THE REAL MEANING OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
No one was ready for a revolution in 1789. The idea itself did not exist. If you look up ''revolution" in standard dictionaries from the eighteenth century, you find definitions that derive from the verb to revolve, such as "the return of a planet or a star to the same point from which it parted."
The French did not have much of a political vocabulary before 1789, because politics took place at Versailles, in the remote world of the king's court. Once ordinary people began to participate in politics-in the elections to the Estates General, which were based on something approximating universal male suffrage, and in the insurrections of the streets-they needed to find words for what they had seen and done. They developed fundamental new categories, such as "left" and "right," which derive from the seating plan of the National Assembly, and "revolution" itself The experience came first, the concept afterward. But what was that experience?
Only a small minority of activists joined the Jacobin clubs, but everyone was touched by the Revolution because the Revolution reached into everything. For example, it recreated time and space. According to the revolutionary calendar adopted in 1793 and used until 1805, time began when the old monarchy ended, on September 22, 1792-the first of Vendemiaire, Year I.
By formal vote of the Convention, the revolutionaries divided time into units that they took to be rational and natural. There were ten days to a week, three weeks to a month, and twelve months to a year. The five days left over at the end became patriotic holidays, jours sans-culottes, given over to civic qualities: Virtue, Genius, Labor, Opinion, and Rewards.
Ordinary days received new names, which suggested mathematical regularity: primidi, duedi, tridi, and so on up to decadi. Each day was dedicated to some aspect of rural life so that agronomy would displace the saints' days of the Christian calendar. Thus November 22 formerly devoted to Saint Cecilia, became the day of the turnip; November 25, formerly Saint Catherine's day, became the day of the pig; and November 30, once the day of Saint Andrew, became the day of the pick. The names of the new months also made time seem to conform to the natural rhythm of the seasons. January 1, 1989, for example, would be the twelfth of Nivose, Year 197, Nivose being the month of snow, located after the months of fog (Brumaire) and cold (Frimaire) and before the months of rain (Pluviose) and wind (Ventose).
The adoption of the metric system represented a similar attempt to impose a rational and natural organization on space. According to a decree of 1795, the meter was to be "the unit of length equal to one ten-millionth part of the arc of the terrestrial meridian between the North Pole and the Equator. " Of course, ordinary citizens could not make much of such a definition. They were slow to adopt the meter and the gram, the corresponding new unit of weight, and few of them favored the new week, which gave them one day of rest in ten instead of one in seven. But even where old habits remained, the revolutionaries stamped their ideas on contemporary consciousness by changing everything's name.
Fourteen hundred streets in Paris received new names, because the old ones contained some reference to a king, a queen, or a saint. The Place Louis XV, where the most spectacular guillotining took place, became the Place de la Revolution; and later, in an attempt to bury the hatchet, it acquired its present name, Place de la Concorde. The Church of Saint Laurent became the Temple of Marriage and Fidelity; Notre Dame became the Temple of Reason; Montmartre became Mont Marat. Thirty towns took Marat's name thirty of six thousand that tried to expunge their past by name changes. Montmorency became Emile, Saint-Malo became Victoire Montagnarde, and Coulanges became Cou Sans-Culottes (anges or angels being a sign of superstition).
The revolutionaries even renamed themselves. It wouldn't do, of course, to be called Louis in 1793 and 1794. The Louis called themselves Brutus or Spartacus. Last names like Le Roy or Leveque, very common in France, became La Loi or Liberte. Children got all kinds of names foisted on them-some from nature (Pissenlit or Dandelion did nicely for girls, Rhubarb for boys) and some from current events (Fructidor, Constitution, The Tenth of August, Marat-Couthon-Pique). The foreign minister Pierre-Henri Lebrun named his daughter:
Meanwhile, the queen bee became a "laying bee" (abeille pondeuse); chess pieces were renamed, because a good revolutionary would not play with kings, queens, knights, and bishops; and the kings, queens, and jacks of playing cards became liberties, equalities, and fraternities. The revolutionaries set out to change everything: crockery, furniture, law codes, religion, the map of France itself, which was divided into departments-that is, symmetrical units of equal size with names taken from rivers and mountains-in place of the irregular old provinces.
Before 1789, France was a crazy-quilt of overlapping and incompatible units, some fiscal, some judicial, some administrative, some economic, and some religious. After 1789, those segments were melted down into a single substance: the French nation. With its patriotic festivals, its tricolor flag, its hymns, its martyrs, its army, and its wars, the Revolution accomplished what had been impossible for Louis XIV and his successors: it united the disparate elements of the kingdom into a nation and conquered the rest of Europe. In doing so, the Revolution unleashed a new force, nationalism, which would mobilize millions and topple governments for the next two hundred years.
Of course, the nation-state did not sweep everything before it. It failed to impose the French language on the majority of the French people, who continued to speak all sorts of mutually incomprehensible dialects, despite a vigorous propaganda drive by the revolutionary Committee on Public Instruction. But in wiping out the intermediary bodies that separated the citizen from the state, the Revolution transformed the basic character of public life.
A delegation of sans-culottes who petitioned the National Convention in 1794 want to create a France in which there was to be less pride, less discrimination, less social reserve, more open familiarity, a stronger leaning toward fraternity, and therefore more equality." That may sound laughable today, but it was deadly serious to the revolutionaries: they wanted to build a new society based on new principles of social relations.
So they redesigned everything that smacked of the inequality built into the conventions of the Old Regime. They ended letters with a vigorous "farewell and fraternity" in place of the deferential "your most obedient and humble servant." They substituted Citizen and Citizeness for Monsieur and Madame. And they changed their dress.
Dress often serves as a thermometer for measuring the political temperature. To designate a militant from the radical sections of Paris, the revolutionaries adopted a term from clothing: sans-culotte, one who wears trousers rather than breeches. In fact, workers did not generally take up trousers, which were mostly favored by seamen, until the nineteenth century. Robespierre himself always dressed in the uniform of the Old Regime: culottes, waistcoat, and a powdered wig. But the model revolutionary, who appears on broadsides, posters, and crockery from 1793 to the present, wore trousers, an open shirt, a short jacket, boots, and a liberty cap over a "natural" (that is, uncombed) crop of hair, which dropped down to his shoulders.
Women's dress on the eve of the Revolution had featured low necklines, basket-skirts, and exotic hair styles, at least among the aristocracy. Hair dressed in the "hedgehog" style rose two or more feet above the head and was decorated with elaborate props-as a fruit bowl or a flotilla or a zoo. One court coiffure was arranged as a pastoral scene with a pond, a duck hunter, a windmill (which turned), and a miller riding off to market on a mule while a monk seduced his wife.
After 1789, fashion came from below. Hair was flattened, skirts were deflated, necklines raised, and heels lowered. Still later, after the end of the Terror, when the Thermidorian Reaction extinguished the Republic of Virtue, fast-moving society women like Mme. Tallien exposed their breasts, danced about in diaphanous gowns, and revived the wig. A true fashionable lady, would have a wig for every day of the de'cade; Mme. Tallien had thirty.
At the height of the Revolution, however, from mid-1792 to mid-1794, virtue was not merely a fashion but the central ingredient of a new political culture. It had a puritanical side, but it should not be confused with the Sunday school variety preached in nineteenth-century America. To the revolutionaries, virtue was virile. It meant a willingness to fight for the fatherland and for the revolutionary trinity of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
At the same time, the cult of virtue produced a revalorization of family life. Taking their text from Rousseau, the revolutionaries sermonized on the sanctity of motherhood and the importance of breast feeding. They treated reproduction as a civic duty and excoriated bachelors as unpatriotic. "Citizenesses! Give the Fatherland Children!" proclaimed a banner in a patriotic parade. "Now is the time to make a baby," admonished a slogan painted on revolutionary pottery.
Saint-Just, the most extreme ideologist on the Committee of Public Safety, wrote in his notebook: "The child, the citizen, belongs to the fatherland. Common instruction is necessary. Children belong to their mother until the age of five, if she has [breast-] fed them, and to the Republic afterwards . . . until death."
With the collapse of the authority of the Church, the revolutionaries sought a new moral basis for family life. They turned to the state and passed laws that would have been unthinkable under the Old Regime. They made divorce possible; they accorded full legal status to illegitimate children; they abolished primogeniture. If, as the Declaration of the Rights and Citizen proclaimed, all men are created free and equal in rights, shouldn't all men begin with an equal start in life? Thus the revolution limited "paternal despotism" by giving all children an equal share of inheritances. It abolished slavery and gave full civic rights to Protestants and Jews. It substituted the state for the Church as the ultimate authority in the conduct of private life, and grounded the legitimacy of the state in the sovereignty of the people. It created a new "Trinity" of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity to replace what formerly had been the "Holy Trinity" of the Church.
Popular sovereignty, civil liberty, equality before the law- the words fall so easily off the tongue today that we cannot begin to imagine their explosiveness in 1789. We cannot think ourselves back into a mental world like that of the Old Regime, where most people assumed that men were unequal, that inequality was a good thing, and that it conformed to the hierarchical order built into nature by God himself. To the French of the Old Regime, liberty meant privilege-that is, literally, "private law" or a special prerogative to do something denied to other persons. The king, as the source of all law, dispensed privileges, and rightly so, for he had been anointed as the agent of God on earth. His power was spiritual as well as secular, so by his royal touch he could cure scrofula, the king's disease.
Throughout the eighteenth century, the philosophers of the Enlightenment challenged those assumptions, and pamphleteers in Grub Street succeeded in tarnishing the sacred aura of the crown. It would take violence to smash the mental framework of the Old Regime.
A serious riot broke out in 1750 because a rumor spread through the working-class sections of Paris that the police were kidnapping children to provide a blood-bath for a prince of the royal blood. Such riots were known as "popular emotions"-eruptions of visceral passion touched off by some spark that burned within the collective imagination.
The Revolution was born in violence and it stamped its principles on a violent world. The conquerors of the Bastille did not merely destroy a symbol of royal despotism. One hundred and fifty of them were killed or injured in the assault on the prison; and when the survivors got hold of its governor, they cut off his head and paraded it through Paris on the end of a pike.
A week later, in a paroxysm of fury over high bread prices and rumors about plots to starve the poor, a crowd lynched an official in the war ministry named Foullon de Doue, severed his head, and paraded it on a pike with hay stuffed in its mouth as a sign of complicity in the plotting. A band of rioters then seized Foullon's son-in-law, the intendant of Paris, Bertier de Sauvigny, and marched him through the streets with the head in front of him, chanting, "Kiss papa, kiss papa." They murdered Bertier in front of the Hotel de Ville, tore the heart out of his body, and threw it in the direction of the municipal government. Then they resumed their parade with his head beside Foullon's. "That is how traitors are punished, " said an engraving of the scene.
Gracchus Babeuf, the future leftist conspirator (said to be a pre-Marxist), described the general delirium in a letter to his wife. Crowds applauded at the sight of the heads on the pikes, he wrote:
Oh! That joy made me sick. I felt satisfied and displeased at the same time. I said, so much the better and so much the worse. I understood that the common people were taking justice into their own hands. I approve that justice . . . but could it not be cruel? Punishments of all kinds, drawing and quartering, torture, the wheel, the rack, the whip, the stake, hangmen proliferating everywhere have done such damage to our morals! Our masters . . . will sow what they have reaped.
The Revolution does not end in 1789----were it would be a pretty package. It extends until at least 1794 and includes the "Terror" which must be understood as a part of the Revolution.
By twentieth-century standards, The Terror was not very devastating, if you make a body count of its victims and if you believe in measuring such things statistically.
1. It took about seventeen thousand lives.
2. There were fewer than twenty-five executions in half the departments of
France, none at all in six of them.
3. Seventy-one percent of the executions took place in regions where civil war
4. three quarters of the guillotined were rebels captured with arms in their
5. 85 percent were commoners-a statistic that is hard to digest for those who
interpret the Revolution as a class war directed by bourgeois against
Under the Terror the word "aristocrat" could be applied to almost anyone deemed to be an enemy of the people.
We don't know exactly what happened, because the documents were destroyed in the bombardment of the Paris Commune in 1871. But the sober assessment of the surviving evidence by Pierre Caron suggests that the massacres took on the character of a ritualistic, apocalyptic mass murder. Crowds of sans-culottes, including men from the butcheries described by Mercier, stormed the prisons in order to extinguish what they believed to be a counterrevolutionary plot. They improvised a popular court in the prison of the Abbaye. One by one the prisoners were led out, accused, and summarily judged according to their demeanor. Fortitude was taken to be a sign of innocence, faltering as guilt. Stanislas Maillard, a conqueror of the Bastille, assumed the role of prosecutor; and the crowd, transported from the street to rows of benches, ratified his judgment with nods and acclamations. If declared innocent, the prisoner would be hugged, wept over, and carried triumphantly through the city. If guilty, he would be hacked to death in a gauntlet of pikes, clubs, and sabers. Then his body would be stripped and thrown on a heap of corpses or dismembered and paraded about on the end of a pike.
One could argue that violence was a necessary evil, because the Old Regime would not die peacefully and the new order could not survive without destroying the counterrevolution.
Nearly all the violent "days" were defensive-desperate attempts to stave off counterrevolutionary coupe, which threatened to annihilate the Revolution from June 1789 until November 1799, when Bonaparte seized power. After the religious schism of 1791 and the war of 1792, any opposition could be made to look like treason, and no consensus could be reached on the principles of politics.
The Violence cleared the way for the redesigning and rebuilding. It struck down institutions from the Old Regime so suddenly and with such force that it made anything seem possible. It released utopian energy.
The Revolution was emotional. On July 7, 1792, A. A. Lamourette, a deputy from Rhone-et Loire, told the Assembly's members that their troubles all arose from a single source: factionalism. They needed more fraternity. Whereupon the deputies, who had been at each other's throats a moment earlier, rose to their feet and started hugging and kissing each other as if their political divisions could be swept away in a wave of brotherly love.
The popular emotion of fraternity, the strangest in the trinity of revolutionary values, swept through Paris with the force of a hurricane in 1792. We can barely imagine its power, because we inhabit a world organized according to other principles, such as tenure, take-home pay, bottom lines, and who reports to whom. We define ourselves as employers or employees, as teachers or students, as someone located somewhere in a web of intersecting roles. The Revolution at its most revolutionary tried to wipe out such distinctions. It really meant to legislate the brotherhood of man. It may not have succeeded any better than Christianity christianized, but it remodeled enough of the social landscape to alter the course of history.
Have we ever experienced anything that could shake instantly shake us and at the same time unite us with the force experienced by these revolutionaries? Consider the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All of us who lived through those moments remember precisely where we were and what we were doing. We suddenly stopped in our tracks, and in the face of the enormity of the event we felt bound to everyone around us. For a few instants we ceased to see one another through our roles and perceived ourselves as equals, stripped down to the core of our common humanity. Like mountaineers high above the daily business of the world.
The French Revolution was a succession of such events, events so terrible that they shook mankind to its core. Out of the destruction, they created a new sense of possibility-not just of writing constitutions or of legislating liberty and equality, but of living by the most difficult of revolutionary values, the brotherhood of man.