Archive for August, 2013


European History Pt. 40 — The Emergency Republic ’92-’95

Last time I looked at the end of the early phase of the French Revolution. This was the years of the national assembly, from ’89 to roughly ’92. Things get confusing because the national assembly was a continuation of the estates general, which had a legally recognized role in the ancient regime. Things had proceeded in a semi-lawful manner. But after the peasant outbreaks in Paris during 1792, the national assembly died and was replaced by the NATIONAL CONVENTION (sounds similar). The national convention wanted to try again to draft a constitution, but it ended up just ruling itself without making much progress on the constitution it was supposed to be writing.

I’ve read about the period of the national convention before, and its bafflingly complex. I almost think it would be better for me to write nothing about it than follow the books’ AMAZINGLY simple characterizations of what went on. Nonetheless, I’ll do it. But only with a descriptive caveat about this period. This was a time of decreasingly lawfulness and increased political participation by average people. At home, clubs grew and interacted in Paris. They met in the streets by chance, at bars, and in halls, and there was a rush toward radicalization. Any resistance to “moving forward” with the revolution or an attempt to consolidate the gains of the revolution was met with purges. One always wanted to be the most progressive and at the head of change. To be left behind was to be killed. Paranoia and suspicion began to run high and mobs roamed France in the name of revolution or counterrevolution — it all became the same. At large, France was caught up in war, sometimes winning sometimes losing, always spilling more and more resources. But let’s begin a basic look at what happened at this time.

Basic Timeline

In August 1792, the national assembly was formed. It was more radical than the national convention which was now defunct. In December 1792, Louis XVI was put to death by a vote that was won by a single person. All of those deputies who voted for his death were now COMMITTED in a new way to preventing the return of the Bourbon monarchy. They could not turn back and so were radicalized further by this already radical decision.

At this time, the San Culottes, the workers without the knee-breeches worn by the middle and upper class became very active in the revolution. They wanted price controls and currency controls and other measures to help them in a time of need. They radicalized the deputies in the national convention, which resulted in the purging of the Girondins by a new faction, the Mountain (so called because Mountain deputies preferred to sit high up in the assembly hall). This was an instance of the mood of PARIS dictating the revolution to all of France, because it was the commune of Paris who organized the San Culottes into invading the national convention and arrested the Girondins.

In 1793, Robespierre largely headed the Committee of Public Safety, an emergency panel that largely ran the country. I read a biography on Robespierre at this point, and he came off as a very scary person. He conducted executions (ultimately of one of his best friends) from his office, filing papers and worrying about the “internal” foes of the revolution. He sought to root them out wherever he could. About 40,000 perished during the terror, most of which were peasants. However, it was at this time that Marie Antoinette was guillotined.

In 1793, the national convention adopted a republican constitution that allowed for universal male suffrage. Pretty good right? If you think so, you haven’t understood the pattern of the French Revolution. The constitution was “suspended” indefinitely and the government was declared “revolutionary until the peace.” This meant basically that AGAIN France had failed to consolidate its societal changes into a public document.

In 1794, the national convention decreed slavery illegal everywhere in the French colonies. This was laudatory, but Napoleon would reverse it in 1802.

In 1793-1794, the national convention proved to be what I think was its dictatorial leanings by clamping down on the clubs and informal revolutionary groups that helped put it into power. Women’s revolutionary clubs were outlawed and the leading “enrages” (the most extreme revolutionaries) were arrested.

Another pattern though is that France just kept producing ideological splinter groups that were more and more insane. After the enrages were locked up, the Hebertists came to prominence. Even ROBESPIERRE thought they were insane (they were responsible for drowning roughly 200 people in barges in Nantes at this time). The Hebertists also wanted to thoroughly dechristianize France, but Robespierre resisted, trying to preserve the popularity of the revolution. In vain, he introduced the cult of the supreme being as a compromise. He was also at this time pressed by hebertists and those accusing him of being right wing (Robespierre RIGHT-wing? c’mon). In concession, he killed many moderate (right wing) members of the Mountain including his friend Danton. At this point though, the national convention was become terrified (as it were) of their own ruling committee. They made Robespierre “illegal” and he was Guillotined.

This whole period was closed out by the Thermidorian reaction; a kind of collective “whew” uttered by all of France. The Jacobin club was closed down, extreme price controls were removed. Latent peasant revolts were put down. It was a bourgeois moment. The constitution that was made in 1793 and suspended on emergency grounds was thrown away and ANOTHER constitution was drafted (this is constitution number 3).

and we’ll pick it up there next time.


European History Pt. 39 — the second revolution of 1792

Last time, I looked at the national assembly as it went about drafting and then putting into practice the Constitution of 1791. From my reading this was a turbulent but relatively politically innovative time at which a lot of LAWS were passed to change things. From this point on, trust in the laws and the people making the declined sharply.

International Scene

At first many countries ignored the French. England thought that the French were finally trying to emulate them (a naive, complacent sentiment), and Hungarian landlords and polish aristocrats pointed to French upheaval as an example. The most trampled classes too responded. The Irish were enthused, as well as Silesian weavers, labor in Hamburg, and the Belgian underclass. There was, at this time of Wordsworth and Hegel, excitement in the air.

But as history teaches us, revolution breeds counter-revolution. Monarchs like Gustavus III (Sweden) and Catherine the Great were appalled. Expat French nobles wanted their manorial privileges back and conspired with the king’s brother, the Count of Artois to lead a reinstatement of the ancient regime.

Revolutionary Foreign Policy 

Other countries started to get nervous though. France took Avignon at the request of revolutionaries without talking with its owner, the pope. German princes with rights in Alsace lost them when feudalism was abolished at a stroke by the national assembly.

So, Leopold II, emperor of Austria and BROTHER to Marie Antoinette, started thinking about taking steps. He got together with Prussia and said that he would try to restore order in France IF (huge if) the other powers would help. Leopold hoped the other powers would never all consent to helping and so, his promise bound him to nothing. This was the famed DECLARATION OF PILNITZ.

France didn’t see through the diplomatic maneuvering. They thought the alliance was serious and threatening, and this turned them against the monarchies of Europe. War gathered popularity in two quarters. Loyalists to Louis XVI supported war because they thought it would restore his popularity and radical, internationalist Jacobins known as Girondins thought the revolution would never be safe unless it could spread to all of Europe.

The Second Revolution

And so everything changed. The lower classes were squeezed by war and they grew increasingly suspicious of the monarchy and the girondins. Why war at a time like this? Where was the support for labor and against property? They were whipped further into a fury by people like Robespierre, Danton, and Marat. Especially Marat. That guy was a lunatic. An insane bloodthirsty monster (my opinion, but please read about him).

Troops streamed into the city on their way to the front, and Paris was turned upside down. In August of 1792, the lower classes revolted, killed the king’s french guard and imprisoned the royal family. A revolutionary commune was set up to govern Paris, and a NEW constitutional assembly was chosen to draft a NEW constitution (France kept trying to draft a constitution, to no avail). Soon after, the September massacres occurred, in which priests and others were executed.

Next is the terror.


European History Pt. 38 — French Revolution ’89-’91

Last time I did some of the history leading up to the rights of man. This was mainly the history of the Summer of 1789.

Now we’ve established the national assembly and heard about the rights of man, we can see what the national assembly actually did. For two years, this assembly went about drafting stuff. They wrote scores and scores of new laws, changing the relationship of the French government to regional autonomy, to the church,and to economic policy. Their finished product was the Constitution of 1791, because it went into effect on that date and brought this period to a close.

I realize that my bullet pointing has been bad, so I’m going to try to be more synoptic today.


France was divided in 83 departments. The departments had large amounts of power and this became important once war began. These departments did whatever they wanted.

Louis Abandons the Revolution

In 1791, Louis tried to escape the country, but was caught at Varennes. This alienated him from the revolution and radicalized those who still trusted him. he later used refractory priests, further pushing him away from the revolutionary spirit. It’s a shame because there was a large window where his leadership would have been well received.


During the revolution, the debt of the old regime was never repudiated. This is significant, why not? The answer is that the debt was mainly owed to the ascendant bourgeois. One way the debt was paid is that church lands were confiscated and assignats were issued against that land. Owners of assignats could use them to buy church lands and many peasants  did. Without this property, public education in France, which was run by the Catholics, suffered.


The constituent (national) assembly also issued the civil constitution of the clergy which went very far to nationalize the french church, making some clergy positions elected and levying taxes for the maintenance of church functions. Bishops could not acknowledge papal supremacy — they were to be tools of the new government (as was the fashion of the time, enlightened despots were using religion to support their rule and property, leading to Marx’s invective against it). The refractory (non official) clergy were forced to turn to the pope, which greatly elevated the importance of the Vatican in French affairs. The civil constitution of the clergy, but creating a counter revolutionary sector of elites, has been called “the greatest tactical plunder of the Revolution.”

Next time is the much more violent “second revolution of 1792.


European History Pt. 37 — French Revolution, more buildup

Last time we saw that Louis XVI was considering how to dissolve the national assembly, which had broken away from the estates general. He gathered some troops to Versailles, and in his mind, he had more or less allied himself with the nobles, which meant repression.

Then there was a misunderstanding in Paris. Members of the third estate were worried about wandering vagrants and encroaching troops and so crowds began to look for weapons in public buildings, one of which was the Bastille, an old prison that was commissioned to be turned into a park. There were few prisoners there at this point — the Marquis de Sade had been moved from the prison just TEN DAYS before it was seized. Yet, the prison was a symbol of royal power, and when the governor of Paris put cannons on the war and refused to arm the crowd, the crowd became a mob, which stormed the bastille, losing 98 people in the process.

When the bastille was captured the governor and some soldiers were killed and their heads PUT ON PIKES. I emphasize this not because it was particularly gruesome for the time, this was the 18th century! But, it is worth noting because it illustrates how even at this supposedly, constitutional, liberal, constructive stage of the French Revolution, there was enormous anger and mistrust between the various estates. This would become crucial.

The storming of the Bastille convinced Louis XVI to accept the national assembly and not to repress it. The Marquis De Lafayette, a tragic character because of what happens to him, is made captain of the guard in Paris (he helped win the revolutionary war for us).

The National Assembly in Action 

In August of 1789, the Nation Assembly made big moves. On Aug. 4, it flatly declared that “feudalism is abolished” and in one fell swoop unburdened land-owning peasants from paying dues for “eminent property.” Then, later in August, the National Assembly issued “the Rights of Man and Citizen.” Without going into too much detail, the rights of man declared a host of what we would consider core democratic and liberal privileges, such no taxation without consent of the governed as well as the declaration that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”


European History Pt. 36 — French Revolution, Causes

Last time, I explained some of the groundwork for the French Revolution. The book I’m reading gives it a huge amount of space, so I’m going to be looking at it from a lot of different angles. At this time in my reading, I’m mainly familiar with the international balance of power, so my look at the revolution will probably be from a more Pan-European perspective, rather than specifically on the unbelievable changes going on within French society and worldview.


France at the beginning of the French revolution was broke. Dead broke. Their debt wasn’t really that big in absolute terms. England and the Dutch had much higher debt and they were, in terms of Gross national output, not as rich as France (or possibly AS rich, but not more). Also, the debt came mainly from the wars fought against England, not the lavish luxury of Versailles (as I think is sometimes suggested).

Anyway, the reason the French were broke is because their text system was inoperable. They simply did not get revenue from the country in any systematic or rational way. Taxes mainly came from the poor because the rich refused to be taxed (the whole thing makes you see contemporary fights over the debt ceiling, sequestration, etc. and the attendant debates about our tax system in a MUCH DIFFERENT WAY, regardless if you think we need more or less taxation. The point is that financial inadequacy can put the nation itself at stake).

A series of appointed financiers told the French government this exact fact — that revenue was needed — and set out certain remedies that would have likely changed a lot (this is Maupeou, Necker, and then Calonne). The nobles resisted, partly through the tricky gambit of saying that new taxes needed the approval of entire Estates General. So, Louis XVI eventually agreed to just that, a calling of the estates general.

The estates general met in 1789 and notice that this early development was initiated BY THE NOBILITY. They hoped to accept taxation on them along with various other liberal plans so that they might rule an ONGOING estates general as a mechanism of government. To do this, they suggested that the estates’ should be counted by order. So, one vote for the third estate, one vote for the clergy (which had many ties to nobility) and one vote for the nobility.

The third estate saw that this was just a ploy to keep them from getting their preferences, and public opinion turned decisively against the nobility. Abbey Sieyes published his pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?” arguing that the nobility was a worthless caste that could be eliminated without much damage to France.

As the actual estate general began, the third estate refused to go along with the voting scheme and picked a scheme that would advantage them (with a number of deputies equal to the other two estates combined.)

When some members of the Clergy crossed over to the third estate, jubilation broke out and on June 17,1989 the third estate declared itself the “National Assembly” and assumed sovereign power for itself, a right to make a constitution.

Louis XVI had opportunities to head this off, but he was tardy, He was slow to present own plans of reform, and he eventually brought soldiers to Paris to corral the national assembly. This was a big mistake. Up until this point, Louis XVI was LOVED by the bourgeois and the common people (because remember, monarchs up to this time often OPPOSED the nobility). He had been presented with a test, and he chose the nobility, and this decision would cost him dearly.


European History Pt. 35 — Rumblings of the French Revolution

Last time, we looked at the American revolution. It was so important in so many ways, not just for world history but for our constitutional history. The American  revolution lives with us today in many many ways. For that reason, I would like to study it in much greater detail. Even so, the book manages to make some interesting points about the American Revolution when looked at from an extremely broad context. The American Revolution confirmed many political ideals  as practical, involving federalism, the sovereignty of the people and limited government. Some strands of these ideas came from the enlightenment, no doubt about it, but interestingly, some ideas, like federalism and limited government, came from FEUDAL ideas about the privileges of towns or restrictions on the power of the king. Unfortunately, these types of organization had ceased to be progressive long ago, and rather MONARCHY was seen as the way to make progress. Centralization would break the ossified power of the local towns and landowners.

But with the American revolution, it was shown how new social organizations could again make the opposite the case, and to show how monarchy was now retrograde, and a type of tyranny. This was truly an incredible moment.

Now though, I would like to start exploring the other revolution of the 1700s, a revolution that may have had more IMMEDIATE impact on the constitution and growth of europe, though the American revolution was more lasting (I think) in terms of its political lessons and spirit. This other revolution is the FRENCH REVOLUTION. There are a million aspects to this critical moment in history so I’m going to creep through some of the setup.

The Estates

France, because of the failure of enlightened despotism there in the 1700s, was still somewhat feudal. There were three estates, clergy, nobility, and everyone else. The Clergy AS A POPULATION was on the decline, but it owned a ton of land and the day to day organization of French life  was still heavily indebted to Catholic organization.

The nobility, by population was resurgent, but they were on a collision course with the bourgeois, the richest part of the third estate. The bourgeois were growing more and more powerful, and they began to feel like noble titles, privileges, and arrogance were part of a system of humiliation rather than a respectful way of honoring a higher social station.

Agrarian System of the Old Regime

The Old Regime is the name for pre-revolutionary France. In this economic system, owners of manors had the right to hunt on their land and the land of the peasants, and anyone who owned land within the jurisdiction of the manor paid rents due to the manor-owner’s “eminent property.”

The revolution would do away with these and other tithes, taxes, rents, fees, and dues that encumbered the property system.

Intellectual System 

Some people draw a direct line from the writing of the great French Philosophes (Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.) and a birth of political consciousness to the French revolution, but that link is more tenuous than one thinks. Few people but the nobility read these great works and the French writers were not revolutionaries.


European History Pt. 34 — American Revolution

Yes, it’s finally about us Americans!

We’re at the point where we get a potted history of colonial relations between Great Britain and the American colonialists.

The point is often made (because it is true) that the Americans were not very interested in “contributing” to the empire. They let Great Britain kick the French out of their backyard and then the same with the Indians after the French left.

The parliament, the 1760s, sought to end what was in effect, a kind of tax exemption for colonials in the new world. The americans didn’t see it that way and what followed was a game of political football in which England looked for a way to tax Americans and Americans rejected the tax (for example, the stamp act).

Parliament then hit on the “Townshend duties” which taxed colonial imports of things like paper, paint, lead and tea.

In 1773, the Boston tea party took place because of what was essentially a free trade dispute. At this time, the British East India company convinced parliament that it should be allowed to be the exclusive seller of tea to the colonies (where before the tea was sold in London and then middlemen sent the tea where it needed to go). This edict was called “The Regulating Act of 1773.” In response to the Boston tea party protest, England took very harsh measures including closing the port of Boston and revoking the charter of Massachusetts, which put restrictions on local political action.

Around this time, parliament passed the Quebec Act, which was a piece of legislation to structure the territory that was inhabited by French people within the British empire. Since Quebec included what is today Indiana and Michigan, colonists were upset and saw the act as another sleight.

Altogether, the Quebec act, Regulating Act, and then shut down of the Boston port were lumped together as “Intolerable Acts.”

A continental congress was called to Philadelphia to organize (primarily economic) protests against British imperial policy. When a British commander sent troops to confiscate weapons at Concord, simmering anger turned into revolution.

One thing to note about the war. America was very lucky that the international climate was as it was. For instance, many colonial leaders took heart from the fact that a succession from Great Britain would CERTAINLY draw in sympathy from France. This was just the power politics of the time. But not only that, when the war for american independence was coming to a close, French SEA POWER was needed to help seal the deal, but French sea power had not been in a shape to conduct serious military operations for some time, so there success in aiding us was a stroke of good fortune.