Wh-2 French Revolution 2: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and The Reign of Terror



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WH-2 French Revolution 2: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and The Reign of Terror

The Declaration of the Rights of Man: Preamble and the First Twelve Articles

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all. Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.

7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.

8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.

9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by law.

10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.

11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.

  1. Events during the summer of 1789 progressed rapidly. On August 4th, the NATIONAL ASSEMBLY held its famous NIGHT SESSION during which one speaker after another—NOBILITY included, rose to denounce DIVINE AUTOCRACY and ARISTOCRATIC FEUDAL PRIVELEGE—never before had anything like this been seen in France. The progress was actually quite SUBSTANTIVE: payments demanded from peasants based on the FEUDAL REACTION became far less burdensome RENTAL PAYMENTS; tax exemptions were forfeited by the BOURGEOISIE. And a few PROGRESSIVE clerics did likewise with the TITHE that peasants were forced to give to the church. Hence began the SOCIAL REFORM that swept away the remnants of the ANCIENT REGIME: the POLITICAL REFORM would soon follow.




  1. The events of 4 August 1789 were soon followed (August 26th) by the issuance of the DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF MAN AND THE CITIZEN (see above) which very much parallels the American Declaration of Independence from the standpoint of basing its articles on ENLIGHTENMENT philosophy, especially in its espousement of the principle that sovereignty resides in the NATION (see article 3), not in the Bourbon dynasty or in the person of LOUIS XVI. Central here is Jean Jacques Roseau’s notion that law is the expression of the general will, that is, the law is not the expression of the will of the DIVINELY-APPOINTED monarch, but of the people that constitute the NATION.




  1. Based on the sacred right of property (citizenship during this phase of the revolution was based on PROPERTY OWNERSHIP) the constitution of 1791 established a moderate CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCHY based on government control by the PROPERTIED CLASSES (i.e., the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie). A massive ENFRANCHISEMENT (2/3 of all males based on tax LIABILITY) campaign occurred, and the Legislature acquired the power to override any VETO of the King.




  1. A wave of anticlericalism likewise ensued: the CIVIL CONSTITUTION OF THE CLERGY enacted in 1790 gave the state control over the clergy so that church land could be sold so that it could be distributed to the peasants and thus TAXED to produce revenue--a move that was denounced by both PEASANTS and POPE--(see Denonciation aux Francois Catholiques Des moyens employes par l’Assemblee Nationale, pour detruire en France, la Religion Catholique) for a possible major extra credit project here!). The church split into two groups: the CONSTITUTIONAL clergy that was willing to acknowledge the French government as the head of the French Church and those whose loyalty was first to the POPE. The peasants had mixed feelings about this: on the one hand they very much liked being the RECIPIENTS of the land that had been seized from the church, but on the other hand did NOT like how the church was being treated.




  1. On October 5, 1789 another major event occurred: At the city hall in PARIS, a crowd of enraged women gathered to protest FOOD SHORTAGES. They marched from Paris to Versailles, and their numbers increased substantially along the way—cannon were even added, men with weapons, and even the NATIONAL GUARD joined the march! Finally, the ROYAL FAMILY at Versailles, confronted with this mob, agreed to be escorted back to Paris not by Royal troops but instead by the NATIONAL GUARD. Here is where the violence truly grew HIDEOUS: many of the Royal troops had been massacred by the National Guard, who then severed the Royal troop’s heads, impaled the decapitated heads on PIKES, and carried them as a sort of STANDARD as they accompanied the King and his family back to Paris. Upon entering Paris, the Louis and his family were confined to the Tuileries Palace—essentially as PRISONERS of the French NATION.




  1. And yet, this FIRST PHASE of the revolution was rapidly beginning to ATROPHY despite the violence and fervor for REFORM that had characterized it initially. The likely beginning point was with the ARISTOCRACY, which, once it had sobered from reform’s enthusiasm, perhaps began to collectively realize what it had given up for relatively little GAIN. And so, many aristocrats fled France for Western GERMANY, ENGLAND, and even PENNSYLVANIA: here they established strongholds from which they could agitate AGAINST the revolution, the disrespect of the KING and the institution of DIVINE RIGHT MONARCHY, and the destruction of ancient feudal and aristocratic rights.




  1. The situation continued to deteriorate: A DISGUISED Louis XVI, apparently panicking, FLED the Tuileries Palace in June of 1791 along with his family, presumably to be a King in EXILE with the help of his brother-in-law, the Austrian LEOPOLD II, but the entourage was captured just outside of Paris. For the Royal Family the situation would go from BAD to WORSE: when it was realized that the King had escaped, the Royal Apartments in the Tuileries Palace were searched: this yielded some documents that were very DISTURBING to the constitutional monarchists. The documents, authored by LOUIS, called the new French Constitution an ATROCITY to which he could not be LOYAL, and so the illusion of the revolutionary MODERATES that a cooperative constitutional monarchy was possible was DESTROYED.




  1. This latest incident with Louis resulted in the rise to power of the most RADICAL element among the various political clubs that had arisen in France, namely the JACOBINS--consisting mainly of LAWYERS and professional people--who had taken their name from a monastery where they first met. The more MODERATE Jacobins were known as the Girondists, who were NOT Parisians (they hailed more from the countryside—in fact they were named after the GIRONDE province in SW France where their more brilliant supporters resided) and were quite SUSPICIOUS of the radicalism that typified the Parisian Jacobins; a SPLIT would eventually develop between the Parisian radicals and the more moderate countryside. And so, unfortunately for Louis, it would be the HARD-LINE radicals, not the Girondists, who would come to control French politics subsequent to his escape attempt. The most influential Jacobin would become MAXIMILIAN ROBESPIERRE, whose name became synonymous with the REIGN OF TERROR.




  1. The French were now facing a huge problem that was EXTERNAL, not INTERNAL, and this was the enormous SYMPATHY that the plight of Louis XVI had generated among his COLLEAGUES—i.e., his fellow European monarchs. The Declaration of Pilnitz (August 1791) was an example of this: AUSTRIA and PRUSSIA here reaffirmed their commitment to MONARCHY and vowed to work together to resist any attempt by the French to EXPORT their revolutionary principles. Subsequently, with many Aristocratic DEFECTIONS to communities across the RHINE and the growing conviction that these émigrés were working from within their new abodes to destabilize the Revolution, in April of 1792 France declared WAR on AUSTRIA, the seat of HABSBURG dynastic power.




  1. Probably hoping for an AUSTRIAN victory and for the RESTORATION of the Bourbon Divine Right Monarchy, Louis XVI welcomed the prospect of War. In contrast to his hopes, these external wars of the French Revolution would severely RADICALIZE French revolutionary elements (especially after several early French DEFEATS which leads to suspicions that French Aristocratic officers are SABOTAGING the war effort in COLLUSION with émigré aristocrats fighting against the Revolution) and ultimately resulted in the EXECUTION of Louis and his queen, MARIE ANTIONETTE. Inflation ran unchecked in response to the need to pay for the war, and FOOD SHORTAGES were rampant. For Louis, the critical blow (no pun intended) came with the issuance by the GERMAN STATES of the Brunswick Manifesto (August 3rd 1792) which announced as their goal the absolute RESTORATION of Louis XVI to power. This fed the CONSPIRACY rumor mill (i.e., that Louis was working in secret with the émigré community to defeat the revolution) thus leading many to the strong conviction that something EXTREME had to be done to prevent this situation. It was, and what happened next TRANSITIONED France to the next very deadly phase of its revolutionary experience—the REIGN OF TERROR which would last approximately from the summer of 1793 until the summer of 1794.




  1. Led by the ultra-radicalized JACOBINS and their control of the PARISIAN MOB, the post-Brunswick Manifesto ZEITGESIT was one of PARANOIA and strong belief in CONSPIRACY as many French Aristocrats who remained in France—PARIS in particular--were represented as working in COLLUSION with CLERICS, German Princes and fellow émigrés to assure the success of the COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY movement. Now, instead of working towards a constitutional monarchy, the new demand was for a FRENCH REPUBLIC with one of the first steps being some sort of permanent dramatic removal of LOUIS XVI as a player in French politics. The National Assembly FAILED to act decisively to RESOLVE this issue, thus leading to the STORMING of the Tuileries Palace by the Jacobin-inspired French mob and the SUBSEQUENT arrest of Louis XVI (August 1792). This was accompanied closely by the so-called September (1792) Massacres, in which approximately 1000 nobles believed to be sympathetic with the counter-revolutionary agenda were arrested and EXECUTED after several French military defeats. Louis himself, having been convicted of TREASON, fell under the guillotine on January 16, 1793.




  1. A CONVENTION was called to draft the Republican CONSTITUTION; the monarchy was formally ABOLISHED on September 21, 1792. In March of 1793 the FIRST COALITION was formed in an attempt to contain the ambitions of this “new” France: this was an alliance that included AUSTRIA, the NETHERLANDS, ENGLAND, NAPLES, PRUSSIA, SARDINIA, and SPAIN. About the same time, PEASANTS in the Vendee (a region southwest of Paris) rebelled against what they considered to be strong EXCESSES by the radicals against the CATHOLIC CLERGY, and actually formed a ROYAL Catholic Army within France as a counter-revolutionary force. They experienced considerable success, capturing the cities of LYONS, MARSEILLE, and TOULON. This was a true CRISIS period for the revolution, since the Vendee clearly showed that discontent with the radicalism of PARIS not only characterized the émigrés but a substantial part of the PEASANT population within France as well. The combined effects of the threat of foreign INVASION (i.e., the 1st Coalition), internal INSURRECTION and the belief that aristocracy and even the Girondists were in league with counter-revolutionary forces, the eventual EXPULSION of the moderates from the CONVENTION, and the resulting financial crises resulted in the REIGN OF TERROR which began during the summer of 1793.




  1. Within the NATIONAL CONVENTION, a 12 member group known as the COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC SAFETY gradually assumed executive authority. Led by ROBESPIERRE, the committee took as its primary agenda the defeat of the FIRST COALITION (externally) and the ROYAL CATHOLIC ARMY (internally) and the absolute rooting out and DESTRUCTION of all royalist sympathizers and enemies of the revolution within FRANCE. The first goal would be addressed by the extremely popular levee en masse, or military draft, in which the ideal of NATIONAL SOVERIEGNITY matured in a previously unattained manner: no longer were Frenchmen fighting for Louis XVI, the Bourbons, or the preservation of aristocratic privilege in a divine right monarchy; they were instead fighting for the REPUBLIC of France as French citizens. Arguably, this levee en masse marked the beginning of EUROPEAN NATIONALISM as it would come to be understood in the modern world. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, upon watching an impressive early French victory over GERMANIC forces that fought in traditional European style, in fact wrote down in his diary Today I have witnessed the birth of the modern world. The 1st Coalition was successfully driven out of France AND the Royal Catholic Army was likewise defeated; the war then became an OFFENSIVE struggle as the French attempted to EXPORT its republicanism past its borders and into the traditional monarchic territories of WESTERN EUROPE.




  1. The second goal—to EXPUNGE the counter-revolutionary element from French society—was addressed by the REIGN OF TERROR. Surveillance Committees were established throughout France as SPY CELLS to identify enemies of the revolution; these individuals were tried before REVOLUTIONARY TRIBUNALS with little chance of success of proving themselves innocent. Various estimates place the death toll in Paris at 2000-3000 while throughout France at 20,000-25,000. The break with the ABSOLUTIST past was given further emphasis by these RADICAL JACOBINS by establishing a new CALENDAR that eliminated the SABBATH and the feast days of CATHOLIC SAINTS, a universal DRESS CODE (basically dressing in an almost CLERICAL style black garb) to deemphasize the differences between WEALTH and to establish universal VIRTUE, and attempts to establish a new RELIGION (The Cult of the Supreme Being) complete with temples of REASON. And yet, despite its indiscriminate VIOLENCE, the Reign of Terror was surprisingly SUCCESSFUL at holding France together during this fragile time. There was significant economic reform: the POOR had their BREAD. And, the sense of NATIONALISM generated by the internal and external THREATS to the newly defined Republican French NATIONAL SOVERIEGNITY added weight to the argument that, however violent, the ENDS justified the MEANS. Consider the following narrative:


The day of the king’s death was the most dreary day I ever saw. The clouds even seemed to mourn. Nobody dared to appear, or at least look at each other. The cruel Jacobins themselves seemed to fear each other’s reproach. I was shut up all day. I heard nothing from Paris, nor did I wish to hear. I dreaded the idea of ever going there again…(of) breathing the same air as the murderers of the king. From that period everything bespoke terror. Robespierre became all powerful. People did not dare speak above their breath. Two people, the most intimate, would not have dared to stop and speak. In short, even in your own rooms you felt frightened. If you laughed, you were accused of joy at some bad news the republic had had; if you cried, they said that you regretted their success. In short, they were sending soldiers every hour to search houses for papers of conspiracies. These soldiers generally robbed people, or made them give them money, threatening them in case of refusal to denounce them.
Elliot, My Life During the French Revolution, pgs. 123-124
And yet, like so many of the other supporters of the terror, Robespierre would likewise meet his end at the blade of the guillotine!



  1. Ultimately the level of social SCRUTINY demanded by the terror became unsustainable, especially when FRENCH ARMY victories substantially REDUCED the internal and external military threat to the French state. The Terror’s leadership had become far too FACTIONAL, and French citizens desired a return to NORMALCY. The THERMIDOREAN (July) revolution of July 1794 ended the reign of terror—Jacobin clubs were disbanded as was the Committee of Public Safety, and once again the voice of republican MODERATES began to carry the day. Soon, French thinkers began to process through its events: consider as a final point the observations of Talleyrand, NAPOLEON’S Minister of Foreign Affairs:

my absence from France during the most terrible years of the Revolution left me in ignorance of the details of its dreadful events; I could scarcely, at that distance, discern their broad outlines. On the other hand, I turned away from these hideous scenes, in which so much abject spirit was mingled with so much fierceness, too often to be able to depict them. The reign of Henry IV and Louis XIV are known to us in all their details, but recent events appear confused and problematical, even to the very men who played a part in them; they followed each other with such rapidity, that each in turn almost stamped out the recollection of what had occurred before. Perhaps also the mob leaves too slight an imprint on its work; its deeds have but a transient effect, and the character of the men who serve it is such as to make no impression on one’s memory. Having lived in obscurity until such day as they appear on the scene, they return to it as soon as their part there is played. I confess that it would not cause me the slightest concern if the details of this awful calamity were to leave no trace in men’s minds, for they are of no historical importance. Indeed, what teachings could men derive from deeds without aim or plan, and which were merely the outcome of ruthless and unruly passions?


Talleyrand’s Memoirs, volume 1 pgs. 171-172


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