Chapter 2: The Controversial Events of the French Revolution
Chapter 2 Preface
Louis XVI was a man who should never have become king. Hisgrandfather was Louis XV, who ruled France from 1715 to 1774. Under normal circumstances the younger man would have remained a prince, but the untimely deaths of his father and two older brothers left the twenty-year-old in charge of a troubled nation. Economic problems had begun to beset France during Louis XV’s reign, setting the stage for the French Revolution, which started fifteen years into Louis XVI’s reign. On January 21, 1793, three and a half years after the storming of the Bastille (a prison and fortress in Paris), the king was beheaded. His death was the ultimate symbol of the revolutionary government’s decision to transform France from a monarchy to a republic. Understandably, it was also one of the most controversial events of the French Revolution.
Even before his death, Louis XVI’s power had been dwindling steadily. Louis XVI and his family made a failed attempt to flee the country in June 1791, but the royal family was captured and returned to the castle, where they were placed under strict house arrest. That September Louis XVI, as a condition for resuming some of his royal powers, took an oath wherein he promised to obey the new constitution, which called for a hereditary constitutional monarchy, elected judges, and a single elected chamber (the Legislative Assembly) that would make all the laws. However, as Norah Lofts and Margery Weiner point out in Eternal France: A...
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Violence at the Bastille Was Caused by French Rioters
The Bastille was a large fortress and prison located on the outskirts of Paris. On July 14, 1789, a large crowd of French citizens —who doubted the sincerity of King Louis XVI’s support for economic and financial reforms—stormed the Bastille in search of weapons in case the king ordered his troops to attack the city. The march on the fortress and its capture by the crowd resulted in the deaths of ninety-eight civilians and the execution of the Bastille’s governor, Marquis de Launay, along with several other key officers. In the following viewpoint Louis de Flue, an officer stationed at the Bastille, describes his experiences defending the Bastille and criticizes the actions of the crowd. He supports the decisions made by de Launay, explaining that the governor ordered his troops not to fire upon the crowd. In addition, de Flue criticizes the violent and insulting behavior of the besiegers.
Having received orders from the Baron de Bezenval, I left on 7 July at 2 in the morning with a detachment of 32 men . . . we crossed Paris without difficulty and arrived at the Bastille where I entered with my troops. . . . During my next few days there, the Governor [Marquis de Launay] showed me around the place, the spots he thought the strongest and those the weakest. He showed me all the precautions that he had taken. . . . He complained of the small size of his garrison and of the impossibility of guarding the place if attacked. I told him his fears were...
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Violence at the Bastille Was Caused by French Troops
In the following viewpoint a French citizen named Keversau explains his role in the taking of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. A large crowd stormed the Bastille, the site of a large fortress and prison, in order to search for weapons to use against King Louis XVI, should he renege on proposed economic and political reforms and instruct his troops to attack Paris. More than one hundred people, including the governor of the Bastille, died in the attack. Keversau argues that the crowd behaved bravely despite being fired upon by the Bastille’s soldiers and praises the freeing of seven prisoners.
Veteran armies inured to War have never performed greater prodigies of valour than this leaderless multitude of persons belonging to every class, workmen of all trades who, mostly illequipped and unused to arms, boldly affronted the fire from the ramparts and seemed to mock the thunderbolts the enemy hurled at them. Their guns were equally well served. Cholat, the owner of a wine shop, who was in charge of a cannon installed in the garden of the Arsenal1 was deservedly praised, as was Georges a gunner who arrived from Brest that same morning and was wounded in the thigh.
Overtaking the Fortress
The attackers having demolished the first drawbridge and brought their guns into position against the second could not fail to capture the fort. The Marquis de Launay (Governor of the Bastille) could doubtless have resisted the capture of...
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The Founding of a French Republic Is an Important Achievement
King Louis XVI’s control over France, which had been increasingly limited since 1789, officially ended on August 10, 1792, when the Legislative Assembly voted to suspend the king from his duties. That decision led to the creation of the French Republic on September 22, 1792. In the following viewpoint Maximilien Robespierre, in an address to France’s legislature, argues that the republic is vital to the French people because only republics and democracies can provide peace and happiness to their citizens. According to Robespierre, France is the first true democracy because it has made all male citizens equal under the laws. He concludes that the republic will prosper if the French people and their representatives remain virtuous and subordinate their private desires to the public good. Robespierre was a leader of the Jacobin faction, a radical political party that led France until July 1794, when Robespierre and other important Jacobin figures were arrested and executed.
We wish, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of humanity, realize the promises of philosophy, and acquit providence of the long reign of crime and tyranny. We wish that France, once illustrious among enslaved nations, may, while eclipsing the glory of all the free peoples that ever existed, become a model to nations, a terror to oppressors, a consolation to the oppressed, an ornament of the universe; and that, by sealing our work with our blood, we may witness at least...
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The French Republic Will Not Last
In the following viewpoint Joseph de Maistre argues that the French Republic, which was established on September 22, 1792, following the abolition of the monarchy, cannot succeed. According to de Maistre, a large republic in which all people are represented cannot exist because in the course of history one has never been established; he contends that the republic recently created in America (the United States) has yet to prove its longevity. In addition, de Maistre asserts that the French republic will fail because a durable government cannot be built upon a corrupt and savage revolution. De Maistre was a French writer, diplomat, and royalist whose works include Considerations on France, the source of the following selection.
What could have been said to the French to get them to believe in a republic of twenty-four million people? Two things only: (1) nothing prevents us from doing something that has never been seen before; (2) the discovery of the representative system makes possible for us what was impossible for our predecessors. Let us examine the strength of these two arguments.
If we are told that a die thrown a billion times had never turned up anything but five numbers—1, 2, 3, 4, and 5—could we believe that there was a 6 on one of the faces? NO, undoubtedly; and it would be as obvious to us as if we had seen it that one of the faces is blank or that one of the numbers is repeated.
Well then! Let us run through...
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The Reign of Terror Was Caused by Jacobin Leadership
The rule of Maximilien Robespierre and other members of the radical Jacobin party is best remembered for the Terror, when more than thirty thousand people were executed in France between 1793 and 1794. In the following viewpoint François Furet criticizes the Terror and disputes the arguments made by scholars wishing to defend the revolutionaries. Furet asserts that the Terror was not necessary to ensure public safety but was conducted to silence counterrevolutionaries and others who threatened Jacobin rule. He also argues that the Terror exacerbated the civil war that beset France in 1783. Furet was a professor at the University of Chicago and a leading scholar of the French Revolution whose works include Interpreting the French Revolution and A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution.
The legacy of the Terror poisoned all subsequent revolutionary history and, beyond that, all political life in nineteenth-century France. Throughout the Thermidorian period1 the Terror lurked about the fringes of the political scene. The royalists used it to forge a weapon of revenge, an instrument for settling local scores in areas where the population leaned toward their camp and Republican troops were thinly scattered, as in the Rhône valley. The republicans would have liked to forget the Terror and root the new institutions of the Year III [September 1794 to September 1795] in the law; Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël worked feverishly between...
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The Reign of Terror Was Not Caused by Jacobin Leadership
The radical Jacobin government has often been blamed for the eventual failure of the French Revolution to form a lasting republic, in large part because of the thousands of executions (known collectively as the Terror) that occurred between 1793 and 1794 under the leadership of Jacobins such as Maximilien Robespierre and Georges-Jacques Danton. In the following viewpoint Gwynne Lewis defends the actions of these men and other Jacobin leaders. She argues that the moderate Girondin government that led France in 1792 and 1793, when the nation was at war, set the stage for the Terror by establishing the Revolutionary Tribunal (a court that held trials for accused political offenders) and the Committee of Public Safety (the chief executive body). Lewis also contends that most of the Jacobin leadership was uncomfortable with the more extreme politics advocated by groups such as the Enragés, a small group of Parisian radical extremists who campaigned for strict economic controls. Lewis is a professor of history at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, and the author of The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate, the source of the following viewpoint.
From the summer of 1793 to the summer of 1794, the period known to history as ‘The Terror’, the Revolution was saved from its internal and external enemies, at considerable cost to human life and the infant political democracy of the early 1790s, symbolised by the famous...
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