The French Revolution in 1789 marked a dramatic shift in European history. Since most other nations at the time were ruled by an absolute or constitutional monarchy, the revolution set a new precedent for radical change. Prior to the revolution, France was also ruled by a monarchy. From 1589 to 1610, Henry IV governed the state. Henry, a politique, followed the will of the people, but lacked complete control over the country due to the devastation from the war of the Three Henrys and other civil conflicts. This limitation of state sovereignty shifted, however, when the minister of Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, took control. Richelieu removed power from the nobles and other groups, centralizing it under the monarch and laying a path for French Absolutism. King Louis XIV later followed this road by augmenting Richelieu’s reforms and becoming an absolute monarch. During the reign of Louis XV and Louis XVI, however, a lack of substantive reforms and financial decisions led to a loss of monarchical power and ultimately the French Revolution. With the revolution marking a dramatic change in the course of European history, many historians have written contrasting views about the cause of the uprising. In his book War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy argues his belief in determinism, explaining that major events in history, such as the French Revolution, are predestined to occur based on past actions. Conversely, Thomas Carlyle, in his novel On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, lobbies that the course of history is shaped by decisive rulers and their reforms. While Tolstoy’s belief in the inevitable repetition of history aligns with France’s destiny for a revolution and rise of a powerful leader in Maximilien Robespierre, Carlyle is also correct in the sense that Robespierre’s decisive reforms shaped the immediate course of the Revolution.
Originating with Cardinal Richelieu, France’s poor financial decisions led to an unavoidable economic crisis. After accumulating much debt from the destructive Thirty Years War, Cardinal Richelieu, and later Cardinal Mazarin, struggled to find ways to raise money. The primary cause of this strife was the archaic privilege that allowed the nobles to avoid taxation. Since tax at the time was collected based on land and income, the accumulated privilege led the government to lack a large portion of revenue that could have been used to further centralize the power of the state. In essence, the privilege of the nobles weakened the state’s ability to pay for armies and increase sovereignty. Later in the seventeenth century, King Louis XIV further added to the debt through many unnecessary wars. With the idea of conquest as the highest character of a ruler, Louis continued to fight, though extending the state’s borders minimally. In order to control the nobles, Louis XIV forced them to live at Versailles; however, the upkeep of this palace also accumulated debt. Under Louis XV, the War of Austrian Succession and Seven Years’ War brought debt levels to an extreme, servicing the debt to nearly 50% of the state’s budget. With another quarter of the state’s money going to the military and 6% to Versailles, France was left with only 19% for other matters. The poor, at this time, faced the heaviest burden, as they struggled to sustain themselves because of the significant tax to both the church and the state, roughly cutting their earnings in half. With a firm reliance on agriculture to survive, a tipping point for the peasants was destined to occur. The simmering frustration and desire for change came in 1788, when a famine escalated the prices of bread and increased unemployment. This inevitable occurrence led to a hunger for revolution among the poor.
King Louis XVI’s power was also destined to decay because of previous inadequate reforms. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Louis XIV forced the nobles to live at Versailles, centralizing his power without dissent. In the following century, however, the regents of Louis XV released the nobles from Versailles, setting up the French monarchy for failure. Although Louis XV was able to assert absolute authority over the courts, his predecessor did not share the same authoritative personality. Louis XVI instead desired popularity and love from the people, thus giving in to the Paris Parliament and losing control over the nobility. With no say in the courts, Louis XVI resorted to calling an Estates General to address the state’s debt problem. The event itself reflected weakness in the king, as the last Estates General was called in 1614 before the establishment of an absolute monarchy. Moreover, the French estates had dramatically changed since the previous event, as the wealth divisions among classes were no longer accurate. Upon convening in 1788, Louis XVI proposed a tax on all property including the nobles and clergy who were exempt from tax at the time. This plan seemed futile however, because with the new block voting system, Louis XVI needed two estates to vote in his favor. After a deadlock in voting, the merchants of the 3rd estate, or Bourgeoisie, desiring equality before the law, decided to take action and created their own National Assembly. Without the clergy, nobles, or peasants on his side, and a personality based on popularity, the king inevitably succumbed to the assembly.
Although the National Assembly instituted many classical liberal ideas and appeared to claim power from the king, the urban poor, called sans-culottes, had the most power and desired radical reform. In the Great Fear of 1789, the sans-culottes burned the houses of many nobles because of the price of bread, and gamelaws, and their dislike towards feudalism. This aggressive act demonstrated the urban poor’s strength in numbers, as they forced the nobles to flee the country and unofficially ended feudalism. A few years later, on August 10, 1792, the sans-culottes further displayed their capability as they stormed the Tuileries Palace, leading to the suspension of the king. With such power, it was destined that the radical ideas of the sans-culottes would prevail. For example, at the National Convention, the more radical Mountain party, the Montagnards, was able to arrest the Girondists because the Montagnards had the sans-culottes on their side. Now with this new radical party in power, it was inevitable that a leader of the sans-culottes would emerge to maintain their ideological rule. Since there were many enemies to the radical beliefs of the sans-culottes both within France and among other European countries, the leader would require supreme authority to make quick decisions and overcome the internal and external enemies. Maximilien Robespierre thus surfaced as the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, essentially a dictator. Although his rise to power was predestined, Robespierre’s reforms were decisive and beyond what was expected.
Maximilien Robespierre shaped the course of the revolution through many radical reforms, including his control over the economy. As a great admirer of Rousseau, Robespierre viewed the division of labor as inequality. Thus, the Maximum Prices Edict set maximum bread prices, capped wages, and allowed the government to control work scheduling. By managing jobs, Robspierre was able to limit the power of the Royalists, his domestic enemies. The government also rationed food for the benefit of the sans-culottes, as they had the most power. To emphasize fairness, Robespierre instituted ‘the bread of equality’, forcing all people to eat the same bread. By nationalizing industries and controlling the economy, Robespierre decisively veered away from the French Revolution ideal of classical liberalism and towards a socialist society. New to Europe, this socialist society helped Robespierre maintain his power and continue the revolution.
In 1794, Robespierre boldly created a Republic of Virtue with a new religion and calendar, ultimately leading to his demise. Catholicism was eradicated from France and the Worship of the Supreme Being took its place. This new religion believed in a supreme being that washed up on Earth, similar to Deism. Additionally, the new, more rational calendar was made to correspond with the religion, as it marked a new beginning and did away with the Catholic convention. Robespierre saw the new religion and calendar as supplements to the government’s radical change and a way to centralize the beliefs of the people. The Worship of The Supreme Being differed greatly from Catholicism because of its focus on supporting Robespierre over the religion itself. Both the religion and calendar were unpopular with the peasants, who preferred the traditional structure of Catholicism as it provided them with a rest day on Sunday and many festivals throughout the year. These reforms, although unexpected, were not the most radical of Robespierre’s ideas.
While Robespierre’s initial role on the Committee of Public Safety was to make quick decisions against foreign powers and royalists, he vehemently dramatized this idea and began to crush his own internal enemies. By instituting the Law of Suspects, Robespierre allowed anyone who was suspected of not supporting the revolution to be arrested. Additionally, the Law of 22 Prairial II permitted group trials because individual trials could not keep up with the flow of convicts. Verbal evidence was also accepted in the jury, and the sans-culottes often served as the judges. The Guillotine was also invented in this period to allow for quicker executions. Robespierre used this system to eliminate several of his political enemies including Jacques Hebert, a more radical voice of the urban poor, and a conservative, Jacques Danton. At the time, Danton opposed Robespierre’s ascension to absolute power and many of his reforms, including the Republic of Virtue. Robespierre thus saw it necessary to eliminate Danton before he gained more followers. However, both the mass trials and killing of individual enemies, received severe backlash from the public. On July 27, 1794, while delivering a speech about more power for conviction, Robespierre was shouted down and later arrested and killed. This day, known as the Thermidorian Reaction, thus marked the end of Robespierre’s rule over France.
In conclusion, Leo Tolstoy is correct about the inevitability of the French Revolution because the many poor financial decisions and reforms by the monarch set up for a rise of the sans-culottes, change of power, and many radical reforms. Thomas Carlyle, however was also accurate in the sense that Robespierre’s control of the economy, Republic of Virtue, and devastation of internal enemies, may not have occurred with a different ruler. In the end, while Carlyle’s beliefs may more precisely reflect Robespierre’s role in the revolution, Tolstoy is more accurate about the entire history of France. A revolution swings from left to right like a pendulum, and although Robespierre may have swung the pendulum a little farther to the left, it quickly went back to the right with the conservative Directory soon taking power. While Carlyle would argue that Robespierre’s terrorizing legacy lingered among the French people, Tolstoy believed that Robespierre’s reign was just another step in the inevitable chain of history.