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Visit Lynda.com slash Revolutions and try Lynda.com free for seven days. That is L-Y-N-D-A dot com slash Revolutions. Hello and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.12 The Great Fear.
So we left off last time with Paris rising up in armed revolt and then storming the Bastille. But as I hinted at the end of last week’s episode, it was the response to this unexpected turn of events that puts the fall of the Bastille at the center of every revolutionary chronology.
The attack on this ill-defended and archaic fortress prison could have passed as a random outburst or it could have marked the beginning of a violent conservative reaction. But instead, it was the immediate precursor to the demise of absolute royal authority in France. Because as Louis’ ministers came to advise him about what to do next, they were forced to conclude that there was very little he could do next. And being able to do nothing is what sealed the fate of the absolute monarchy.
Now the reason Louis could do nothing gets to a prescient question asked by listener Svante in the comments to last week’s show that is setting me up beautifully for how I want to start this week’s show. He asked if the royal family had pulled 20,000 soldiers into Paris in anticipation of riots, why weren’t those soldiers used against the rioters? Surely it would have been possible to at least relieve the Bastille, even if they didn’t have time to stop the first riots, why didn’t that happen? The answer, in short, is that no one in a position of authority now trusted those 20,000 soldiers to do what they were ordered to do.
The problem, though, was not just that the common soldiers might disobey or defect, which yeah, they might very well. It was that all levels of the regular army, the senior officers, the junior officers, the rank and file, were deeply dissatisfied with their present condition and all for their own reasons. To put it plainly, in 1789 the French army was deeply dysfunctional.
Now I skipped past all the military issues when we walked through the pre-revolutionary period because it would have muddled already muddled waters, but I want to run through it now real quick because it does help explain why Louis was basically powerless to stop the uprising in Paris and why he could never hope to use his own army to overcome the revolution. So a good place to wind back to is May 1781. Jacques Neckerre has just been kicked out of the ministry for the first time, and a new set of counselors is taking over. Almost immediately, they push through the so-called Siguer Ordinance, named after the minister of war, Marshal Siguer.
The Siguer Ordinance was a reactionary reform measure aimed at restricting the rise of all those new-robed nobles into the upper echelons of the army. For the last hundred years or so, the newly wealthy and newly ennobled men of the kingdom had been buying and pushing their way up the social hierarchy, and they clearly had designs on moving up the military chain of command as well, a chain of command that was supposed to be the exclusive preserve of the old sword nobility.
So the Siguer Ordinance set requirements on how far back your hereditary rights had to go before you qualified for those upper ranks. The Ordinance was very much appreciated by the poor old provincial nobles, who really had only the army to look to anymore as a place to direct their sons for social advancement.
It was detested, on the other hand, by the new nobles who could now only top out at captain, and it was really super detested by career soldiers who were good at their jobs, deserved promotion, and saw their career prospects decapitated right before their very eyes. It didn’t help that these professionals usually had to slave away under the command of some twenty-year-old brat son of a courtier who was mostly in it for the hats and the girls. Starting with resentment, the actual talent within the army was now trapped. But as the fiscal crisis grew, change would hopefully soon be coming to the army.
Change then came in a huge way in 1787 when Archbishop Brienne, desperately looking to economize the state, looked at the army as a prime target for savings. To go dig up these savings, Brienne put in charge of the project a reforming colonel, the Comte de Guibert, who was given this two-fold task, make the army better and make the army cheaper. Guibert took up this nearly impossible assignment with zeal. He started eliminating or vastly reducing redundant regiments, especially those used only for show. Then he took a look at the insanely top-heavy officer corps and just started hacking it down to a reasonable size. At that moment, the French army had twelve hundred generals, more than all other European armies combined. The cost of maintaining these fancy but utterly redundant positions was simply unjustifiable.
So as generals retired, the plan would be to just not hire new ones until everything was in much better balance. Then he went after the civilian contractors who supplied the army at a cost far in excess of what the army would pay if it just took on the job of supplying itself. But of course everything I’ve just rattled off, showpiece regiments, high-ranking generals, civilian contractors, well these are filled with prominent and well-connected men, and they didn’t like any of it one bit.
But while he was busy alienating the pants off the old sword nobles, Guibert did little to satisfy the new nobles and the professional soldiers who wanted a shot at promotion. Guibert was a disciple of Frederick the Great, and he truly believed in the concept of a permanent military aristocracy that you couldn’t just buy your way into. So far from eliminating the severe ordinance, he actually made it even stricter.
His plan was to expand and further subsidize the twelve provincial military academies to identify good young nobles and train them properly for a life in arms. He had no use whatsoever for prancing dandies, but he clung to the belief that properly trained the old sword nobles were in fact the only suitable men to lead a great army. As for the common soldiers, Guibert was initially their hero. He took a look at their pay and determined that it was utterly inadequate. So as he cut across the board on everything else, he actually increased the pay for privates.
But as he gave with one hand, he beat them senseless with the other. As I said, Guibert was a disciple of Frederick the Great, and Frederick the Great was all about discipline. So incredibly strict rules of conduct were introduced, with incredibly strict penalties for violations. The soldiers were not prepared to be suddenly judged by such inflexible Prussian standards, and morale plummeted.
So adding it all up, Guibert’s reforms looked great on paper—he was cutting costs, he was increasing efficiency and discipline, he was creating a whole new generation of well-trained noble warriors to lead the French army back to its rightful place as the greatest military force in Europe. But on the ground, it was a very different story. The soldiers sulked under the painful new disciplinary regime, the junior officers continued to resent their inability to rise higher in the ranks, and the senior officers were deeply offended at having their pensions cut, their expenses unreimbursed, and then their jobs simply eliminated. And of course, as they looked at the royal ministry with now undisguised contempt for shoving this all down their throats, they looked at each other with undisguised contempt, and everyone blamed everyone else for their misfortunes.
So this was the army that was being called on in July 1789 to restore order in Paris, and after a few first confrontations, it was pretty apparent that it would be madness to rely on them to bring the hammer down without just making everything ten times worse. So after being told that it was just too dangerous to put the troops in the field, Louis was now left with only one option—go down and inform the National Assembly that he was going to order the army out of Paris.
But though this in and of itself was a fairly momentous admission that wherever authority now lay, it did not lay exclusively with the king, the way Louis chose to make this announcement dramatically underscored the point.
Because when on the afternoon of July 15, he went in person to the National Assembly, he went down there by himself, well practically by himself, he was flanked only by his two brothers, the Comte d’Artois and the Comte de Provence. But other than that, no one. No grand retinue, no fancy clothes, no pomp, no circumstances, no ceremonies, none of the pageantry that had been so essential to the myth of royal absolutism.
The delegates of the National Assembly were downright shocked when the king was announced, and then when he just walked in. Some of the delegates tried to give him a cold reception, but when Louis told them he was pulling the troops out, there was unrestrained cheering for our father the king. And though this speech, on the day after the fall of the Bastille, has become the moment many historians point to as the end of royal absolutism in France, the thing to remember is that no one in the room at that moment wanted this to be the end of the monarchy. That would have been unthinkable.
So after the king’s visit, a group of about a hundred delegates saddled up their carriages and made straightaway for Paris to give the city the good news. This group was led by two of the most prominent members of the National Assembly, the Marquis de Lafayette and Jean-Sylvain Bailly. Now Lafayette we know, but Bailly we do not, though most Frenchmen at the time surely did.
Bailly was probably the most renowned scientist and astronomer in the kingdom. When the Estates General was called, he was one of the few delegates with national name recognition of any kind, and when the Third Estate finally started to start transacting business, one of their first votes was to make Bailly president of the assembly. Which meant that he was the providing officer at the tennis court oath, and if you pull up that famous David drawing, Bailly is the guy front and center with his right hand raised.
When this delegation from the National Assembly reached the Hotel de Ville in Paris, they were greeted, obviously, by mass jubilation in the streets. But amidst the happy and idealistic cheering, something ominous was lurking in the crowd that day, namely the widespread assumption among the people of Paris that they had just single-handedly saved the National Assembly from destruction, and that their role as defenders of the revolution was now set in stone. As we will see, the conflation of Paris with the revolution, and that to be against one was to be against the other, would not ultimately lead to particularly happy and idealistic results.
But for the moment, it was all pretty good. Lafayette, the man who had made his name as an officer in the American Revolution and who was the surrogate son of the great George Washington, was asked by the Paris electors to take command of that hastily raised citizen militia we talked about last week, a citizen militia that would soon be more formally organized into the National Guard.
Then the electors selected Bailly to be mayor of Paris, a brand new office that would lead a brand new political entity called the Paris Commune, an elected assembly representing the 48 sections of the city, which would, in time, become the engine of the revolution, and help do things like cut off the head of the man they first elected mayor, Jean-Sylvan Bailly. The next day, the king himself came down to the Hôtel de Ville to confirm all of this in person. To great public acclaim, he confirmed Bailly as mayor, confirmed Lafayette as head of the National Guard, and announced again that the troops were being pulled out of the city.
Then he gave everyone the last bit of news they had been waiting for. Couriers had been dispatched to track down Jacques Necker, wherever he was on the road back to Switzerland, and bring him back to run the ministry. This was everything everyone wanted to hear. Then the king donned one of the blue and red cockades, signaling that everything that had gone on since the convening of the Estates General was now ratified.
Louis was no longer some brilliantly shimmering symbol of absolutism that hovered somewhere in between God and France. He was a citizen king. He had come down from Versailles a quasi-deity and returned just a man, though, much to the relief of his wife and children, he did in fact return. Back in Versailles, this was all too much for some conservatives to take. All their scheming having come to naught, the queen and the Comte d’Artois had to figure out their next move. The queen was advised to leave the palace, but she refused to take flight, and besides, where would she go, and what would she do when she got there?
No, for better or for worse, the royal family was going to have to stick it out. The Comte d’Artois, meanwhile, was all done, and with a small retinue of loyal friends and associates, quickly and quietly decamped Versailles and headed for the northeastern frontier, leading what would become the first batch of aristocratic emigres fleeing from the revolution, who would collectively become known as the capital-E emigres. Some of these emigres would collect around the Comte d’Artois’ little court in exile, wherever it happened to be stationed, others settled in England, and still others made it all the way to America to await the day when hopefully the madness would stop.
Though the king basically capitulated to the uprising in Paris and given them everything they wanted, it’s not like the situation immediately improved. Bread was still scarce and way too expensive, and the mob was not quite done dispensing justice. When the intendant of Paris, that is, the guy who had been running the show, tried to join the first wave of emigres and hightail it out of town on July 22, he and his son-in-law were discovered. They were summarily lynched, and their decapitated heads paraded around Paris. If the fall of the Bastille had surprised everyone in the National Assembly, the lynching of the Paris intendant was downright chilling.
The Bastille had been a reaction to a perceived mortal threat, and though distasteful was very possibly justified given the circumstances. But the lynching of the intendant? That had come after the king had backed down, after Bailly had been elected mayor, after Lafayette had been given control of the National Guard, and under whose protection the intendant supposedly was. There was no justification for such lawless cruelty. As had been the case with the Magistrates of the Parliament, if you were a delegate of the National Assembly, you had to wonder just how safe it really was to be protected by the Paris mobs, especially if your interests ever diverged.
But for the moment, there was no immediate hint of a break between Paris and the national government, and the unfolding crisis of the summer of 1789 turned out from the center to the periphery. Conditions were bad everywhere, and had been for quite some time. The process of drawing up those grievance lists prior to the Estates General had focused everyone’s displeasure, given its specific names and specific faces. And then the newly focused Provincials had all been forced to sit and wait for something, anything to come of it.
They sent their delegates off to Versailles at the end of April, and then they waited through May as literally nothing happened, with the Third Estate fighting its little war for common verification of credentials. Then all of June passed without anything of substance being done. The declaration of the National Assembly and the Tennis Court oath were neat, but to some broke silkworker in Lyon, or some suffering peasant in Provence, it was just so much semantic posturing.
So when the Provincials II hit the hungry midsummer weeks of July 1789 with no relief in sight, well, the uprising in Paris and the fall of the Bastille was taken as a signal that all bonds were cut and it was time to start taking matters into our own hands.
In almost every municipality, self-declared committees followed the lead of the Paris electors and started unilaterally taking control of local government. Mostly these groups were the provincial electors, but others were just like-minded men getting together and saying, okay, we’re now in charge. These guys were for the most part middle-class lawyers, coming from the same demographic as the majority of the delegates in the National Assembly. Citizen militias were then organized with the help of defecting soldiers from the regular army, the old men of local prominence, the nobles or ranking clergymen, and either got on board or were simply pushed aside.
While this revolution was going on in the municipalities, the cities and the bigger towns, something much less focused was brewing out in the countryside. Remember, France was still overwhelmingly rural, and this little municipal takeover by the bourgeoisie still left the vast majority of the population without much of a political voice. They were now about to start making enough noise to shake the kingdom to its foundations. So when we last left the peasants, they had gotten together and drawn up their little grievance lists and cast their little votes for who would go off to the next round of elections to select the real delegates to the Third Estate.
Then they returned to their farms, and as soon as they did, most of their specific little grievances were edited out by the Third Estate delegates who could not really be said to be representing the peasantry at all. The peasants, though, still expected their burdens would be lifted, and as they too heard only of deadlock and Versailles, they started to get restless.
As I touched on last time, there were bread riots across the kingdom through the spring and early summer, and confrontations with local authorities everywhere as many peasants acted as if the simple act of writing down their complaints had broken any obligation to pay this toll or work on that project for free. Then when Paris went into revolt, everything kinda went a little crazy, and a sudden panic swept across the countryside that has since been dubbed the Great Fear.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly where and how the Great Fear started, but the basic ingredients were this. You have hungry people with no food, unemployed people with no work taking to the road to look for work, already organized migrant beggars getting a little too pushy about their begging, the widespread belief that the aristocracy had been purposefully hoarding grain to drive up prices, and the further widespread belief that the upper echelons of the royal family were in cahoots with foreign powers, be they the British or the Austrians, to crush the people beneath the boot heel of a reassendant and tyrannical nobility.
So after the fall of the Bastille, rumors started swirling that reactionary members of the aristocracy, working on their own or with the help of foreign agents, were hiring groups of brigands to fan out across the countryside to terrorize the people of France back into their previous state of oppressed submission. With so many poor migrants now clogging up the roads from everywhere to everywhere else, it became easy to believe that there was something deeply menacing going on. Local peasants started gathering together to form protective patrols, who would arm themselves with whatever was laying around, and then go out themselves to look for these villainous brigands who were supposed to be just over the next hill.
But of course, when these protective patrols were spotted by the next town over, they were often mistaken for these alleged brigands. Panic swept across rural France in a matter of days. But once they were all suitably riled up and paranoid, it didn’t take long for the defensive posture of the peasantry to go into attack mode.
Wherever the great fear spread, people started refusing to pay basically anything they had once been expected to pay. No more taxes, no more feudal dues, no more church tithes. All of it was simply a part of the same oppressive apparatus that was lining the pockets of the evil aristocrats who were now sending brigands and thieves to loot and pillage our countryside. Plus it was taken for granted that the National Assembly was about to abolish it all anyway. So no, we’re all done with all of that.
Then they actively turned their attention to the physical manifestations of aristocratic tyranny. Those noble mills that they had been forced to use, smashed. The noble wine presses they had been forced to use, broken. But as these angry peasant mobs began to descend on the manor houses that had for so long dominated their little corners of the world, there was one thing above all that needed to be destroyed. The feudal records. I’m talking about the physical pieces of paper that noted exactly who owned what, who owed what, and for how long they owned or owed it.
The angry peasants simply pushed their way in past terrified noble families, located the records, and burned them in great bonfires. Soon enough, huge plumes of smoke were rising up across the countryside, visible for miles around, spreading the general fear and panic even further. At this moment, in the last weeks of July 1789, political authority in rural France simply collapsed. And the records that all that political authority was based on was currently going up in smoke.
Meanwhile, back in the towns, and then up in Paris and over in Versailles, the little cliques of revolutionary bourgeoisie who had taken over were utterly appalled. Remember, these guys were lawyers, or men who did enough business to respect utterly the sanctity of contracts, and more than that, the fundamental concept of private property. Marching around burning property records was insane, and it scared them.
The delegates of the National Assembly had to sit through weeks not just of official reports about the state of the provinces, but also frantic letters from their families about what was happening in their own hometowns. They issued a totally inadequate appeal to the peasantry to please stop burning records and please keep paying taxes and tithes until we, your appointed representatives, can work out a new system. But this appeal was just ignored. So come August the 3rd, the men still meeting after hours as the Breton Club hatched a plan both to get out in front of the chaos and then secure the further list of demands they had now come up with for the king.
They decided to launch this plan as the next day’s session wound to a close, when attendance would hopefully be sparse and one of the Breton delegates would be serving his turn as presiding officer. Which brings us to the night of August the 4th. The Breton Club’s plan was pretty straightforward. At the appointed moment, a liberal noble, one of those members of the Society of 30 whose name I won’t trouble you with, would step forward with a motion to allow the peasantry to escape their feudal obligations and to force all men to pay taxes in proportion to their income, without notice of social status.
This would basically begin the process of demolishing feudalism in France, and hopefully get the rampaging peasants off the warpath. With the chamber sparse and no one prepared to oppose such a bold gesture, the Breton delegates would then rally, push it through, and then dare anyone to try to undo it. But as bold as the Breton Club thought it was about to be, they had no idea what was about to be unleashed.
First of all, the chamber wasn’t quite as sparse as they had hoped. Okay, well, no matter, but then the appointed liberal noble got his lines stepped on by a rival noble whose name I also won’t trouble you with. This guy had caught wind of the plan, and wanted to steal a little glory for himself, and so he unexpectedly jumped up and moved for the abolition of feudalism himself. All our appointed liberal noble could do was then stand up and say, yeah, I basically agree with that, let’s do it.
This quick one-two punch caught many of the delegates off guard. Then they heard three prearranged speeches by Breton delegates agreeing with those motions. This all made it look like some spontaneous domino effect had been triggered, and far from wanting to fight against it, all the delegates suddenly wanted to join the fun. So other men, now truly spontaneously, started coming forward with their own calls to abolish specific parts of the feudal apparatus.
Now at first, this was all driven by an infectious sense of patriotic self-sacrifice, with nobles themselves stepping forward to renounce their own rights, like when a bishop moved that the church’s feudal claims should be abolished along with those of their noble cousins. In these first motions, serfdom, that is, families being legally bound to the land, was abolished in the few places it still existed, then all forms of forced labor went with it.
Then noble hunting rights went away, all internal tollways, any kind of private court. Then the third estate representatives from the cities and corporations came forward and renounced their own privileges, their own exemptions, and their own rights. Venal office was abolished, and public employment was opened to all on the basis of merit alone.
But along the way, the self-sacrifice gave way to fun little offers for others to make self-sacrifices. The motion to abolish noble hunting rights, for example, had been put forward by a bishop. So a few speeches later, a noble who happened to really like his hunting rights stood up and moved for the abolition of tithes, which, like everything else, was approved with passionate acclamations. So now the clergy had no income, which is not what anyone was expecting going into this. As midnight passed, this just went on and on, and everyone who was there describes the experience as surreal, with everyone trying to outdo everyone else.
Sometime after 2 AM, the crazy session finally wound down, and a 16-point declaration was drawn up to try to summarize what had just happened, because by then, no one could quite remember who had said what or what they had all agreed to. Of everything that had gone on, only three big motions didn’t make the final list. Full religious freedom for Protestants, the end of slavery in the colonies, and the call to just abolish nobility outright. The rest was approved to weeping and hugging. Then they all went to bed convinced they had just participated in one of the greatest events in French history.
What had begun as a general attempt to declare that in principle feudalism should probably be abolished, had turned into a delirious and hyper-specific deconstruction of the entire structure of privilege that had bound the kingdom together for centuries. And remember, until this moment, those privileges had been synonymous with political liberty. Relating privileges had been the crux of the war between the parlement and the royal ministry.
But now, those privileges had been razed to the ground. So if Frenchmen still wanted to enjoy this thing called liberty, they were going to have to invent a whole new definition from scratch.
And next week, that is exactly what they will try and do. And with the example of the revolutionary Americans to look to, the National Assembly will produce one of the great statements of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
- Charles X
- Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette
- Jean Sylvain Bailly
- George Washington
- Jacques Necker
- Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, Comte de Guibert
After a wave of chaos spread across France, the National Assembly abolished feudalism on the night of Aug. 4, 1789.
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