Violent from its inception:
Dispelling the myth of the “liberal” and “radical” phases
of the French Revolution
This 1789 engraving depicts French soldiers or Parisian militia carrying the severed heads of the Bastille’s commander Bernard-Rene Jordan, Marquis de Launay (1740-1789) and Paris mayor Jacques de Flesselles (1721-1789) on pikes. Both men were killed by enraged Parisians on the same day as the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789. The caption reads “Thus we take revenge on traitors”. This image is part of the Library of Congress’ French Political Cartoon Collection.
Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!
-Marie-Jeanne Philippon, Madame Roland (1754-1793) immediately before her death on the guillotine.
Have we not seen France dishonoured by a hundred thousand murders? The whole territory of this fair kingdom covered with scaffolds? And this unhappy land drenched with the blood of its children through judicial massacres, while inhuman tyrants squandered it abroad in a cruel war, sustained in their own private interests? Never has the bloodiest despot gambled with men’s lives with so much insolence, and never has an apathetic people presented itself for butchering more willingly. Sword and fire, frost and famine, privations and sufferings of every kind, none of these disgust it with its punishment…
The French Revolution began, and for its entire duration remained, soaked in innocent blood. Mob tyranny, popular mob “justice”, and widespread paranoia reigned from the moment the Bastille fell until the dawn of the Terror in fall 1793. Contrary to the self-serving and prevailing liberal historiography which dominated nineteenth century studies of the Revolution, which urged that the conflict be separated into a legitimate, ideal, more civilized “liberal” phase (1789-1793) and a tragically unintended, accidental “radical phase” (the Terror, fall 1793-summer 1794), in actuality a clear, uninterrupted, chronological line of popular violence unrestrained by the revolutionary leaders exists from 14 July 1789 onward. From the storming of the Bastille through the Great Fear, October Days, Champs de Mars massacre, and September Massacres, the Revolution – hardly restrained by the liberal Enlightenment ideals which purportedly united its adherents – saw thousands of people slaughtered without trial in the name of liberty.
In his fifteen years on the throne before the Revolution, the alleged ‘tyrant’ Louis XVI never executed so many people. The pre-Terror revolutionary violence culminated in the infant Republic’s savage suppression of the Catholic royalist Vendee Rebellion, which saw a quarter of a million people, mostly rural civilians, exterminated on the orders of the Republican government in Paris, and the passage of the Law of Suspects a year after the 1792 September Massacres. The Revolution’s true power derived not from the logical appeal and inspiring charisma of its Enlightenment ideals, but from the terror of unrestrained popular violence and brutality which constantly characterized it from the moment of its beginning in summer 1789. This essay will review the major events of the Revolution before the start of the official Terror, and show that these mass murders were all committed by people who believed themselves acting in its name. This was all prior to the Terror which saw some 17,000 people sent to the guillotine. In truth, the entire Revolution was a terror, and no one was safe from its wrath.
When a mob of thousands of enraged Parisians stormed the Bastille on the morning of 14 July 1789, far from being a prison overflowing with oppressed victims of the brutal ancien regime, only seven old men were housed within its decrepit walls. Immediately after seizing the fortress, the mob captured its captain, the Marquis de Launay, and dragged him toward the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall, in a storm of verbal and physical abuse. Outside the Hôtel, a discussion began among the mob as to what they should do with their prisoner. The badly beaten Marquis shouted “Enough! Let me die!”, and the crowd readily obliged him. He was repeatedly stabbed and his head sawn off and fixed on a pike. Following his death, as the above image shows, the mob paraded his head through the streets of Paris, but their fury for blood was hardly sated. The very same afternoon after the storming, the unofficial mayor of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles, was assassinated, shot on the steps of the city hall while trying to justify his actions to the mob. As the above illustration shows, his head was also mounted on a pike and paraded around Paris.
In the Great Fear immediately following the storming of the Bastille, uprisings among peasants across rural France and among the urban poor in Paris saw a number of suspected counter-revolutionaries killed between mid-July and early August. In the provinces, peasants began to arm themselves and seize seigniorial estates, murdering some of their landlords and their families in cold blood without trial. Where was the sense of law and the due process of justice to which all French citizens were, according to Enlightenment ideals, supposed to be entitled when these landlords were being murdered? Why were none of these lords, as much citizens of a ‘free’ France as their peasant labourers, allowed to petition to the King or to a local court before they were slaughtered? From its inception, as in Paris at the Bastille and in the rural provinces, the participants in the Revolution proved either pathetically unable or cruelly unwilling to not engage in extrajudicial violence. The National Assembly’s self-serving silence against the mobs served only to embolden their sense of righteousness and impunity in launching attacks against perceived enemies of the Revolution.
The popular violence of the Revolution further accelerated in the October Days of 1789, with severed heads on pikes once again making a macabre appearance. Enraged by reports of ostentatious court living at Versailles – where the politically tone-deaf aristocrats callously partied, feasted, and allegedly dared to ‘desecrate’ the tricolour –without concern for the famine gripping the poor throughout France, an armed mob of Parisian citizens dominated by women who had often been involved in capital’s bread riots stormed the royal chateau, slaughtered the royal Swiss Guards, and rampaged through the palace attempting to find and murder Queen Marie Antoinette. The then-popular Marquis de Lafayette managed to take some control of the situation, calming the mob’s fury by appearing with the King and Queen on one of the palace’s balconies, convincing the King to publicly agree to return to Paris, and –tempering the crowd’s visceral hatred of L’ Autrichienne – kissing the Queen’s hand in a gesture of fealty. The result was that King Louis XVI promised to release stores of bread to the Parisian citizens, and, refusing to accept his word, the marchers forced the French royal family and courtiers to return, effectively under arrest, to Paris, with the guards’ heads again mounted on pikes before the royal carriage.
The moderate royalist Lafayette, erstwhile commander of the Paris-based National Guard, lost all his popularity—and moderate reformers their most prominent Paris spokesman – on 17 July 1791 in the Champs de Mars massacre, during which suspected counter-revolutionaries, including many members of the Guard, were murdered by enraged Paris mobs after Lafayette ordered his men to fire and disperse the mob. Both sides suffered rather minimal losses, but the conduct of the revolutionaries – making a demand backed by violence – shows yet again how the republican mob cared nothing for the rule of law. Why had the mob gathered? The National Assembly – the Revolution’s own legislature – had, on the same day, issued an edict confirming that the unpopular Louis XVI would remain king under a constitutional monarchy. The young republican leaders Danton and Desmoulins – neither of whom survived the Terror – led the mob, who carried a petition from the Girondist republican Jacques Pierre Brissot – who also died in the Terror – to compel the King to abdicate. Lafayette’s reputation never recovered from the bloodshed, and thus the moderates and reform-minded royalists lost most of their influence among Parisians.
A key turning point in the escalation of popular violence occurred in fall 1792. The most violent outbreak of revolutionary mob attacks to date occurred with the September Massacres. Fearing that foreign and royalist armies would attack Paris and that the city’s incarcerated inmates represented a fifth column threat, urban poor sans culottes armed with the demagogue Marat’s latest incendiary, bloodthirsty edition of L’Ami du Peuple, attacked the overflowing Paris prisons stocked with suspected counter-revolutionaries. The prisoners included nonjuring Catholic clergy who objected to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, noble mothers and children, prostitutes, and the infirm. Some 1,300 were murdered in cold blood without any semblance of legal process or fair trial, including over 200 priests and the Queen’s closest friend the middle-aged Princess Marie Louise de Lamballe, who was, by several accounts, raped by the mob and her breasts cut off before being decapitated and her head struck on a pike.
The violent trajectory of the Revolution before the Terror culminated in the brutal suppression of the Vendee royalist rebellion from March 1793 to March 1796, which began when outraged Catholic monarchists and other French conservatives in that province received word that the Republic’s leaders had ordered a general mobilization (levee en masse), conscripting most able-bodied Frenchmen to fight and defend the Republic against Austrian encroachment. As hundreds of thousands of rural Catholic traditionalists and monarchists rose against the Revolution, republican soldiers were called in to suppress the revolt. The Republic’s generals Jean-Baptiste Carrier and Turreau were ordered by the Committee of Public Safety to put the entire region to the sword and kill all those suspected of any degree of collaboration with the Catholic and Royal Army, as the Vendee rebel leaders called themselves. It is this savage conflict that saw suspected counterrevolutionary men and women stripped naked, tied together, and thrown into local rivers to drown by the Republic’s military forces, who sadistically called these paired executions ‘republican marriages’. Their inability to distinguish between combatant, sympathizer, and civilian in the region led to an unprecedented degree of bloodshed, all conducted in the name and defence of the nascent Republic.
Historians disagree as to how many royalist combatants and sympathizers died, with liberals estimating the dead at some 130,000 and others approaching as high as 250-300,000. The highest figure cited is the controversial estimate of 450,000 dead by Peter McPhee, who argues along with several other scholars that the Vendee suppression can be considered a genocide. If we accept the more mainstream figure of some quarter of a million people killed, and take into account France’s contemporary population of just under 30 million around 1789, then, were a similar proportion of French to be killed today, the figure would be some 550-600,000 out of some 66 million people. This is genocidal in scale. Even if one does not hold the Committee of Public Safety directly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of Vendee civilians who died in the carnage, it is undeniable that the forces loyal to the Republic engaged in these targeted scorched earth campaigns at the behest of the governing revolutionary republican authorities in Paris. Given that the royalists viewed the Republic itself as illegitimate – hence why the Vendee citizens were outraged to hear that their men were to be conscripted to fight in the republican army against the Austrian monarchy – one can only accept the view that the Vendee was an illegal rebellion and example of treason if one views the Republic itself as a legitimate political entity.
When a political movement is soaked in blood from its very onset, it is insulting to basic intelligence to argue somehow that it was not violent from its foundation. Before the guillotine, the “national razor”, severed some 17,000 heads, long before the official start of the Terror, Parisian mobs massacred hundreds of royal guards who were simply doing their duty, slaughtered over 1,300 innocent civilians and clergy in Paris jails, and within four years of the Bastille’s storming (itself a violent event), the nascent Republic’s generals slaughtered approximately a quarter of a million people in three years’ time. The term “liberal revolution” with its conjuring of fidelity to restrained, rational liberal Enlightenment ideals is an ignorant misnomer at best and at worst a crass, deliberate fiction. The supreme irony is that from its foundations the Revolution’s radicals lauded the ideals of liberty and universal justice while never consistently abiding by them; decrying the supposed tyranny of an ancien regime that brutally tortured and executed a handful of would-be-regicides and murderers over several centuries, the radical revolutionaries bathed the infant Republic in blood, slaughtering some 250,000 Catholic Frenchmen and women in three years in the name of liberty and justice.
From its inception the Revolution was bathed in innocent blood, the blood of both real and imagined enemies. It was ‘radical’ and violent from the moment the Bastille fell and the royal guards were hacked to death and their heads put on pikes. Even if the official Terror began in fall 1793, real terror reigned in practice since July 1789. Thus, the true symbols of the Revolution even before the Terror were not the tricolour cockade or Lady Liberty/Marianne, but the haunting spectre of the national razor and the macabre spectacle of heads on pikes. All were truly equal in revolutionary France only when they stood in the shadow of the scaffold or before the fury of the mob. The Revolution betrayed its liberal ideals from the onset, and the fact that neither the National Assembly nor successive revolutionary legislatures ever condemned the popular violence speaks volumes. Where was their commitment to justice, to the rule of law? It was silent, shamed, and cowed before the threat of the mob. Bourgeoisie republican leaders’ self-serving silence served only to legitimize and embolden radical revolutionaries in both the Committee of Public Safety and among les sans-culottes in the Paris streets. The Committee and the urban poor were united in one thing: loyal to abstract Enlightenment ideals and willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to advance them, they consistently showed callous disregard for human life and the values they allegedly espoused, seeing an enemy worthy only of death in anyone who dared challenge the notion of sovereignty resting in a people who showed themselves to be nothing if not violent, inconsistent, changeable, and bloodthirsty. The ancien regime was far less savage than the supposedly liberal Republic which replaced it, and killed far fewer people in the centuries it ruled France than those who died as enemies of the Revolution from 1789-1794. As Louis XVI’s sister Princess Elisabeth said to her tribunal judges shortly before her death under the guillotine – she was condemned to death for the crime of being “the sister of a tyrant” – “If my brother had been what you call him, you would not have been where you are, nor I where I am now”.
The French Revolution was the predominating radical terrorist movement of its day. From 1789-1794 the Revolution killed far more people in the name of Liberty than Daesh (ISIS) or Al Qaeda has ever killed in the name of Allah. Yet, whereas international government leaders, popes, patriarchs, Muslim scholars, imams, and community leaders have all denounced ISIS (an apocalyptic jihadist group which targets non-Wahhabi Muslims along with Christians, Yazidis, and other non-Muslims), in France today the Revolution is idolized on the coinage, museums, art galleries, the national anthem, official flag, all public buildings, etc. Year after year, millions of French people celebrate the anniversary of Bastille Day, blissfully unaware that they are celebrating a revolution which led to the extrajudicial murder and massacring of hundreds of thousands of French men and women whose great ‘crime’ was to oppose the brutal march of “liberty”, of unrestrained, illegal popular violence, and the Republic’s attempted eradication of over a thousand years of French Catholic culture, history, and monarchical tradition.
A true symbol of the French Revolution: the values of the tricolour and liberty cockade are inseparable and indistinguishable from the macabre spectacle of the severed heads of “enemies of the revolution” mounted on pikes and paraded through the Paris streets. The bottom caption of this 1789 engraving reads “This is how we punish traitors”. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Andress, David. Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution. Suffolk, England: The Royal Historical Society, 2000.
Bergeron, Louis. Le Monde et son Histoire. Volume VII, Chapter VII. Paris: Bouquins, 1986.
Clerk, Kenneth. Civilisation: A Personal View. New York: Penguin, 1987.
De Beauchesne, Alcide-Hyacinthe. La vie de Madame Élisabeth, sœur de Louis XVI, Volume 2. Paris: Henri-Plon Éditeur-Imprimeur, 1870.
Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: William Morrow and Co, 1980.
Hussenet, Jacques (dir.). “Détruisez la Vendée !”. Regards croisés sur les victimes et destructions de la guerre de Vendée. La Roche-sur-Yon, France: Centre vendéen de recherches historiques, 2007.
Jones, Peter M. The Peasantry and the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Chapter 3.
Library of Congress. “Prise de la Bastille par les Citoyens de Paris… C’est ainsi que l’on punit les traitres.” Library of Congress. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b51512/
Maistre, Count Joseph de. Considerations on France. Translated and edited by Richard A. Lebrun. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
McPhee, Peter. Review of Reynald Secher, A French Genocide: The Vendée. H-France Review, Vol. 4 (March 2004), No. 26.
Morris, Gouverneur. A Diary of the French Revolution, Volume 1. North Stratford, New Hampshire: Ayer Publishing, 1939.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Press, 1989.
Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre And the French Revolution. New York: Owl Books, 2006.
 Maistre, Count Joseph de, Considerations on France, translated and edited by Richard A. Lebrun (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
 Clerk, Kenneth, Civilisation: A Personal View (New York: Penguin, 1987). Pg. 216.
 Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Vintage Press, 1989). Pg. 405.
 Hibbert, Christopher, The Days of the French Revolution (New York: William Morrow and Co, 1980). Pgs. 69-82.
 Jones, Peter M, The Peasantry and the French Revolution. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Chapter 3.
 Doyle, William, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pgs. 114-5.
 Schama, Ibid. Pg. 459.
 Ibid, pg. 468.
 Morris, Gouverneur, A Diary of the French Revolution, Volume 1 (North Stratford, New Hampshire: Ayer Publishing, 1939). Pg. 243.
 Bergeron, Louis, Le Monde et son Histoire, Volume VII, Chapter VII (Paris: Bouquins, 1986). Pg. 324.
 Hibbert, Christopher. Ibid, p. 175.
 Scurr, Ruth, Fatal Purity: Robespierre And the French Revolution (New York: Owl Books, 2006). Pg. 305.
 Hussenet, Jacques (dir.), “Détruisez la Vendée !”. Regards croisés sur les victimes et destructions de la guerre de Vendée (La Roche-sur-Yon: Centre vendéen de recherches historiques, 2007).
 McPhee, Peter, Review of Reynald Secher, A French Genocide: The Vendée (H-France Review: Vol. 4 (March 2004), No. 26.
 de Beauchesne, Alcide-Hyacinthe, La vie de Madame Élisabeth, sœur de Louis XVI, Volume 2 (Paris: Henri-Plon Éditeur-Imprimeur, 1870). Pgs 199-205, 219-250.
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