Revolutionary Ideas

Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre

Jonathan Israel
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 864
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    Revolutionary Ideas
    Book Description:

    Historians of the French Revolution used to take for granted what was also obvious to its contemporary observers-that the Revolution was caused by the radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Yet in recent decades scholars have argued that the Revolution was brought about by social forces, politics, economics, or culture-almost anything but abstract notions like liberty or equality. InRevolutionary Ideas, one of the world's leading historians of the Enlightenment restores the Revolution's intellectual history to its rightful central role. Drawing widely on primary sources, Jonathan Israel shows how the Revolution was set in motion by radical eighteenth-century doctrines, how these ideas divided revolutionary leaders into vehemently opposed ideological blocs, and how these clashes drove the turning points of the Revolution.

    Revolutionary Ideasdemonstrates that the Revolution was really three different revolutions vying for supremacy-a conflict between constitutional monarchists such as Lafayette who advocated moderate Enlightenment ideas; democratic republicans allied to Tom Paine who fought for Radical Enlightenment ideas; and authoritarian populists, such as Robespierre, who violently rejected key Enlightenment ideas and should ultimately be seen as Counter-Enlightenment figures. The book tells how the fierce rivalry between these groups shaped the course of the Revolution, from theDeclaration of Rights, through liberal monarchism and democratic republicanism, to the Terror and the Post-Thermidor reaction.

    In this compelling account, the French Revolution stands once again as a culmination of the emancipatory and democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. That it ended in the Terror represented a betrayal of those ideas-not their fulfillment.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4999-4
    Subjects: History, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-5)

    On November 18, 1792, more than one hundred British, Americans, and Irish in Paris gathered at White’s Hotel, also known as the British Club, to celebrate the achievements of the French Revolution. While in general British opinion, encouraged by the London government and most clergy, remained intensely hostile to the Revolution, much of the intellectual and literary elite of Britain, the United States, and Ireland was immensely, even ecstatically, enthusiastic about those achievements and determined to align with the Revolution. Although the later renowned feminist Mary Wollstonecraft only arrived at White’s shortly afterward—and Coleridge, during the 1790s, another fervent...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 6-29)

    Historians working on the French Revolution have a problem. All of our attempts to find an explanation in terms of social groups or classes, or particular segments of society becoming powerfully activated, have fallen short. As one expert aptly expressed it: “the truth is we have no agreed general theory of why the French Revolution came about and what it was—and no prospect of one.”¹ This gaping, causal void is certainly not due to lack of investigation into the Revolution’s background and origins. If class conflict in the Marxist sense has been jettisoned, other ways of attributing the Revolution...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Revolution of the Press (1788–90)
    (pp. 30-52)

    By 1787, the French Crown was on the verge of collapse. Financially ruined by the ballooning of an immense state debt, the monarchy’s prestige lay shattered by defeat in Europe and vast colonial losses. France had lost Canada and nearly all her outposts in India. At this point the monarchy found itself without the resources to support the status it had consistently enjoyed for centuries in international, maritime, and colonial affairs. Worsted by Britain in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, since 1750, the French Crown had also been humiliated in European great power rivalry, most recently in the Dutch political...

  8. CHAPTER 3 From Estates-General to National Assembly (April–June 1789)
    (pp. 53-71)

    In April and early May 1789, more than 1,000 delegates for the Estates-General, elected in local assemblies all across France—the number eventually rose to 1,200—converged on Versailles, bringing instructions from their particular localities. Only around 800 (about half representing the Third), had actually arrived, though, in time for the opening. The day before, on 4 May, a vast ceremonial procession headed by the king and queen, and the princes of blood, followed by around 800 delegates, had proceeded from the church of Notre-Dame to the church of Saint Louis. On 5 May, the elaborately choreographed inauguration ceremony itself...

  9. CHAPTER 4 The Rights of Man: Summer and Autumn 1789
    (pp. 72-102)

    Politically and psychologically, the king had lost much ground. After July 1789, he was never trusted again. Obliged to acquiesce in the Revolution, he could at the same time barely conceal his distaste for the unprecedented changes occurring around him. He abhorred the “metaphysical and philosophical government” with its slogans, symbols, and uniforms, along with the far-reaching constitutional proposals, so injurious to his prestige and authority, formulated by a bunch of ideologues he seemed powerless to check.¹ Three crucial sets of decrees dominated developments during the late summer of 1789: the abolition of feudal privileges of 4 August, the 26...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Democratizing the Revolution
    (pp. 103-140)

    Over the winter of 1789–90, the National Assembly’s constitutional committee, an impressive panel of political and legal theorists headed by Sieyès and Mirabeau, labored to complete a constitution combining the radicalism of the Rights of Man with strands of restraining “moderation.” By mid-1790, the Assembly’s constitutional committee had effectively completed its work. France was now a fully articulated constitutional monarchy comprising eighty-three departments with sovereignty theoretically vested in the people, but with the nation actually represented by both legislature and king. That France was and should remain a monarchy most did not question. However, the pathbreaking Constitution, with its...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Deadlock (November 1790–July 1791)
    (pp. 141-179)

    Could constitutional monarchism consolidate in a land infused with so powerful a philosophique republican undercurrent? The Revolution’s first Constitution, though not officially finalized until September 1791, was already substantially in place by the summer of 1790. Its eventually 208 articles opened with a ringing declaration that there no longer existed in France any nobility, hereditary distinctions, division of society into orders, titles, feudal regime, servile dues, or religious vows or obligations contrary to natural rights. It was certainly a comprehensively liberal monarchist Constitution that firmly anchored some fundamental human rights, ensured the primacy of the legislature, and attached an elaborate...

  12. CHAPTER 7 War with the Church (1788–92)
    (pp. 180-203)

    “At the beginning of the Revolution, no apparent contradiction between the Revolution and religion” existed, it has been argued, and from the standpoint of popular culture and society overall this is broadly true.¹ But this contention needs qualifying. From the perspective of the Revolution’s Left republican leadership, if not the populace, it was absolutely certain from the outset that the Revolution, given its priorities, would confront the Church as an authority, autonomous institution, value system, and set of doctrines.

    Full freedom of thought, conscience, and expression, and the Rights of Man, were central to the Revolution but condemned by ecclesiastical...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Feuillant Revolution (July 1791–April 1792)
    (pp. 204-230)

    The Feuillant coup of July and August 1791 was the constitutional royalists’ last and most vigorous attempt to capture the Revolution. A heavy reverse for the Left, the episode began with an ugly incident on 17 July 1791 when some six thousand people convened on the Champs de Mars to sign a petition. Acting against the advice of Robespierre and most Jacobins, with the latter still profoundly divided and weakened, the petitioners urged the Assembly to withdraw their exoneration of the king. Their radical, forthright petition demanded France become a democratic republic, republicanism being “the masterpiece of human reason.” Never...

  14. CHAPTER 9 The “General Revolution” Begins (1791–92)
    (pp. 231-245)

    The French Revolution represented an alarmingly disruptive force in international relations from the outset. Since the new French constitutional monarchy, from the summer of 1789, broadly repudiated the principles and precedents on which monarchical Europe based its alliances, treaties, and established procedures for resolving disputes, and professed to be guided in international relations, as in domestic affairs, by the principles of the Rights of Man, friction between revolutionary France and Europe’s monarchical courts was inevitably acute. Equally apt to generate friction, the far-reaching European reform programs of the 1770s and 1780s inspired by Enlightenment ideals were everywhere abandoned or reversed...

  15. CHAPTER 10 The Revolutionary Summer of 1792
    (pp. 246-277)

    On 10 June, the Rolands challenged the king with their remarkable fourteen-page letter, stressing the seriousness of the political deadlock. If the king was outraged, most of the legislature were appalled by his action in dismissing Roland and the two other Brissotin ministers and aligned with the democrats, ordering Roland’s letter to be printed and nationally distributed. Critics of royal policy turned to the forty-eight Paris sections, instigating renewed agitation against the court and especially Lafayette, whose arrest and impeachment republican deputies now vociferously demanded. On 19 June 1792, Brissot, the Rolands, the Cordeliers leaders, and others—but not Robespierre...

  16. CHAPTER 11 Republicans Divided (September 1792–March 1793)
    (pp. 278-315)

    From August 1792 until June 1793, for the first time in world history, declared democratic republicans held the reins controlling government, albeit precariously. More firmly, they also dominated the pro-Revolution newspapers and public ceremonies shaping public opinion and debate. Until 1789, royalty, aristocracy, and the high clergy had alone shaped French society’s international and public image. Now, for a time, the core values of a republican Revolution determined the styles, emblems, and architectural facades, and fixed the forms and themes of the new society, determining policy in education, science, and the arts, and correctness in the renaming of buildings, streets,...

  17. CHAPTER 12 The “General Revolution” from Valmy to the Fall of Mainz (1792–93)
    (pp. 316-344)

    The French National Convention assembled on 20 September 1792. By this time revolutionary confidence was reviving, indeed bordered on euphoria following the great victory over the Prussians and lesser princes (accompanied by Goethe) at Valmy, a battle fought that very day with massed artillery salvoes in the Champagne-Ardennes hills northeast of Paris, in which the Prussians were badly mauled. Previously disdaining the French, the Prussian commanders—Goethe informed Herder in Weimar on 27 September—now took the enemy more seriously.¹ Both Prussians and Austrians found themselves obliged ignominiously to retreat. On 29 September the Prussians evacuated Verdun. Enraged by Louis...

  18. CHAPTER 13 The World’s First Democratic Constitution (1793)
    (pp. 345-373)

    Following the journée of 10 August 1792, the National Assembly, shorn of its monarchist bloc, agreed that France should become a democratic republic based on universal male suffrage, and that the Constitution once drafted would be submitted to the people via a referendum. By late March 1793, besieged by Prussia, Austria, and Britain without and by royalists and zealous Catholics within, the Revolution appeared to be on the verge on collapse. Yet optimism had not altogether vanished. The democratic Constitution, complete in draft and under intensive discussion, was seen by many as a kind of savior. The new Constitution, republican...

  19. CHAPTER 14 Education: Securing the Revolution
    (pp. 374-395)

    Prior to 1789, the Enlightenment had comparatively little impact on primary and secondary schooling in France. Well before 1789, however, Enlightenment discourse had convinced many that it was necessary to move away from school teaching based on the catechism and Catholic doctrine, and had forcefully propagated the idea, associated especially with Diderot, the encyclopédistes, and Helvétius, that education can play a decisive role in changing the moral profile and character of society. Unsurprisingly, a close link existed at all stages during the Revolution between Enlightenment reform ideas and proposals propagated in the decades from the 1740s to 1788 and the...

  20. CHAPTER 15 Black Emancipation
    (pp. 396-419)

    “We are trying to save millions of men from ignominy and death,” wrote Condorcet in 1788, in a text condemning the slave trade, “to enlighten those in power about their true interests and restore to a whole section of the world the sacred rights given to them by nature.”¹ The advent of black liberation in the Caribbean during the years 1788–94 confirms that la philosophie moderne was not only the primary shaping impulse of the French Revolution but the primary spur to black emancipation in the late eighteenth-century Caribbean world. The social revolution that ensued during the years 1792...

  21. CHAPTER 16 Robespierre’s Putsch (June 1793)
    (pp. 420-449)

    Dumouriez had to abandon his Dutch offensive, he informed the Convention on 12 March 1793 from Louvain, to prevent catastrophe over-taking the army. Six days later, the army of the north was crushed at Neerwinden. His shattered force fell back in a chaotic, headlong retreat, abandoning all Belgium, bereft of supplies, losing its equipment, and with many desertions. The defenses of Lille and the northeast’s other key fortress towns were reportedly in a deplorable state. On 25 March, Britain and Russia signed their alliance against France. Over the next days, the Prussians overran most of the free Rhenish republic and,...

  22. CHAPTER 17 The Summer of 1793: Overturning the Revolution’s Core Values
    (pp. 450-478)

    It took time for the victors to consolidate their dictatorship. There could be no immediate imposition of repressive measures. At first, rather, there was widespread confusion. On 2 June, the Convention majority supported the democratic Left, not the Montagne.¹ Most of France and even, the evidence suggests, most of Paris, opposed Robespierre. Many eyewitnesses agreed with Gensonné, whose manifesto, dashed off in haste prior to his arrest, dated three in the afternoon of 2 June, held that after “seducing a few,” the Montagne had captured the capital’scomités révolutionnairesby employing every variety of intimidation, manipulation, and bullying to cajole...

  23. CHAPTER 18 De-Christianization (1793–94)
    (pp. 479-502)

    Reducing and marginalizing religious authority and the public role of religion and religious values was always central to the outlook and writings of the radical philosophes. Equally, curtailing religious authority was in every way central to the Revolution of Mirabeau, Sieyès, Barnave, Condorcet, and Brissot. But was a gradual process of diminishing and degrading ecclesiastical sway in politics, education, culture, daily life, and the economy without stoking civil strife a feasible goal? By the time the Republic was proclaimed in September 1792, relations between church and state in France had hugely deteriorated since 1789. Even so, as yet there were...

  24. CHAPTER 19 “The Terror” (September 1793–March 1794)
    (pp. 503-544)

    By August 1793, with the Brissotin challenge faltering and the Constitution indefinitely suspended, revolutionary France had become a dictatorship. All genuine political debate was suppressed. Ending freedom of expression and initiating the trials and executions of the Brissotins effectively stripped the Convention and its thirty committees of all real participation in government, reducing the legislature to a mere cipher approving decisions of the Comité de Salut Publique. This committee, overseeing also the Comité de Sûreté Générale, was dominated by Robespierre (helped by Saint-Just and Barère), its eight other members more often seeming like Robespierre’s “secretaries” than colleagues.¹ With this, the...

  25. CHAPTER 20 The Terror’s Last Months (March–July 1794)
    (pp. 545-573)

    The Terror pervaded every aspect and dimension of society and life. “It was a real sickness,” recalled Roederer, who survived it in hiding, in which the “moral and physical constantly interacted; an extreme case suspending use of reason, and almost reason’s aberration. It concentrated everyone within himself, detaching him from everything but preservation, from the most important affairs, most intimate affections and most sacred duties, paralyzing arm and soul simultaneously.”¹ The irrational and criminal character of the Terror seemed so obvious to so many that appalled onlookers in France, like the Bordeaux diarist Brochon, tended to assume that Jacobin conspirateurs...

  26. CHAPTER 21 Thermidor
    (pp. 574-592)

    Increasingly irritable and in bad health, by late June Robespierre was manifestly losing his grip. The weeks immediately preceding the overthrow of his authoritarian, populist tyranny witnessed a receding of both his physical presence and prestige. He and Saint-Just sensed the growing hostility of several executive committee members. Yet another nervous breakdown kept Robespierre from executive meetings and the Convention for three crucial weeks, from 1 to 22 July, a critical absence that marked the beginning of the end.

    Vadier, threatened by recent remarks of Robespierre relating to him, created a peculiarly unpleasant scene, with a Voltairean eye for the...

  27. CHAPTER 22 Post-Thermidor (1795–97)
    (pp. 593-634)

    Slowly but surely power slipped from the hands of the Thermidorians. Given the circumstances, it could hardly have been otherwise. But could the Revolution’s reputation, integrity, and principles be restored? Among the Revolution’s originally ardent supporters, a great many had become so disillusioned under the Montagnard tyranny—and its perverse Thermidorian aftermath—they were scarcely disposed to think so. Diderot’s disciple, Naigeon, loathing the Montagne and the Terror with every fiber of his being, did not abandon his earlier revolutionary ideals to the extent La Harpe did but also now believed it would have been better to suffer “the abuses...

  28. CHAPTER 23 The “General Revolution” (1795–1800) Holland, Italy, and the Levant
    (pp. 635-669)

    The General Revolution’s brief but dramatic foray into Western Europe in 1792–93 immensely alarmed Europe’s rulers, nobles, and churchmen. The Revolution totally denied their validity and wherever it broke through set furiously to work to break their power, abolish their authority, and confiscate their possessions. A particularly worrying feature of the situation for defenders of the old order was that the well-drilled and attired armies of Prussia and Austria showed unsuspected signs of weakness in confronting the ragged, poorly trained and supplied, and badly equipped revolutionary armies. If the French could win astounding victories under such disadvantages, hampered by...

  29. CHAPTER 24 The Failed Revolution (1797–99)
    (pp. 670-694)

    During 1795–96, support for the regime among the French electorate remained decidedly tepid. Republicans pointing to the mounting royalist threat had, since Thermidor, been continually denounced by conservative opponents as terroristes and anarchistes.¹ Heavily burdened with war, requisitioning, and recruiting, the country was trapped in a cease-less three-way internecine struggle between royalists, neo-Brissotin democrats often allied to Dantonistes, and Montagnards, in part allied to followers of Babeuf (Babouvistes). This ensured an unbreakable deadlock that continually fed the mounting fatigue, frustration, and sense of drift: everything was suffused with ideological struggle, daily life, religion, the press, and the theaters, while...

  30. CHAPTER 25 Conclusion: The Revolution as the Outcome of the Radical Enlightenment
    (pp. 695-708)

    The French Revolution, we may conclude was really three revolutions—a democratic republican revolution, a moderate Enlightenment constitutional monarchism invoking Montesquieu and the British model as its criteria of legitimacy, and an authoritarian populism prefiguring modern fascism. These distinct impulses proved entirely incompatible politically and culturally, as well as ideologically, and remained locked in often ferocious conflict throughout. It is true that two other social movements largely unconnected with these—the peasant risings and the by no means wholly inchoate sansculotte street movement preoccupied with subsistence—had a massive impact on society and the political scene in one way or...

  31. Cast of Main Participants
    (pp. 709-732)
  32. Notes
    (pp. 733-802)
  33. Bibliography
    (pp. 803-832)
  34. Index
    (pp. 833-870)