The French Revolution of 1789


By Dr Rohan H Wickramasinghe

Sri Lanka became, like it or not, a member of the British Empire and, by virtue of that fact, a member of the community of Anglophone countries. Much to the chagrin of the late S W R D Bandaranaike, the middle and upper classes of the country have remained, despite all the obstacles placed in their way, relatively fluent in English.

Be that as it may, the focus on Britain and the English-speaking world led for a long time to serious and hardly forgivable gaps in Sri Lanka in the knowledge of the history and culture of major non-anglophone countries including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, China and Japan. These lacunae are only being filled gradually in recent times, and that, too, by the recent burst in international travel. This is a pity because those who are ignorant of problem periods in the histories of other countries are sometimes condemned to experience them themselves.

The present brief essay attempts to give some basic information and anecdotes in relation to one of two upheavals in France which grabbed the world’s attention. This self-imposed task has been prompted and facilitated by the writer’s residence in Paris for two years (1966-1968) while a student at the College de France. It may be noted here that friends around that time, such as Yves and Marie-Louise LeGal, Matti Jahkola, Erik Thomas and Svante Travenius, told me of their considerable satisfaction that I had been afforded the opportunity to ‘break out’ of the anglophone world and experience the real Europe. I made the fullest use of the opportunity afforded me. (In passing, I may mention that in 1967 I attended a political sciences lecture devoted to ‘Ceylan’ offered at the (University) Sciences-Po in Paris and was most impressed by the depth and balance of the content presented.)

The two upheavals made mention of above are the ‘French Revolution’ (dated around 5 May 1789 to 9 Nov 1799) and the ‘French Revolution of 1968’ (from 2 to 30 May 1968). (Curiously enough, they each originated in the first week of May; May 1st or May Day today is, inter alia, that on which in Paris and in some other parts of the world, sprigs of the white Lily-of-the-valley flowers, Convallaria majalis, or ‘muguet’ in French are bought in the street and presented as gifts.)

The ‘French Revolution’

The French Revolution has been extensively dealt with in a plethora of articles and treatises, which may be consulted for the broad picture and the fine detail. (There is, also, fiction based on these times, which includes novels by writers such as Baroness Orczy, who created the highly successful character of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ series. However, the English used in them is sometimes from an earlier era and may occasionally be difficult to follow.) Writings on the French Revolution can fill libraries and continue to be published in several areas. What is offered in the present submission is information on a few of the events and persons involved and, most importantly, something related to the background which led to the outbreak of the storm. There is much to be learned from history. The fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 disturbances in France seems as good a time as any to embark on this task.

a) The overall picture preceding the Revolution

1. In May 1789, while Louis XVI ruled France, the ‘Estates general’ was composed of three ‘Estates’: the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility) and the Third Estate (the commoners),

2. The disastrous condition of the economy at the time was due in part to huge expenses incurred 1) during the Seven Years war (1756 to 1763) and 2) as an ally from 1778 of the Americans in the American War of Independence from Britain, which effectively ended in 1783. (n.b. The fighting in relation to the American War of Independence was by no means confined to mainland North America. It included an Anglo-French War in which the French participated as allies of the Americans. This fighting included sideshows in the Indian Ocean between ships commanded by British Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and an equivalent force under French Admiral Bailli de Suffren. Two of these encounters are known as the Battle of Providien (an islet in the vicinity of Trincomalee; 12 April 1782) and the Battle of Trincomalee. In relation to the latter, the French troops under Suffren entered Trincomalee on 1 September 1782 and left on 30 September 1782.)

3. While the nobility and some of the clergy indulged in an ostentatiously opulent or lavish lifestyle, the masses were economically desperate. Contributory factors included aspects of unpopular regressive taxation schemes and serious problems with agriculture and food supply. Two bad agricultural years in 1788 and 1789 resulted in the main staple, bread, costing the major portion (said at times to reach 88%) of a laborer’s daily wage. There was a constant all pervading fear of famine in the lower strata of society. (n.b. A probably apocryphal story circulated widely that, when the masses cried ‘Give us bread’, the Queen, Marie Antoinette, asked ‘Why don’t they eat cake?’.) This lower strata of society is commonly referred to as the ‘sans-culottes’. (While ‘sans-culottes’ referred originally to a mode of attire, it came in time to include a lack of education, culture etc.)

4. ‘Age of Enlightenment’. This (also sometimes called the ‘Enlightenment’ or the ‘Age of Reason’) has been termed a period in which developed an attitude of ‘dare to know’. Some French historians place it with the commencement of the scientific revolution in the 1620s, while others locate it between 1715 and 1789. One development of this period was that of the ‘Encyclopedie’ (around 1751 to 1772), an advance on existing dictionaries. This work was cofounded by Denis Diderot (1713 to 1784) and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717 to 1783), (an illegitimate child of educated parents, whose mother abandoned him on the steps of a church a few days after birth). This work encountered serious opposition, took some twenty five years to complete and included around 74,000 items by more than 130 contributors. Another notable figure of this era was the judge, man of letters and political philosopher, Montesquieu (1689 – 1755), whose work included advocating separation of administrative powers into the executive, the legislature and the judicial (‘The Spirit of the Laws’). He, also (following others), expressed his views on the possible influence of climate on the nature of Man and society.

b) Events related to the Revolution

1. The lead up to the Revolution was the ‘Third Estate’ (the commoners) (see above) requesting the creation of a National Assembly (with the participation of the clergy and the nobility). A new Constitution was sought. In May 1789, the ‘Third Estate’ formed the ‘National Assembly’ (while inviting the other two ‘Estates’ to join) against the wishes of the King Louis XVI. This was the trigger of the French Revolution.

2. A landmark event of the French Revolution is dated from the storming of the Bastille, the royal fortress and prison on 14 July 1789. A renowned painting of event was by Jean-Pierre Houel.

3. The abolition of feudalism took place in August 1789.

4. A notable event was the ‘Women’s March on Versailles’, which took place on October 5, 1789. Women in the markets of Paris were driven to desperation by the cost of bread and, with the encouragement of some revolutionaries, took arms from the national armory and marched to the Palace at Versailles, where King Louis XVI, his family and some members of the Assembly were in residence at the time. The King and his entourage were forced to return to the Tuileries Palace in Paris.

5. King Louis, Marie Antoinette and the immediate family attempted to flee Paris disguised as servants on 20-21 June 1791. They travelled in a coach in the direction of the Austrian border and hoped to make contact with royalist sympathizers and stage a counter-revolution. The attempt failed due, most immediately, to their being recognized at the small town of Sainte-Menehoud by a postmaster, who recognized the King from his likeness on a banknote. They were arrested at Varennes and returned to Paris. This flight lost them much of the support they had enjoyed up to then since it led to speculation that they had hoped to stage their ‘counter-revolution’ with foreign troops. This perception helped to advance the republican sentiment of doing away with the royalty and, also, the accusation of treason.

6. Executions. a) Some of the nobility were hung from street lamps. b) Other executions were commonly performed by decapitation using a guillotine. (One version of the guillotine used in Sri Lanka today is the instrument used to cut blocks of paper.) The first beheadings by the guillotine are dated to July 1789. The condemned were transported to the place of execution in a tumbril (open cart) in batches of 12.

7. ‘Reign of Terror’. The original National Assembly created a National Constituent Assembly (9 July 1789 to 30 September 1791) which, in turn, led to a Legislative Assembly (1 October 1791 to 20 September 1792). This latter led to the National Convention, which existed from 20 September 1792 to 26 October 1795. A Committee of Public Safety (CPS) was created on 6 April 1793 by the National Convention. Reasons for the creation of the CPS included the bringing under control incidents such as the 2-7 September Massacres of 1792, when around 1200 to 1400 prisoners and priests were killed. This took place following rumours that Paris was to come under attack by foreign forces, who would liberate incarcerated convicts and priests to fight on their side. The activity of the Committee of Public Safety under Robespierre and his associates led to the period Autumn 1793 to Spring 1794 being labeled the ‘Reign of Terror’ (see, also, entries under Robespierre and Danton). Figures for official death sentences from June 1793 to end July 1794 amount to 16,594 for the whole of France, which includes 2639 in Paris.

8. The Revolution of Thermidor, the Thermidorean Reaction or, more simply, Thermidor, derives its name from Thermidor; the 11th month in the French Republican Calendar. The ousting of Robespierre during Thermidor (27 July 1794) has resulted in the term acquiring a political significance. ‘Thermidorean reaction’ may signify going back from previously held revolutionary objectives (in particular, following a change in leadership). Leon Trotsky has termed matters connected with the rise of Joseph Stalin as the ‘Soviet Thermidor’. (It may, also, be of interest that the recipe created by the famous chef, Auguste Escoffier, around 1880 called ‘Lobster Thermidor’ was named in 1896 after a successful play, Thermidor, which was staged in Paris following ‘Thermidorean Reaction’.)

9. National Symbols of France include: a) The French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, which was written by Rouget de Lisle on 25 April 1792 and accepted by The Convention on 14 July 1795. The name refers to its being sung on the streets for the first time by volunteers from Marseille, b) Marianne – a female figure personifying Liberty and Reason dating from September 1792, c) The National Motto, Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite - This motto was expressed in a speech by Maximilien Robespierre on 5 December 1790, and d) Great Seal of France – The National Convention decided on Marianne depicting Liberty.

c) Some personalities of the Revolution

1. King Louis XVI. Born 23 August 1754. Ascended the throne on 11 June 1775. Found guilty of high treason. Guillotined on 21 January 1793 at the age of 38 years.

2. Queen Marie Antoinette. Born November 1755; the fifteenth child of Empress Maria Therese of Austria. Sent on 21 April 1770 to France at the age of fourteen years to marry Louis XVI (age 15). Although the marriage took place, it may not have been consummated for some seven years. Her trial commenced on 14 October 1793. She was guillotined on 16 October 1793. Her son, Louis, was never crowned and died of tuberculosis or poisoning at the age of ten in 1795 in captivity.

3. Jean-Paul Marat. Born in (then) Prussia. Family lived in Switzerland. Lived for many years in the United Kingdom (London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne etc.) Gained an MD from St. Andrews based apparently for his work on gonorrhea. Enjoyed a good reputation as a physician. Conducted scientific research, which was sophisticated for the time on light, electricity, and heat and fire etc which he published. Later, he turned to radical journalism and politics. He was opposed to King Louis XVI and his supporters. Spent some time hiding from his enemies in the sewers of Paris, where he contracted a painful skin disease, possibly dermatitis herpetiformis. At the time of his death, he was spending most of his time in a bath of medicinal herbs to ease his suffering. His body was buried for some time in the Pantheon, although it was relocated later. (The eulogy at his funeral was given by the author, the Marquis de Sade, who had spent some 32 years of his life in an insane asylum and various prisons. De Sade is well-known to this day as a writer of, among others, erotic works. His name gave rise to the word, sadism.) The Port of Le Havre in France bore the name, Le Havre-Marat, for a time.

4. Charlotte Corday. She was a 24year-old member of the minor aristocracy and a supporter of King Louis XVI. She travelled with a knife from the town of Caen to Paris with the intention of killing Marat. She stabbed Marat in his apartment in his bath and killed him with one blow on 13 July 1793. She was condemned to death and guillotined on 17 July 1793. She received permission to have a portrait of herself in elegant attire painted by Jean-Jacques Hauer in the four days between the murder and being guillotined. After being decapitated, her head was held up for the public to gaze at. (It has been said that in both her case and that of Marie Antoinette the decapitated head blushed. Theories have been advanced to account for this.) Her body was consigned to a grave in a cemetery for those guillotined. She was, posthumously, called the ‘Angel of Assassination’.

5. Maximillian Robespierre (6 May 1758 to 28 July 1794) was educated at the elite Lycee Louis-le-Grand (LLG), Paris. LLG and the Lycee Henri-IV have long been the leading schools in France. LLG counts among its alumni notables, such as Presidents Georges Pompidou, Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac, in many fields. In the context of the present article, alumni include Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Camille Desmoulins and the Marquis de Sade. Robespierre was a lawyer and a leader among the revolutionaries. He was elected on 27 July 1793 a member of the Committee of Public Safety, which, hand in hand with the Committee of General Security, moved to assume dictatorial status and led to the ‘Reign of Terror’ (see above). (In a speech, he observed that ‘Uncertainty of punishment encourages all the guilty".) After a highly controversial career in politics, the Convention ordered his arrest on the 27 July 1794 (Thermidor) and he was guillotined aged 36 years the following day without a trial.

6. Georges Jacques Danton (26 October 1759 to 5 April 1794). An advocate and politician. His face was marked by smallpox and attacks by animals in childhood. He was the first President of the Committee of Public Safety, which was at first known as ‘The Danton Committee’. After a turbulent career in the Revolution, he and several others were arrested on 30 March 1794. The trial is said to have been more political than criminal. However, there were several charges of serious corruption. He and several others were found guilty, condemned to death and led immediately to the guillotine.

7. Poets. William Wordsworth, educated at Cambridge University, visited Paris in November 1791 after the Revolution commenced. He, and Samuel T Coleridge (an opium addict due to the use of laudanum for medical reasons), also of Cambridge (but did not graduate), were initially enthusiasts of the revolution but became disillusioned later. Wordsworth had an affair in Paris with Annette Vallon and had a daughter, Caroline, by his mistress, whom he never married. He, however, paid towards the daughter’s maintenance at a later stage. Shelley and Byron supported the revolution.

8. The Committee of Public Safety was followed by the Directory or Directorate from 1795 but was itself overthrown on 9 November 1799 by Napolean Bonaparte, who created the French First Republic.

The foregoing attempts to sketch out certain interesting aspects of the French Revolution, which occurred in the eighteenth century and which many in Sri Lanka may not be conversant with. It is topical at this time being the 50th anniversary of the upheaval which took place in France in 1968. The writer would be interested to receive feedback on the article.

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