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

This is the second part of the first chapter on the French Revolution starting from, “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.”

The obscure official in the Dauphiné, whose political reflections would have fallen stillborn from the press thirty years before, was now, in the eighties of the eighteenth century, sure of a hearing, of an audience, of a general discussion. So great and intense was that growing homogeneity that it extended even to common human sentiments. From Jule 27th to August 1st, 1789, happened what is commonly called La grande peur. Suddenly, in a most inexplicable manner, the rural population of the whole of France was smitten with a most mysterious fear – with a common physical fear of brigands, robbers, and burglars, who were expected to roam over the whole of France, sacking and pillaging everything they could lay hands on. The fear was pure imagination; there were no brigands, no burglars. The grande peur unmistakably proves that in addition to and beyond the mental homogeneity of the people, there was a homogeneity of sentiments, of sensation. People thought the same way and felt the same way; nothing was more natural than that they should act the same way. For the first time in French history the French became conscious of their unity, as a people, and of their strength. Once the French people became conscious of their strength it was only too natural that they should attempt to assert their rights against the crown.

The crown, unfortunately, was then held by two persons, neither of whom had by nature or education the power to wield or to articulate the wishes of the people. King Louis XVI. was limited in mind, small in character, and indifferent in temper. Nothing characterizes him better than the famous entry in his diary on the ay of the taking of the Bastille, that is, on the day when the most formidable onslaught on French monarchical institutions was made. Rien, “Nothing,” was the entry in the King’s diary for that day. As to Marie Antoinette, she was an Austrian proper, that is, a woman endowed with many charms, but none of a serious character. Often, in deed, it may be said that she was possessed of deficiencies that had no corresponding virtues, and her very advantages were devoid of efficiency. She was pleasure-loving, undiscerning, hare-brained; she repelled all the men of importance, and loved to pass her time in the presence of mediocrities. Personally virtuous, she yet had none of the powers of female virtue. She resisted her passion for Fersen, the Swedish chevalier, and yet did not know how to make use of Fersen in critical moments. The powers of the French nation set in motion by the homogeneity mentioned above, could therefore be neither controlled nor guided by the King of the Queen. Moreover, the extreme prodigality of the Queen (she permitted Calonne to buy her St. Cloud and Rambouillet for a sum of about twenty million francs, at a time when the French finances were in the lowest possible condition) was not likely to endear her to an exceedingly thrifty people like the French; and when in August, 1786, the famous necklace trial was practically decided against her, her prestige had suffered an irremediable loss.

The extraordinary circumstances so characteristic of the year 1789 had, it is true, given rise to an extraordinary man, who, as many have supposed, might have staved off the worst features of the French Revolution. That man was Mirabeau. He came of a high aristocratic family; but both through his genius and his failings, he had long unlearned the prejudices and reactionary ideas of the French nobility. His was a temper both passionate in sentiment and cool in judgment. His insight into the political structure of the leading states of his time; his knowledge of the great issues of international policy; his acquaintance with all the leading men of his age, and, more than anything else, his power of focussing and generalizing huge clusters of facts, endowed him with a superiority that nobody could rival in his lifetime, and few have equalled after him. In practical politics, however, he suffered from a bad private reputation, from sordid indebtedness to innumerable creditors, and also from debauches that weakened both his bodily health and his prestige, so that even his marvellous oratory and political insight won for him more admiration than actual influence.

To say that Mirabeau might have warded or staved off the worst consequences of the French Revolution is probably an overstatement. On the other hand, it is certain that he alone amongst practical statesmen was the first to foresee the stages of the Revolution, and its final development into an empire ruled by an omnipotent Cæsar. Finally, the early and premature death of Mirabeau (1791) deprived France of the man who was then her only possible leader, and so the fierce powers of the Revolution swept over the country and over Europe, without meeting and serious force that could control them.

Calonne, after having convoked the nobility in 1787, convinced himself and the King that the dissatisfaction of the nation, as well as the evils of the state, could be remedied only by the convocation of all the orders; accordingly in Decomber, 1788, all the three orders, the nobility, clergy, and Tiers-État (Third Estate), or bourgeoisie, were convened, to meet in a common assembly for the purpose of healing the wounds of the country. From January to April, 1789, the people of France, meeting in innumerable local assemblies, drew up their famous cahiers de doléances (lists of grievances), in which they criticised in the most sincere and audacious manner the abuses then prevalent, together with the persons then governing France. By an indirect method of election, over a thousand deputies or representatives were sent up to the capital, and thus the first genuine Parliament since 1614 was opened on May 5th at Versailles; the frivolous King deciding for Versailles on account of the hunting parties in which he was there indulging.

The two superior orders, the nobility and the higher clergy, at first refused to join the Tiers-État, but the determined attitude of Mirabeau and the members of the Tiers-État in the end prevailed upon the nobility and higher clergy, and on June 27th, 1789, the three orders met in one and the same room, and constituted themselves as the Assemblée Nationale. That famous Assemblée has long been called the Assemblée Constituante.

Neither the King nor the Queen, let alone the numerous members of the Court, was able of even willing to see the immense significance of the new assembly. The King, a Philistine to the backbone; the Queen, a girlish woman without any notion of politics, neither could nor would see that France had entered on an entirely new period of her history. It is probably injudicious to blame the royal couple for their shortsightedness, when we consider that one of the broadest and deepest minds of the United Kingdom – Edmund Burke – was utterly unable to view the events happening in France in their right historical perspective. A glance at Burke will readily induce us to absolve Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette. Burke, far from appreciating the immense significance of the French Revolution, devoted all his unrivalled power of oratory to a wholesale condemnation of that great event. Under these circumstances we need not wonder that Louis XVI. so utterly misread the spirit of his time that, on the 11th July, he dismissed the most popular of Ministers – Necker – and that on the 14th July the French demolished the Bastille, that symbol of absolutistic régime. The King was more than ever incapable of appreciating an event which threw all the liberal minds of Europe, including England, into a state of frenzied joy. But what the great philosopher of England and the small King of France were unable to see, several leading members of the French aristocracy were only too ready to acknowledge, and on the night of August 4th, 1789, the Duc de Noailles and the Duc d’Aiguillon spontaneously proposed a wholesale abolition of all the ancient rights and privileges of the nobility. Thus the ancien régime was, under the pressure of the spirit of the times, abolished by its very devotees.

In August, September, and October the Assemblée proceeded to lay down in the most explicit, not to say doctrinaire, manner, the general principles governing the relation of the individual to the state. All the ideas of Rousseau, moderated by the practical wisdom of Mirabeau, were applied to build up, on the ruins of the ancient state, a commonwealth based on the equality of citizens before the law, on the absence of all castes, on the absence of religious intolerance, and finally on the destruction of those local provincialisms which had long prevented the French nation from blending into one homogeneous mass of equal citizens.

So far (1789-1790) the worst enemies of the French cannot but admit that the French Revolution had kept within bounds, threatening nowise her neighbours or the other powers of Europe. The French Government had declared, that nothing was more removed from their minds than a policy of aggression, more particularly towards Prussia and England; the most explicit assurances were given that France desired neither the territories on the left bank of the Rhine, nor Belgium. However, the great powers were unable to rise to a clear and impartial view of the French Revolution, and were convinced that France would share the fate of Poland, i.e. partition at the hands of her neighbours. The great powers, we say, were determined to force a war upon France. For, this is the historical fate of France, that any great French movement or event will inevitably rouse the apprehension, interest, or admiration of the rest of Europe to a greater extent than events happening in any other country. Nor is this circumstance difficult to explain. If, on a map of Europe, we place one point of the compass in the centre of France, say at Bourges, and the other point at Edinburgh, and then draw a circle round Bourges, we shall find that the greatest enemies and rivals of France are all at equal distances from Bourges – such as England, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Madrid. This central position of France rendered any such event as the French Revolution of the highest importance to her neighbours, and a revolution spreading in what was then the centre of Europe could not but affect the other great powers in the most direct fashion: and this (in addition to the undoubtedly moral and literary conquests that the French and French literature had made all over Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) accounts for the fact that Europe took an infinitely greater interest in the French Revolution than it had  in the great Civil War in England (1642-1651), or in the Dutch revolt (1566-1648). It was thus only a matter of expediency when the great powers determined to begin their actual invasion of France.

The Declaration of Pillnitz, in August, 1791, was only a stage thunder. In the spring of 1792 the Austrians, and in August, 1792, the Prussians also, invaded France. The latter campaign is known by the name of the “Cannonade of Valmy,” where the Prince of Brunswick, at the head of a considerable Austro-Prussian army, gave a half-hearted battle to the French under Dumouriez (in September, 1792), and finding himself unable to break the ranks of the French, retired into Germany.

Amongst the spectators present at that campaign was Goethe. In the evening, after the cannonade, Goethe, on being asked what he thought of the events of the day, answered: “Gentlemen, from this place and from to-day a new epoch of world-history is begun, and you may say that you have assisted at it.” (“Hier und heute geht eine neue Epoche der Weltgeschichte aus, und ihr könnet sagen, ihr seid dabei gewesen.”)


Here endeth Chapter Oneth of the French Revolution. The second chapter begins next week.

Tschüs for now, people!