The French Revolution: How and why revolutions go wrong

The French Revolution: How and why revolutions go wrong

Most Americans today, though woefully uninformed, at least know the basics of the american revolution. However, the French revolution is perhaps even more influential around the world, and probably did more to change the world we see today than any other revolution before it. But very few Americans actually know anything about the french revolution, or how it might give us insight into how revolutionary movements can go right, or go very wrong, regardless of the merit of the ideas purposed by the revolutionary thinkers. But with the level of civil unrest, and even “revolutionary ferver” rampent in our society, it seems imperative that we examine revolutionary movements from the past and examine the best way to embrace progress, without tearing down our society and leaving the door open for something worse than we started with. As we glance at human history, it becomes painfully evident that structure and stability is an anomaly and is very difficult to maintain, whereas chaos and turmoil is humankind’s default state of nature. Revolutions of the history have shown quite clearly that we should tinker around with societal structures carefully, because regardless of the merit of ideas purposed, revolutions tend toward failure.

English caricaturist George Cruickshank, The Radical’s Arms (1819); the guillotine became central to the images of terror and bloody chaos

While the American Revolution is considered a pretty good thing, the French Revolution is often less known among Americans, and is seen by many historians as a bloody chaotic mess. It began with protests over legitimate grievances but the political leaders of the movement embraced the most radical elements of the movement and let themselves become swayed by the mob, and the series of escalating riots eventually overthrew one authoritarian regime and exchanged it for an even more dominant authoritarian regime. Like a lot of revolutions, it sacrificed a shocking number of its own people, including the leaders and allies of the revolution. Although its ideas changed human history almost more than any other revolution in history, uplifting progressive ideals, the French revolution would do an exceptionally poor job of accomplishing these ideals. It was the emergence a political movement in which people began to believe that you could recreate almost any aspect of politics, institutions, and even human nature. Eventually the revolution would promote the ideas that would eventually dissolve the monarchies of Europe, and the catholic church power, but at a devastating cost to France. This has made the French revolution a considerably controversial one. Political philosopher’s have long argued about the efficacy of the French Revolution.

Reflections on the Revolution in France & Rights of Man (Audiobook) by  George H. Smith |

Edmund Burke, considered the forefather of conservative philosophy and a member of british parliment, attempted to explain this when he wrote the famous, ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ in 1790, in which he was able to predict, with surprising accuracy, what would happen 9 years prior to the end of the revolution. His basic philosophy was that revolutionaries go wrong when they disregard their traditions and suddenly and violently upend the political structures and foundations of society. He didn’t speak out against the ideas proposed as much as the methods implemented in an attempt to achieve those ends.

Did you know that these famous quotes came from the father of modern conservatism?

He wasn’t opposed to progressive change, but he contended that there was stability and a “silent wisdom” that was passed down through generations and embedded in our societal structures and that changes should be made incrementally, with time allotted to measure the consequences. He believed that by imposing radical upheavals too suddenly and without regard for traditions, destabilization would occur and lend itself to mass violence and chaos, which would in turn lend itself to counter-progressive tyrannies. And he absolutely opposes political change by mob rule. He was a supporter of the American revolution, because he believed that they had done a respectable job of fleshing out a new system, that in many ways was reclaiming traditions that King George had denied them.

So up to this point France had been a monarchy ruled by Louis the 14th, who was so revered he was even called the “Sun King.” He was able to build the Palace of Versailles, one of the most ellaborite and expensive palaces in European history. And France had overall been populous and powerful. He was also the longest reigning monarch of any sovereign country in European history, ruling for 72 years, 1715.

The King Who Invented Ballet, BBC Four | The Arts Desk
Louis XIV – “The Sun King”
Palace of Versailles | History & Facts | Britannica
The Hall of Mirrors designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, ceiling painted by Charles Le Brun; in the Palace of Versailles, France.
© Mister_Knight/

Louis the 15th ruled until 1774, dying of small pox, a particularly miserable way to die. Under his Reign France steadily declined by many measures. XV attempted to be less involved in wars, but being that France had been engaged in so much warfare, with so many other countries, and had allies and enemies for so long, it wasn’t so easy to “bring the troops home” as the world’s idealists might wish.


Louis the 16th took power in 1774 at the age of 15, and married into the royal family of Austria, the Hapsburgs, to Marie Antionette, who was 14. They lived in the Palace of Versailles, 12 miles south of Paris. The marriage was a political gesture to symbolize the new ally-ship of 2 former rival states (France and Austria). Louie the 16th was widely considered to have neither the mind, interest or temperament, to lead the nation, and his bride had very little interest in her political duties as well. The relationship between the royalty and the civilians would get worse, as they royal couple struggled to produce an heir.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette become King and Queen of France
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Meanwhile, France had been on the decline for most part of the century. Constant warfare (particularly with its rival Britain) which included The Seven Years’ War in 1756 and the financial and military support for the American revolution had left France essentially broke, France had taken out tremendous levels of debt from the central banker’s of France, wealth inequality had expanded drastically due to mismanaged tax policy. The wealthy excluded themselves from taxes, Putting tremendous economic burden on peasants with no money. King Louis the 16th was spending half of his budget addressing the federal debt. He tried to reform this system under various finance ministers and even called for democracies on a local level. But all the attempts to fix it failed as the Central bank refused to give loans to France. Louis decided to try to personally manage France’s finances with no success, and the bank’s forced him to hire a finance minister named Jacques Necker. This new Finance minister was empithetic to the enlightenment thinkers and would eventually become very popular withe the revolutionaries.

Europe 1789 before French Revolution : MapPorn
European Territories in 1789

Ongoing agricultural instability from constant warring, combined with 50 consecutive days of freezing weather and hail caused a serious food shortage. However, the royal family certainly didn’t look broke. They continued to host elaborate events. Louis was splurging on fine clothes, food, and hunting trips, while Marie was indulging in the royal collection of jewelry and dresses, and was entertaining herself as a sheep keeper cosplay. And eventually, after receiving a surgery to fix an embarrassing deformity, Louis had finally produced an heir. But it was not enough to mend the royal couples tarnished public image.

Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant were emerging at the time with the first formal establishments of critical theory, challenging all traditional structures of society. Questioning political and institutional traditions, and religious thought, such as the divine role of the monarchy were growing popular, ironically particularly with the upper class nobility whom would become among the primary targets of the ideology. The circumstances for social instability were immense. Statesman and Lawyer Maximilien Robespierre would began putting the grievances of the peasants into political action. And inspired by the ideas and success of the American Revolution, and in some ways encouraged by the revolutionary cultural narratives being adopted at every level of society, the French Revolution began as a series of escalating riots in 1789. These riots quickly gave way to violence, looting, and destruction of French and Christian symbolism. This included the beheading of some of the two dozen statues in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and burning crosses, holy relics, and symbols of aristocracy in the streets.

Riots, Looting and Destruction of Churches, the Connection Between the Current Protests and the French Revolution
Paris or Portland???

In response to the crisis, Louis the 16th called a meeting to the estates general, the closest thing that France had to a national parliament, which hadn’t met since 1614, 175 years. It was broken down into 3 estates. The 1st was the nobles with 300 representatives. The 2nd, clergymen, also had 300 representatives. Everyone else made up the rest of the delegates with 600 representatives.

Robespierre gets 3D makeover, possible diagnosis
“A pair of researchers who gave the French revolutionary Robespierre a disputed 3D makeover raised the possibility that the man best known for unleashing the Reign of Terror may have suffered from a rare autoimmune disorder. “

Robespierre began representing the third estate and gaining tremendous popularity. But after six weeks of deadlocked votes at the Estates general, the very frustrated 3rd estate gathered as a national assembly. Louie the 16th rejected this and even tried to lock them out of the building. They decided to move forward with the assembly in an indoor tennis court building, where they swore the famous tennis court oath. And they agreed not to give up until a French constitution with specific enlightenment ideas was established. Which they eventually did, but arresting the monarchy’s authority would take violent uprising.

Louis responded by sending 30,000 troops to Paris to quell uprisings, but the revolutionaries saw this as a provocation, and formed a new national guard. On Bastille Day, the revolutionaries moved on and seized the Bastille prison which was considered a symbol of royal despotism mas it was infamous for being used as the royalties torture dungeon. This seizure was ostensibly to free prisoners, although there were only 7 prisoners, it was also, perhaps mostly, to take the gunpowder which was stored there. In the coming weeks, the people would completely tear down the entire Bastille prison, brick by brick, by hand. Individual bricks being kept or sold as momentos of the events. Meanwhile, Louis the 14th went on a hunting trip and wrote in his dairy, “Went hunting. Nothing happened. “

Bastille Day History: What Really Happened on July 14, 1789? | Time

While the rioting continued, Louis decided to fire his finance minister whom was seen as sympathetic to the movement and this provokes more riots, where violence escalates to the point that heads were decapitated and paraded on pikes.

The really big move came when the national assembly convened on august 4th and abolished most of the ancient regime. Feudal rights, tithes, privileges for nobles, and unequal taxation were all abolished in the name of writing a new constitution. And then on Aug 26th, the national assembly proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens, which laid out a system of rights and made those rights integral to the new constitution. It declared that everyone had the right to liberty, property, security and even a somewhat free press.

Leading this new free press was one newpaper, L’Ami du peuple (The Friend of the People) written by Jean-Paul Marat. Jean-Paul was considered an extremely radical, angry and conspiratorial vocal advocate for the rights of the lower classes. His paper often called for violence against any and all those Marat believed to be enemies of the people. These papers were considered dangerous because they often ignited violent and rebellious behavior.

Meanwhile Louis the 16th was still king of France, back in Versailles. Many believed France might become constitutional monarchy, which would have meant that the royal family could continue living in the Palace. However rumors that Marie was hoarding grain in the palace, inspired what became known as the women’s march. tens of thousands gather outside Versailles, convincing the nervous king to sign the ‘Rights of Man.’ The armed peasant women stormed the palace, executing significant numbers of the royal guards and the queen and King were escorted by an angry mob of 60,000 back to Paris, with the heads of royal guards paraded on pikes.

An illustration of a crowd of women marching with various weapons

This would bolster the arguments of many people at the time, that the French Revolution wasn’t driven by in-vogue enlightenment ideas as much as it was mostly about an economically displaced under-class revolting violently, with those ideas as an after-thought.

In 1791, The national assembly gathered again in an attempt to create a constitutional monarchy. Believing that the king was necessary for a stable society and had deliberated that the voters and officeholders should be exclusively men of property. However a political faction considered more radical called the Jacobins, led by Robespierre, rejected this and wanted to create a republic. The national assembly did create a constitutional monarchy, and the Jacobins managed to force Louis into signing a series of laws diminishing his power and the power of the church.

Louis and Monarchs across Europe were beginning to get nervous. Louis and Marie attempted to escape Paris towards Austria, But barely before making it out of France just a few miles south of the border with Austria, they are captured and brought back to Paris. And now the idea that the royalty had attempted to abandon them, has the people embracing more revolutionary thought. Robespierre became more and more influential in the National Assembly. The guillotine was invented, and a bill allowing for the use of the guillotine is passed, against Robespierre’s stance against the death penalty.

The Jacobins hold a petition drive that got a bit unruly, which led to troops being controlled not by the king, but by the national assembly, to fire on the crowd, killing 50 people. And that meant that the National Assembly, which was the revolutionary voice, had killed people in an attempt to reign in revolutionary fervor.

French Revolution ppt video online download

Fearing that the revolutionary movement might succeed in France and continue to spread across Europe, Emperor Leopold II of Austria and King William Frederick the 2nd, of Prussia issued the declaration of Pillnitz, in which they swore to declare war on France if the revolutionaries were to threaten the life or authority of the throne any further. The National assembly decided to invade Austria preemptively ostensibly to prevent them from restoring the monarchy, but also in an attempt to plunder it’s wealth and grain. Another act that Robespierre opposed, as he believed that the country should focus on setting itself in order before engaging in more warfare, however having caved to the mob and emboldened them, he was quickly loosing control of the movement he had erected. Prussia joined Austria, and Britain was still aggressive against France, even sending naval forces to French Mediterranean ports. The Royal family was trying to appease the revolutionaries enough to preserve their lives, but were secretly trying to aid the Austrian Prussian war efforts. At one point Louie publicly encouraged the Prussians, which made him appear as an enemy of the revolution, which he was. Angered by this, on Aug. 10th 1792, 27,000 french revolution troops rose up in revolt against the King, killing 800 royal guards and capturing the prisoner King. And in response the Assembly voted to suspend the monarchy, have new elections in which men of property could vote, and create a new republican constitution. Robespierre had a change of heart in regards to the death penalty he had once opposed, saying “We have to kill the king for the revolution to live.” Soon Louis the 16th was sentenced to death by guillotine – “Egalitarian death machine,” which made it slightly more difficult for Prussia and Austria to restore him to the throne. 

The death of Louie the 16th signaled the pivotable moment in the Revolution. The revolutionaries had won, and it was now time for them to consolidate their victory, a process which became known as the ‘Reign of terror’, which is the best-known phase of the revolution. After publicly executing the king to the roaring cheers of the mob, nobody was off-limits and the enthusiasm for all symbols of aristocracy to be “undone.” However, much of the countries citizens were skeptical of the radicals who had consolidated so much power, and how bloodthirsty the movement had become, and rightfully so. Like many revolutions, once the traditional power structure is displaced, a violent re-assertion of power in established in it’s wake.

Jean-Paul Marat, author of the revolutionary newspaper, was still publishing names of anyone one he believed were plotting against his revolution. Throughout his writings a clear pattern emerges, an egalitarian society is only a few more heads away. And as the violence of the radicals spiral out of control, Jean-Paul is taking credit for his leadership in these efforts. Throughout France people are becoming more anxious with the revolutionary movement, but were afraid to speak out publicly, for fear of being next to be named in the “Friend of the People” newspaper On July 19th, 1793 anti-revolutionary Charlotte Corday assassinated Jean-Paul Marat. She was of course executed. And to no surprise, this further emboldened the radicals. Days later, Marie Antionette was jailed, and he son was taken into “state custody” where he died few months later of neglect and abuse. Eventually, the Queen was paraded around Paris, and guillotined. European troops were defeating the French on every front, and insurrections were sprouting across the country. Being controlled by the radicals and Robespierre, the National assembly declared an emergency, suspending the constitution and erecting the “Committee of Public Safety” led by Robespierre himself. The new martial law and the “Committee of Public safety” facilitated the public official guillotining of almost 17,000 “enemies of the revolution.” Anyone who could be accused of any “anti-revolutionary” act, even by not using the proper title/pronouns for people. You could even be turned in for not showing, “Proper enthusiasm” for the revolution. Actively turning in your fellow citizen was considered the only safe approach to avoiding the guillotine. All christian practitioners, and traditions were to be disposed of. As the “Terror” spread across France, hundreds of thousands more deaths accompanied revolts throughout France. So while France was bankrupt and in 9 wars, the committee of public safety was busying itself with the public mass executions of its own people and its own leadership.

The Reign of Terror (French Revolution 1793-1794)

As the Terror continued France was still at war with Austria and Britain, and largely thanks to a young corporal named Napoleon, France began actually winning in it’s war efforts. Even defeating the British navy in a demoralizing battle.

In the spring of 1974, the phase of the Revolution known as “the Terror” ends, and a new phase called, “The Great Terror” begins. As Robespierre gives a speech in which he declares that France’s virtue can only manifest from the implementation of Terror upon all potential enemies of the revolution. This coincided with the bloody de-christianization efforts erupted to their height, where roving gangs of revolutionary mobs marched throughout every region of France destroying all vestiges of Christianity, and killing anyone more loyal to their faith, than to the movement. And in it’s place erecting memorials to Jean-Paul Marat (Friend if the People), and other symbols of “reason.” Robespierre was opposed by his long time friend, and more moderate statesman Georges Danton who believed correctly that the revolution had gone too far. His suggesting that the Jacobins consolidation of power, the declaration of martial law, the suspension of the constitution, alongside the murder or imprisonment of hundreds of thousands weren’t quite synonymous with the “fair and free society” the “enlightenment” was supposed to usher in. Robespierre considered this contention a betrayal to the cause, and Danton and his supporters were sentenced to death.

Georges Danton.jpg
Georges Danton

As Robespierre’s power has further consolidated, and he begins putting on elaborate celebrations and events, where at one point he even had a paper-mache mountain erected in Paris, and as a choir of people dressed in white sing, Robespierre descended the mountain in a white toga. Throughout the country people were beginning to suspect that Robespierre was more consumed with the accumulation of power, than he was following through with the promises of an egalitarian society he had been promoting. And upon claiming to have a new list of “Enemies of the Revolution” but refusing to name those on the list, even the members of the National Convention were anxious, fearing it could be them. To his surprise, his associates and Robespierre himself, the figurehead of the revolutionary movement was deemed an outlaw. Upon morning when the agents of the Convention came to arrest them, they discovered one of Robespierres associates had leapt from a window to his death, another had shot himself in the head, and Maximilien himself had attempted suicide but had merely shot himself in the jaw. Robespierre spent his last hours on the table of the Committee of Public safety, then in the same jail cell where Marie had also been sheared and “prepped’ for her death sentence. And on July 27th 1794, the terror ended with Robespierre.

After 5 years of stagnation in government, but significant military success led by Napoleon, another new constitution was put in place, this one giving a lot more power to the wealthy. There were many coups, but the final coup in 1799 established Napoleon Bonaparte as the 1st consul of France which granted him alone almost absolute executive power, under yet another constitution. Upon being declared the first consul of France, napoleon proclaimed, “Citizens! The revolution is established on the principals on which it began. It is Over.”

Napoleon was basically an emperor, and in some way, he was even more of an absolute monarch than Louis the 16th had been, re re-established the nobility, and once again made Catholicism the official religion of France. He declared himself emperor and envisioned his reign as the re-emergence of the Roman Empire.

Napoleon Bonaparte: The Crowning of Napoleon as Emperor
He even brought back Roman fashion and architecture

Eventually, Napoleon fell, and France restored the monarchy. France had a king who was either Bourbon or Bonaparte, with only the exception of a 4 year period between 1815-1870. Now, these were no longer considered divinely appointed absolute monarchs, they were constitutional monarchs, of the kind that the revolutionaries of 1789 had originally envisioned. France again had a king, and nobility and established religion. It in some ways succeeded in spreading the ideals of the enlightenment, however, the real legacy wasn’t the enhancement of liberty, but of state power, and at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

There are many parallels between the French Revolution and the circumstances we find ourselves in today, in modern America. Remember, the French Revolution began as an series of escalating riots intended to help usher in a more just and egalitarian society by the dismantling of traditional power hierarchies and the destruction of French and Christian symbolism. Regardless of the merit of attempting to achieve a more just and fair society, the methods implemented to achieve those ends can easily lend themselves to disaster. Perhaps we should heed the words of Edmund Burke, and be sure that as we are implementing our progressive ideals, we don’t let the movement be driven by the most radical among us, and we should always be wary of accommodating the mob, and be skeptical of politicians who promise to usher in the progressive utopia through the consolidation of state control. Whenever you hear a politician claim that “the people” should take control of an aspect of society, understand that they mean in practice the government should take control of the free market “on your behalf.” The consolidation of government power is a pre-requisite for the government to “solve injustice,” however the biggest threat to equality is always human beings in control of a government that has consolidated power. Never let the declared names or slogans of a movement define the movement, but instead their results. Keep in mind, the “Committee of Public Safety” was the institution that facilitated the death of over 17,000 people, and the newspaper “Friend of the People” was largely driving the narratives that pushed one of the most violent revolutions in human history, which ultimately lent itself to an even more authoritarian form of government than that which preceded it, on the backs of hundreds of thousands of murdered civilians. As Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

One Reply to “The French Revolution: How and why revolutions go wrong”

  1. Monarchy: Although the colonists had lived in a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system, they revolted against the royal powers of King George III just like the French rose up against Louis XVI.

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