that inert and patient part of the population on which political experiments are made. People dared no longer express any opinion. They were afraid to visit their friends, lest they might be compromised with them, and lose liberty and even life. A hundred thousand arrests and some hundreds of condemnations, rendered imprisonment and the scaffold ever present to the minds of twenty-five millions of French. They had to bear heavy taxes. If, by a perfectly arbitrary classification, they were placed on the list of the rich, they lost for that year a portion of their income.

Sometimes, at the requisition of a representative or of some agent or other, they were obliged to give up their crops, or their most valuable effects in gold and silver. They durst no longer display any luxury, or indulge in noisy pleasures. They were no longer permitted to use metallic money, but obliged to take and give a depreciated paper, with which it was difficult to procure such things as they needed. They were forced, if shopkeepers, to sell at a fictitious price, if buyers, to put up with the worst commodities, because the best shunned the maximum and the assignats : sometimes, indeed, they had to do without either, because good and bad were alike concealed. They had but one sort of black bread, common to the rich as to the poor, for which they were obliged to contend at the doors of the bakers, after waiting for several hours. Lastly, the names of the weights and measures, the names of the months and days, were changed ; there were but three Sundays instead of four ; and the women and the aged men were deprived of those religious ceremonies which they had been accustomed to attend all their lives.

It was a straight road from Revolutionary France to Soviet Russia, but if you look carefully the twisty paths from there to nearly all the “political experiments” and other horrors of the twentieth century can be discerned, including the two great wars remembered today.

12 comments to On this day let us commemorate…

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    The French love to play at being reasonable, don’t they? We’re probably lucky they didn’t metrify the hour! One day = one thousand millidays, one milliday = one thousand microdays, nothing to it, citizen!

  • Rich Rostrom

    The French Revolution was an instance of humanity’s tendency to swing between extremes. The archaic, parasitical, oppressive ancien regime provoked understandable anger.

    That anger erupted into murderous hatred.

    What was new about the Revolutionary culture was that it wrapped itself in the vestments of Science and Reason. In the past, murders and destruction had been justified as bringing about religious salvation.

    Now the killers and smashers thought they could perfect life on earth. The rhetoric about “superstition” is characteristic. They could see, pretty clearly, that the Catholic Church, encrusted with medieval rituals, like the equally encrusted French monarchy, was basically stupid and useless.

    From the perception “We know better” they leapt to the conclusion “We know everything.” They now felt justified in unlimited coercion, murder, destruction – because they had such perfect knowledge.

    From this comes the entire hideous sweep of Communism, and its racialist cousin Nazism. (It occurs to me that fascism, bad as it was, never had the same messianic ambitions, and thus refrained from gigantic Procrustean mutilations of its subjects.)

    Science has in its way become the modern equivalent of medieval religion. The Crusaders and Inquisitors believed they had the truth about salvation, and therefore should impose the True Faith at any cost.

    Their modern equivalents have a similar attitude toward science. Unlike religion, science does have useful, verifiable content. But it is pretty obvious that the appetite for certainties to justify wielding power far exceeds the supply.

    That’s why the offal of CAGW is so popular.

  • Mr Ed

    The horrors of the French Revolution are not well-publicised, for obvious reasons, thank ou for the reminder.

    There was a film made on the Vendée revolt last year, I have no idea how good it is. I shall buy it to see.


  • You often talk about British eras in terms of the monarch whose reign it was. “Victorian”. “Edwardian”. “Elizabethan”. In France, though, you often talk about *which constitution* was in force. “Second Empire”. “Third Republic”. I know which I prefer.

  • bloke in spain

    @ Mr Ed
    The suppression of the Vendée is a story well worth hearing. The inhabitants of Royan were said to have lined the streets & applauded the occupying German forces in 1940, the resentment runs so deep.

  • Paul Marks

    No Rich – the government of Louis XVI was NOT “oppressive” it was WEAK (a very different thing).

    It allowed its enemies to freely organise (“we can not go in that area of Paris to arrest them, it is private property belonging to the Duke of Orleans”), month after month, year after year, Louis did nothing whilst his enemies (and the enemies of his family) plotted and planned.

    The King was a well meaning (as can be seen by his repeal, years before the Revolution, of the laws against Jews and Protestants, most of the good things claimed for the Revolution turn out to have been done years before it) but hopelessly WEAK – truly it was said of him “he is like a cushion – he bears the imprint of whoever last sat on him”. Stories of the Bastille being filled with political prisoners (and on and on) are just lies – stupid and absurd lies, but repeated over and over again.

    As for the Revolution – soon after August 4th 1789 (the one good day in the Revolution – when some old taxes and feudal regulations were repealed – although, it should be pointed out, that the Feudal regulations had not been enforced for years) it soon became clear that the Revolution meant BIGGER government, not smaller government.

    This was obvious to Edmund Burke as early as 1790 (the year after the Revolution started).

    As for the idea (spread by the Marxists)that the Revolution was “capitalist” – this was refuted Alfred Cobban back in 1954 see his “The Myth of French Revolution”. This was not a revolution of “capitalists” it was (as Burke had pointed at the time) a Revolution of lawyers and bureaucrats (whose numbers greatly increased with the Revolution). And what factories existed in France were soon nationalised.

    As for the hundreds of thousands (indeed millions) of victims of the Revolution – see the works of William Doyle, such as his “The Oxford History of the French Revolution” (1989).

    However, it occurs to me that Rich Rostrom is actually CORRECT – if he means by “swinging from extreme to extreme” – from the hopeless weakness of Louis XIV to what C.S. Lewis might have called “That Hideous Strength” of the Revolution.

  • CaptDMO

    Judging by the excerpts, I now know where The New Yorker, and The New York Times, got their “style” handbooks from.

  • Laird

    Well said, Paul. Thomas Jefferson’s support of, and apologies for, the French Revolution was one of the few areas in which he was 180 degrees wrong.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Excellent post, and as usual Paul Marks adds some important historical notes.
    The name of Adolphe Thiers was vaguely familiar to me thanks to George Watson’s excellent diatribe: The Lost Literature of Socialism.

    One thing that alienates me from most conservatives, though, is their implicit assumption that the French Revolution was driven by ideology: it seems to me, from what little i have read, that it was primarily driven by hunger; that ideology was nothing more than a rationalization after the fact.
    If you can change my mind i’ll be grateful.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Laird – Thomas Jefferson for many things, but not for a moral sense in a tight corner (John Adams for that – the man who would shout at you, but never let you down).

    CaptDMO – yes the style that tells us “we are the elite that speak for the people for their own good – we are their better selves” (Rousseau – the “General Will” is not the “Will of All” the “Law Giver” gives us “true freedom” even if we held down kicking-and-screaming……).

    Snorri – the Duke of Orleans (the man who financed the French Revolution) was the richest person in France. Most of the other Revolutionaries were comfortably off.

    However, power lusting people need opportunity – and the harvest failures in France (nothing to do with the King – they were due to volcanic activity in Iceland – of all things) may have given the opportunity they had long been looking for.

  • Maximo Macaroni

    Thiers was also the villain, for the lefties, of the Paris Commune suppression in 1871.

  • dfwmtx

    Hooray, hooray, for Charlotte Corday! Marat was a dick, but alas, history -and too many painters- have whitewashed his history and turned him into a tragic figure.

    I’ve seen too many liberals here in the US wish for another French revolution and express a desire to whet the appetite of Madame Guillotine. Someone whitewashed their history books as well, and the history of France skips from the fall of LOuis #17 to Napoleon with no mention whatsoever of the Red Terror.