10th Grade: The Gods Athirst


This week we continued to look at the French Revolution through a few different events.

As I mentioned last week, how the French defined the “people” of France would be crucial to how the revolution itself would take shape.  I asked the students how they would define who the “people” of America would be, and I got the following responses:

  • Anyone who lives here (but does this also include illegal immigrants, or people here legally on visas, green cards, etc.?)
  • Anyone who is a citizen (but would this include those who live here legally but are not citizens?)
  • Anyone who “believes” in American values and our way of life (but would this mean that someone living in Sweden could be part of the “people,” and would it exclude a citizen who did not believe in the American way?

The concept is obviously hard to define even for us, with a settled way of life and political traditions.  Imagine how much harder, then, it would be to define “the people” in the midst of internal upheaval and the threat of foreign invasion.  We sparked a good debate when I proposed the following scenario:

Imagine that America has undergone a major political revolution.  We have replaced our form of government with a divine-right monarchy that holds power tenuously throughout the country.  Of course, there are many who object to these changes and wish to see a return of the old ways.

Now suppose that China has decided to invade America with the express purpose of restoring the constitution and the president ousted by the revolution that replaced him with a king.  We can further suppose that the ex-president had good relations with China and the current king wants to alter all of our trade agreements with them.  Many oppose the invasion out of a sense of patriotism and/or loyalty to the Revolution, but many others hope for a Chinese victory and a restoration of the Constitution.

Which group would be more “American?”  The group that wanted to defeat China, or the group that hoped for a Chinese victory over American forces?

The question carries enormous weight, for only “the people” of France will get the rights due to the French people.

With this in mind, we can look at two key events.

1. The Storming of the Royal Residence: August 10, 1792

One of the keys to kingship working is the perceived mystical distance between the king and other men.  No one makes a king, kings are born.  He does not chose his life, God chooses him to rule by virtue of his birth.  As a man, a king is no different from anyone, but as king he takes on a different identity.

Royalty has always sought to maintain this distance through their dress, their manners, their homes, and so on.

At the start of the revolution many still wanted a strong king in France.  As the revolution progressed most slowly abandoned tat idea until Louis’ very existence threatened the revolution itself.  Finally on August 10 a mob stormed the palace, brutally slew many of the guards and servants, and might have done the same to Louis and Marie had they not escaped.  In one act, the people eradicated the perceived distance between the monarchy and themselves.  Louis had no power left.

2. The September Massacres, 1792

The events of August 10 did not cause the Austrians and Prussians to invade France all by itself, but it did propel those armies to greater alacrity in their attempt to restore Louis’ power.  As the armies moved closer to France, many feared that prisons in France (which contained ‘counter-revolutionaries’ after all) would be liberated to serve as “5th Column” to aid the foreign invasion.

From September 2-5 mobs went to various prisons, monasteries, and convents in France systematically butchering most of those inside.  The death of Marie Antoinette’ friend Princess Lamballe exemplifies France’s descent into paganism.  They cut off her head and paraded it in front of Marie’s prison window.  Then, according some accounts, they also cut out her heart and ate it.

3. The Death of Marat

Jean-Paul Marat failed at most things in life before he came to edit the tabloid “The Friend of the People.”  More than others he celebrated and encouraged the violence of the revolution, at one point calling for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of the “enemies of the people.”  A young woman named Charlotte Corday believed in the Revolution but also thought Marat a tyrant.  She gained access to him and plunged a knife into his chest.

Corday hoped that Marat’s death would quell violence, but tragically it had the opposite effect.  She hoped to end tyranny, but created a martyr.  It also served to confirm the paranoia of many other revolutionary leaders.  Who could you trust?  Corday posed as a revolutionary, but struck against it.  Anyone, in fact, could secretly be an enemy.  Marat’s death did not create the Reign of Terror, but it did help contribute to it.

If you have interest, Simon Schama has an excellent treatment of David’s famous painting of Marat’s death below.

One of the ways in which they attempted to smoke-out counter-revolutionaries was through the then equivalent of a modern day block party.  Usually attendance at such gatherings was mandatory, for they meant to celebrate the revolutionary oneness of the people.  It sounds harmless enough, but these “parties” terrified many.  You had to be careful not to stand out in the crowd.  The government had proclaimed the need to strike out against “fanaticism” and “moderation.”  If you showed too much enthusiasm for the Revolution, you probably were not being natural and so only sought to mask your true anti-revolutionary intent.  If you showed too little enthusiasm, you again showed your lack of zeal.  This is why these “parties” terrified so many.  You had to avoid standing out in the crowd.

What would you wear to such gatherings?  If you overdressed, you could be seen as “better than others.”  If you underdressed, you obviously showed no respect for the “people of France.”  What food should you bring?  Bring too little, you’re a cheapskate, don’t care about the people, etc.  Bring too much and you fall prey to the “you think you’re better than us,” suspicion, or perhaps others might think that you have secretly hoarded goods and hidden wealth from “the people.”

This fear of being labelled a hoarder proved especially potent.  The revolution had not improved economic conditions in France, contrary to expectations.  But with their Enlightenment beliefs, the removal of the bad monarchical institutions should have, by definition, fixed the problem.  The fact that everything did not work well showed that the Revolution must have been undermined from within.  Hence, the need to find hoarders, the secret enemies of the people.  Saturn had turned on his children — the gods athirst.

On Thursday I wanted the students to think about how the layout of the city can contribute to the possibility of a revolt.  Many in 1789 commented that few cities had a layout more conducive to revolution than Paris.  Here is an image of the city in 1788:

I then asked the students to redesign the city to make revolution less likely, which meant of course they had to think about why the city might be susceptible to revolution in the first place.

A few generations later Napoleon III wanted the city redesigned specifically to discourage the possibility of further revolution.  The map below indicates some of his changes, with the red strips representing broad thoroughfares, and the the darker blue representing wide public spaces.

Many thanks!

Dave M