Has The French Revolution Gotten A Bad Rap?

The French celebrate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille as their equivalent of our Independence Day, the day that their history of free self-government began. Unlike America, however, France’s history of free self-government has not run uninterrupted since then. More on that below, but for now it’s probably more important to realize that July 14, 1789 was not so much the beginning of liberty in France as the end of the Ancien Régime.

What happened on July 14, 1789, was that the revolutionaries who had taken control of the Estates-General grew frustrated with dilatory tactics and intractable demands of the King, and for the first time presented themselves in public and with arms, making good on the implied threat of a popular uprising against the King. In a form better-organized than a mob but not as well-organized as a military unit, armed commoners took control of the Bastille, a combination military depot and prison in the southeastern portion of Paris left over from the medieval period. There, they seized a large stockpile of small arms and some cannon from a munitions depot, and freed seven inmates (including two noblemen) who they deemed to be “political prisoners” of His Most Christian Majesty. Contrary to popular myth, the infamous Marquis de Sade was not one of them — he had been transferred to an insane asylum only ten days before.

So that’s what happened on Bastille Day. The French people, for the first time, stood up and asserted themselves against their King and won a decisive victory. The military significance of the action itself was probably not all that much, but the political impact was immense — Louis XVI lost more support that day from demoralization of his own troops than anything else and at that point it was really only a matter of time until some kind of republican government took real power in France.

Of course, how that happened is a complex and deeply depressing story. For we Americans, the French Revolution conjures up images of eighteenth-century urban violence, social chaos, lurid public executions accomplished by guillotine, and political paranoia. And the Reign of Terror did in fact have all of those things, in surplus, so much so that even Robespierre himself fell victim to the violent, insane world of political radicalism he more than anyone else helped create.

The French are well aware of that part of their past as well, which may help explain why none of them seem to care that the Bastille is now gone, torn down within a year of the original storming of the fortress. If you go to Place de la Bastille in Paris today, you will see a column commemorating the events of a subsequent revolution which took place in 1830. The only place where the actual structure survives (allegedly) is a few foundation stones which make up the wall of a tunnel leaving the metro station. Supposedly, it’s marked with a plaque, but when I visited Paris I stayed at a hotel very near Place de la Bastille and used that metro station quite a bit, and I never saw any such plaque.

But while we Americans tend to dwell on the bloody, lurid aspects of the Revolution, we ignore two important facts about it. First, we ignore the fact that our own war for independence was a primary precipitating cause of the Revolution in France. Second, we ignore that the French Revolution was motivated by the same high-minded Enlightenment ideals that were the foundation of our own successful rebellion against an oppressive monarchy.

Our own role in causing the Revolution had a great deal to do with the fact that for nearly ten years, we had sent ambassadors and ministers to Versailles begging Louis XVI to underwrite our revolution against Britain — and His Most Christian Majesty eventually agreed to do it. Tens of millions of livres — in many cases, hard specie of gold and silver — found their way back to America to buy weapons, gunpowder, cannon, ships, and to pay for the soldiers and sailors who would use them. Louis did this in the hopes of tearing away Britain’s most populous and (then) largest colonies away from it as an indirect front of an undeclared extension of the Seven Years’ War (what we call the French and Indian War). And America could not pay its debts back all at once. To make up for the depletion of the French Crown’s treasury, high levels of taxes had to be imposed and after two bad harvests in a row, the heavy foot of the burden of taxation got to be too much and starvation broke out across the country. Other crops may have been available for import, but the average Frenchman had no food, no money, and no apparent means to get any.

So we didn’t have anything to do with the weather, of course, but we had everything to do with the fact that the King was broke. France’s treasure had been spent on too many guns, and not enough butter. And that’s why the King had to call the Estates-General, to work out a way to replenish the treasury until we Americans could get our act together and start paying back our debts.

But we also forget that the basic ideas of both Revolutions were fundamentally the same. No taxation without meaningful representation in the government. Popular sovereignty. Subordination of the government to the popular will and to sacrosanct liberties of the individual. The rule of law and independent courts to protect and enforce individual rights. A rejection of the concepts of rule by divine right and the comingling of political power with religious authority. The fundamental equality of all people and the emerging nationalism of a people. These were the ideological causes of both revolutions, radical for the time but are shamefully taken for granted by Americans today.

France’s tricolor flag represents the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity — a citizen of France is a free individual, equal to any other citizen, and part of a greater whole that is the nation of France. It is hard to think of a better sort of national ideal; those are ideals that we (and the French) continue to try to improve ourselves towards, both as individuals and as nations.

The French have, like we Americans, fallen short of the ideals of their revolution at many times in their history. Unfortunately for them, their failings have caused them greater turmoil than ours. Our greatest failure as a nation to live up to our ideals came to tremendous and protracted violence for nearly four years in our Civil War. Nearly as many Americans died in our Civil War as in all of our other wars and military actions combined. But while I do not wish to minimize the horror and brutality, and the tremendous moral urgency, of that conflict, the price we have paid in blood does not compare to the price paid in both blood and turmoil by the French.

The First Republic, established in la grande révolution, produced an initially moderate but increasingly radical government, which degenerated into near-anarchy. by 1804. In 1804 In 1799, Napoléon Bonaparte became the First Consul and later Emperor of the First French Republic. He ruled a generally wartime nation for ten years, until the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1814. With the exception of the Hundred Days of 1815 when Napoléon broke out of his exile on Elba and effected a brief coup, four Bourbon kings (Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis XIX, and Henri V) ruled in a constitutional monarchy in a period called la Restoration until 1830.

Urban violence plagued France during the reign of the unpopular Charles X. When barricades were erected by radical republicans and people got shot in the street by both revolutionaries and the gendarmes, Charles X abdicated to keep the peace. His son Louis XIX likely holds the record for the shortest reign of any legitimate monarch of any throne in history, having “ruled” France for about twenty minutes, which he spent mainly listening to his father crying.

Charles’ grandson, Henri, was proclaimed by some to be Henri V, King of France, but was only a small child at the time. He “reigned” for seven days and then the National Assembly declared a regency headed by his cousin, Louis-Phillipe Bourbon-Orleans, who was quickly named “King of the French.” During all of this time, real political power was gravitating back towards the National Assembly, with the king serving as a British-style constitutional monarch. Louis-Phillipe, however, ceded even more power to the National Assembly. Problem was, the National Assembly at this point limited its membership to land-owning or significant tax-paying citizens. So disenfranchised citizens took to the streets and erected barricades again, and finally in 1848 another revolution took place, with still more death and violence that echoed across Europe, and which ended the Kingdom of the French.

In the place of the Kingdom of the French came the Second Republic, which had a near-universal franchise but the result of more than a generation of inexperience with widespread democracy resulted in clumsy political maneuverings and Louis-Napoléon, a second cousin of the great Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected President in 1848, and spent the next three years of his four year term securing the loyalty of the military. He staged a coup in 1851, held a referendum to legitimize his actions, and when he won, he dissolved the National Assembly and declared himself Emperor Napoléon III. Thus the Second Republic became the Second Empire.

Although the Second Empire was an overt military dictatorship, Napoléon III turned out to be a competent and generally benevolent dictator. But in 1870, three significant reverses hit France. Napoléon III himself had to surrender to the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan, losing the Franco-Prussian War, and then a mob stormed the National Assembly after another bloody urban riot. A brief government called the Government of National Defense uneasily shared power with a group called the Paris Commune for two months, and conducted a treaty with the Prussians, while a Third Republic was organized and more political violence within France kept the nation crippled. The Third Republic was thought by most to be a stopgap form of government until a constitutional monarchy could be restored; the problem was that there were by now two claimants to the French throne.

One group thought that Henri, the Comte de Chambord, the grandson of the former Charles X, should be King Henri V; contending that when his father Louis XIX had also abdicated, he was the next in line for the throne and conveniently, he was still alive and had technically been king for seven days back in 1830. Henri had become an impetuous young man and he did not want to be a figurehead king but rather wanted to exercise real political power as France’s head of state. So he would not accept the limitations on royal power that had bound his cousin, Louis-Phillipe; insisting on a change of the national flag to return the fleur-de-lis of the old nobility. Louis-Phillipe, in the meantime, had died and his claim to the throne was held by his grandson, the Comte de Paris, who would have been Louis-Phillipe II, but the would-be king could not muster enough popular support to back his claim to the throne, and the National Assembly was unwilling to offer the throne to Henri V because of his monarchical ambitions. This younger Louis-Phillipe made a bid to be named Henri’s designated heir-claimant to the throne but would not pledge loyalty to the fleur-de-lis flag, and so was passed over and had to be content with calling himself le Duc de France, and the possibility of a return to a British-style constitutional monarchy was stalemated.

So, instead of being a stepping-stone back to a constitutional monarchy, the Third Republic was formalized in 1875 and lasted until the Nazis invaded France in 1940. The national government of France was then replaced with the fascist Vichy Regime, or as it called itself, L’etat Francais, the French State. The Vichy Regime was quite simple the wartime puppet of Nazi Germany, and when the Allies invaded in 1944, it was overthrown and many of its leaders subsequently tried and executed for treason.

A provisional government was in place until 1946, when the Fourth Republic was enacted under wartime resistance leader Charles de Gaulle. The Fourth Republic tried to incorporate Algeria into the political unity of France but was not resilient enough to handle the tensions of the Algerian independence movement. When there were signs of the government giving in to Algerian revolutionaries, the military seized power in Algeria and threatened a coup in France itself, and the government collapsed. Thanks to the personal charisma of the still-living de Gaulle, the military, separatists, and nationalists all agreed to form a new Fifth Republic with a stronger executive branch which took effect in January of 1959, and that is the government that rules in France today.

It seems amazing that the French have gone through so many permutations of government since 1789, but the fact is that the trend of their government has been towards realizing the Enlightenment’s ideals of universal franchise, equality, individual liberties, and the collective well-being of the French as a people and as a nation. And they shouldn’t take it for granted, either; there are three pretenders to the throne of France alive today. Which in its own way, is even more amazing to me.

There are still people who want a Napoléon to rule France. For them, the rightful ruler would likely be the Prince Jean-Christophe Louis Ferdinand Albéric Napoléon, who would be styled Emperor Napoléon VIII. His father, Charles Marie Jérôme Victor Napoléon, is a banker and real estate developer and has been a largely unsuccessful politician. But the senior Napoléon was disinherited from the succession by his father (the would-have-been Napoléon-Bonaparte VI), in a fit of pique over changing his last name from Napoléon-Bonaparte to just Napoléon after a nasty divorce. Jean-Christophe Napoléon is twenty-two years old and is apparently working as a management consultant. How would you like that — to have a management consultant named Napoléon telling you how to run your company?

The “Legitimist” claims follow those of Henri V, and contend that his removal from office (and the abdications of Charles X and Louis XIX) were illegal. The current holder of this claim to the throne is a Spanish citizen and a cousin to the reigning King of Spain, one Luis Alfonso Gonzalo Víctor Emanuel Marco de Borbón y Martínez-Bordiú, le Duc de Anjou et le Duc de Bourbon, who would be Louis XX, King of France, Navarre, and Jerusalem. Seeing as his cousin is King of Spain, he might have to renounce his claim to the throne of Navarre were to become even a figurehead king, and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was conquered in 1291 and, um, distinctly unlikely to be reinstated in the foreseeable future, but if there were such a kingdom, he’d be its King. So his likeliest claim to royalty would be in France, where he would have to beat out an actual French citizen for the throne. But for the time being, the would-be Louis XX is thirty-four years old and works as a commercial banker in Venezuela, where in the finest tradition of all would-be monarchs, he scored himself a wealthy wife. Their daughter was born in Miami and is therefore a U.S. citizen by birth, but because of the Salic Law, she could not become Queen of France in the event of a Bourbon restoration.

The “Orléanist” claims follow those of Louis-Phillipe, and are considered by those who care about such things to be the stronger claims today. The Orléanist pretender is the 75-year-old Henri Philippe Pierre Marie d’Orléans, Comte de Paris et Duc de France, who is the direct descendant of King Louis-Phillipe, who served honorably in the French military during the Algerian conflict and has written a number of respectable works of French history. On the royalist side of things, he has pursued litigation since the 1960’s to restore and consolidate his family’s wealth from those who have held it. Well, someone had to do it and he’s managed to recapture several millions of dollars of his family’s assets and rebuilt a respectable residential and commercial real estate venture out of it. He has also sued the Duke of Anjou (the would-be Louis XX’s father) to resolve the claims to the French throne, but in 1989 the French courts held that they had no jurisdiction over such matters and since it didn’t look like there would be kings again any time soon, it didn’t much matter anyway.

After all, the French neither want nor need a monarch, which is what Bastille Day is all about. While I’m sure all three claimants to the French throne are perfectly nice guys (you know, for old money), and this guy seems like he’s not all that bad, either, competing claims to the throne of France in the modern era have brought the French little but misery, civil strife, and bloodshed interrupted by periods of prosperity and peace that have prevailed generally only during the times of republican government. It all started on July 14, 1789 and it changed the course of history.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Great post! As lawyers, we should also remember that the American Bill of Rights was directly inspired by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and that the Revolution abolished slavery in 1794 (it was reinstated by Bonaparte in 1802.)Speaking of Bonaparte, he did crown himself Emperor in 1804, but he has seized power in a coup in 1799.

  2. “… the French neither want nor need a monarch …”In recent opinion polls, 17 percent of the French said they want a Monarch.http://www.alliance-royale.com/spip.php?article423And if they don’t “need a Monarch”, well, considering the unpopularity of Nicolas Sarkozy and the failings of the republican system, I wonder how many French would disagree with that statement.

  3. COOL! A real monarchist! Welcome, RR, and I hope you keep coming back!I glanced at your blog and it looks like you have a particular interest in the British monarchy but I’m impressed with your ecumenical zeal for hereditary rule in all sorts of places.This post was about France — do you believe the Legitimist, Orleanist, or Bonapartist claims to the French monarchy enjoy the most legitimacy?

  4. Now I’m convinced. These posts are essays you had to write in school. Keep them coming . . .

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