(E) The Reign of Terror and the Thermidorian Reaction: 1792–1795 

The National Convention and the French Republic

  • In the autumn of 1792, the revolutionary government, having written off the idea of a constitutional monarchy, set about electing a National Convention of delegates to oversee the country. In late September, therefore, the first election took place under the rules of the Constitution of 1791. As it turned out, only a third of the newly elected convention members had sat on a previous assembly, and a great number of new faces belonged to either the Jacobins or the Girondins. The first action of the convention, on September 21, 1792, was to abolish the monarchy. The next day, the Republic of France was founded.
  • [NOTE:–National Convention governed France from September 20, 1792, until October 26, 1795, during the most critical period of the French Revolution. The National Convention was elected to provide a new constitution for the country after the overthrow of the monarchy (August 10, 1792). The Convention numbered 749 deputies, including businessmen, tradesmen, and many professional men. Among its early acts were the formal abolition of the monarchy (September 21) and the establishment of the republic (September 22).]

The Execution of Louis XVI

  • As a sign of the republic’s newfound resolve and contempt for the monarchy, the next proposal before the National Convention was the execution of Louis XVI. Once again, the moderates objected and eventually forced a trial, but the effort was in vain. Louis XVI was ultimately found guilty of treason and, on January 21, 1793, executed at the guillotine. Months later, on October 16, 1793, his wife, Marie-Antoinette, met the same fate.
  • Symbolically speaking, the declaration of sovereignty and the beheading of the monarch were powerful motivators within France. Unfortunately, the moment of bliss was brief, as the governmental powers quickly realized that all of their achievements were being threatened by internal and external fighting.

The Committee of Public Safety

  • In the weeks after the execution of the king, the internal and external wars in France continued to grow. Prussian and Austrian forces pushed into the French countryside, and one noted French general even defected to the opposition. Unable to assemble an army out of the disgruntled and protesting peasants, the Girondin-led National Convention started to panic. In an effort to restore peace and order, the convention created the Committee of Public Safety on April 6, 1793, to maintain order within France and protect the country from external threats.
  • The members of the committee were elected by the National Convention (representative assembly) for a period of one month and were eligible for reelection.
  • From April to July 10, 1793, the Committee of Public Safety was dominated by Georges Danton and his followers, who pursued a policy of moderation and reconciliation but who failed to deal adequately with the precarious military situation. These men were replaced in July by men more determined and more radical in the defense of the Revolution, among them Maximilien Robespierre.

The Jacobins’ Coup

  • The Committee of Public Safety followed a moderate course after its creation but proved weak and ineffective. After a few fruitless months under the committee, the sans-culottes finally reached their boiling point. They stormed the National Convention and accused the Girondins of representing the aristocracy. Seeing an opportunity, Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, harnessed the fury of the sans-culottes to take control of the convention, banish the Girondins, and install the Jacobins in power.
  • Once again, the sans-culottes proved to be a formidable force in effecting change during the Revolution. Already upset about the composition of the National Convention—which remained dominated by middle- and upper-class bourgeoisie and was influenced by big thinkers of the time—they became even more angry upon learning that many of the Girondin leaders expected them to bolster the failing war effort. Sieyès had originally rallied the Third Estate by reminding them that they numbered many and that their numbers gave them strength. This message clearly stuck with the sans-culottes throughout the Revolution, and they took advantage of their strength at every possible opportunity.

The Constitution of 1793 (Jacobin Constitution)

  • The Constitution of 1793 was the second constitution written and approved during the French Revolution. Passed by the National Convention on June 24, 1793, it legally created the French First Republic, which had been established on September 22, 1792. The Constitution was based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, to which it added several rights, proclaiming the superiority of popular sovereignty over national sovereignty, and various economic and social rights, such as the right of association, right to work and public assistance, and the right to public education.
  • However the Constitution of 1793 was quickly overshadowed by the resurgence of the Committee of Public Safety in July, when some of the more radical Jacobin leaders, including Robespierre, installed themselves in charge of the committee and immediately began to make drastic changes. As a result, the democratic constitution approved by the Convention on June 24, 1793, was not put into effect, and the Convention lost its legislative initiative; its role was reduced to approving the Committee’s suggestions.
  • Among the changes was the suspension of many clauses of the new constitution. One of the most sweeping new Jacobin policies was the Maximum, a decree that fixed prices in an attempt to stop the rampant inflation that was ruining the economy.
  • Although Robespierre soon resorted to extreme measures, his tenure as chairman of the Committee of Public Safety actually began on a productive note. His inspiring, nationalistic propaganda campaign spoke to the disgruntled citizens on their own level. Though he was a lawyer, Robespierre had a middle-class upbringing and could relate to the sans-culottes. His approach to the economy also proved effective in the short run.

Carnot and the Military

  • In August, military strategist Lazare Carnot was appointed head of the French war effort and immediately set about instituting conscription throughout France. Propaganda and discipline helped tighten and reenergize the nation, particularly in rural areas. Carnot’s effort succeeded, and the newly refreshed army managed to push back the invading Austrian and Prussian forces and reestablish France’s traditional boundaries.

The Reign of Terror

  • In the autumn of 1793, Robespierre and the Jacobins focused on addressing economic and political threats within France. What began as a proactive approach to reclaiming the nation quickly turned bloody as the government instituted its infamous campaign against internal opposition known as the Reign of Terror.
  • Beginning in September, Robespierre, under the auspices of the Committee of Public Safety, began pointing an accusing finger at anyone whose beliefs seemed to be counterrevolutionary—citizens who had committed no crime but merely had social or political agendas that varied too much from Robespierre’s. The committee targeted even those who shared many Jacobin views but were perceived as just slightly too radical or conservative. A rash of executions ensued in Paris and soon spread to smaller towns and rural areas.
  • During the nine-month period that followed, anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 French citizens were beheaded at the guillotine. Even longtime associates of Robespierre such as Georges Danton, who had helped orchestrate the Jacobin rise to power, fell victim to the paranoia. When Danton wavered in his conviction, questioned Robespierre’s increasingly rash actions, and tried to arrange a truce between France and the warring countries, he himself lost his life to the guillotine, in April 1794.

Public Backlash

  • Robespierre’s bloody attempt to protect the sanctity of the Revolution had exactly the opposite result. Rather than galvanize his supporters and the revolutionary nation, the Reign of Terror instead prompted a weakening on every front. Indeed, the Terror accomplished almost nothing productive, as Robespierre quickly burned his bridges and killed many former allies. As the mortuaries started to fill up, the commoners shifted their focus from equality to peace.
  • By the time the French army had almost completely staved off foreign invaders, Robespierre no longer had a justification for his extreme actions in the name of public “safety.” The final straw was his proposal of a “Republic of Virtue,” which would entail a move away from the morals of Christianity and into a new set of values. On July 27, 1794, a group of Jacobin allies arrested Robespierre. Receiving the same treatment that he had mandated for his enemies, he lost his head at the guillotine the following day. Undoubtedly, a collective sigh of relief echoed throughout the country.

The Thermidorian Reaction

  • Thermidorian Reaction was the parliamentary revolt initiated on 9 Thermidor, year II (July 27, 1794), which resulted in the fall of Maximilien Robespierre and the collapse of revolutionary fervour and the Reign of Terror in France.
  • With Robespierre out of the picture, a number of the bourgeoisie who had been repressed under the Reign of Terror—many of them Girondins—burst back onto the scene at the National Convention in the late summer of 1794. These moderates freed many of the Jacobins’ prisoners, neutralized the power of the Committee for Public Safety, and had many of Robespierre’s cohorts executed in a movement that became known as the Thermidorian Reaction.
  • The coup was primarily a reassertion of the rights of the National Convention against the Committee of Public Safety and of the nation against the Paris Commune. It was followed by the disarming of the committee, the emptying of the prisons, and the purging of Jacobin clubs.
  • However, the moderate and conservative initiatives that the convention subsequently implemented were aimed at the bourgeoisie and undid real accomplishments that Robespierre and his regime had achieved for the poor. To address economic concerns, for instance, the National Convention did away with price controls and printed more money, which allowed prices to skyrocket. This inflation hit the poor hard, and the peasants attempted yet another revolt. However, lacking a strong leader like Robespierre, the peasant uprising was quickly quashed by the government.
  • Social and political life became freer, more extravagant, and more personally corrupt. There was a splurge of fashion and a conspicuous consumption of bourgeois wealth, while the poor suffered from harsh economic conditions.

(F) The Directory: 1795–1799

The New National Convention

  • The National Convention in the era after Robespierre’s downfall was significantly more conservative than it had been before and deeply entrenched in the values of the moderate middle class. The change was so drastic that once-powerful groups like the sans-culottes and Jacobins were forced underground, and sans-culottes even became a derisive term in France. Meanwhile, the French economy struggled during the winter of 1794–1795, and hunger became widespread.
  • Although the members of the convention worked diligently to try to establish a new constitution, they faced opposition at every turn. Because many sanctions against the churches had been revoked, the clergy—many of whom were still loyal to the royalty—started to return from exile. Likewise, the Comte de Provence, the younger brother of Louis XVI, declared himself next in line for the throne and, taking the name Louis XVIII, declared to France that royalty would return.

The Constitution of 1795 and the Directory

  • On August 22, 1795, the convention was finally able to ratify a new constitution, the Constitution of 1795, which ushered in a period of governmental restructuring. Known as the Constitution of Year III in the French republican calendar, it was prepared by the Thermidorian Convention. It was more conservative than the abortive democratic Constitution of 1793. The Constitution of 1795 established a liberal republic with a franchise based on the payment of taxes, similar to that of the Constitution of 1791; a bicameral legislature to slow down the legislative process; and a five-man Directory. The central government retained great power, including emergency powers to curb freedom of the press and freedom of association.
  • The new legislature would consist of two houses: an upper house, called the Council of Ancients, consisting of 250 members, and a lower house, called the Council of Five Hundred, consisting of 500 members. Fearing influence from the left, the convention decreed that two-thirds of the members of the first new legislature had to have already served on the National Convention between 1792 and 1795.
  • The new constitution also stipulated that the executive body of the new government would be a group of five officers called the Directory. Although the Directory would have no legislative power, it would have the authority to appoint people to fill the other positions within the government, which was a source of considerable power in itself. Annual elections would be held to keep the new government in check.
  • The dilemma facing the new Directory was a daunting one: essentially, it had to rid the scene of Jacobin influence while at the same time prevent royalists from taking advantage of the disarray and reclaiming the throne. The two-thirds rule was implemented for this reason, as an attempt to keep the same composition like that of the original, moderate-run National Convention.
  • In theory, the new government closely resembled that of the United States, with its checks-and-balances system. As it turned out, however, the new government’s priorities became its downfall: rather than address the deteriorating economic situation in the country, the legislature instead focused on keeping progressive members out. Ultimately, paranoia and attempts at overprotection weakened the group.

Napoleon and the French Army

  • Meanwhile, fortified by the Committee of Public Safety’s conscription drive of 1793, the French army had grown significantly. While the foundation of the Directory was being laid, the army, having successfully defended France against invasion from Prussia and Austria, kept right on going, blazing its way into foreign countries and annexing land. During the period from 1795 to 1799 in particular, the French army was nearly unstoppable. Napoleon Bonaparte, a young Corsican in charge of French forces in Italy and then Egypt, won considerable fame for himself with a series of brilliant victories and also amassed massive reservoirs of wealth and support as he tore through Europe.
  • The Directory encouraged this French war effort across Europe, though less as a democratic crusade against tyranny than as a means of resolving the unemployment crisis in France. A large, victorious French army lowered unemployment within France and guaranteed soldiers a steady paycheck to buy the goods they needed to survive. The Directory hoped that this increase in income would encourage an increase in demand, reinvigorating the French economy.

Abuses by the Directory

  • Unfortunately, it was not long before the Directory began to abuse its power. The results of the elections of 1795 were worrisome to the Directory because a number of moderate royalists won. Although these royalists didn’t exactly qualify as counterrevolutionaries, their loyalty to the Directory was nevertheless suspect.
  • Then, in May 1796, a group of Jacobins, led by prominent publisher Gracchus Babeuf, met secretly to plan a coup in the hopes of reinstating the government of the Constitution of 1793. Already troubled by the 1795 election results, the Directory squashed the coup plot, had the conspirators arrested, and had Babeuf guillotined.

The Elections and Coup of 1797

  • As the elections of 1797 drew near, the Directory noticed that significant royalist and neo-Jacobin influences were leaking into the republic, which could have terrible implications for the direction of the legislature. On the other hand, the Directory had to obey the Constitution of 1795 and its mandate for annual elections. It therefore allowed the elections to proceed as scheduled.
  • However, on September 4, 1797, after the elections did indeed produce decidedly pro-royal and pro-Jacobin results, three members of the Directory orchestrated an overthrow of the legislature, annulling the election results and removing a majority of the new deputies from their seats. The coup plotters also unseated two members of the Directory itself—former military strategist Lazare Carnot being one of them—and installed two new directors, further ensuring that the government would remain staunch in its moderate stance.

Popular Discontent

  • This new Directory was powerfully conservative, initiating strong new financial policies and cracking down on radicalism through executions and other means. However, the coup and the Directory’s subsequent abuses of power destroyed all of the government’s credibility and further disillusioned the French populace. In the elections of 1798, the left made gains, feeding on public anger about the coup.
  • The Directory, justifiably fearing the opposition’s gains, once again nullified almost one-third of the election results, ensuring that its own policies would remain strongly in place. Public dissatisfaction was an obvious result, and the next elections would have the lowest turnout of any during the Revolution. Meanwhile, inflation was continuing unchecked, leading the public to wonder whether a royal return to power wouldn’t be more beneficial. Trust and faith in the government neared an all-time low.

French Military Defeats

  • As the government’s credibility took a turn for the worse, so too did French military fortunes. In 1799, Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable forward progress ran into a roadblock in Egypt, and France’s army in general faced simultaneous threats from Britain, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Hearing of the bedlam taking place in mainland Europe, as well as within in his own country, Napoleon deserted his men and headed back to France.

Sieyès and the Coup of 1799

  • The failing war efforts amplified the French people’s distrust of the Directory, and large majorities of the French public began calling for peace at home and abroad. In May 1799, the upper house of the legislature, the Council of Five Hundred, elected Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès—of “What Is the Third Estate?” fame—to the Directory. This election was the result of extensive maneuvering on Sieyès’s part.
  • Sieyès, however, did not want to keep his newfound power for himself but instead intended to use it to protect the French government from future instability and disturbances. Therefore, he enlisted the aid of Napoleon, with whom he began to plan a military coup to topple the very same Directory on which Sieyès himself served. This coup materialized on November 9, 1799, when Napoleon, who had returned to France, overthrew the Directory. The next day, Napoleon dissolved the legislature and instituted himself as first consul, the leader of a military dictatorship. By imposing this state of military rule that would grip France for fifteen years, Napoleon effectively ended the French Revolution.

Reasons for the Coup

  • Although it was the Directory that had encouraged the French army’s actions, ultimately, the army’s unprecedented success in its outward expansion actually ended up working against the Directory rather than for it. Being away from home for so long, the respective companies of soldiers—particularly those under the control of Napoleon—formed their own identities and group philosophies. By splitting the spoils of each successful campaign with his own troops, Napoleon earned the steadfast devotion of what amounted to a private army. This loyalty would prove essential to the success of his eventual coup and the years of military rule and expansionism that would follow.
  • Sieyès’s political maneuvering may seem inexplicable at first, as he essentially finagled his way into power in the Directory just so he could use that power to remove himself from it. Though that explanation is an oversimplification, it illuminates Sieyès’s priorities and demonstrates the depth of the revolutionary spirit that prompted him to make such a sacrifice. To Sieyès, it was clear that, at the time, a military rule under the watch of someone such as Napoleon would be far more beneficial to France than the argumentative, corrupt, and generally ineffective system that was in place. Indeed, though Napoleon would lead as a dictator of sorts, he would do so with much more respect for the spirit of liberty and equality than the originators of the French Revolution had pursued.

(G) The Consulate (1799-1804)

  • In 1799, the French government of the Thermidorean Reaction, called the Directory, was foundering. A brilliant young French general, having already won fame with a series of victories forRevolutionary France in Italy Napoleon Bonaparte, was then busy fighting a fruitless war in Egypt. Hearing of the chaos, Napoleon abandoned his army and with geat fanfare returned to Paris a hero.
  • On November 9, 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte and Abbe Sieyes pulled off a coup in France. They overthrew the current Directory and replaced it with a new government through a new Constitution drafted by Sieyes.
  • The Constitution of the Year VIII created an executive consisting of three consuls, but the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, wielded all real power, while the other two, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès and Pierre-Roger Ducos (1747–1816), were figureheads. The principles of representation and legislative supremacy were discarded. The executive branch was given the power to draft new laws, and the legislative branch became little more than a rubber stamp. Elections became an elaborate charade, with voters stripped of real power. Napoleon abolished the Consulate when he declared himself emperor in 1804.


Q. Who were the real makers of the French Revolution?

  • While it is admitted that the French Revolution originated with the Third Estate, there is difference of opinion as to whether the peasantry or the middle classes took the initiative in bringing about the Revolution. It is pointed out by some writers that the oppressed peasantry of France, goaded by the extremity of their sufferings, was driven to Revolution.
  • However, this view is not accepted. The condition of the peasants of France was better than those of Germany, Spain, Russia and Poland. Their main grievance was not their exclusion from political power but the weight of the taxes they had to pay. They had neither the brains nor the capacity to precipitate the revolution. It is the enlightened middle-classes which led the way and the peasants merely followed them. The middle-classes had brains. They had money and influence. They were the persons who were deeply influenced by the philosophies of the French philosophers. No wonder, the middle classes were the real makers of the French Revolution.

Q. The French Revolution Was An Attack on Privileges and Not Property. Comment.


  • (See section of previous years solved paper for answer)

Q. No Event as Encompassing as The French Revolution Occurs in an Intellectual Vacuum. Comment.


  • (See section of previous years solved paper for answer)

Q. The connection between the philosophers ideas and the outbreak of the french revolution is somewhat remote and indirect. Comment.


  • The view of David Thomson is that the connection between the ideas of the French philosophers and “the outbreak of revolution in 1789 is somewhat remote and indirect. They did not preach revolution, and were usually ready enough to lend support to any absolute monarch who was prepared to patronize them and adopt their teachings. Nor were most of their readers inspired to want, or to work for revolution; they were mostly themselves aristocrats, lawyers, business people and local dignitaries, whose lot in the existing order was far from unhappy.
  • The doctrines of the philosophers came to be used later on, during the course of the revolution in France often to justify measures that the philosophers themselves would have opposed. Their teachings became more important later; if they had any influence at all on the outbreak and the initial stages of the great revolution, it was only to the extent that they had fostered a critical and irreverent attitude towards all existing institutions.
  • They made men more ready, when the need arose, to question the whole foundation of the old order. What mattered in 1789—and what made men revolutionary almost in spite of themselves—was the whole ‘revolutionary situation’; and in producing that situation the work of the philosophers played no very important role.”

Q. ‘Had there been no Rousseau, there would have been no Revolution in France’: Critically Examine this statement.


  • Rousseau presages the rise of the Romantic movement in art and caused a sensation among the aristocrats of Bourbon France. Later on Napoleon is supposed to have claimed, “If there had been no Rousseau, there would have been no Revolution, and without the Revolution, I should have been impossible.”
  • His Social Contract was the foundation for the emergence of the democratic man and the democratic state. The Romantic poets recognized Rousseau as the philosophical founder of Romanticism.
  • The constitutional reform of France was begun by the so-called Third Estate (prosperous middle class representatives to the Estates-General) when, on the 26th August 1789, shortly after the famous Tennis Court Oath that they would not disband until France had a Constitution, they published the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens.’ This document laid out the rights every citizen can expect – several of which show the mark of Rousseau’s writings. Section VI states that ‘the law is the expression of the will of the community,’ which is very similar to Rousseau’s idea of the general will. ‘The body politic, therefore, is also a corporate being possessed of a will, and this general will, which tends always to the preservation and welfare of the whole and every part, and is the source of laws…’ In Rousseau’s idea of the ‘social contract’ society is controlled by the general will of all participants who rise above their base nature and self-interest and work only for the good of the collective.
  • Sections One and Four can also be viewed in terms of Rousseau’s work. Section One declares ‘men are born and always continue free, and equal in respect to their rights’ and any limits to these rights are ‘determinable only by the law.’ This is almost identical to Rousseau’s idea that ‘in the state of society [as oppose to the state of nature] all rights are fixed by law,’ and as we have already seen the law is governed by the general will of the people.
  • The removal of feudal tithes and privileges met with much public agreement but the power to decide the laws was not held in common as in Rousseau’s definition – ‘it can no longer be asked whose business it is to make laws, since they are acts of the general will’ – but by the more wealthy middle classes in the Third Estate. The sans culottes in Paris or the serfs in the fields had no more ability to change the law than they had had under the monarchy. While the Declaration widened the political franchise and provided a bill of rights for the citizens it did not create the ideal community of Rousseau’s writings.
  • It was always said that Robespierre carried around a copy of the Social Contract wherever he went. Like Rousseau he looked at the people in general not individuals. He was a moral crusader who believed that only with the application of moral principles to government could social security and happiness be created. He saw the words ‘people’ and ‘nation’ as interchangeable and believed strongly that patriotism was one of the strongest virtues man could achieve. In other words, for him politics was simply a branch of ethics.
  • To this end, in keeping with the works of Rousseau, Robespierre wanted to create a Republic of Virtue in Revolutionary France. This was the attempt to create a society in which all men were free to enjoy their natural rights in freedom and equality. It can be achieved, Rousseau argues because ‘virtue is nothing more than this conformity of the particular wills [of the individual] with the general will, establish the reign of virtue.’
  • This is one of the ways in which the work of Rousseau impacted on the events of the Terror. By attempting to follow Rousseau’s idea of a ‘reign of virtue’ Robespierre had to remove any ‘particular wills’ that did not conform to the general will or, as Robespierre believed, the Revolution. Anyone who appeared to be against the Revolution and, therefore, the Republic of Virtue had to, as Rousseau famously puts it, ‘be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.’ If they still refused to conform then Robespierre thought they must die to make may for the revolution; be they aristocracy, moderates, counter revolutionaries or Federalists as in Lyon. It can be argued that Robespierre went to war on immorality. Robespierre simply came to the logical conclusion of what had been expressed in Rousseau’s writings.
  • The idea of a general will is a very dangerous concept if, as it was with Robespierre. It implies that instead of the democratic principle of people voting for what they want (even if its not good for them) there is a notion of what is really best for them. This can lead to false prophets, such as Robespierre, who believe that they can interpret the general will without the formality of voting. Rousseau also proposes the idea that the more political parties there are the more they divide the people, interfere with the general will. This idea led to the viewing, in France, of any other political party as a faction which had to be removed for the general will to work effectively. These ideas had the power to turn the French ‘republic’ into a one party state without a democratic vote – in a sense a totalitarian regime run by the Committee for Public Safety.

Q. Critically evaluate : “…he (Voltaire) was living in the Age of Enlightenment. The age itself was not enlightened.”-—E. Kant.

Ans:  (See section of previous years solved paper for answer)

7. Why Revolution broke out in France and not in other European nations?

  • It is pointed out that monarchical absolutism and oppression of the peasantry existed in most of the countries of Western Europe. There was nothing exceptional in the grievances of the people of France. In spite of that, the revolution started in France and not in any other country of Western Europe. There are many reasons for this.
  • In other countries there were feudal privileges and duties. The feudal lords not only enjoyed certain exemptions from taxes but also performed certain duties. They served in the army of the kings and were responsible for maintaining law and order within their locality. However, in the case of France, the feudal system had become worn out. While the nobles still retained their exemptions and privileges, they were deprived of all their powers and duties by the king. The result was that while in other countries the feudal system was a reality it had lost all its vitality in France. No wonder, the privileges of the nobles in France were irritating to the people of France. The whole system had become an anachronism and consequently it was condemned. The discontentment against the nobility burst out in the form of the Revolution of 1789.
  • Another reason was that there existed in France an enlightened middle class which was not to be found in other parts of Europe. The members of this class were well-to-do persons, but they still belonged to the unprivileged class. They had wealth and brains and consequently were not in a mood to put up with the inequality which the Ancien Regime imposed on them. They were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu. After having assimilated thoroughly the philosophy of the above intellectual giants, the middle-classes were not prepared to put up with their deplorable position. They could not find any justification for their humiliating condition. The Social Contract of Rausseau became the Bible of the Revolution.
  • The writings of the French philosophers put before the Frenchmen an idealism for which they were prepared to make any sacrifices. No such atmosphere existed in other countries of Europe. No wonder, although the unprivileged classes in other countries of Europe also suffered, they had neither any idealism nor any leaders among them who were prepared to challenge the existing order and hence no revolution broke out there.
  • There was another reason why the Revolution started in France and not in any other country of Europe. It is rightly pointed out that the Revolution was precipitated by the economic factor, and the train which had been laid by philosophy was fired by finance. The annual income of the State was less than the interest it had to pay on the national debt. It was impossible to carry on government under the circumstances. The Estates-General had to be summoned to get the money and that led to the French Revolution. There were no such circumstances in other parts of Europe and although the people had their grievances, they kept on suffering but had not the courage to revolt.
  • France was, in fact—however paradoxical the statement may seem at firm—better off than the rest. It was precisely because of the more favourable conditions prevailing in the social life of France that the revolutionary crisis broke out there rather than elsewhere in Europe. The French middle-classes—richer, more educated, in closer contact with the higher ranks of society, than were those of other European nations, and divided from the nobility by less marked differences in their way of life—were more acutely conscious of the injustice that excluded them from political influence and honours; and being possessed of moral and material strength that others lacked as yet, they were first to win that place in public life to which they felt entitled.
  • Furthermore, in other countries, as for instance in Russia, Germany, Denmark, or Hungary, the peasants, utterly ground down by feudal serfdom, were too wretched to grasp such ideas as those of civil equality and liberty. In France, on the contrary, every peasant proprietor felt himself a free man on the piece of ground he had won by the sweat of his brow; and it was to defend himself from what remained of feudal tyranny, and his property from ruthless taxation, that he had recourse to revolution.
  • In no other country, moreover, had the lay and ecclesiastical nobles as in France, deserted the provinces and flocked round the central authority in a scramble for favours; and there was nowhere so deep an abyss between the different social classes as that which the French monarchy, with its centralized State control, had created by removing local administration from the nobility’s hands. Elsewhere, the nobles, brutal and semi-barbarous, lived on their fiefs, carried out their political functions, administered justice and provided for the common weal. If the peasants were oppressed, they also felt themselves protected by the rough rule of their lord; and the noble’s duties were some justification for his privileges.
  • Finally, in France alone had the capital city acquired such importance as to become the centre of the nation’s entire political and administrative life; so that, when the revolutionary forces had gained mastery over Paris, the whole country too succumbed to them. In other nations, administrative centralization was as yet rudimentary or entirely lacking, and provincial life remained more or less autonomous; unrest that arose in one area did not necessarily disturb the rest, and disorder in the principal centre had little effect on the provinces, where those who carried on the administration were not forced to wait for all orders, assistance reproofs and payment to come from the capital. In France, widespread trouble in the provinces had an almost paralysing effect on the capital; while disorder in Paris was a mortal blow to the whole political organism and had repercussions throughout the country.
  • The most dangerous city was Paris, with its more than half a million inhabitants. With the growth of a centralized administration, the capital had attracted to itself a crowd of fortune-seekers both rich and poor. To satisfy the diverse needs of all these people new houses and factories were built, which absorbed a stream of workers and peasants from the provinces. The crowd went on growing; rearing up within itself an army of rebels that was to become a most efficacious weapon for destroying old France.

Q. Compare French Revolution with British Revolutions.

  • The French Revolution may be compared with the Puritan Revolution of 1642-49 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. It is to be observed that the aims of the English revolutions were mainly political. Their object was to put a check on the arbitrary powers of the king and give all the powers to the British Parliament which was considered to be representative of the people. On the other hand, the main motive force of the French Revolution was social and not political.
  • It is true that the people of France had their political disabilities but they do not seem to have cared much for them. The people of France were accustomed to authoritarian traditions for centuries and accordingly they did not seem to have bothered much about the evils of centralised despotism. The people suffered most on account of social inequality. No wonder, the French Revolution was aimed mainly against inequality and that also was its chief achievement.
  • The English Revolution of 1688 was defensive and conservative in character. There was nothing new in the Bill of Rights which the people got after the Glorious Revolution. There was no violent breach with the past. The king was merely forced to act according to the laws of the country and not to act according to his whim. On the other hand, the French Revolution was revolutionary and destructive. It destroyed the Ancien Regime root and branch.
  • The insurrection of the peasants for the abolition of the feudal rights and the recovery of the communal lands which had been taken away from the village communes since the seventeenth century by the lords is the very essence, the foundation of the French Revolution. Upon it the struggle of the middle class for their political rights was developed. Without it the Revolution would never have been so thorough as it was in France.
  • The great rising of the rural district which began after the January of 1789 and lasted five years, was what enabled the Revolution to accomplish, the immense work of demolition which we owe to it. It was this that impelled the Revolution to set up the first landmarks of a system of equality, to develop in France the republican spirit, which since then nothing has been able to suppress, to proclaim the great principles of agrarian communism, that we shall see emerging in 1793. This rising, in fact, is what gives the true character to the French Revolution, and distinguishes it radically from the Revolution of 1648-1657 in England.
  • “There, too, in the course of those nine years, the middle classes broke down the absolute power of royalty and the political privileges of the Court party. But beyond that, the distinctive feature of the English revolution was the struggle for the right of each individual to profess whatever religion is pleased, to interpret the Bible according to his personnel conception of it, to choose his own pastors—in other word, the right of the individual to the intellectual and religious development best suited to him.
  • The peasant risings in England did not aim so generally, as in France, at the abolishing of feudal dues and tithes, or the recovery of the communal lands. What the English revolution did was to conquer some precious rights for the individual, but it did not destroy the feudal power of the lord, it merely modified it whilst preserving his rights over the land, rights which persist to this day.
  • The English revolution undoubtedly established the political power of the middle classes, but this power was only obtained by sharing it with the landed aristocracy. And if the revolution gave the English middle classes a prosperous era for their trade and commerce, this prosperity was obtained on the condition that the middle classes should not profit by it to attack the landed privileges of the nobility. On the contrary, the middle classes helped to increase these privileges, at least in value. They helped the nobility to take legal possession of the communal lands by means of the Enclosure Acts, which reduced the agricultural population to misery, placed them at the mercy of the landowners, and forced a great number of them to migrate to the towns, where they were delivered over to the mercy of the middle-class manufacturers.
  • French middle classes, especially the upper middle classes engaged in manufacture and commerce, wished to imitate the English middle classes in their revolution. They, too, would have willingly entered into a compact with both royalty and nobility in order to attain power. But they did not succeed in this, because the basis of the French Revolution was fortunately much broader than of the revolution in England.
  • In France, the movement was not merely an insurrection to win religious liberty, or even commercial and industrial liberty for the individual, or yet to constitute municipal authority in the hands of a few middle-class men. It was above all a peasant insurrection, a movement of the people to regain possession of the land and to free it from the feudal obligations which burdened it, and while there was all through it a powerful individualist element—the desire to possess land individually—there was also the communist element, the right of the whole nation to the land; a right which was proclaimed loudly by the poorer classes in 1793.

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