The Oxford History of the French Revolution

Ever since the disaster of Election 2016, I’ve been dipping my toe into books about the French Revolution, scanning through stacks to find anything readable and helpful. The first book I found worth finishing was Seven Ages of Paris, and after much digging, I discovered William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution as another good source of information. The book is 400+ pages packed full of detail, well-written, and comprehensive. Sometimes a bit too comprehensive for what I wanted, but it worked.

Overall, the revolution was a mess. Not only in the sense of the thousands of people who died either in early skirmishes, in the senseless wars against neighbors the nation endured (and called “the regenerative power of war”), or in the chopped heads from the guillotine. But once a group attained power, in-fighting and bickering and power-grabs arose. No real way of managing tax revenues and their collection was organized. And the people, the PEOPLE, just wanted bread they could afford, which was frequently not forthcoming due to unusually cold weather creating poor harvesting conditions, or other meddling in the market.

It seems like a constant ever since “work” was invented is that there’s never enough of it to go around. In 1772, “misery has thrown into the towns people who overburden them with their uselessness and who find nothing to do because there is not enough for the people who live there,” said one magistrate in Rennes that year.

The Age of Enlightenment paved the way for many of the ideals that drove the revolution, that all men are equal. America was an example, with the 1776 overthrowing of British rule with the help of the French. “America appealed to a general restlessness and desire for change,” said one of the leading 1789 French revolutionaries.

Doyle notes that “belief in plots and conspiracies was yet another sign of the credulity of the times. The same cast of mind also tended to seek simple, universal formulae to resolve any problem, no matter how complex. Its limitation would be tragically exposed in the storm that was about to break.” How can I read this sentence without a deep foreboding of how the U.S. 2017-2021 will be seen???

One of the turning points of the revolution was the requirement in 1790-1 that the Catholic clergy take an oath to be faithful to the nation and uphold the constitution. This forced people to publicly declare being for or against the new order. Doyle calls this oath the Assembly’s “most serious mistake.” This also gave the counter-revolutionaries the cover of religious support.

The Terror (1793-4) was something I’d never fully grasped before. This is when there were mass executions of enemies of the revolution. Of all the deaths, only 9% were nobles, less than 7% clergy. So most of those dying were “ordinary people caught up in tragic circumstance not of their own making, who made wrong choices in lethal times, when indifference itself counted as a crime.” Let’s all take that to heart in these current times.

Who benefited from the revolution? Not the people, certainly. Mostly landowners, bureaucrats, soldiers and the bourgeoisie. And Protestants, who were welcomed in with equal rights that had previously been denied them in the ultra-Catholic country.