We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Bastille Day – Discussion Point

Today is the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. It is easy – way too easy, in fact – for a Brit to make some sort of snide comment about the bloody awfulness (literally) of the events of that time, the Revolution, the terrible example of, well, the Terror, and so on. But, but trying to rise above all that obvious “god those Frenchies made a right pig of their revolution” sort of line, I am going to ask readers the following: What were, in your view, the good things that flowed from the Revolution?

Go on.


58 comments to Bastille Day – Discussion Point

  • The Pedant-General

    Can’t see how long ago this was posted, but the deafening silence reminds of the last scenes of the first Johnny English film, with Chris Tarrant asking much the same question of his Capital FM breakfast show audience….

    (Editor’s note: it went up about twenty minutes before your comment)

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Well, it put royals on notice: and a bit later, it put democrats on notice, too. So now we all know that the alternative to ‘bad’ isn’t necessarily ‘better’, which is really quite the conservative lesson.

    I do not, however, count the Metric system as one of its triumphs: the arguments for adopting the Metric system hold true for any world-standard measuring system, and the units it uses strike me as awkward. Also, it increments by tens when humans increment by twos (one inch, half-an-inch, two inches).

  • Mr Ed

    It led, eventually, to Napoleon tearing down the walls of the ghetto in Venice, but at huge cost.

  • Snorri Godhi

    That sounds to me as a loaded question. The hidden assumption is that the Revolution could have been avoided; or else why ask the question?

    I take the view, possibly wrongly, that the French Revolution was no more avoidable than an earthquake: there was a stress accumulated in French society, which demanded a release. (As in an earthquake.) The longer the stress accumulates, the worse the revolution. (Or the earthquake.) So my answer would be: the good thing is that the Revolution released that stress.

    Whether, by good management, the stress could have been released in a less destructive and more productive manner, is a different question which i don’t dare to address.

  • What were, in your view, the good things that flowed from the Revolution?

    The blood of Maximilien de Robespierre or nothing.

    Actually, I’m going for nothing. It was just one bunch of corrupt bureacrats replacing another ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

    Are Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande any better?

  • I do not, however, count the Metric system as one of its triumphs: the arguments for adopting the Metric system hold true for any world-standard measuring system, and the units it uses strike me as awkward. Also, it increments by tens when humans increment by twos (one inch, half-an-inch, two inches).

    But the metric system was a pre-revolutionary proposal and most of the measurements took place actually during the French Revolutionary War, so I would suggest that the Metric system happened DESPITE the governments of France rather than because of either the monarchy or the revolutionaries.

  • The hidden assumption is that the Revolution could have been avoided; or else why ask the question?

    Not at all. Even if you think it was unavoidable (which I do not), it could have played out quite differently. Moreover what constitutes the good/bad legacies of it are indeed a matter of opinion.

  • Actually, I’m going for nothing

    And that would also be my view.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    It gave the Royal Navy the push it needed to become totally kick-ass for the next century and a half. And it nicely illustrated that many of those who wax about “liberty” have no intention of making you free.

    But in terms of direct effects, no I’d say there was nothing good about the French revolution.

  • Kevin B

    It gave Hugo and Byron and Shelly and the rest of the Romantics something to write about. Then there were a few books like The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of two Cities.

    I can think of a couple of operas, Andrea Chénier and Dialogues des Carmelites.

    I’m sure there are loads more arty things out there, but for anything political or social I shall await the verdict of Marks.

  • Runcie Balspune

    But the metric system was a pre-revolutionary proposal and most of the measurements took place actually during the French Revolutionary War, so I would suggest that the Metric system happened DESPITE the governments of France rather than because of either the monarchy or the revolutionaries.

    Those revolutionairies were Metric Extremists!

  • bloke in spain

    The curious thing about the Revolution’s, despite how dreadfully it was conducted (events in the Vendée are worth study) Maybe because of them. The LibEgFrat idea runs through the French like the letters through a stick of rock. Unlike their cousins across the Channel (or their German neighbours) they’ve acquired built-in rebelliousness. If the EU falls, I’m confident it’ll be the French people bring it down rather than the Brits. Who’ll talk about it endlessly, but do what they’re told. As ever.
    It’s legacy?
    England turfed a Monarch off his throne. And promptly invited another back. Despite flirting with Emperors the French never really got the hang of hereditary rulers again. If the French king had survived, maybe all the rest would. Maybe a combination of continental monarchs would have installed another absolute monarch on England’s throne. Could be a very different world today.

  • Rich Rostrom

    There are several obvious, if sometimes modest, items.

    * The abolition of a huge load of archaic feudal rights held by the aristocracy.

    * A substantial reorganization of French government on a more rational basis – the replacement of the provinces by the departments, repeal of internal tariffs, abolition of tax farming. (These last two were only partially carried out.)

    * The abolition of the Holy Roman Empire, with its multitude of petty states (each with its parasitical government and customs houses), ecclesiastical states, random exclaves, etc.

    * Abolition of many pointless exclaves elsewhere in Europe, such as Montebeliard, Venaissin, and Neuchatel.

    * Abolition of the stagnant, oligarchic “republics” of Venice and Genoa.

    * Indirectly, the reorganization of Austria and Hungary.

    * The Egyptological work of the French savants who accompanied Napoleon’s expedition.

    Of course many of these things could have been accomplished without the Revolution and its damage. But the energy of the Revolution got a lot of it done quickly.

  • 2dogs

    The metric system.

  • Mr Ed

    * A substantial reorganization of French government on a more rational basis –

    Now there’s a euphemism for mass murder.

  • woodsy42

    I agree with the Bloke in Spain. The french people learned about independence and liberty, and on a personal level they still have it. I think they may well bring down the EU while we in England are still wringing our hands aboutit.

  • Mr Ed

    * Abolition of many pointless exclaves elsewhere in Europe, such as Montebeliard, Venaissin, and Neuchatel.

    Exclaves are wonderful, try Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau, how better to confound petty tyrants and bureaucrats than to have a border that they cannot pass? Baarle-Hertog defied the Kaiser as free Belgium, operating a radio station safe behind the neutral Dutch border.

    Would that I lived in an exclave of Liechtenstein, under Princely protection, I would not even have to change the tune of my my national anthem, and I might get cheap false teeth.

  • Mr Ed

    I have to differ re the French, political violence is never far away there, but, be it burning the carcasses of English sheep or just Spanish tomatoes, more often than not, they seek to invoke the State to aid them steal what they want, rather than reject the State on principle.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is an inspiring document, if divorced from its era.

  • bloke in spain

    But that is rather the point, Mr Ed. The French State is remarkably afraid of the French people. Can you imagine what’d happen if it was English farmers burning French sheep carcasses on the Dover Road? (even English farmers having the temerity to do so, stretches the imagination) The only elements the representatives of the Brit State backs down to are the non-English ones.

  • Why did the American Revolution seem to run better? It was run by American Aristocrats. Generally. The problem as always is that aristocrats devolve. After the Good King you get the Bad Kings. We see the same thing in family owned companies. Not many survive the third generation.


    Did you see the recent photo of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Sheldon Adelson? Bill Gates at least to some extent added value. The other two are in the main miners of the system.

  • chuck

    Horatio Hornblower.

  • Darrell

    The metwic system is a Fwench pwot. 😛

    You know, the meter, the basis of the system, was determined to be one ten millionth the distance from the equator to the north pole, along the meridian THAT RUNS THROUGH PARIS, FWANCE. I always suspected they were jealous of the English setting time zones as based on the meridian that runs through Greenwich, England.

  • “The Egyptological work of the French savants who accompanied Napoleon’s expedition.”

    “Abolition of the stagnant, oligarchic “republics” of Venice and Genoa.”

    Stagnant? Perhaps. But they would not be better ruled for the next 150 years.

  • Nico

    Whenever i see my dad and poke fun at the French revolution, he (an anglophile, i should note) points out the the 17th century was much bloodier in the UK than La Terreur ever was in France. He’s right, but I always retort that there’s a difference between the two countries’ revolutions: ideology and methods. The French revolution set the ideology and dictatorship pattern for all the horrors of the 20th century, while the British revolution set the pattern for freedom in the anglosphere for hindreds of years.

    Bastille day — not a day to celebrate.

  • RRS

    The impact on the American public of the time as it played out.

  • Nico

    I should add that my dad agrees with that sentiment, it’s just that he finds the numbers of casualties in the British civil war shocking.

  • Julie near Chicago


    And as far as I’m concerned, the proper appellation is still “GMT.” Wottheheck, it may be a while since my forbears left jollie olde England, but the Sun must never set on Greenwich. And we did dodge the metric bullet (outside of labs, anyway) over here, thank the Great Frog.

    By the way, I’m quite sure 😉 I’ve never mentioned it before, but since somebody brought it up that we naturally do well with going by powers of 2, I will say that most people can handle 3’s pretty well also, and with practice can learn to cut rectangles (such as pans of brownies) into thirds reasonably well. Anybody can see that duodecimal is indeed the preferred system. As John Wyndham’s character said, “What is it in God’s feet?”

    M. Simon,

    Yes, **excellent** observation. Which is why dynastic kingship, in itself, is not a particularly good alternative to democracy, in itself. [All those arguments about its being in the King’s interest to do right by the country, for the sake of his heirs. Also, that they will have been trained to be (good) kings.]

    I would love to see some reliable anthropological studies of just exactly what were the rules of governance in many and diverse tribal societies around the world and through history, and I include Iceland (beloved example put forward by Individualist-Anarchists). My own theory is that there is nearly always a Big Dog on the Block, except possibly during periods of gross upheaval (such as during a real, physical Revolution) when it’s Every Dog for Himself. Lacking a formal statement of how or of whom the “government” will be constituted and what its powers and requirements will be, does not mean the society lacks governance or laws.

  • RRS

    Another “flow from” might be the Louisiana Purchase as N sought French hegemony over Europe.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    I think the yanks would simply have ‘settled’ in those states, and then taken them over, like they did in Texas, and then pretended it was their right to do so.
    And if Napoleon had beaten the Russians, he might have tried harder to invade Britain, and might have succeeded, though I think the Naval advantage of Britain would have stopped him. If Britain and France had come to a true peace, though, then he might have turned West- and ‘renegotiated’ the purchase.

  • The Louisiana Purchase. Ensuring that from sea-to-sea the Anglosphere would spread in North America.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    I suppose the French would say that the freeing up of their society so that class was not an issue- that would be the major benefit. Even a Corsican like Mr. Bonepart had a chance to rise in the new system, which the ancient Regime would have denied him!
    As a minarchist, I don’t like the fact that it introduced a centralising effect into French society, so that the main ambition of bright students is not to be the next Bill Gates but the next Premier Holland.

  • Snag

    The emancipation of the Jews of France (and beyond)

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    The French have a day- what day would be suitable for England? Perhaps Magna Carta Day, centered on Runnymede? Here in Australia we seem to have two days- Australia Day on Jan 26, when Sydney was colonised, and New Years Day, when the Constitution of Australia came into effect on Jan 1, 1901.

  • Alsadius

    Louis XVI and Robespierre seem like the sort of men who deserved to be shoulder-high, so that’s a bonus. Napoleon, for all that I don’t actually like dictators launching brutal wars of world conquest, at least did it with some real style. And who doesn’t love the Sharpe books?

  • Mr Ed

    Even a Corsican like Mr. Bonepart had a chance to rise in the new system, which the ancient Regime would have denied him!

    Is it a good thing to let a fart rise in a bathtub?

  • Paul Marks

    There is one good day in the Revolution – August the 4th when some taxes and “Feudal” restrictions are abolished (although people had great difficulty finding any actual serfs in France to free).

    The history text books credit the Revolution with lots of things that were actually done before – such as ending torture (actually Louis XVI had got rid of it years before – the Revolution, unofficially, brought it back) and getting rid of persecution of Protestants and Jews (again Louis XVI deserves most of the credit for that).

    As for the actual principles of the French Revolution.

    The difference the French “Rights of Man” and the American (and British) Bill of Rights are subtle but of vital importance.

    For example the French Rights of Man upholds property rights – but only if they are in the interests of “the people”.

    This is no protection at all – and shows an attitude that makes the mass murder and robbery of the Revolution understandable.

    Not just the lying to the Governor of the Bastille (“come out – we promise you and your men safe conduct” – before brutally murdering him, an event still celebrated by French leftists where they get a live pig and butcher him, on “Bastille Day”, before cheering crowds).

    But also in such things as the robbery of the Church in the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” of 1790.

    Neither corporate or individual property (or lives) were safe were the “will of the people” or “the interests of the people” trump everything else.

  • The French had a revolution? Looking around the class system at work in one of France’s largest corporations, and the regal nature of the presidential office, I can’t say I noticed.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Mr. Ed, I don’t think the ghetto in Venice was anything like the later, murderous ghettos in places like Warsaw. In fact I think apart from a few annoying restrictions on movement and places to live, the jews were better treated in Venice than anywhere else in medieval Europe. Certainly given that Bonaparte destroyed the entire Venetian republic in the process, I can’t support the destruction of that ghetto as a worthwhile outcome.

    Incidentally if you visit the Venetian ghetto today, you’ll find some very moving bronzes depicting the fate of European jews during the second German war. It’s definitely worth seeing.

  • Derek Buxton

    They never put “Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite” into action in any way, and they call us perfidious!

  • robert

    Rich Rostrom, sweeping away the Holy Roman Empire seems like a good thing, but was it? It played a role making German unification possible, and the consequences of that were decidedly mixed.

    I’ve seen it argued (by historians whose names I can’t currently recall) that having the great powers separated by small states which can swing with the changing winds makes for a much more stable international system than have the great powers bordering each other directly. Basically, it means the great powers can intrigue for influence and fight little proxy wars rather than clashing openly in major wars.

    The same historian used the Polish Partitions as an example. When the partitions were done, Russia, Prussia, and Austria shared borders. Their armies were now closer to each other’s capitals, and any future conflict wouldn’t be fought through proxies.

    [They also suggested that the Polish Partitions were a consequence of the French Revolution. If France hadn’t been distracted by its revolution, it would apparently have had strong opinions on the fate of Poland.]

    Now, just looking at the wars of Louis XIV proves that having small states between the great powers doesn’t guarantee international stability, but I do think there may be a nub of truth to the argument. Sweeping away the small states makes the maps look tidier, but like every other attempt to reorganise human affairs in accordance with rational principles, there’s a severe risk of unintended consequences, some of which can be pretty unpleasant.

  • John B

    Here are some things, in no particular order, which arose from the French Revolution. Good?

    Inheritence rules meaning that property on death of the owner has to be shared equally amoung nearest surviving relatives (cannot be willed to a favourite son or nephew for example). This affected farms mostly making them smaller and smaller over the generations, so eventually they were so small as to be no longer economically viable… hence the French love of EU CAP an agricultural welfare system… and many farms left to go to ruin as surviving relatives declined to accept the inheritence and pay the inheritence tax on notional value that could not be sold as nobody wanted it. This property subsequently has been snapped up for a song by British over the last few decades.

    Instillation of Left wing ideology in the French Body Politic that the economy must be run from the centre … dirigisme… for the primary benefit of workers, not business owners or consumers. And to protect jobs businesses must be protected from competition… consumer interests do not count.

    That to run an efficient State to ensure egalitarianism needs a large population of fonctionnaires, who now account for about 40% of the labour force but produce nothing but cost a huge amount with generous pensions which will bankrupt future generations.

    That redistribution of wealth (so called) must take place, and so the tax system is primarily for that purpose meaning that on average 57% of those paying income tax receive net more back than they pay in; a percentage that in some regions is as high as 70% and growing each year.

  • Snorri Godhi

    If the EU falls, I’m confident it’ll be the French people bring it down rather than the Brits.

    OTOH it’s mostly the French* who have made the downfall of the EU something worth celebrating.

    * or, to be more precise, the French ruling class.

  • Mr Ed

    Andrew D: hence my reference to terrible cost. I think that the Venetian Jews might have been better off in the long run under the Doges, and all things considered, the French Revolution certainly paved the way for many of the horrors of the 20th century. If only the Venetian Republic remained, like Liechtenstein, even if confined to the six sestiere and the islands and waters of its lagoon.

  • Snorri Godhi

    As far as i am aware, the Venetian Republic is the longest-lived constitutional (ie based on checks+balances, rather than unchecked power of an individual or assembly) government in human history. Unlike its closest competitors (at least in Europe), Sparta and the Roman Republic, it was a capitalist society, not based on slave labor. (Though there was slavery in the colonies, and slave trade.) Maybe it was a relic by the time it was overthrown, but i regret its passing.

  • Kevin B

    Has someone already mentioned La Marseillaise?

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    Darrell, don’t worry! When we meet aliens, we’ll need a new system of Galactic measurements, even Universal! I have just such a system in mind.
    In GUS (Gray’s Universal Standards) we use the wavelength of the relic radiation of the Big Bang, which is 8+1/4 inches, or 21cm, as the standard Universal Length, or UL. This would be something that is truely universal, as would the background temperature be, which could be called the Universal Degree, UD (2.75K). An UL is about the width of a sheet of A4 paper.
    And things like Meridians should be based on the highest mountain of a planet- So Everest Mean time would be the new standard. If you plant a town near everest, and call it New Greenwich, then this could keep a reference to the old standard- whilst keeping the Fwenchies out!

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    As for Gus weights, a cube of hydrogen frozen at 1UD would be about 1.666kgs., giving one Universal Mass (UM)
    I don’t know what base numbering would become commonest, so we could stick with decimal until we meet THEM.

  • Paul Marks

    Derek – the slogan itself is contradictory.

    Tim – yes the French had a Revolution in 1789 and hundreds of thousands of people in France (and millions in Europe) died because of it. Although, yes, contrary to the will of the Jacobins “corporations” did come back (the Jacobins wanted an end to all associations, other than their own, between atomistic individuals and the state – so that people would be helpless).

    Rich – many (although not all) of the things you list are actually BAD events.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    I should have specified- a cube with edges of 1UL, with hydrogen chosen because it is the commonest element in the Universe. We could also use the wavelength as a small unit of time- the time taken by a photon to go 21cm is very small! This could become the Universal Span (US), and a Gigaspan used as like a second of our ‘normal’ time.
    Now that I’ve solved the measurements problem, you can solve the language barrier!

  • Mr Ed


    Hydrogen is not apt for measurement of mass due to deuterium and tritium being as good as twice and thrice as heavy as the proton/electron combination of 1H. Pure hydrogen (protium) is a pfaff to produce. As a former user of heavy water, always on the lookout for straggling, overzealous Norwegian saboteurs, I can attest to the remarkable difference deuterium makes.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Mr Ed, “What a difference a deut makes ….” ?


  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    Mr. Ed, can i call you Mr? I doubt if anything would be ideal, if you intend to nitpick, but hydrogen would otherwise be ideal, and the wavelengths of hydrogen would be something that all technical civilisations could find and use. And no fwenchies were involved in finding this out!
    Now, have you solved the language problem? We can’t just assume that they’ll speak English, after all, even if that is the default position of a lot of shows.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Nico @ July 15, 2014 at 12:17 am:

    Whenever i see my dad and poke fun at the French revolution, he (an anglophile, i should note) points out the the 17th century was much bloodier in the UK than La Terreur ever was in France.

    If it’s true (and I’m not sure it is) that was because the English Civil War dragged on as long as it did. Nearly all the deaths were military casualties. The casualties of the Revolution included many thousands of civilians who were murdered for political reasons: the Terror, the Vendée, the septembrisades.

    We make a fundamental distinction between war and murder. For instance, after the 1862 Sioux Uprising, President Lincoln reviewed all death sentences against captured Indians, and pardoned those who had killed in battle (about 90%). The remainder, who had murdered civilians, were hanged.

    A war may continue because neither side can win, and deaths accumulate, but neither side is to blame for not surrendering. Whereas in the murder of civilians, the killers have no reason to kill except the desire to murder.

  • Paul Marks

    The French Revolution of 1789 taught the French about “freedom and independence” – not true.

    It actually taught the French to confuse the state with “the people” – and to look to the state (not to themselves – either as individuals or to voluntary association, most of which were destroyed by the Revolutionaries) for everything.

    The misuse of language continues to this day.

    For example the stealing of Church property in 1905 (even Churches are state property in France) is called the “separation” of Church and State in the official books.

    Where words lose their meaning – people lose their liberty.

    It is true that there was a major reaction in France in the 19th century – with real anti statists driving back the state.

    But in the 20th century (indeed in the late 19th century – with the growth of state education) the spirit of the Jacobins returned.

    It is no accident that France has some of the highest government spending and taxes in the Western world.

    There is the true legacy of the French Revolution – AND of the “enlightened” monarchy (undermining “Feudal” limits on government) that went before it.

    Not the fault of Louis XVI (a well meaning – but weak man), the fault of Kings long before him.

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    What would be of real interest is the reason that the French didn’t quickly adopt the Industrial Revolution. Does anyone know why they didn’t? Once they had seen how it was transforming Great Britain, why didn’t rivalry promote competition? Or was France already too much like China- with a bureaucratic tradition of waiting for the center to decide things?

  • Paul Marks

    The reason the French industrial revolution was delayed was the FRENCH REVOLUTION.

    Many years of chaos – including (for the first few years) the nationalisation of what factories existed in France.

    This was under the “moderate” Directory (Carnot and co).

    As for before…. (under the monarchy).

    As far back as Henry IV guilds were made compulsory (this was supported by “educated” opinion at the time – Protestant as well as Catholic) one good thing of the Revolution was that at least guilds were no longer compulsory (they went to the other extreme of banning them – which is also wrong), instead the state was made one big guild (which is even worse) – although this was reversed in the 19th century.

    The French Revolution is the spirit of ROUSSEAU – it is nothing to do with freedom as a libertarian would understand that term.

    The French “Liberal School” influence upon policy is a much later thing – a 19th century thing.

    It is not just a matter of the influence of economists (the Say family, Bastiat and so on), but also of PHILOSOPHERS.

    The denial of the moral responsibility of individual human beings (which is at the heart of the Revolution of 1789 – with its stress, as with Rousseau, upon THE PEOPLE not individual persons) was rejected by M. Royer Collard, Theodore Jouffroy and (most well known) Victor Cousin.

    The reaction (both philosophical and economic) against the spirit of 1789 started under Napoleon (although he remained an interventionist statist – but not as bad as the Jacobins) and peaked under Napoleon III (not that he was a perfect pro freedom person either – far from it).

    French freedom peaks in 1869 – it is all down hill from there.

    However, British freedom also peaks at about the same time.