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 Who really started the French Revolution? 
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
This is an opinion, not a matter of historical record.

In my opinion, the April 1789 riots of the Faubourg St. Antoine were not revolutionary in intent. It's quite likely they were sparked by paid agitators to increase the sense of 'crisis,' and to make the King look bad. But what that riot was really about was one of the worst slums in Paris seizing an opportunity to act up, to loot, get drunk, and cause general mayhem, as they were likely to do at any time. A modern comparison could be drawn to the Los Angeles riots of 1991.

One thing is certain, it was a clear warning that Paris was extremely unstable and in need of a stronger military presence; a warning the Crown failed to heed. If Louis XVI had acted more quickly in summoning his foreign troops; if he had moved to quell Paris immediately after the Bastille fell, and simultaneously disbanded the Convention, than perhaps he could have ended the Revolution before it really began.


Thu Sep 04, 2008 10:28 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
Thank you, silverstar, for bringing up the April riots, those are a good point for this thread.

I agree with Christophe that the April riots weren't specifically revolutionary in intent, but they clearly indicated a deep and violent dissatisfaction with the current situation. I disagree that they were sparked by agitators, I think it was more likely an example of general mob mentality. Also, Louis XVI's lack of decisive action is generally accepted as one of the contributing factors in the early Revolution, so I agree with that (though one could say it was to his credit that he was reluctant to brutally suppress the people with military force). Of course, more decisive action earlier on, even years before the Revolution, could have helped to prevent it. I'm thinking particularly of the general purposelessness of the Assembly of Notables.

Like I've said, I do like those history "What if?" questions and I can honestly say I don't know what would have happened if he had acted to subdue Paris after the fall of the Bastille. I spent the past year translating the correspondence of Camille Desmoulins and in his letter about July 12-14 he talks about how after the Bastille fell everyone felt sure they were going to be attacked by royal troops, barricades were being built in the street, everyone was arming themselves, women were gathering paving stones and boiling water to drop out of windows onto soldiers heads, etc. The general impression being that putting down Paris would be a brutal affair and although probably successful due to the forces at the King's disposal, would definitely not endear him to the people. While Louis XVI was fairly popular at the beginning of the Revolution, that would quickly end it. Not to mention, after dismissing the National Assembly, the representatives would then go home to their provinces and protest there against the despotism of Louis XVI for destroying the National Assembly and attacking his own people. And France would still be facing all the problems it called the Estates General to resolve, only with added anger towards the monarchy. I think decisiveness from Louis XVI would have helped avoid the Revolution, but it would be more effective in doing so relating to earlier decisions he could have made that would have removed some of the tension from the political situation and helped restore the treasury (ah that pesky plan of taxing the first and second estates). While I have no doubt if Louis XVI had put down Paris after the fall of the Bastille, history would have turned out differently, I doubt it would have followed an ideal, peaceful course of reform either. You still have all the problems that needed to be solved, plus added bitterness.

I love these sort of speculations. :)

Also, just a general note of terminology, the elected body during that period was called the National Assembly (or later the Constituent Assembly). The Convention specifically refers to the National Convention that governed from 1792 to 1795.


Fri Sep 05, 2008 5:16 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
I have never known, at any time in history, a mob to organize itself without the prompting of agitators... I think that to imagine such a thing is a bit naive. Another big 'what if' would be "what if Louis had had better intelligence agents and had had the Duc d'Orleans and other aristocratic troublemakers executed early on and their assets seized to help resolve France's economic woes?" Perhaps the monarchy should also have decisively dealt with the slanderous pamphlets that were being circulated in the salons and amongst the literate bourgeoise, instead of merely ignoring them. Of course, as everyone knows, hindsight is 20/20.

Ray

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Fri Sep 05, 2008 7:24 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
The April riots started when something one of the workshop owners (I don't remember if it was Hanriot or the other man who had his home burned) in St. Antoine said. He said that it would be good if employers could lower workers' wages. Of course, the full quote was that it would be good if the overall cost of living and inflation in France would go down, so workers did not have to pay so much for bread, and then employers could pay them less, but the only part that people picked up on was the part about paying people less. As that spread from mouth to mouth, it sparked a riot that attacked the homes of the two owners and performed other random acts of violence. Obviously there were people communicating information through the mob and doing some small scale organizing, but that's different from paid agitators. I might even believe that in the later days of the riots there were people specifically agitating the mob by people taking advantage of the instability in Paris (Orléans et al). I can't remember exactly because it was July when I last read a book about this. However, I think it began as an organic movement of rage about an incorrect quote from the factory owner, that was at least originally organized (as much as mobs are) by the people who took offense.

As for him executing the Duc d'Orléans and other aristocrats... I don't think that straight out executions of powerful nobles for political reasons was really within the king's power anymore by the late 18th century.


Fri Sep 05, 2008 8:55 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
Yes, I did not mean paid agitators, just for the record, but merely agitators. Perhaps my statement was somewhat too global, but, in general, crowds with a singular purpose are usually whipped up rather than just organically forming of their own accord. Agitators were certainly behind the ridiculous riots in downtown Atlanta following the Rodney King thing and everyone knew it. (Luckily in this respect, we are primarily a suburban city so not many people actually 'live' downtown and so, commercial properties were the main targets. I don't recall anyone getting hurt.) Speaking of kings, however, thanks for pointing out that the king did not have the authority to move against powerful aristocrats ( and relatives) by the time in question. I also think that he would not have thought of such a thing anyway, being rather unaggressive and polite. It was a big 'what if' I suppose! :) Thanks for responding, as always.

Sincerely,
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Sat Sep 06, 2008 4:38 am
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
Ray wrote:
The more I learn about the French Revolution, the more the myth seems to crumble. It had to have been a grasp for power as all political revolutions, by definition, are.


At an academic level, the myth has been crumbling for quite some time - Simon Schama ('Citizens') is only the most well-known of scholars who suggest that the violence and destruction of the Revolution was inherent to it, not an accidental side-effect and (as Burke wrote at the time, but was long dismissed as a conservative, reactionary point of view) actually slowed the arrival of democracy in France (not only were most of the ephemeral governments of the Revolutionary period far from democratic, but the Revolution was followed by a military dictatorship - Napoleon - and a Restoration of monarchy.)

This is generally called the "revisionist" approach to the Revolution. There have of course been academics who have responded and critiqued this position as well - the Revolution after all remains something of a sacred cow for many.

Wlkipedia actually has a pretty useful article on the historiography of the French Revolution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography_of_the_French_Revolution ) for those who are interested.

I don't know that I would call it a "power grab", though - that implies far more organization and leadership than seems to have been the case. Robespierre is probably as close as the French ever had to a Lenin, a Castro or a Mao, and he didn't survive his own rule very long. One of the terrifying things about this first great revolution was how chaotic and irrational it was compared to the more ideologically driven movements it helped inspire.

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Last edited by jimcheval on Mon Oct 20, 2008 4:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Mon Oct 20, 2008 6:46 am
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
I think the ideology is a good thought however as it crept to the lower classes it got more violent.

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Mon Oct 20, 2008 1:07 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
The problem really was that there was no ideology - more like a wealth of new ideas, competing for primacy. Lower class anger certainly contributed to the subsequent violence, but it's important to remember that most of the leaders/instigators were middle class - Robespierre was a lawyer, Marat a journalist, etc. Much of the violence they inspired was as much about trying to keep the upper hand over other competing groups as it was about either spontaneous expressions of rage (like the murders right after the taking of the Bastille) or any carefully mapped out philosophy.

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Tue Oct 28, 2008 11:15 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
jimcheval wrote:
Ray wrote:
The more I learn about the French Revolution, the more the myth seems to crumble. It had to have been a grasp for power as all political revolutions, by definition, are.


At an academic level, the myth has been crumbling for quite some time - Simon Schama ('Citizens') is only the most well-known of scholars who suggest that the violence and destruction of the Revolution was inherent to it, not an accidental side-effect and (as Burke wrote at the time, but was long dismissed as a conservative, reactionary point of view) actually slowed the arrival of democracy in France (not only were most of the ephemeral governments of the Revolutionary period far from democratic, but the Revolution was followed by a military dictatorship - Napoleon - and a Restoration of monarchy.)

This is generally called the "revisionist" approach to the Revolution. There have of course been academics who have responded and critiqued this position as well - the Revolution after all remains something of a sacred cow for many.

Wlkipedia actually has a pretty useful article on the historiography of the French Revolution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography_of_the_French_Revolution ) for those who are interested.

I don't know that I would call it a "power grab", though - that implies far more organization and leadership than seems to have been the case. Robespierre is probably as close as the French ever had to a Lenin, a Castro or a Mao, and he didn't survive his own rule very long. One of the terrifying things about this first great revolution was how chaotic and irrational it was compared to the more ideologically driven movements it helped inspire.


Excellent summary. Thank you!

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Wed Oct 29, 2008 2:44 am
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
When I think about the Revolution, it always strikes me as a sequence of events which seem to have come after each other without most of them being planned or even expected at the beginning, but as though each one brought to the others in a sort of domino game (is it the right name in English?). I mean, it could have gone in many completely different ways (and so we are back to "what if questions, Dreamoutloud :) ), while what actually happened was a concourse of causes, many of which look quite accidental, at least in their sequence.
Of course, the core of the matter was a long-term situation. The absolutist monarchy was an old and obsolete system, and more the so as, in form Louis XIV had given it, it could prosper only under a monarch with a strong personality and a strong control on the aristocracy. Aristocracy itself, in fact, was always an ambiguous element for the monarchy, as it could support but also undermine the king's power. To this inner waekness one should of course add the development of thought and philosophy which is best summarized under the concept of "Enlightenment", which someone has already mentioned: so, the new ideas, especially the idea of a more modern and equal political system. Of course these ideas were in the air, not only in France, but in great part of Europe, so it was a matter of time for the absolutist monarchy to be substitued by something else.
But what, and, above all, how could this happen? I think the Revolution as it actually took place was not inevitable at all.

What made the situation evolve was that a hard finantial crisis was added to this political and "ideal" background. We should never forget that the Estates general were summoned about matters of taxes, and that was, so to say, tha spark which made all the official debate about sovereignity begin. I'm not a specialist about the Revolution, but I think I understood that the question was, basically: who had to right to impose taxes? Should the king decide, or should his decision be approved by some organ representative of the people's will?
So the summoning of the Estates General turned into a discussion about sovereignity and, then, to the formation of the National Assembly and the attempt to find a new constitution.

But then there was yet antoher element, that is, the popular fury, which was fomented by the very bad haversts of the years before 1789. Without those conditions, the anger of the people wouldn't probably have been so disruptive and violent. Of course there was a propaganda working since many years before, but I think that the first uprising broke out without a conscious direction from outside. But, once they had happened, the violent direction of the Revolution was in front of eveyone's eyes.

All of these conditions seem to me like sparks capable of putting fire on a great amount of hay (sorry for the weird metaphor, it was the only one I could find!). The fact that they happened all together probably was the reason why thins went like we know, in such an "explosive" way. I don't know if we can say where the Revolution started from, because it was made up of so many factor. As I said before, looking back now, I have the impression sometimes to look at a sort of spiral that grew on itself.

As I said, I'm no specialist, so this is just the idea I've formed; but I'm looking forward to share it with you. Dreamoutloud and Cristophe, thank you for contributions, that are always very interested and well-documented!

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Fri Feb 27, 2009 11:03 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
Thanks Rosalie, for this summary, I like it.

Rosalie wrote:
When I think about the Revolution, it always strikes me as a sequence of events which seem to have come after each other without most of them being planned or even expected at the beginning, but as though each one brought to the others in a sort of domino game (is it the right name in English?). I mean, it could have gone in many completely different ways (and so we are back to "what if questions, Dreamoutloud :) ), while what actually happened was a concourse of causes, many of which look quite accidental, at least in their sequence.
Of course, the core of the matter was a long-term situation. The absolutist monarchy was an old and obsolete system, and more the so as, in form Louis XIV had given it, it could prosper only under a monarch with a strong personality and a strong control on the aristocracy. Aristocracy itself, in fact, was always an ambiguous element for the monarchy, as it could support but also undermine the king's power. To this inner waekness one should of course add the development of thought and philosophy which is best summarized under the concept of "Enlightenment", which someone has already mentioned: so, the new ideas, especially the idea of a more modern and equal political system. Of course these ideas were in the air, not only in France, but in great part of Europe, so it was a matter of time for the absolutist monarchy to be substitued by something else.
But what, and, above all, how could this happen? I think the Revolution as it actually took place was not inevitable at all.


If you observe history of revolutions, you see that the same model worked in most of the cases. It is whatever how much time foregoes blasting (decades, years or only months?), at first, you notice that writers, artists (philosophers) come, vacuum filled by real politicans with real political demands, and a new idea born, revolutionaries bring out or redefine an idea... It is still good.
And, in addition, this is the point where it has to stop, but it just can't. You are right, Rosalie, when you wrote that revolution is not inevitable, but only if we look the demand of it. Because if we consider the fortitude of such a social running, I think revolution can't be reined.

The other gage is: years, decades later, new revolutionaries refer past, that's how become a new, misshapen conception... for example, think of what did communists regard as a ground. They believed in labour class (Karl Marx). How Stalin changed this idea? He suggested to extend comfort to the "people" (it's an amzingly demagog word), while he sent everyone to Gulag, everyone: peasants, kulaks, officials even as his apparatus... Ideas bacomes worse and worse.

Often political process is enough, but in most of the cases. people want to create rather a revolution. Has revolution a momentous meaning? Has a revolution ever hit its aim? I think no. The final aim became different, or revolution overshot the mark. But it's whatever. I can't explain why, but we always need a more radical change. It moves history... a bit Marxist, but true :lol:

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Sat Feb 28, 2009 5:22 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
Anouk wrote:

If you observe history of revolutions, you see that the same model worked in most of the cases. It is whatever how much time foregoes blasting (decades, years or only months?), at first, you notice that writers, artists (philosophers) come, vacuum filled by real politicans with real political demands, and a new idea born, revolutionaries bring out or redefine an idea... It is still good.
And, in addition, this is the point where it has to stop, but it just can't. You are right, Rosalie, when you wrote that revolution is not inevitable, but only if we look the demand of it. Because if we consider the fortitude of such a social running, I think revolution can't be reined.

The other gage is: years, decades later, new revolutionaries refer past, that's how become a new, misshapen conception... for example, think of what did communists regard as a ground. They believed in labour class (Karl Marx). How Stalin changed this idea? He suggested to extend comfort to the "people" (it's an amzingly demagog word), while he sent everyone to Gulag, everyone: peasants, kulaks, officials even as his apparatus... Ideas bacomes worse and worse.


Yes, this is just the point! I think every revolution comes up to very different ends than its beginnings seem to promise. In the french revolution this seems a very central feature. There's a moment when something happens that just brings the events out of control, and then it's like they take another way, and open new perspectives. Maybe this is what I find so fascinating in the history of the French revolution: as I said, I see it almost as a chain of events that brought to each other, in a sort of spiral, in which just a part was made by actual long-term reason, while another important element was of casuality.


Quote:
Often political process is enough, but in most of the cases. people want to create rather a revolution. Has revolution a momentous meaning? Has a revolution ever hit its aim? I think no. The final aim became different, or revolution overshot the mark. But it's whatever. I can't explain why, but we always need a more radical change. It moves history... a bit Marxist, but true :lol


I don't know,...I still think it would be great if humanity learned to be so wise to make changes without violent revolutions...But maybe it's a bit of a utopia :)

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Mon Mar 02, 2009 9:43 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
Rosalie wrote:
But maybe it's a bit of a utopia

I believe so, unfortunately.

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Mon Mar 02, 2009 10:40 pm
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
Rosalie wrote:

Yes, this is just the point! I think every revolution comes up to very different ends than its beginnings seem to promise. In the french revolution this seems a very central feature. There's a moment when something happens that just brings the events out of control, and then it's like they take another way, and open new perspectives. Maybe this is what I find so fascinating in the history of the French revolution: as I said, I see it almost as a chain of events that brought to each other, in a sort of spiral, in which just a part was made by actual long-term reason, while another important element was of casuality.


Indeed. Chain-like events, as you said: it is the proper French Revolution. (Maybe other revolutions' history is the same, but their paraphrase needs as much exploration and knowledge as we are talking about the French Revolution here.)
It is not statutory, but as I observe, there is a chain link, where the way of a revolution changes. I am maybe a compulsive to say this, but I believe it was the declaration of the war, then the king's trial.

Rosalie wrote:
I don't know,...I still think it would be great if humanity learned to be so wise to make changes without violent revolutions...But maybe it's a bit of a utopia :)


Yes, unfortunately it is true... for certains, revolution is a way to get rich and have power. Perhaps, that's why revolutions are always "necessary" :evil:

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Tue Mar 03, 2009 5:45 am
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Post Re: Who really started the French Revolution?
I think changed needed to take place. Essentially France was using the same form of government of Louis XIV and the government did not change with the times.

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Tue Mar 03, 2009 5:21 pm
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