An Analysis of the Radical Phase of the French Revolution
The French Revolution was almost extinguished in 1792. The economic reforms prompted by the Cahier of the Third Estate of Dourdan (29 March 1789) had only appeared to benefit the middle and upper classes of the Third Estate. Meanwhile, fearing the spread of revolt throughout all Europe, Prussian and Austrian forces were marching towards Paris to cut it off at its source. However, the determination of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to put down the Revolution and flee the city combined with the approaching army of her brother, Leopold II, sparked a chain of events that pushed the Revolution into a radical phase. This paper will examine the causes of that radical phase, what it accomplished, and what role the Reign of Terror played in the Revolution.
Several personages had influenced Western philosophy prior to the outbreak of the Revolution. They ranged from Immanuel Kant to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. From Kant and such claims as, “Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity,” (410) the Revolution found its foothold. Yet, its radical elements (embodied by Robespierre and Danton) would find inspiration in Rousseau, who made claims such as, “Nature, not man, is [our] schoolmaster” (432). Nature, would be defined, however, by people like de Sade, who judged man’s nature to be brutal, bloodthirsty, and animalistic (Jones 50).
When a French mob attacked the Royal Palace, and Louis “fled to the Legislative Assembly for asylum,” the radical phase had begun. The lower classes were frustrated with the Revolution, and when the king and queen’s departure from the city was thwarted, a new group rose up to vent its anger against the monarchs. The Girondists had had little success in keeping up the Revolution. By declaring war on virtually all of Europe, Paris was soon at war with itself. The Jacobins, a political club and “strict equalitarians” had risen to power in 1791, calling for a new convention to “dismantle the constitution” (Hooker). The new convention also saw the rise of the most radical group, the sans culottes:
The sans-culottes (so named because they didn’t wear upper class breeches or culottes ) were the common people of Parisâ€¦They, like the poor, were among the prominent losers of the first, more moderate revolutionâ€¦[They] saw their livelihoods disappearing and inflation driving them to bare subsistence. Of all the groups of France, it is the hopes, dreams, and views of the sans-culottes that drove the radical revolution from 1792 to 1794. (Hooker)
It was the desire of the sans culottes and the more radical Jacobins to see monarchy abolished and property made communal. Indeed, the Paris municipal government would be sacked and redubbed the Paris Commune. From there, the radicals would demand that the king and queen be given to them for punishment.
The radical phase of the Revolution accomplished several things: 1) it effected the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as well as thousands of other “criminals” who were condemned as counter-revolutionaries; 2) it effected the dissemination of radical propaganda from men like Robespierre, the Marquis de Sade, to women like Mary Wollstonecraft, who had come to Paris to see the Revolution first hand; 3) it destabilized Parisian politics so badly that a new dictator would rise in the form of Napoleon. All of these things were essentially accomplished in the time period known as the Reign of Terror (September 1793-July 1794).
The Reign of Terror played an integral part in fomenting the Revolution beyond its previous moderate expanse, and Maximilien Robespierre played a central role in the Reign when he passionately made such declarations as, “The tyrants of this earth have made their plans. The defenders of the Republic are to be their sacrifices. Very wellâ€¦we shall save freedom by the severest measures, we shall not consent to be murdered one by one” (51). Severest measures turned out to be the murder of others, whose heads were lost at the guillotine.
The character of the Reign of Terror was given by Robespierre, “for he believed that virtue was ineffective without terror and he openly advocated terror as a political virtue” (Hooker). Robespierre assembled the powers of the tribunals, which passed judgments of death on other governmental leaders. His Law of 22 Prairial (the radical phase of the Revolution also saw the induction of a new calendar) gave tribunals the right to convict without any evidence at all. However, if Robespierre was responsible for its character, another man was responsible for seeing the Reign of Terror through.
Georges Danton gained control when the Jacobins seized the Convention that would call for the death of the monarchy. “Soon, the heads of Girondists began to fall from the guillotines, then the sans-culottes, then the enragees, then opposing members in the Jacobin party, and eventually a pile of innocent victims” (Hooker). By the end of the Reign of Terror in 1794, “more peasants, laborers, republicans, and democrats lost their lives to the tribunals than aristocrats or monarchists” (Hooker). Even Danton, who led much of the Terror, was executed before its end, and finally, so was Robespierre and several other radicals.
In conclusion, the French Revolution had almost been completely frustrated and put down before a sudden chain of events caused a spark that pushed the Revolution into a more radical direction. The seizure of power by radical groups from the lower disgruntled classes, caused an overthrow of the system of government in France, and opened the door to the Reign of Terror, which promoted Enlightenment doctrine through the beheading of those who seemed to oppose it. Ultimately, however, the radical phase of the Revolution only paved the way for a new dictator to rise (Napoleon) who could restore the country to a former semblance of order.
Hooker, Richard. “Radical Revolution.” Revolution and After: Tragedies and Farce. 6
June 1999. Web. 29 Mar 2011.
Jones, E. Michael. Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2000.
Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?” Sources of the Western Tradition. Ed.
Marvin Perry. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
Robespierre, Maximilien. “In Favor of an Armed People, of a War against the Vendee,
1793.” Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1961.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Emile.” Sources of the Western Tradition. Ed.
Marvin Perry. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
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