Notes From Emil Reich’s “Foundations of Modern Europe” Part VII

There are two chapters on the French Revolution in case anyone was about to start wondering why there is a Roman numeral immediately following the chapter title. I will move on to the second chapter (which is actually chapter three, but who’s keeping track of specifics here?) after I am finished with the first.

By the bye, there is a bit of French in this text, the correct translation of which (as transcribed from the book, that is) I will place at the end of this post as Google doesn’t translate it correctly.


The French Revolution. – I

The French Revolution is undoubtedly the most important event of modern history. As we cannot distinctly trace its origin, so we cannot clearly point out its termination in time or space; for like a great wave in agitated seas it is still spreading to countries that in the eighteenth century took no notice of it; and as a matter of fact it seems more adequate to consider the French Revolution as only one part of an immense European revolution which assumed a political and aggressive form in France, while in Germany it was clothed in forms literary and philosophical. It is more than a coincidence that the vast revolutionary  upheaval in France culminated in the immense personality of Napoleon; while in Germany the equally vast intellectual stir culminated in the Jupiter of German thought – Goethe.

The uniqueness and grandeur of the French Revolution are alone sufficient to render an explanation exceedingly difficult, more especially when we attempt, as we should, to give a specific explanation.

It has been customary to account for historical facts by general ethical remarks on human nature, or on the temper of the French, of the German, or the English. However, the very generality of these explanations deprives them of any real value.

For the historian proper, the problem of the French Revolution stands thus: how are we to account for the outbreak of that Revolution under Louis XVI., considering that the long reign of Louis XV. (1715-1774) was to all intents and purposes a far more likely time for a revolution in France?

Under Louis XV. the French people had an ever increasing number of motives to criticise, to fall foul of, to attack, and finally to subvert the government. Many of those abuses were removed under Louis XVI.; in fact, the government of Louis XVI. under Turgot, Necker, even Calonne, worked heroically at the removal of the worst abuses of the old French monarchy.

Moreover, the foreign policy of Louis XVI., was, in comparison with that of Louis XV., a most brilliant advance. Louis XV. was mortally humiliated by England in the Peace of 1763. England was mortally humiliated in torn by Louis XVI. in the Peace of 1783. Vergennes, at the head of foreign policy in France under Louis XVI., was in the highest degree successful, and yet the people, far from acknowledging the good intentions of the government at home, and its great successes abroad, continued to be dissatisfied, and finally broke out in the ever famous Revolution of 1789. Unless we can account for this specific date, or at any rate for the connection of the Revolution with Louis XVI.’s reign, we have fulfilled but very poorly our real task as historian.

If now we view the well-known works of Taine, Tocqueville, Sybel, Buckle, Sorel, and others, on the French Revolution, we shall at once see that neither the apparently scientific and cold analysis of Taine, nor the philosophical reflections of Tocqueville, neither the laborious arguments of the learned German professor, not the dignified diplomatic phrases of Sorel, have in reality advanced our insight into the causes of the French Revolution.

After all these, and similar authors, we still fail to see (I) why the French Revolution broke out under Louis XVI. and not before, and (2) why it at once assumed dimensions so colossal, so intense, as to dwarf any other historical movement, such as the Renaissance or the Reformation, into comparative insignificance.

The sober truth is, we do not understand the French Revolution. Auerbach once said that most people were not yet “Goethe reif” (i.e. ripe for the understanding of Goethe). We must confess that we are not yet “Revolution-ripe”; and that, in spite of the serious and philosophical studies devoted to that Revolution, the best part of our knowledge of that great event is probably still contained in the classical witticism of Boerne: “One man alone could have prevented the French Revolution – Adam – if he had drowned himself before his marriage.”

While acknowledging the exceeding difficulty of accounting for the French Revolution, we may yet try to point out one or two of the circumstances hitherto unnoticed or neglected as the precursors, if not the specific causes of the French Revolution.

It is well known that the prevalent opinion ascribes the French Revolution to the intolerable anarchy and oppression degrading the people of France under the ancien régime.

Works, such as the books of the famous Arthur Young, who travelled through France shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, are quoted to prove the utter misery of the peasantry and smaller bourgeoisie (middle classes), and the wretched decadence of the nobility. However, it has long been proved that Arthur Young had been completely taken in by the most artful of innocents in Europe, i.e. by the peasantry of France. It is indeed somewhat grotesque to assume, as Arthur Young did, that any peasant would reveal to him what he as a rule does not even communicate to his wife, that is, all the details of his household and farm.

We now positively know that in districts of France where the people were stated (by Arthur Young) to have been utterly poor, they had during that time made extensive purchases of land and farms. The economic history of peasants cannot be written from their own oral statements. It must be looked for in acts of notaries and other legal documents.

The alleged misery of the people under the ancien régime was, it is now admitted, very much less severe under Louis XVI. than under Louis XV. On the other hand, we have positive knowledge (not only from the well-known discourse of Savaron) that the people under Louis XIII. (1614) were literally crushed down by the most abject misery.

It is true that Savaron said to Louis XIII.: “Que diriez-vous, sire, si vous aviez vu dans vos pays de Guyenne et d’Auvergne les hommes paître l’herbe à la manière de bêtes?” Yet the (Catholic) people never rose under Louis XIII.

The circumstance above alluded to as probably one of the preparatory causes of the French Revolution is the startling homogeneity of the French people. In modern times, more especially in America, we are so used to the phenomenon of millions of people conforming to one and the same standard of religion, opinions, dress, and manners, that we easily forget that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such homogeneous masses were by far the exception. In the seventeenth century a Provençal or a Breton would have taken it almost as an insult to be called a Frenchman. In the seventeenth century, previous to 1685 (Revocation of the Edict of Nantes), there was in France a very considerable number of Huguenots, that is, people who had, besides the language, very little in common with the rest of Catholic France. Nay, within Catholic France the Jansenists formed a most distinct, and most characteristically differentiated, group of people. In various provinces there still pulsated an autonomous life of their own, and the social strata were still so separated from one another as to make the bourgeois practically an impossibility in the refined drawing-rooms of the aristocracy or the court.

France was in the seventeenth century very far from being a homogeneous nation. The complaint of one class or one group found no echo in that of another group, and could thus acquire no momentum of political importance. Complaints (doléances) such as were submitted by the whole of France in 1788-1789, were of frequent occurrence, even in the seventeenth century; but the complaints of one province, or sect, or class met with so little encouragement on the part of other provinces, sects, or classes, that they invariable ended in sheer indifference and neglect. When, on the other hand, we regard France under Louis XVI. we are struck with a most remarkable homogeneity of the people.

The Huguenots had been expelled in 1685; the Jansenists suppressed by the Bull Unigenitus, 1713. The autonomous rights and local political life of various provinces had been levelled out by the great centralizations of Colbert, Louvois, and the other great ministers of Louis XIV., and the bourgeoisie under Louis XV. had penetrated into most of the aristocratic salons. The bourgeois furnished the great types of the stage, they monopolized nearly the whole intellect of France, and claimed successfully the recognition of social equality.

This homogeneity then had caused the mental attitude of most Frenchmen to be the same, at least with regard to certain fundamental principles of politics, philosophy, and society. This homogeneity must, we take it, be admitted as the first and indispensable condition of the great event called the French Revolution. For what do we find? As soon as clever or important thoughts on politics were published in Paris, whether in pamphlet form, in a book, or in a discourse (whether it was Turgot, Necker, Condorcet, the Abbé Sieyès, or some provincial municipality), the rest of France, or certainly the majority of Frenchmen, at once took it up, discussed it, refuted it, accepted it; in short, intensely interested themselves in it. This was a new phenomenon.

End Part One of the first chapter on the French Revolution.

As promised, here is the correct translation of the French quote:

“What would you say, Sire, if you had seen in your territories of Guyenne and Auvergne, men eating grass like beasts?”