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4 Cautionary Tales from the French Revolution

This paper is an outgrowth of a talk given at the Newberry library on January 15, 2021.

Many Americans may be tempted to interpret Biden’s inauguration as the opening of a new chapter, and in many ways it is, but we must remain on guard to the extremism that persists in the United States. In the wake of the violent attacks on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, historians have stepped forward to offer ways to think about these events. Drawing on their own areas of expertise, they have looked to the past as a way of understanding the tensions of this particular moment. Those who cannot remember the past are not condemned to repeat it—pace George Santayana. History does not repeat, and no historical event offers a perfect parallel to the present. As Margaret MacMillan notes, “There are no clear blueprints to be discovered in history that can help us shape the future as we wish.  Each historical event is a unique congeries of factors, people, or chronology.” However, she also suggests that “by examining the past, we can get some useful lessons on how to proceed and some warning about what is or is not likely to happen.” In her words, history can help us to be wise. [1]

The unsettled era of the French Revolution (1789–1799) offers insight to our current historical moment as the former U.S. president still refuses to accept recent election results as legitimate, firing up an already potent and dangerous White nationalist movement that feeds on social media-fueled fever dreams. During the tumultuous 1790s, the French grappled with the desire for and fear of change, deep political divisions, profound social inequalities, and rumor and fear-mongering, all against a backdrop of war and economic strain. The violence that emerged from these tensions and France’s inability to arrive at a stable democratic political consensus are reminders that political and social progress are never linear. Particular moments—including the September Massacres of 1792, the Reign of Terror, and Thermidor and its aftermath—offer lessons for our fractured times.

1. Rumor, disinformation, and fears of conspiracy can be profoundly dangerous when they take hold in a society.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, it seemed at first that the country would become a constitutional monarchy. However, the French king, Louis XVI, was less than enthusiastic about his loss of authority, and many others—especially members of the nobility and the Catholic Church—opposed the shift to representative government, often working actively to undermine it. The result was that people on the political Left in favor of more democratic institutions and potentially a republican form of government became increasingly radicalized in response to what they saw as resistance from the Right. Consequently, the political scene in France became increasingly tense over the course of 1791 and 1792, with sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Tensions were spurred along by the media. Freedom of the press had been instituted under the reforms of the National Assembly in the early phases of the Revolution, leading to an explosion of newspapers. While some journalists tried to be objective, others simply amplified wild rumors. The Leftwing press frequently expressed frustration with the slow pace of political reform.  Their level of trust in the institutions of government was low, and the rhetoric they employed aroused the popular classes against the elite, especially the former nobility. The most radical newspapers—including Jean-Paul Marat’s L’Ami du peuple (Friend of the People) and Jacques-René Hébert’s Père Duchesne, narrated in the voice of a Parisian working class man, a sans-culotte—gave voice to class hatreds. These and other radical newspapers were especially inflammatory in stirring people up against the “aristos,” technically the former nobility, but a term that came to define anyone opposing the Revolution. [2]

Adding to the inflammatory mix, France declared war on Austria and Prussia in the spring of 1792, believing that the two monarchies were a threat to their fledgling constitutional government, especially after the Austrian emperor Leopold II and the Prussian king Frederick William II issued the Pillnitz Declaration in 1791 in support of Louis XVI. It was a toothless document, but one that revolutionaries in the government found threatening. Many French people were convinced that the king and nobility were in league with France’s enemies, the other crowned heads of Europe. This was not entirely wrong; French queen Marie-Antoinette was the sister of Leopold II of Austria, and the aunt of his successor, Francis II. In addition, a significant number of aristocrats and members of the royal family had emigrated as early as the summer of 1789, and were encouraging war on France in support of the Old Regime. By the summer of 1792, it was clear that the war with Austria and Prussia was not going well for the French, and Paris was a powder keg.

As anxiety grew, the people of Paris stormed the Tuileries Palace, home of the royal family, on August 10th, 1792. The constitutional government, the Legislative Assembly, agreed to the demands of the insurrectionary Paris Commune, which controlled Paris, and suspended the king’s authority. This signified the end of the monarchy. The National Convention, which replaced the Legislative Assembly, undertook the task of writing a new constitution; France would become a Republic on September 21, 1792.

Read entire article at Age of Revolutions