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La Révolution Francaise (1789) et La Terreur

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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


The French revolutionary terror.

1. Causes

The causation lay not in the suppression of freedom of expression but more in the economic restrictions in terms of internal customs duties – Les Douane. These restrictions inhibit economic growth and movement of goods and delayed France’s industrial revolution until the 19th Century. The rentier class exploited the lower agrarian class for themselves – again economic unfairness. Finally the Roman Catholic Church had too much temporal power for its own good and was universally hated by the populace. The likes of Voltaire, Moliere, Rousseau and Descartes all flourished under the Ancien Regime of the Bourbons. Louis Quatorze (The Sun King) set the tone at the start of the 18th Century with his architectural expressions: the palais of Versaille and Fontainbleu. Essentially les philosophes and their writings including those mentioned showed the vigour of French intellectual life even under the Ancien Regime. It was the economic life that was being suffocated through les Douanes. The economic power of the Eglise and the Rentier classe. These series of factors triggered the Revolution in July 1789 and the storming of the Bastille prison 14 July 1789. The lack of democracy was another driving force. The monarchy was part of the Rentier classe and served to reinforce the economic repression and the unrepresentative regime. The Bourbons and their advisors post Louis XIV were not enlightened rulers yet the French Philosophes created the Enlightenment on the continent of 18th Century Europe. The Ancien Regime withered on the vine as the French demanded economic liberty and freedom from the stifling old structures of the Ancien Regime.

2. The Course of the Revolution from 1789 to the Bonarpartist take over in 1790’s.

It all began well. Liberte Egalite and fraternité and freeing of prisoners. The taking down of the ecclesiastical power and that of the Landlords and freeing up internal customs barriers and the removal of the monarchy all required a single minded driven approach. Those in control of the Revolution knew they would not dislodge these powerfully entrenched vested interests and their apparatus without exceptional force. Thus as the Revolution proceeded their leaders became more extreme advisedly against these powers within the Country so determined were they to succeed in dismantling this infrastructure of the Ancien Regime. Thus they would tolerate no dissent in their own ranks. It was the Revolution at all costs and nothing but, hence the Terreur and Robespierre the architect of that bloody episode in the Révolution Française. He wanted to bludgeon everyone into submission though the guillotine. Yet he was guillotined. The three ideals were trashed under the terrible internecine slaughter and Robespierre’s refusal to respect the Rights of Man (irony personified).

3. L’Angleterre

The English were appalled and took in many émigrées fleeing the carnage, aristocrats and clerics especially. English Society was enriched. Edmund Burke and the English had seen nothing like it before. He was not impressed by the activities across the channel and helped thereby in his writings to fuel the Revolutions progress to stamp its force on France. Burke opposed the three ideals as naive nonsense and tripe. That attitude did not go down well in Les Tuilleries. Britain historically represented a military threat to France and vice versa. The French feared Britain and Burke’s writings and thus they were taken seriously in Paris. The paranoia of Revolutionary France was not alleviated by Burke’s interfering words and so called meddling as the Revolutionaires saw them. The whole Anglo-French relationship went wrong in Burke’s ultra conservatism. French Revolutionary espousal of liberté was even supported by some in Britain (Tom Paine, Wilkes) and the cycle of terror built upon the fear of resistance to the Revolution in France and overseas from England and central Europe (The Hapsburg Empire declared War on France in early 1790’s and invaded French lands on the Continent). Britain herself responded to the French Revolution with her own repression eg The Combination Act to outlaw meetings. The English and French have always “fed off each other”. Trafalgar and Waterloo were looming (Duke of Wellington another ultra Conservative).

4. The Lessons of this French Revolution

Burke had a good point – he was urging caution. Due to British good sense and economic freedom, we had no Revolution in Britain in the 19th Century despite the Chartists Orator Hunt unrest on the English streets, harsh repression of that turbulence, the Luddites, non conformism growing, a new under privileged economic working class and famine in Ireland and a highly undemocratic political regime even after the 1832 Reform Bill was legislated. Britain came close to Revolution in the 1820’s and 1830’s – this was Burke’s real fear and concern. By contrast France took the plunge at cost to the great, the Roman Catholic Church and the aristos and the not so great in the Terror and the Grande Armee in the later Napoleonic Wars (Bonaparte was clearly an upstart self serving military dictator born out of the maelstrom of that Terror). What was achieved by the Revolution Francaise? A lasting legacy of free Republics despite Bonaparte. Charles X, Louis Philippe and Napoleon the Third – those last three autocratic rulers were backward steps and showed the wisdom of the extreme Revolutionaries “to go for the jugular “ to secure the Revolution, France is and has been Republican since 1871 thanks to its 1789 Revolution. Truly the branches were pruned but they bore more fruit as a result. Any conversion in mind and heart and soul has to be won repeatedly or it will go stale and fallow. The 18th Century French Revolutionaries taught us that dictum – let us remember their sacrifices in the best tradition of the puissance of pure conversion and refusal to tolerate any resiling from that transformation. Their Revolution was not exported to Britain. Not everything in this world is perfect – revolutions like conversions have to be won ten times over to permeate every corner of the nation and society. Thus we can understand the Terror if we do not agree with its denial of conscience and life. The French Republics since 1871 have been bastions of liberty and havens for refugees and the oppressed. Vive la Republique! Vive la Revolution!