This week we saw the French Revolution immediately take a dangerous turn, and I wanted us to consider why violence formed such an integral part of the Revolution. I think we can offer a variety of possible answers to this question.
Historian Simon Schama made an interesting observation regarding the nature of the change that gripped France. If we go back to the France during the heyday of Versailles, we see the king rigidly controlling events. The spectacle of Versailles began with the king and sometimes ended with him as well.
Louis XVI had a modernist, progressive bent. He loved science, and joyfully hosted some of the first ballooning experiments on the grounds of Versailles. The experiments were a great triumph, but in some ways worked against Louis. With the balloons up in the air, nature controlled the spectacle. The wind blows,i.e., nature speaks, and the reaction occurs. The air was public space. We see this concept of the Revolution as a “force of nature” in David’s drawing of the Tennis Court Oath (note the rush of wind occupying the top areas of the painting).
The revolution then, was a “force of nature” in the minds of many, outside the control of the king, or anyone else, for that matter. One must follow where it led — you had no choice.
Traditionally historians have viewed the Revolution as happening in two phases:
1) The idealistic, peaceful, “good” phase from 1789-1792, and
2) The ugly, destructive phase that began in 1792 and lasted until 1794.
Following Simon Schama and his stellar book Citizens, I disagree with this characterization. Violence and political action went hand in hand in 1788, for example, a year before the Revolution proper began. Bastille Day in 1789 saw the mob beat Captain DeLaunay to death and put his head on a pike. The language of blood had much cache in the rhetoric of the time, with orators often proclaiming their desire to shed their blood for the cause, or the need for blood to “water the soil of the fatherland,” blood as the “cement of the new republic,” and so on.
Part of understanding the violence involves understanding the nature of sin itself. How often have we thought that if we do this one bad thing, we can quickly then step back, shut the lid on our misdeeds, and return to righteous behavior. But as Scriptural language makes clear, once sin has room to maneuver it tends to take control. Once they used violence to achieve small objectives, it began to have a life and logic of its own. Pandora’s box had opened.
Part of the reason for the violence also involves what the French tried to accomplish with their revolution. Stop and ponder for a moment how many political questions we take for granted. Who gets rights? Who is a citizen? How should we apportion political power? Americans disagree a lot about politics, but nearly all our arguments deal with what to do within the existing system.
But what if we had to completely rethink all of those things on the fly, for this is what the French faced. Naturally they had many disagreements about fundamental political questions. Under pressure from foreign powers, did the French have the space and time to decide these questions? The lazy way out would mean violence. One can weary of talking endlessly, especially under pressure. “Since we cannot agree on who gets the last cookie and I’m tired of talking, I’ll shove you out of the way and grab it myself.”
The art of the period reflected some of this change of mindset. The artistic style called “Rococo” tended to dominate in the period prior to the Revolution, with this painting as perhaps the pre-eminent example:
The emphasis here was on light, softness, and the pleasures (though its critics used the word “frivolity) of life. Art presaged the political shift of the Revolution. The colors got bolder, the subject matter more serious, and the focus shifted from celebrating life to facing death.
Here is Jacques Louis-David’s “The Oath of the Horatii,” from a story in Roman history that celebrated the sacrifice of the three brothers for Rome.
And below, “Brutus and His Sons,” which again uses Rome as the narrative template. Brutus served as one of Rome’s first consuls, its chief law enforcement officer. But two of his sons participated in a plot to bring back the monarchy. The punishment was death, and Brutus had the duty of executing the punishment. As in the picture above, the men have steely resolve while the women swoon:
The semi-apocalyptic tone of the art no doubt captured the existing mood, but also propelled French society toward violence.
We also cannot underestimate the climate of fear that gripped France. They knew that their attempts to remake their society would draw the ire of other nations. Austria and Prussia sent armies to invade their country, and France itself had to deal with an army whose aristocratic officer corp had largely fled or been discredited. But once the French began the Revolution, they could not turn back. They had already done enough to face punishment from other nations or a restored Louis XVI. If, for example, you knew you would be hung for the thefts you committed, would you try and kill the witnesses? What more could the authorities do to you? Facing domestic uncertainty and international pressure, success became mandatory for the revolutionaries. This desperation surely contributed to the violence. Tragically (and not surprisingly) they eventually turned this fear and desperation on each other. Saturn would eat his children.
It was in this climate of fear that the French had to decide who constituted the “people” of France. Usually nations decide this along the lines of birth, but many in France thought this could not work, since not all favored the Revolution. If those who did not go along with the Revolution were “oppressors” of the people, could oppressors of the people be part of the people? Why give rights to those who work against the nation? This led to the French defining citizenship along ideological lines, which had a disastrous impact on the Revolution.
Violence played a crucial part in this decision too. On Bastille Day crowds already began executing people without trial. If those executed were part of “the people” then their actions were obviously illegal. But to call those actions illegal would call the whole revolution into question. So, the natural conclusion would be that those executed were not in fact part of France after all, and not deserving of rights.
Next week we will see where these ideas lead the Revolution.