THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
THE GREAT FRENCH REVOLUTION PROCLAIMS THE PRINCIPLES OF LIBERTY, FRATERNITY AND EQUALITY UNTO ALL THE PEOPLE OF THE EARTH
 BEFORE we talk about a revolution it is just as well that
we explain just what this word means. In the terms of a
great Russian writer (and Russians ought to know what they
are talking about in this field) a revolution is "a swift overthrow,
in a few years, of institutions which have taken centuries
to root in the soil, and seem so fixed and immovable that
even the most ardent reformers hardly dare to attack them in
their writings. It is the fall, the crumbling away in a brief
period, of all that up to that time has composed the essence
of social, religious, political and economic life in a nation."
Such a revolution took place in France in the eighteenth
century when the old civilisation of the country had grown
stale. The king in the days of Louis XIV had become
EVERYTHING and was the state. The Nobility, formerly
the civil servant of the federal state, found itself without any
duties and became a social ornament of the royal court.
This French state of the eighteenth century, however, cost
incredible sums of money. This money had to be produced
in the form of taxes. Unfortunately the kings of France had
not been strong enough to force the nobility and the clergy
to pay their share of these taxes. Hence the taxes were paid
 entirely by the agricultural population. But the peasants
living in dreary hovels, no longer in intimate contact with their
former landlords, but victims of cruel and incompetent land
agents, were going from bad to worse. Why should they
work and exert themselves? Increased returns upon their
land merely meant more taxes and nothing for themselves
and therefore they neglected their fields as much as they dared.
Hence we have a king who wanders in empty splendour
through the vast halls of his palaces, habitually followed by
hungry office seekers, all of whom live upon the revenue obtained
from peasants who are no better than the beasts of the
fields. It is not a pleasant picture, but it is not exaggerated.
There was, however, another side to the so-called "Ancien
Régime" which we must keep in mind.
A wealthy middle class, closely connected with the nobility
(by the usual process of the rich banker's daughter marrying
the poor baron's son) and a court composed of all the most
entertaining people of France, had brought the polite art of
graceful living to its highest development. As the best brains
of the country were not allowed to occupy themselves with
questions of political economics, they spent their idle hours
upon the discussion of abstract ideas.
As fashions in modes of thought and personal behaviour
are quite as likely to run to extremes as fashion in dress, it
was natural that the most artificial society of that day should
take a tremendous interest in what they considered "the simple
life." The king and the queen, the absolute and unquestioned
proprietors of France, and all its
colonies and dependencies, together with their courtiers,
went to live in funny little country
houses all dressed up as milk-maids and stable-boys and played
at being shepherds in a happy vale of ancient Hellas. Around
them, their courtiers danced attendance, their court-musicians
composed lovely minuets, their court barbers devised more
and more elaborate and costly headgear, until from sheer boredom
and lack of real jobs, this whole artificial world of Versailles
(the great show place which Louis XIV had built far
away from his noisy and restless city) talked of nothing but
 those subjects which were furthest removed from their own
lives, just as a man who is starving will talk of nothing except
When Voltaire, the courageous old philosopher, playwright,
historian and novelist, and the great enemy of all
religious and political tyranny, began to throw his bombs of
criticism at everything connected with the Established Order
of Things, the whole French world applauded him and his
theatrical pieces played to standing room only. When Jean
Jacques Rousseau waxed sentimental about primitive man
and gave his contemporaries delightful descriptions of the
happiness of the original inhabitants of this planet, (about
whom he knew as little as he did about the children, upon whose
education he was the recognised authority,) all France read
his "Social Contract" and this society in which the king and
the state were one, wept bitter tears when they heard Rousseau's
appeal for a return to the blessed days when the real
sovereignty had lain in the hands of the people and when the
king had been merely the servant of his people.
When Montesquieu published his "Persian Letters" in
which two distinguished Persian travellers turn the whole existing
society of France topsy-turvy and poke fun at everything
from the king down to the lowest of his six hundred
pastry cooks, the book immediately went through four
editions and assured the writer thousands of readers for his
famous discussion of the "Spirit of the Laws" in which the
noble Baron compared the excellent English system with the
backward system of France and advocated instead of an absolute
monarchy the establishment of a state in which the Executive,
the Legislative and the Judicial powers should be in
separate hands and should work independently of each other.
When Lebreton, the Parisian book-seller, announced that
Messieurs Diderot, d'Alembert, Turgot and a score of other
distinguished writers were going to publish an Encyclopaedia
which was to contain "all the new ideas and the new science
and the new knowledge," the response from the side of the
public was most satisfactory, and when after twenty-two years
 the last of the twenty-eight volumes had been finished, the
somewhat belated interference of the police could not repress
the enthusiasm with which French society received this most
important but very dangerous contribution to the discussions
of the day.
Here, let me give you a little warning. When you read a
novel about the French revolution or see a play or a movie,
you will easily get the impression that the Revolution was the
work of the rabble from the Paris slums. It was nothing
of the kind. The mob appears often upon the revolutionary
stage, but invariably at the instigation and under the
leadership of those middle-class professional men who used the
hungry multitude as an efficient ally in their warfare upon
the king and his court. But the fundamental ideas which
caused the revolution were invented by a few brilliant minds,
and they were at first introduced into the charming drawing-rooms
of the "Ancien Régime" to provide amiable diversion
for the much-bored ladies and gentlemen of his Majesty's court.
These pleasant but careless people played with the dangerous
fireworks of social criticism until the sparks fell through
the cracks of the floor, which was old and rotten just
like the rest of the building. Those sparks unfortunately
landed in the basement where age-old rubbish lay in great
confusion. Then there was a cry of fire. But the owner of
the house who was interested in everything except the management
of his property, did not know how to put the small blaze
out. The flame spread rapidly and the entire edifice was consumed
by the conflagration, which we call the Great French Revolution.
 For the sake of convenience, we can divide the French
Revolution into two parts. From 1789 to 1791 there was a
more or less orderly attempt to introduce a constitutional
monarchy. This failed, partly through lack of good faith and
stupidity on the part of the monarch himself, partly through
circumstances over which nobody had any control.
From 1792 to 1799 there was a Republic and a first effort
to establish a democratic form of government. But the actual
outbreak of violence had been preceded by many years of
unrest and many sincere but ineffectual attempts at reform.
When France had a debt of 4000 million francs and the
treasury was always empty and there was not a single thing
upon which new taxes could be levied, even good King Louis
(who was an expert locksmith and a great hunter but a very
poor statesman) felt vaguely that something ought to be done.
Therefore he called for Turgot, to be his Minister of Finance.
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne, a man in the
early sixties, a splendid representative of the fast disappearing
class of landed gentry, had been a successful governor of a
province and was an amateur political economist of great ability.
He did his best. Unfortunately, he could not perform
miracles. As it was impossible to squeeze more taxes out of
the ragged peasants, it was necessary to get the necessary funds
from the nobility and clergy who had never paid a centime.
This made Turgot the best hated man at the court of Versailles.
Furthermore he was obliged to face the enmity of Marie
Antoinette, the queen, who was against everybody who dared
to mention the word "economy" within her hearing. Soon
Turgot was called an "unpractical visionary" and a "theoretical-
professor" and then of course his position became untenable.
In the year 1776 he was forced to resign.
After the "professor" there came a man of Practical Business
Sense. He was an industrious Swiss by the name of
Necker who had made himself rich as a grain speculator and
the partner in an international banking house. His ambitious
wife had pushed him into the government service that she
might establish a position for her daughter who afterwards as
 the wife of the Swedish minister in Paris, Baron de Staël,
became a famous literary figure of the early nineteenth century.
Necker set to work with a fine display of zeal just as Turgot
had done. In 1781 he published a careful review of the French
finances. The king understood nothing of this "Compte
Rendu." He had just sent troops to America to help the colonists
against their common enemies, the English. This expedition
proved to be unexpectedly expensive and Necker was
asked to find the necessary funds. When instead of producing
revenue, he published more figures and made statistics
and began to use the dreary warning about "necessary economies"
his days were numbered. In the year 1781 he was
dismissed as an incompetent servant.
After the Professor and the Practical Business Man came
the delightful type of financier who will guarantee everybody
100 per cent. per month on their money if only they will
trust his own infallible system.
He was Charles Alexandre de Calonne, a pushing official,
who had made his career both by his industry and his
complete lack of honesty and scruples. He found the country
heavily indebted, but he was a clever man, willing to oblige
everybody, and he invented a quick remedy. He paid the
old debts by contracting new ones. This method is not new.
The result since time immemorial has been disastrous. In
less than three years more than 800,000,000 francs had been
added to the French debt by this charming Minister of Finance
who never worried and smilingly signed his name to every
demand that was made by His Majesty and by his lovely
 Queen, who had learned the habit of spending during the days
of her youth in Vienna.
At last even the Parliament of Paris (a high court of justice
and not a legislative body) although by no means lacking
in loyalty to their sovereign, decided that something must be
done. Calonne wanted to borrow another 80,000,000 francs.
It had been a bad year for the crops and the misery and hunger
in the country districts were terrible. Unless something sensible
were done, France would go bankrupt. The King as always
was unaware of the seriousness of the situation. Would it not
be a good idea to consult the representatives of the people?
Since 1614 no Estates General had been called together. In
view of the threatening panic there was a demand that the
Estates be convened. Louis XVI however, who never could
take a decision, refused to go as far as that.
To pacify the popular clamour he called together a meeting
of the Notables in the year 1787. This merely meant a gathering
of the best families who discussed what could and should
be done, without touching their feudal and clerical privilege
of tax-exemption. It is unreasonable to expect that a certain
class of society shall commit political and economic suicide for
the benefit of another group of fellow-citizens. The 127
Notables obstinately refused to surrender a single one of their
ancient rights. The crowd in the street, being now exceedingly
hungry, demanded that Necker, in whom they had confidence,
be reappointed. The Notables said "No." The crowd
in the street began to smash windows and do other unseemly
things. The Notables fled. Calonne was dismissed.
A new colourless Minister of Finance, the Cardinal
Lomenie de Brienne, was appointed and Louis, driven by the
violent threats of his starving subjects, agreed to call together
the old Estates General as "soon as practicable." This vague
promise of course satisfied no one.
No such severe winter had been experienced for almost a
century. The crops had been either destroyed by floods or had
been frozen to death in the fields. All the olive trees of
Provence had been killed. Private charity tried to do
some-  thing but could accomplish little for eighteen million starving
people. Everywhere bread riots occurred. A generation before
these would have been put down by the army. But the
work of the new philosophical school had begun to bear fruit.
People began to understand that a shotgun is no effective
remedy for a hungry stomach and even the soldiers (who came
from among the people) were no longer to be depended upon.
It was absolutely necessary that the king should do something
definite to regain the popular goodwill, but again he hesitated.
Here and there in the provinces, little independent Republics
were established by followers of the new school. The cry
of "no taxation without representation" (the slogan of the
American rebels a quarter of a century before) was heard
among the faithful middle classes. France was threatened with
general anarchy. To appease the people and to increase the
royal popularity, the government unexpectedly suspended the
former very strict form of censorship of books. At once a
flood of ink descended upon France. Everybody, high or
low, criticised and was criticised. More than 2000
pamphlets were published. Loménie de Brienne was swept away
by a storm of abuse. Necker was hastily called back to placate,
as best he could, the nation-wide unrest. Immediately the stock
market went up thirty per cent. And by common consent, people
suspended judgment for a little while longer. In May of
1789 the Estates General were to assemble and then the wisdom
of the entire nation would speedily solve the difficult problem
of recreating the kingdom of France into a healthy and happy
This prevailing idea, that the combined wisdom of the
people would be able to solve all difficulties, proved disastrous.
It lamed all personal effort during many important months.
Instead of keeping the government in his own hands at this
critical moment, Necker allowed everything to drift. Hence
there was a new outbreak of the acrimonious debate upon the
best ways to reform the old kingdom. Everywhere the power
of the police weakened. The people of the Paris suburbs,
 under the leadership of professional agitators, gradually began
to discover their strength, and commenced to play the role
which was to be theirs all through the years of the great unrest,
when they acted as the brute force which was used by the actual
leaders of the Revolution to secure those things which could
not be obtained in a legitimate fashion.
As a sop to the peasants and the middle class, Necker de-
cided that they should be allowed a double representation in
the Estates General. Upon this subject, the Abbé Siéyès then
wrote a famous pamphlet, "To what does the Third Estate
Amount?" in which he came to the conclusion that the Third
Estate (a name given to the middle class) ought to amount to
everything, that it had not amounted to anything in the past,
and that it now desired to amount to something. He expressed
 the sentiment of the great majority of the people who had the
best interests of the country at heart.
Finally the elections took place under the worst conditions
imaginable. When they were over, 308 clergymen, 285 noblemen
and 621 representatives of the Third Estate packed their
trunks to go to Versailles. The Third Estate was obliged to
carry additional luggage. This consisted of voluminous reports
called "cahiers" in which the many complaints and grievances
of their constituents had been written down. The stage
was set for the great final act that was to save France.
The Estates General came together on May 5th, 1789.
The king was in a bad humour. The Clergy and the Nobility
let it be known that they were unwilling to give up a single one
of their privileges. The king ordered the three groups of
representatives to meet in different rooms and discuss their
grievances separately. The Third Estate refused to obey the royal
command. They took a solemn oath to that effect in a squash
court (hastily put in order for the purpose of this illegal meeting)
on the 20th of June, 1789. They insisted that all three
Estates, Nobility, Clergy and Third Estate, should meet together
and so informed His Majesty. The king gave in.
As the "National Assembly," the Estates General began
to discuss the state of the French kingdom. The King got
angry. Then again he hesitated. He said that he would never
surrender his absolute power. Then he went hunting, forgot
all about the cares of the state and when he returned from the
chase he gave in. For it was the royal habit to do the right
thing at the wrong time in the wrong way. When the people
clamoured for A, the king scolded them and gave them nothing.
Then, when the Palace was surrounded by a howling multitude
of poor people, the king surrendered and gave his subjects
what they had asked for. By this time, however, the people
wanted A plus B. The comedy was repeated. When the king
signed his name to the Royal Decree which granted his beloved
subjects A and B they were threatening to kill the entire royal
family unless they received A plus B plus C. And so on,
through the whole alphabet and up to the scaffold.
 Unfortunately the king was always just one letter behind.
He never understood this. Even when he laid his head under
the guillotine, he felt that he was a much-abused man who had
received a most unwarrantable treatment at the hands of people
whom he had loved to the best of his limited ability.
Historical "ifs," as I have often warned you, are never of
any value. It is very easy for us to say that the monarchy
might have been saved "if" Louis had been a man of greater
energy and less kindness of heart. But the king was not alone.
Even "if" he had possessed the ruthless strength of Napoleon,
his career during these difficult days might have been easily
ruined by his wife who was the daughter of Maria Theresa of
Austria and who possessed all the characteristic virtues and
vices of a young girl who had been brought up at the most
autocratic and mediaeval court of that age.
She decided that some action must be taken and planned a
counter-revolution. Necker was suddenly dismissed and loyal
troops were called to Paris. The people, when they heard of
this, stormed the fortress of the Bastille prison, and on the
fourteenth of July of the year 1789, they destroyed this
familiar but much-hated symbol of Autocratic Power
which had long since ceased to be a political prison and
was now used as the city lock-up for pickpockets and
second-story men. Many of the nobles took the hint and left the
country. But the king as usual did nothing. He had been
hunting on the day of the fall of the Bastille and he had shot
several deer and felt very much pleased.
The National Assembly now set to work and on the 4th of
August, with the noise of the Parisian multitude in their ears,
they abolished all privileges. This was followed on the 27th
of August by the "Declaration of the Rights of Man," the
famous preamble to the first French constitution. So far so
good, but the court had apparently not yet learned its lesson.
There was a wide-spread suspicion that the king was again
trying to interfere with these reforms and as a result, on the
5th of October, there was a second riot in Paris. It spread to
Versailles and the people were not pacified until they had
 brought the king back to his palace in Paris. They did not
trust him in Versailles. They liked to have him where they
could watch him and control his correspondence with his relatives
in Vienna and Madrid and the other courts of Europe.
In the Assembly meanwhile, Mirabeau, a nobleman who
had become leader of the Third Estate, was beginning to put
order into chaos. But before he could save the position of the
king he died, on the 2nd of April of the year 1791. The king,
who now began to fear for his own life, tried to escape on the
21st of June. He was recognised from his picture on a coin,
was stopped near the village of Varennes by members of the
National Guard, and was brought back to Paris.
In September of 1791, the first constitution of France was
accepted, and the members of the National Assembly went
home. On the first of October of 1791, the legislative assembly
came together to continue the work of the National
Assembly. In this new gathering of popular representatives
there were many extremely revolutionary elements. The
boldest among these were known as the Jacobins, after the old
Jacobin cloister in which they held their political meetings.
These young men (most of them belonging to the professional
classes) made very violent speeches and when the newspapers
carried these orations to Berlin and Vienna, the King of
Prussia and the Emperor decided that they must do something
to save their good brother and sister. They were very busy
just then dividing the kingdom of Poland, where rival political
factions had caused such a state of disorder that the country
was at the mercy of anybody who wanted to take a couple of
provinces. But they managed to send an army to invade
France and deliver the king.
Then a terrible panic of fear swept throughout the land
of France. All the pent-up hatred of years of hunger and
suffering came to a horrible climax. The mob of Paris stormed
the palace of the Tuileries. The faithful Swiss bodyguards
tried to defend their master, but Louis, unable to make up his
mind, gave order to "cease firing" just when the crowd was
retiring. The people, drunk with blood and noise and cheap
 wine, murdered the Swiss to the last man, then invaded the
palace, and went after Louis who had escaped into the meeting
hall of the Assembly, where he was immediately suspended of
his office, and from where he was taken as a prisoner to the
old castle of the Temple.
But the armies of Austria and Prussia continued their advance
and the panic changed into hysteria and turned men and
women into wild beasts. In the first week of September of
the year 1792, the crowd broke into the jails and murdered all
the prisoners. The government did not interfere. The Jacobins,
headed by Danton, knew that this crisis meant either the
success or the failure of the revolution, and that only the most
brutal audacity could save them. The Legislative Assembly
was closed and on the 21st of September of the year 1792, a
new National Convention came together. It was a body composed
almost entirely of extreme revolutionists. The king was
formally accused of high treason and was brought before the
Convention. He was found guilty and by a vote of 361 to 360
(the extra vote being that of his cousin the Duke of Orleans)
he was condemned to death. On the 21st of January of the
year 1793, he quietly and with much dignity suffered himself
to be taken to the scaffold. He had never understood what all
the shooting and the fuss had been about. And he had been too
proud to ask questions.
Then the Jacobins turned against the more moderate element
in the convention, the Girondists, called after their southern
district, the Gironde. A special revolutionary tribunal was
instituted and twenty-one of the leading Girondists were
condemned to death. The others committed suicide. They were
capable and honest men but too philosophical and too moderate
to survive during these frightful years.
In October of the year 1793 the Constitution was
suspended by the Jacobins "until peace should have been
declared." All power was placed in the hands of a small committee
of Public Safety, with Danton and Robespierre as its
leaders. The Christian religion and the old chronology were
abolished. The "Age of Reason" (of which Thomas Paine had
 written so eloquently during the American Revolution) had
come and with it the "Terror" which for more than a year killed
good and bad and indifferent people at the rate of seventy or
eighty a day.
The autocratic rule of the King had been destroyed. It
was succeeded by the tyranny of a few people who had such a
passionate love for democratic virtue that they felt compelled
to kill all those who disagreed with them. France was turned
into a slaughter house. Everybody suspected everybody else.
No one felt safe. Out of sheer fear, a few members of the old
Convention, who knew that they were the next candidates for
the scaffold, finally turned against Robespierre, who had
already decapitated most of his former colleagues. Robespierre,
"the only true and pure Democrat," tried to kill himself
but failed. His shattered jaw was hastily bandaged and
he was dragged to the guillotine. On the 27th of July, of the
year 1794 (the 9th Thermidor of the year II, according to the
strange chronology of the revolution), the reign of Terror came
to an end, and all Paris danced with joy.
 The dangerous position of France, however, made it necessary
that the government remain in the hands of a few strong
men, until the many enemies of the revolution should have been
driven from the soil of the French fatherland. While the
half-clad and half-starved revolutionary armies fought their
desperate battles of the Rhine and Italy and Belgium and
Egypt, and defeated every one of the enemies of the Great
Revolution, five Directors were appointed, and they ruled
France for four years. Then the power was vested in the hands
of a successful general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte,
who became "First Consul" of France in the year 1799. And
during the next fifteen years, the old European continent became
the laboratory of a number of political experiments, the
like of which the world had never seen before.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION INVADES HOLLAND