Critical Essays The French Revolution


Paris, always a hotbed of dissension, had a large populace ready to fight against almost anything. In every corner, people seemed to meet and conspire; everywhere, people talked of revolution. Hunger haunted the city, and bread shortages constantly loomed over the population. Thieves often stole grain shipped into the city before it even arrived, and in the early summer of 1789, bread riots broke out.

Because the thousands of workers' salaries could not possibly keep pace with soaring prices, workers began wrecking factories and burning property. At this point, the Swiss Guard marched into Paris in early July. Rumors immediately spread that the aristocrats were going to try to stop the Revolution by armed force. In fact, however, Louis simply stationed the Swiss Guard where he did because the French Guard refused to fight against their own countrymen.

Four days before the Bastille fell, Louis dismissed Necker and the rest of his cabinet and appointed a new council of anti-revolutionary royalists. Almost immediately, rumors arose that the Swiss Guard and the German Guard were preparing to murder the Parisian populace. Even the French Guard believed the rumors. They joined the rioting masses and broke into the Tuileries Palace, taking gunpowder, ornamental guns, and a cannon. Rioting and looting continued, destroying small shops and government buildings.

On July 14, a mob of citizens seized 30,000 muskets from the Invalides and attacked the Bastille, where the French government kept the royal store of gunpowder. They hung and butchered the governor and his guards and released the few prisoners. Strangely enough, the mob still had sympathetic feelings for Louis; they had lost all respect for him as a king, but still felt affection for him.

In fact, the common people didn't fear Louis as much as they feared the cluster of noblemen surrounding him. Paranoia about royalist schemes to quash the Revolution overtook them, and so they looted and burned chateaus throughout the countryside. The people slaughtered landlords simply because they were landlords. Consequently, aristocrats began leaving France in droves; the country was no longer safe for anyone but a ragged revolutionary. These uprisings and the general climate were part and parcel of the "Great Fear."

On August 4, the National Assembly passed a measure invalidating all feudal rights of the aristocracy. The Assembly decided to divide France into 83 departments, giving considerable freedom to all the departments. Then they passed a law that, ironically, caused an even greater schism between the classes. The new law stated that anyone could vote — if they had paid their taxes. The peasants felt betrayed; they had no money to pay taxes. The aristocracy had already taxed them to death, and the Revolution was doing nothing for them.

The Assembly also suspended Louis from power until he signed the new constitution and accepted his role as only a "constitutional monarch."Robespierre denounced him, and the sans-culottes — a revolutionary group of small businessmen, laborers, and artisans, as well as the very poor — demanded his removal. In addition, they called for a Republic.

The new government began issuing paper money as legal tender because it associated gold with aristocrats and the wealthy. Exiled nobles, therefore, flooded France with forged paper money, adding to the already deflated money value. Food prices continued to rise, and even two years of good harvests failed to alleviate the peasants' hunger. Mobs began raiding and robbing supply convoys. Soap was in short supply, and sugar was disappearing. Food riots began again.

Eventually, the National Assembly deposed Louis, put him and his family under arrest, and sent him to prison in the Knights Templars temple on August 13, 1792. The Assembly guillotined Louis on January 21, 1793. In August, the Assembly sent the queen to prison. It tried her in October and guillotined her on October 16, 1793.

Robespierre then took control of the Revolution, and the "Reign of Terror"began. He championed "the people's rights,"but could not understand why the masses ranked food and better wages as more important than dedication to the principles of a free France. He saw conspirators and plotters everywhere, and anyone disagreeing with him became a traitor. He convinced his colleagues that the preservation of a safe society required force and terror. As a result, the new government executed hundreds at Marseilles and Toulon and drowned nearly two thousand in the Loire River at Nantes. The Revolutionary Tribunal was subdivided into four courts, which sat day and night. By September, the Law of Suspects had created so many accused people that the court tried cases in groups of fifty. Courts tried everyone: priests, hoarders, swindlers, aristocrats, and, of course, innocent men and women. Neighbor turned in neighbor. In all, the Tribunal killed more than twenty-five thousand people during the Reign of Terror.

The sans-culottes closed all the churches in Paris and even took over Notre-Dame cathedral and made it an atheistic "Temple of Reason."This decision upset Robespierre, but his followers equally disapproved of Robespierre's police bureau. They plotted Robespierre's downfall and eventually accused him — just as he had accused others — and sent him to the guillotine. After Robespierre's death, France moved into a period called the Thermidorian reaction, a relatively quiet period. The new government, called the Directory, was inefficient and corrupt, but provided a relatively stable regime nevertheless. Unfortunately, the new government put Napoleon Bonaparte in charge of its army. Unwittingly, it replaced the country's terrorists with someone who would soon become its virtual dictator.

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