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Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.55, The Retrospective.
So welcome to our one final look back at the French Revolution before we finally move on. What I’m looking to do here, as much for myself as for you guys, is to walk back through everything that we’ve covered to pull out what I consider to be the really important turning points so that we can trace a coherent line from the collapse of the ASEAN regime through the Napoleonic Empire and then the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Now, one thing I noticed looking back through it all is that many of the events that I consider key turning points are actually pretty obscure and rarely show up in a general survey of the revolution because a good turning point sets up the really famous dramatic moments. By the time the really famous dramatic moments happen, the turning point has already done its work. This is one of the reasons I love really getting into the details because you get to grasp the secret scaffolding that holds more visible history up in place.
So let’s start then with a broad framework. After having gone through the whole revolutionary period, I now know how I would divide up the era into discrete historical periods. Now, these kinds of divisions are, of course, arbitrary, but they do help keep things straight and are good building blocks for your broader understanding of world history.
So ignoring all traditional dating conventions, here’s how I would break things up. The French Revolution began in August 1786 when Controller General Colon told the king that the monarchy was stony broke. This kicked off a chain reaction that led to the disintegration of the ASEAN regime. And where does the French Revolution end? Well, I am now prepared to say that it ends in July of 1794 with the Termidorian reaction and the fall of Robespierre.
The French Revolution, running from 1786 to 1794, was defined by an almost uniform process of increasing radicalization. That is, at almost every crisis point, the more radical faction inevitably won. It started with the critics inside the assembly of notables who stood up to Colon, rather than just rubber stamping his reform package, and led all the way through to the reign of terror. During this process of persistent radicalization, the revolution devoured the hell out of its children as yesterday’s revolutionary fringe became today’s moderate leaders, became tomorrow’s reactionary conservatives. The revolutionary tide just rushed past everyone. And it wasn’t until late 1793 that this process of radicalization finally stalled out, and that was when the enragés were defeated by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety.
The Termidorian reaction marks a fundamental break with the course and speed of events, to the point that I’m pretty comfortable saying that the French Revolution ends at Thermidor.
But if the French Revolution proper ended in 1794, what comes next? So I call this next discreet period the Termidorian Republic, which runs from July 1794 to May 1804, and that was when First Consul Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon the First. Unlike the revolution, the Termidorian Republic was defined not by a line of increasing radicalization, but by a center point that was attempting to wield power in opposition both to revolutionary leftists and counterrevolutionary royalists. As we saw, and we’ll review in a bit here today, the Directory tried to hold the center by alternatively whacking each side in turn, first left, then right, then left again, then right again. But this meant that the Directory never had a strong enough base of support to sustain it in the long run. Now, Talleyrand saw that the moment he returned from exile in the United States, and having deduced this, did what he could to make his own prediction come true. But that means that the midpoint of the Termidorian Republic is the Coup of 18 Brumaire, which saw Bonaparte overthrow the Directory, and replace it with the Consulate. Now, real life led me to cut off our cycle of episodes on the French Revolution at the Coup of Brumaire, which is, by the way, a very traditional place to mark the end of the French Revolution. But conceptually, the Termidorian Republic ends when First Consul Bonaparte becomes Emperor Napoleon the First. Because as we saw in those final episodes, the Consulate sewed up a lot of the loose threads that were unraveled at the beginning of the revolutionary era.
So the Termidorian Republic is then obviously followed by the Napoleonic Empire, which runs from May 1804 to June 1815. The empire was defined by, duh, Napoleon, and all that goes with him. This was obviously beyond the scope of the show, but just so you know, the central pivot point is around 1808 with the decision to invade and occupy Spain, creating the bleeding ulcer that would help undo everything. It ends with Waterloo, the Congress of Vienna, and the restoration of the monarchy. So with this framework in place, let’s go back to the very beginning.
We started this cycle of episodes on the French Revolution with an examination of the three estates that define the social, political, and economic structure of the Ancien Regime, and then moved into a discussion of the myriad fault lines that plagued France at the end of the 18th century. The kingdom was not in any way a unified kingdom, and it certainly wasn’t an absolute monarchy. It was a patchwork of provinces and parishes, jurisdictions, tax zones, free cities, none of which seemed to live by the same laws, and all of which claimed their own specific privileges and exemptions.
If you were rich, you were able to buy your way out of most taxes, which is crazy and unsustainable, and left the lower classes to shoulder the burden of providing the state with revenue. What energy the revolution had from below was driven in the early days by an intense desire to abolish all of this crap and make things more equal and more just.
Now the various royal ministries were not insensible to the problems tripping up the kingdom, nor that enlightened, modernizing reforms were probably the answer. But they faced determined resistance, not only from those who were privileged by the system, but also by those who were oppressed by it. Because remember, there were things like the Flower War in 1775. That was when hungry peasants revolted against the free market experiments of the physiocrats. Heading into the 1780s, it would have taken a leader with serious backbone to drive the Ancien Regime into the modern age. And Louis XVI was really, really not the man for the job.
So that background brings us to the first really important turning point. And I know you probably think I’m gonna say Vergennes convincing the king to back the Americans, but I’m not. And while I think it was a crazy idea given the state of the kingdom’s finances, the problems were much wider and deeper than the American War of Independence. Instead, I’m going to talk about the massive covering up of the monarchy’s financial woes, the Comte Rondeau. Written by everyone’s favorite Swiss Protestant wonder boy, Jacques Necker, and published in 1781, this massive accounting of the royal finances was an unexpected bestseller, and it purported to show that the ministry was balancing its books just fine. But Necker was only able to make the numbers add up by shunting huge expenditures like war over to this category called extraordinary expenses that don’t really count. This bookkeeping sleight of hand convinced every literate Frenchman with an interest in public affairs that the monarchy was not only solvent, but it might actually be running a surplus here pretty soon. The Comte Rondeau planted a very misleading seed in everyone’s mind about the health of the state, and that seed would blossom fully into outrage disbelief when the monarchy announced just six years later that it was insolvent.
Now, the myth of the Comte Rondeau was, of course, exacerbated by Cologne’s program of useful splendor, basically keeping up appearances so that the financiers lending the regime money wouldn’t catch on to the fact that their money was probably going into a black hole. Now, Cologne hoped that somehow, in some way, they would be able to turn it all around before anyone caught on, but obviously that did not happen. In August 1786, it all fell apart. Cologne came to the king and said, “‘Sire, we have no money, “‘and we are going to need to drastically reform “’the kingdom’s political economy “‘if we’re going to survive.’” This, in my view, marks the beginning of the French Revolution.
Now, traditionally, this period from 1786 to 1789 is called the pre-revolution, but to me, the pre-revolution is all the stuff happening in the transition from Louis XV to Louis XVI that set up the bankruptcy crisis of 1786. From the bankruptcy crisis forward, it is an unbroken chain of cause and effect leading all the way to the Reign of Terror. So, the next two years saw successive royal ministries battle first with the Assembly of Notables who refused to rubber-stamp Cologne’s reforms and then the parlomar, who refused to register the reforms, and both did so with tons of popular support.
This all culminated in mid-1788 with the attempt to dissolve the parlomar, leading to the Day of the Tiles, which was the first good mob action of the revolution, which also gave full voice to the widespread demand that if the king wanted to levy new taxes, he had to call the Estates General. And when it was revealed in August 1788 that there was only 400,000 livre left in the royal treasury, the Estates General were finally called to meet in May 1789. And of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention that this breakdown of the French political economy was massively aggravated by a terrible run of recent harvests and the particularly bad winter of 1788-1789.
So after the Estates General get called, things move quickly through the alleged good revolution of 1789 with all its dramatic set pieces, the tennis court oath, the fall of the Bastille, the Great Fear, the municipal revolution, the night of August the 4th, the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
These events are the star attractions for any good telling of the French Revolution. And I’ll admit that I was absolutely giddy when I got to go inside the tennis court itself on the last revolutions tour. But none of these set pieces from the summer of 1789 are as truly decisive to the course of the revolution as the really big turning point that came in the fall of 1789. Because remember, by the end of summer, things appeared to be cooling down. Revolutionary fever was receding and probably leaving in its place a constitutional monarchy led by liberal nobles and wealthy bourgeoisie in partnership with a king whose powers were diminished but by no means abolished.
But then came the women’s march on Versailles. After an inciting incident involving the king’s guard trampling the revolutionary cockade at a banquet at Versailles, a demonstration of Paris mothers and wives protesting bread shortages turned into a full blown march through the driving rain towards the royal palace.
After a night of tense negotiations, somebody sympathetic to the demonstrators opened the palace gates and let them in. For a few moments, it looked like the royal family might get massacred. Marie Antoinette certainly spent the longest half hour of her life trapped next to a locked door trying to flee from the intruders. But the safety of the royal family was secured by a national guard company and the angry women were pushed back outside.
So in the aftermath of this, Lafayette brokered a compromise that saw the royal family agree to relocate to Paris. And the move to Paris is huge. Not only did it put the revolution at the mercy of the streets of Paris, which is obviously a gigantic deal, but more immediately, it polarized the delegates of the National Assembly. In Versailles, the delegates had lodged with the men from their own provincial delegations because that was who they had come with and the only men they knew. But when they moved to Paris, they all clustered by ideology, not geography. Men now spent their time amongst those who they agreed with. And the division between left and right, physically demarcated inside the rectangular menage of the Tuileries Palace, was born. And then of course, yes, over in the Court de Lis district, a whole radical faction, not even in the National Assembly, started making some pretty crazy noises.
The revolution moving to Paris is a huge turning point. More so, much more so, than the fall of the Bastille itself, despite what the revolution’s PR department would like you to believe.
But despite the undercurrent of polarization, the whole first half of 1790 seemed once again to be leading towards a stable constitutional order. The king was publicly on board with playing the part of citizen king. The liberal nobles, now led by Lafayette in his society of 1789, held the reins of government. The church was being reorganized as a national institution, and its lands were being used to pay off the monarchy’s debts. But this was all in line with complaints from the parish priests, who were annoyed about the clique of high ecclesiastics who had been hoarding church property. So the vast majority of the priests weren’t mad about the reforms to the church, they positively welcomed them. So when the great celebration was held on the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, this is when Talleyrand administers this patriotic oath to Lafayette, it once again appeared like the revolution was winding down.
But of course we know that everyone was just biding their time behind the scenes, and no one was truly committed to the new order. The more radical leaders wanted the revolution to go even further, while the conservatives believed that they would be able to slowly wind everything back now that the heat was off. And at the end of 1790 though, we get our next critical turning point, and one that can only be described as a major mistake, the civic oath.
The more radically inclined members of the National Assembly demanded the clergy swear an oath of loyalty to the state above the church. And overnight, this civic oath alienated a ton of the devout parish priests, who thus far had been on board even with the reorganization of the French church. Their mass disembarking from the revolution massively undercut the revolution’s legitimacy, and created a stable network of counter-revolutionary opposition that would plague the republic until Bonaparte broke out the Concordat of 1801. Who knows what would have happened had the revolutionaries in Paris not been so obsessed with the civic oath. The Vendée would not have happened for sure, and that alone changes practically everything.
The civic oath, big deal, bad idea.
The next great turning point comes in May 1791, and is usually passed over completely, unless you’re talking specifically about Robespierre, because it’s his first major contribution to the revolution. As the National Assembly continued to plug away on the coming constitution of 1791, Robespierre convinced his colleagues to pass what? That self-denying decree, with the National Assembly delegates voluntarily barring themselves from serving in the coming legislative assembly. So when the legislative assembly was inaugurated that October, none of the men who had a vested interest in the success of the constitution of 1791 were around. And not only that, they were replaced by more obscure local leaders who had just spent the last two years cutting their revolutionary teeth as critics and rabble-rousers. The refined gentility of the National Assembly gave way to the more raucous and self-consciously revolutionary legislative assembly.
And of course, in between the self-denying ordinance and the legislative assembly and what made the revolutionary assembly even more raucously and self-consciously revolutionary was the king’s flight to Varennes, which devastated trust in the monarchy and really let loose fears of a royalist plot to invite the Austrians in to crush them all. The respectable revolutionaries of the liberal noble variety were then forced to confront a more radically egalitarian and now avowedly republican force coming out of the Corleu district. It is tough to say whether these more respectable revolutionaries who were personified by the constitutional monarchists in the FUNA Club would have been able to keep things on course had they transitioned into controlling the legislative assembly. But I cannot imagine things would have spiraled out of control quite so fast had power not been handed to Brissot and his Girondin colleagues who immediately started beating the drums of war.
So since the onset of the war is the really big central pivot point of the French Revolution, let’s stop for a minute and review the international situation. As you will recall, we have our five major powers, France, Austria, Prussia, Britain, and Russia. In terms of the international balance of power, the really shocking event that put everyone on notice that France was actually in deep trouble was when Prussia marched into the United Provinces in 1787 and France was too broke to lift a finger. Suddenly the leaders of all the other powers were like, ho ho, France is weak, how can we exploit this? But then, and this is the big deal, the answer was emphatically not let’s declare war on France. The answer was let’s kick back and have a drink and watch France burn and then divide up the remains.
So as paranoid as the revolutionaries were about a foreign invasion, particularly by the Austrians, the other powers in Europe had almost no interest in war. It wasn’t until three years after the fall of the Bastille that war was actually declared and when it came, it was driven by the French, not by the Austrians. And the mistake that the other powers made, and by that I mean the Austrians and the Prussians, was in thinking that belligerent threats would strengthen political moderates inside France and that that would stave off war, when in point of fact it paved the way for aggressively nationalistic leaders to grab the reins and declare war.
What the other powers wanted was a French monarchy weakened by revolutionary constraints and unable to resist or interfere with the power plays of everyone else. What they did instead was provoke a war that led directly to the rise of Napoleon and then him conquering them a decade later. Whoops.
So the single most decisive turning point in the course of the French Revolution is the declaration of war on Austria in April 1792. You can actually pinpoint it even more specifically. It’s April the 28th, 1792. That was the day Colonel Arthur Dillon led an initial skirmishing action against the Austrians near the Belgian frontier, which turned into a disorganized retreat in the face of Austrian artillery. Now the Girondin orators had whipped up war fever over the winter by promising quick and easy victory over the decaying Austrians, and the reality of military hardship was a bucket full of cold water. But instead of accepting that war is hard, Briseau and the boys launched into full-blown conspiratorial paranoia, saying that there were secret counter-revolutionary and foreign agents everywhere, and who were intentionally causing our armies to lose. Now a few speeches from a few guys is obviously not enough to invent bloodthirsty paranoia out of whole cloth, so the conditions were obviously there. But rather than reining those impulses in, the Girondins let it off the leash. And boy, did bloodthirsty paranoia get off the leash.
You can see a very clear separation in the revolution’s body count right here in the spring of 1792, because even though there have been major demonstrations, mob uprisings, really bitter political battles, what’s been the result? Well, let’s go to the board. The day of the tiles and the other street clashes over the May edicts in 1788, some property damage, some injuries, handful of dead, fall of the Bastille, well, scores of dead demonstrators, a few soldiers killed in the siege, a very gruesome end for the governor, and then the intended and his son got lynched a few days later, but really, that’s it.
The great fear that swept the countryside in the aftermath of the fall of the Bastille, the state’s ransacked, records burned, but this was always after pushing the noble families aside, not hacking them to pieces with rusty sickles. The women’s march on Versailles, I mean, maybe that could have gotten out of hand, but it didn’t. The National Guard secured the royal family. There was only a few dead in the skirmishing around the royal apartments. The demonstrations surrounding the flight to Varennes, lots of ominous loitering, no actual action. And then finally, the massacre of the Champs de Mars, which, first of all, there was only about 50 dead max, and second, all of those were on the side of the Republican radicals. So when we add up all the bodies, the vast majority are, first of all, from the revolutionary side, and second of all, there aren’t that many of them. The id of the revolution was obviously in check until the war.
After the war begins, and then really, once it starts to go bad, holy crap, look out. The insurrection of August the 10th was armed and merciless. You get the massacre of the Swiss guards of the Tuileries Palace, the systematic hunting down and hacking to death of defeated soldiers, and then you get the September massacres a month later, which are the first really freakishly murderous thing the French Revolution got up to, with its kangaroo tribunals and men, women, and children being pushed into alleyways to face indiscriminate butchering. 1,500 dead in less than a week, and why? Because of the war, a foreign army was marching on Paris, and it’s just gonna be like this right into 1793 and the Reign of Terror. Time and again, we see a direct link between bad news on the various war fronts and a rise in revolutionary butchery. When the bad news gave way to better news, the butchery slowed down. And of course, we’ve already seen how the majority of the official victims of the Reign of Terror came from cities that had risen in revolt against Paris and were now being subdued and punished. The war, the war changed everything. The war defined revolutionary terror. The war created revolutionary terror.
So besides the terror, the other really big result of this big turning point called the war is a little thing called the overthrow of the monarchy on August the 10th, 1792, which marks the beginning of what some people like to call the second French Revolution. And I do like that formulation. August the 10th was the first out-and-out planned revolutionary insurrection. It’s when the Paris Commune seizes control of the revolution. The character and characters of the revolution change dramatically from this point on. The first revolution was aristocratic, elitist and moderate. The second was populist, egalitarian and radical. The first revolution was by the Culottes. The second revolution was by the Saint-Culottes. And as we just discussed, the first revolution was relatively bloodless as far as revolutions go. The second revolution was a bloody terror. The first revolution was enlightened pamphlets like What is the Third Estate by the ABCS. The second revolution was whatever homicidal propaganda Marat happened to be scribbling on any given day. The first revolution was Lafayette and the National Guard. The second was Vadier and the Revolutionary Army. The first revolution was for a constitutional monarchy. The second was for a republic. I could go on, but I like this distinction.
So the first wave of revolutionary killing in the second revolution subsided after the surprise victory at Valmy. And this victory gave the newly inaugurated National Convention the space it needed to descend into an incredibly bitter and not entirely explicable blood feud between the Girondins and the Mountain, who used the trial of the king as their first field of battle. The Mountain won, of course, and poor Louis, who was just not the man for the job, got his head chopped off.
Now, in a casual telling of the French Revolution, the murder of the king will always be a decisive event, especially because it convinced the other monarchies of Europe to declare war on revolutionary France. But we have a more nuanced understanding, don’t we? Because we know that Austria and Prussia are already at war with France. Russia won’t get into it for another five years. And so of the five major powers, we’re only really talking about the British. And while the death of the king did finally sever diplomatic relations, it was really the fact that Du Maurier had pushed the French armies into Belgium and was threatening the United Provinces that really got the British into the war. Dead king, live king, whichever, mess with British hegemony in the Netherlands, and they are going to want to fight you.
So in the spring of 1793, the powers of Europe were united against Republican France. And that is when the convention issued the decree that blew up the home front. Remember what it was? The next big turning point, the LaVey of 300,000.
Resistance to this draft was acute and widespread. It created anger and resentment and hostility across France, sowing the seeds of the coming Federalist revolt. And of course, it was the LaVey of 300,000 that provided the spark that blew up the Vendée into a towering inferno. Resistance to the draft created a parallel domestic crisis to match the foreign crisis of Europe uniting against the French. And since defeating and punishing those domestic insurrections is what the reign of terror was all about, the LaVey of 300,000 takes on an even greater significance.
Now, I’ve cracked a few jokes about how long it took us to get through 1793. By my count, we nosed into the year in episode 3.26 with the execution of Louis and did not escape it for 11 full episodes, finally leaving it behind in episode 3.36. It’s the craziest damn year I’ve ever seen. It started with the French army under De Maurier getting beat and then him defecting, leaving the road to Paris seemingly clear. But with the Vendée erupting and the Federalist revolt in full swing, the Allied response was quite justifiably to let Republican France collapse all on its own. But somehow, that’s not what happened. The Committee of Public Safety was created and then reorganized itself into a strident and self-confident dictatorship. The LaVey en masse was formulated and started to work. The Federalist revolt turned out to be less powerful than its leaders had hoped. And soon, only Lyon was holding out. The Catholic and royal army was still marching around in the West, but their commanders were not unified, and they had no stable pipeline of arms or support. And it was too late that the Allies realized that the French Republic was not, in point of fact, about to collapse.
All of this came to a head in October 1793, which is the craziest damn month of the craziest damn year. It was a month of resolution, bloody, bloody resolution. And here’s just some of the stuff that happened in the span of that single critical month. The queen was put on trial and executed. The popular and democratic constitution of 1793 was permanently suspended without ever taking effect. Lyon fell, ending the Federalist revolt and giving the Reign of Terror its first major batch of victims. The Catholic and royal army was defeated in the West, and its survivors ran off to try to find the British. But that little adventure came to nothing. The Republican victory in the Vendée set up the other great center of the Reign of Terror. And just as an aside, you’ll get a lot of different dates out there about when the Reign of Terror actually starts. Some going all the way back to the execution of Louis, others when the guillotine was introduced in the spring. But the Reign of Terror starts here in October 1793, because this is when legal formalities are absolutely tossed aside and the mass executions really get going. Exemplified, of course, by the show trial and execution of the Girondins, which also took place in October 1793. And then finally, out on the Belgian frontier, the French beat the Austrians, leaving the French republic heading into the winter with victory on all fronts. October 1793, there is a whole book in that month.
This snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat thoroughly legitimized the power and authority of the Committee of Public Safety. And they cemented it with the Law of Free Mayor, which gave them basically total authority over everything.
But outside the committee, the group led by Danton started calling for a drawback from the Reign of Terror now that the crisis had passed, while the group surrounding Jacques Hebert wanted it to go even further. And they were now mixing in with it aggressive de-Christianization. Between these two groups stood Robespierre, who was for that moment in agreement with Danton and his indulgence rather than Hebert and the Ultras. But the East India scandal really seems to have soured Robespierre on Danton. And of course, in Robespierre’s mind, everyone was a part of some insidious foreign plot to undermine the republic. And this is also technically the moment when the revolution stops persistently radicalizing, as the first victims of the Committee of Public Safety’s new authority were the Enragés. And then the first victims of Robespierre’s terror were Hebert and the Ultras.
So the next great turning point comes in February 1794 and is a bit speculative on my part. But I still think we need to talk about it.
Robespierre got sick, and he disappeared for a month. And I am not above believing that he had some kind of nervous breakdown. Robespierre was a workaholic. He kept insane hours. He rarely slept. And at that moment, he probably felt like the survival of the republic was resting on his tiny shoulders. Now, I want to be really clear about this, that this is all pure conjecture on my part based on little more than historical rumor. But when he emerges from this sickness, whatever it was, the careful, calculating Robespierre who cut with a scalpel was gone. And I mean that seriously. There was, for example, enormous pressure on the Committee of Public Safety to round up hundreds of alleged sympathizers when the Girondins were put on trial, and Robespierre quashed the attempt and insisted that they stick with the short list of named victims.
After he emerges from his sickbed in March 1794, Robespierre, a revolutionary surgeon, is replaced by Captain Guillotine of Severed Head Mountain, who also happens to believe that he is the high priest of a death cult of the Supreme Being. First, he liquidated the ultras. Then he turned on Danton and liquidated the old Cordell Yee gang. And this was the beginning of the great terror. But remember, there was always a tight link between revolutionary mass killing and the course of the war. And as Robespierre was getting going on his great terror in the spring of 1794, the domestic situation was calm. And out on the frontier, another victory by the French army had led the Austrians to evacuate Belgium. The British had already failed to take Dunkirk, and they were pulling back to Holland. Prussia wanted out of the war. Spain wanted out of the war. So the disconnect between the terror in Paris and the relative calm everywhere else became very noticeable. And everybody got very nervous about Robespierre.
So with everyone super paranoid about Robespierre, and rightfully so, a mismatched coalition of Robespierre’s enemies conspired to bring him down. And they pulled it off in July 1794. And I pretty much now think that that ends the French Revolution.
This is going to be followed by a new historical chapter that played by a different set of rules with a different set of aims. And like I said, it was defined by this little circumscribed center trying to stave off challenges from both the left and the right, rather than a barreling locomotive of pure revolution that had really defined everything from the assembly of notables through the war with the parliament, the estates general, the National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, and then the convention and the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety.
The French Revolution began with an attempt to reform the finances of the monarchy. It led instead to the total destruction of the Ancien regime, the establishment of a revolutionary republic that was ostensibly democratic and equalitarian, and which clearly ran on the blood of tyrants. After Thermidor, the object is not to push the revolution further, but to draw back from it as safely as possible, to hold on to the positive gains that had been made while ditching the fear and paranoia and belief that the Republic of Virtue was just around the corner just as soon as we murder everybody.
But it was a tough trick to turn, as counter-revolutionary royalists were always looking for their chance to strike. And if there’s one thing the Thermidorians were not going to give up on, one of the truly positive gains they believe had been made, it was the republic itself. So the Directory was defined by these alternating strikes against first the left and then the right as they tried to hold on to power from the center. And in total, I count five of these focused swings over the next few years.
The first of these was obviously the move against the left after Thermidor. The Muscadins were set out to work on the Jacobins. The reaction to this were the failed insurrections of Prairial and Florial, which finally buried the Sanquilat for good, and which in turn led to the White Terror of 1795, which is always described as a royalist action, but it’s best understood as victims of the terror taking revenge on their abusers.
The second swing was when it was time to implement the Directory. The Thermidorians had drafted a new constitution that returned to the more elitist principles of the Constitution of 1791. And also, just as an aside, this is the moment when you really start seeing a rewriting of the revolutionary narrative and the first attempt to distinguish between the good revolution of 1789 and the bad revolution of 1792. The Federalist revolt, for example, was now recast as a noble struggle against the madmen who had seized control of Paris.
Of course, we know that the Thermidorians had learned from the self-denying mistake of the National Assembly, a mistake that possibly destroyed the good revolution of 1789. So they passed that law of 2-thirds that legally kept 2-thirds of them in power, which triggered the uprising of Van de Meer by angry conservatives who thought that they were about to become a major force in the new government. Forced now to confront the threat from the right, they sent in young Bonaparte, who unleashed his whiff of grape shot.
After defeating this insurrection from the right, the Directory was inaugurated and tried to make common cause with all men of Republican values. And so the left was coaxed out of the shadows. The Neo-Jacobean Pantheon Club was formed. And Gracchus Babboef got going with his conspiracy of equals. But it became clear that many of the Neo-Jacobeans didn’t want to become a loyal opposition inside the government. They wanted to overthrow it. And so the Directory had to make its third focus swing back to smack down the left again, close the Pantheon Club, and dismantle Babboef’s conspiracy of equals.
But then, of course, you got to go back to the right. Because after the failure of the insurrection of Van de Meer, and then really after the failure of the Quiberon Bay expedition, the conservatives decided their only chance to win was at the ballot box. So the elections of year five swept a bunch of conservatives and closet royalists into the government. After trying to make it work over the summer of 1796, the Directory said, screw it. Made its fourth swing back against the right, states the coup of Fructidor, which purged the Directory of all its conservative members. This inaugurated the so-called Second Directory, which was more nakedly anti-democratic and authoritarian than its predecessor had been.
The directorial terror that followed was then aimed at both the left and the right, as anyone caught advocating the mutually exclusive calls for either the return of the monarchy or the return of the Constitution of 1793 would be guilty of treason. But above all, it was aimed at the clergy, who were still operating as a permanent opposition. Now, the fifth and final swing came in the spring of 1797 with the rigging of the elections of year six and the pre-purging of left-wing candidates. So it seems kind of crazy that the Directory was able to hold on to power this long while so many active enemies from across the political spectrum were trying to kill it.
But the Directory was backed by two really critical groups who helped ensure its survival, a wealthy bourgeoisie who had made a killing in land speculation and the army. But right after the coup of Fructidor, the Directory badly undermined the support of the former, even as it probably saved itself from financial ruin. So by far, the most important thing to come out of the second Directory and a major turning point in the transition from republic to empire were the financial reforms of Finance Minister Rommel. First, he outright repudiated 2-thirds of the national debt and then restructured the rest on very favorable terms for the state. This, coupled with his introduction of a bunch of new excise taxes and the creation of a pretty efficient central revenue office, he put the republic back on sound financial footing. But this slate of programs alienated the regime from the money guys who had been speculating in national lands and who had lent the regime money and who were now being told, nah, those bonds are all worthless.
And the people for sure did not like the return of all the excise taxes that had literally helped spark the revolution in the first place. So Rommel and his reforms are at the heart of the transition from republic to empire because, first, it made the directorial regime very unpopular, unpopular enough that toppling it seemed like a good idea to men who could actually pull it off. And B, when Bonaparte came to power, he inherited a state in very good financial shape rather than one in shambles like every other new government. Rommel’s debt restructuring and revenue reforms were a very, very big deal.
But of course, the other thing that was helping keep the Directory in power was continued success on the war front. And one of the big reasons, for example, that the directorial terror was hardly a terror at all was because it was against the backdrop of sustained military success. During the revolutionary period, France had constantly been on the brink of defeat and was defended by these hordes of enthusiastic volunteers who were just able to stave off annihilation.
But as we just saw, by 1794, the good results of the levé en masse were kicking in. The armies were better organized, and the resources of France were at their primary disposal. The Allies started to get beat, and then they started to lose interest. Prussia and Spain would both sign treaties withdrawing from the conflict in 1795. Britain would soon be withdrawing ground forces from the continent entirely, leaving Austria as the only major opponent left. The good news on the war front is what made the shift from chaotic radicalization to stabilizing moderation possible.
So then, of course, General Bonaparte comes along, and he starts delivering not just victory but conquest. All those sister republics now being set up helped subsidize the French state, because after being liberated from the chains of medieval tyranny, these sister republics were pumped mercilessly for cash and prizes by the occupying French forces.
The Directory’s inability to keep its army paid, fed, and clothed had led to this explicit policy of the war feeding itself. Now, this was a practical necessity, but it also helped transform the French military into a politically autonomous unit within the republic and created a cadre of officers and enlisted men who shared a professional esprit de corps and a loyalty to themselves and their generals that superseded whatever vague sense of duty they might owe to the politicians back in Paris. And this, too, really helps lay the groundwork for Napoleon’s empire.
The victory over the Austrians was, of course, a really big deal. And it freed up Bonaparte and the French to start dreaming even bigger dreams, leading to our next major turning point, Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt. Now, the Egyptian expedition itself was obviously a crazy adventure. But the more critical impact was in provoking the rest of Europe back to war.
After Campo Formio, the only power left facing France was Britain. And they were staying off the continental mainland. But when Bonaparte landed in Alexandria, the rest of Europe freaked out. The Russians and Ottomans joined the war. The Austrians abandoned Campo Formio and joined up, too. The War of the Second Coalition then started out very badly for the French, which delegitimized the directorial regime in the eyes of two key groups. First, a click of civilian leaders in Paris, who had always been looking for a chance to overthrow the regime. And then, much more importantly, in the army itself, who believed the Directory had left them under-supplied, under-armed, and set up to fail. The support of the army had been the key to the Directory’s survival. The disastrous beginning to the War of the Second Coalition removed that support. And of course, it also provided Bonaparte with the opportunity to come home and save the day, even though the Egyptian expedition was both a failure in itself and had been the principal cause of the war starting back up in the first place.
Now, we ended the whole show, of course, with the Coup of 18 Brumaire that overthrew the Directory and inaugurated the Consulate. And though that wound up being the end point, I now believe that the Coup of Brumaire is actually a midpoint, dividing the era of the Termidorian Republic in two, on one side the Directory, on the other, Bonaparte’s Consulate.
And as I hopefully was able to explain in that penultimate episode about the Consulate, Bonaparte was able to wrap up a lot of what had been left over from the revolutionary chaos. The Consulate cemented many of the major reforms that had been made and then fulfilled one of the dreams that was a uniform set of laws with the promulgation of the Napoleonic Code. The wars were finally ended, if only for a single year of peace. And then Bonaparte signed the Concordant with the pope that finally, finally healed the revolution’s religious bleeding ulcer. Now, First Consul Bonaparte was also a major proponent of incorporating elements of both the left and the right into his regime to create a much broader base of political support, or more precisely, to narrow the base of political opposition. Instead of the Directory’s whirling dervish approach to political opposition, Bonaparte invited the emigres to come home, though he also made them swear not to lay hereditary claim to their old estates. If they wanted those lands back, they could buy them, but they could not just have them. Bonaparte’s more subtle and welcoming approach helped him build the foundation of an imperial regime that found a home both for constitutional monarchists, just replace king with emperor, and enlightened republicans.
Now, running through the Consulate era, it’s an almost uniform string of successful policies and wise decisions, except in one major area that we are about to talk a whole lot about, because First Consul Bonaparte got it in his head to make France the predominant power in the New World and to rule a super strong colonial empire in the Caribbean and in North America, having recently come into possession of the old Spanish claims to what we call the Louisiana Territory.
So instead of working with and legitimizing the rule of Toussaint Louverture, the ex-slave who now ruled the French colony of Saint-Domingue, Bonaparte tried to overthrow him and return the colony to direct rule from Paris. In his own memoirs written while in exile, Napoleon reckoned this was one of the worst mistakes he ever made. But aside from that, the Consulate was so successful on all fronts that the transition to empire in 1804 was made seamlessly and without major opposition. And that kicked off the Napoleonic Empire, which is now well beyond the scope of our show. And after a decade of conquering Europe and then losing it bit by bit, Napoleon was driven into exile, and the Bourbons came back.
So that leaves us with one final question. What did the Revolution achieve? In 1815, the monarchy was back, yes. But France had been permanently altered by the course of the last 30 years, right? And even the reactionary Bourbons could not turn the clock back on everything. So what remained?
Well, first of all, you have this incredible rationalization of the political administration. No one was going back to the insane quilt of overlapping jurisdictions and privileges that had defined the Ancien regime. The departments were here to stay. Centralized power was here to stay. One nation run by a single set of laws with the exact same taxes and regulations for everyone.
France was just dramatically rationalized during the Revolution, and none of it was going anywhere. Also here to stay were the cohort of bourgeois bureaucrats who had formed a pretty solid administrative apparatus over the course of the Termidorian Republic and the Napoleonic Empire and were just too effective to get rid of. At the start of the Revolution, there were about 700 guys who made up the central administration of the kingdom. That number was now 6,000. And across France, there were a good 250,000 professional bureaucrats running the show. Promotions were based on merit, and they had no space for dilettante nobles trying to shove their way back into control, not that the nobility even wanted to after the Revolution.
Now, of course, the abolition of feudalism and noble privilege was a major feature of the Revolution, and it was pretty well maintained after the Restoration. But it’s also important to note that the old nobility that had allegedly forfeited a ton of land during the Revolution actually had quite a lot of it back by the time of the Restoration. But though the reacquisition of land by the nobility returned title holdings back to something resembling the 1780s and that, in total, collective land redistribution by the Revolution was not nearly as big as you’d think, even the reactionary Bourbons considered it too dangerous to actually re-confiscate land that had been bought during the Revolution. They gave back what unsold national property they had, but the legitimacy of the loss of ancestral lands was tacitly conceded. Old feudal claims counted for nothing.
But another major result of the Revolution was that this returned and still quite wealthy nobility pretty much retired from politics, safer to hunt and play cards and leave the grubby business of political administration to the commoners. Now, the one institution that was permanently stripped of its land was the Church. On the eve of the Revolution, they owned 10% of the country. That land was all nationalized and sold off, and Bonaparte made it explicit in the Concordat of 1801 that the Church was not getting any of that land back under any circumstances. The French Catholic Church took a major, major hit in terms of its power and prestige.
Now, economically, the Revolution had been a total disaster and created almost no lasting improvements. International trade had been devastated and led to the collapse of the economic powers of Lyon, Marseille, and Bordeaux, which had a lot more to do with triggering the Federalist revolt than, say, the actual set piece drama of The Purge of the Girondins. Despite all the enlightened ideas for economic reform floating around out there, all of it kind of came to naught. All the free market experiments failed because conditions were never right to actually get it going, and then the command and control measures of the general maximum were just utterly destructive. Until Napoleon’s conquest of Europe gave the French economy something to feed on and sell to again, I mean, things were just awful. There was almost nothing that can be pointed to as an economic advancement that was made during the Revolution. Aside from the abolition of the internal tariff barriers, which were ditched almost immediately and never came back, I mean, there’s nothing. Economically speaking, the Revolution was terrible, and had to end before things could improve.
Now, speaking of Napoleon’s conquests of Europe, though, one group that majorly advanced during the era was the French military, who clearly had gone from a bastion of ancient privilege resisting with all its might the pull of modernity into a rocket ship of military innovation. The Revolutionary Wars transformed the conduct of warfare in Europe, from kings playing chess with mercenaries, to entire nations fully mobilizing on a huge scale. Technologically, strategically, tactically, logistically, armed conflict was just a whole different and far more destructive ball of wax than it had been before the Revolution, and there was no putting the genie back in that particular bottle.
From a larger psychological perspective, though, things like the La Véon mass and the total national mobilization for war finally did accomplish what the early revolutionaries had dreamed of, creating a single unified French nation, no longer divided by old cultural and linguistic barriers, but instead one single equal people. The Revolution was nuts for flags and symbols and uniforms, songs, calendars, oaths, all of it designed to kind of invent from scratch a nation of citizens, where once a patchwork kingdom of subjects had existed.
And in this, the Revolution was decisive to creating the modern nation-state. France is France because of the French Revolution, and the thing that will lead the Bourbon Restoration to collapse just 15 years after it started was that they were acting like they still governed a kingdom of subjects rather than a nation of citizens.
Napoleon had been careful to say that his imperial authority came from the sovereignty of the people. Louis XVIII came back and said his authority came from God and that the new constitution was a benevolent gift to his subjects. This was, in the end, fundamentally incompatible with the new sense of national identity. And when King Louis Philippe took the crown, he was king of the French, whose authority was bestowed upon him by the citizens he led.
So with all of that said, I think it’s time to move on. The French Revolution has been an endlessly fascinating ride, and I hope that you all got as much out of listening to it as I got out of producing it. It is, however, with some degree of relief that we finally set it aside and move on to the Haitian Revolution, which, oh, wait a second, means going right back and reliving this all again, except from the perspective of the fabulously lucrative French colony in Saint-Domingue, who will descend into a parallel revolution once everyone gets their hands on the lofty Declaration of the Rights of Man and starts reading into it what they want, like, for example, the slaves, who think it means that they ought to be free.
One last look back at the pile of severed heads.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
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- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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