American Revolution, French Revolution, King Louis XVI, National Assembly, Tennis Court Oath, Bastille, Guillotine and Reign of Terror

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 6th, 2012

Politics 101

France was Staring at Bankruptcy while her People were Suffering Poverty and Hunger

Shortly after the American Revolution came the French Revolution.  Inspired in part by the American Revolution.  Whose spirit of liberty was infectious.  Some French even joined the Americans in their fight for liberty.  Such as Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette.  Who was a general in George Washington’s army.  And who Washington looked on as a son.  America’s war was an expensive war.  And only through the generosity of Louis XVI, King of the French, did the Americans win their war.  Ironic, really, that an absolute monarch like Louis XVI would help the Americans break free from a monarchy.  But he did.  And saddled France with a tremendous war debt.

These are two things you don’t want to do if you’re a king.  Showing your people that you support the end of monarchy while denying it to your own people.  And making the French people pay for another people’s independence.  Through higher taxes.  And greater privations.  Things that tend to piss off a people.  It was a gamble for Louis.  For he didn’t believe in the American cause.  It was just a calculated bet.  The British had just recently defeated the French in the Seven Years’ War.  And the British took France’s North American territories.  Territories the French wanted back.  The American Revolution was their chance to rebalance the balance of power.  And get back at their hated enemy.  Great Britain.

Well that was the plan.  But it did not go as planned.  The Americans got wind of what the French monarchy was doing behind the scenes.  Which was even in discussions with the British to secure a peace that left the Americans subjects of the British Crown.  With a much smaller territory in the New World.  Leaving room for the French.  And their ally.  Spain.  An outcome that benefited neither the British nor the Americans.  So the British and the Americans made a separate peace.  One that favored their interests.  Not the French or the Spanish.  So Louis gambled.  He lost.  And he lost big.  The nation was staring at bankruptcy.  While her people were suffering poverty and hunger.  And what did these poor and hungry people see?  A very comfortable and well fed king, nobility and clergy.  This was the kindling just waiting for a match to light.

Montesquieu influenced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as well as the U.S. Founding Documents

That match came in 1789.  And the lighting of that match began with Jacques Necker.  Comptroller-General of Finance for Louis XVI.  Who advised the king that the nobility and the clergy needed to pay more taxes.  And proposed restricting the power of the parlements.  The nobility and the clergy paid little taxes due to their tax exemptions.  While the poor were too poor to help with the financial mess France was in.  So the only hope of raising new revenue was the nobility and clergy.  Alas, the monarchy did not like his recommendations and fired him.  Enter Charles Alexandre, vicomte de Calonne.  Who advised the king that the nobility and the clergy needed to pay more taxes.  Facing opposition from the parlements for proposing unpopular policy Calonne got the king to summon the Assembly of Notables.  A group of notables (like Lafayette) who advised the king.  But the notables did not endorse Calonne’s plan.  So the king called the Estates-General to the Grands Salles des Menus-Plaisirs in Versailles.

The estates were representatives of the people.  There were three of them.  The clergy.  The nobility.  And everyone else.  The commoners.  That is, the Third Estate.  Who grew weary with the way things were in France and declared themselves representatives not of the Third Estate but of the people.  They called themselves the National Assembly.  A radical move.  The first of a lot of radicalism to follow.  Not liking the look of this movement Louis closed their meeting hall and posted a guard in front of the door.  So the National Assembly moved to an indoor tennis court.  And took the Tennis Court Oath.  Where they promised to write a new constitution before adjourning.  Others joined them.  From both the clergy.  And the nobility.

The weariness grew into agitation.  The people grew angry.  And everything the king did just inflamed their anger.  From the firing of Necker.  To the presence of foreign soldiers in Paris.  The people feared royal oppression.  And began rioting.  Paris was out of control.  Then the people stormed the Bastille for weapons and ammunition.  They released all seven prisoners.  And brutally murdered Governor Marquis Bernard de Launay.  The guy in charge of the Bastille.  Beheaded him.  And placed his head on a pike and paraded it through Paris.  Then they went to Paris city hall and brutally murdered the mayor.  Jacques de Flesselles.  Then the National Constituent Assembly (of the National Assembly) went to work on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).  Sort of a combination of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Bill of Rights.  Drawing heavily on the same great French philosopher of the Enlightenment the Americans did.  Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu.

The People who Embraced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen unleashed the Reign of Terror

In America after the U.S. Bill of Rights was ratified by the states the nation went about its business.  With some bitter fighting between the Founding Fathers as they argued over what the new nation was going to be.  But this bitter fighting was of the verbal kind.  It wasn’t quite like that in France.  There they attacked the Catholic Church.  Seized its property.  And sold it to the highest bidder.  As France grew more radical.  Where the radicals sat to the left in the legislative hall.  And those supportive of the old ways and monarchy sat on the right.  Giving us the political terms ‘left’ and ‘right’.  Then the radicals turned against the monarchy.  Created a constitutional monarchy to restrict the king’s power.  Like they had in Britain.  As the monarchy was assaulted the royal family tried to flee France in 1791.  They were caught and returned to Versailles.  Where they were put under house arrest.

Then the violence escalated.  Food shortages continued.  Prices continued to rise.  King Louis and Marie Antoinette were guillotined in 1793.  Control of France fell to the Committee of Public Safety.  And new leaders rose up to take power.  Including the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat.  Who was murdered in a bathtub by a woman in the opposition party.  Georges Jacques Danton escalated the bloodletting by unleashing the Reign of Terror.  Where anyone who was identified as an enemy of the people or was not quite enthusiastic enough about the revolution was sent to the guillotine.  He was pretty bad.  But then there was Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre.  Who was real bad.  In all during the Reign of Terror the Committee of Public Safety guillotined some 20 to 40 thousand people.  Including Danton.  And Robespierre.  Live by the guillotine.  Die by the guillotine.

The French overthrew their king quicker than the Americans overthrew their king.  But the Americans quickly won their peace.  Without killing 20-40 thousand of their people.  Or their king.  Whereas the French descended into anarchy.  Even executed their king.  Something that appalled George Washington.  For though his motives were wrong and the Americans just rebelled against a monarch of their own, Louis provided the greatest aid to the Americans in their revolution.  Which probably made it easier to maintain a policy of neutrality in the new war between France and Great Britain during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that followed.  Even favor the British in that policy of neutrality.  For the vast majority of American trade was with the British Empire.  And all of the agreements the Americans made with France during their Revolution they made with King Louis XVI.  A man executed during the Reign of Terror.  A period where the rule of law was thrown aside.  By the same people who embraced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

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LESSONS LEARNED #18: “Man-given rights are only privileges allowed by the privileged elite.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 17th, 2010

GOD WAS HERE before the Marine Corps. So you can give your heart to Jesus, but your ass belongs to The Corps.

(From the movie Full Metal Jacket, 1987.)

In Roman Catholicism, this is the doctrine of the two swords.  The spiritual sword is the Church.  The temporal sword is the state.  Martin Luther had the doctrine of two kingdoms.  The religious and civil.  Going back to the source, Jesus Christ put it this way:

Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s 

The original separation of church and state.  Of course, back then, this was all intended to limit the state’s interference into spiritual matters.  Today it’s reversed.  It’s the state that is trying to hold the spiritual sword at bay.

THE FOUNDING FATHERS were gentlemen of the Enlightenment.  This makes them complex.  The Enlightenment was the Age of Reason.  And guess what we did during the Age of Reason?  We thought.  Rationally.  There was a philosophical revolution going on in Europe.  Simply put, things weren’t what they were because the Church said so.  There were other explanations.  Other laws.  And the Church could be wrong.

So, if the Founding Fathers had lived in the 20th century, they would have probably been fans of the rock group Rush.  And Ayn Rand.  Who influenced Rush.  Thomas Jefferson probably would have an iPod filled with their songs, including Tom Sawyer:

No his mind is not for rent
To any god or government

They questioned ALL authority.  And some may have been Deists.  But they were not atheists.  Even Jefferson.  He may not have believed in the Trinity or Christ’s divinity, but he still believed in God.  And he worshipped Jesus in his own way.  As the world’s greatest philosopher, with his Sermon on the Mount being the best philosophy man could ask for.

THE FOUNDING FATHERS were gentlemen of the Enlightenment.  Now the other part.  The thing that makes them complex.  The gentlemen part.  What did this mean in the 18th century?  Here are some adjectives that describe a gentleman.  Honorable.  Virtuous.  Reputable.  A gentleman strived to achieve moral excellence and righteousness.  He was ethical.  His life was a steadfast adherence to a strict moral code.  And when he served in public office, it was with selfless disinterest.  He would go out of his way to NOT gain personally from his time in public office.  Some did it better than others.  But all tried.  And when they fell short, they at least put on an appearance of disinterest.  It was that important.  And expected.

In a word, restraint.  This is what a gentleman practiced.  George Washington exercised this restraint to such a degree that many found him cold and aloof.  Few saw him smile.  Few saw public displays of emotion.  What they did see was an exemplary life of virtue, honor and moral excellence.  And they would forever look at him with awe and reverence.  We do to this day.

These students of the Enlightenment, then, espoused Judeo-Christian ethics.  They questioned all authority oppressing man, whether it be Church or state.  But they did not throw out the baby with the bath water.  They remained religious.  They just wouldn’t yield to it unconditionally.  Not to the Pope.  To a bishop.  Or any other tyranny of a minority, privileged elite.  Even after their Revolution.

And they would extend this restraint to the new nation they would found.  It would be a government that would govern with the consent of the people.  But it would not be mob-rule.  Not a true democracy.  It would be representative government.  The idea was to restrain the extreme passions of the people.  They would not exchange one tyranny for another.  There would be no tyranny of the majority.

FRANCE HAD PROBLEMS in the late 18th century.  The toll of war was bankrupting the country.  Their financing of the American Revolution didn’t help either.  Food was scarce and expensive.  Famine and malnutrition were commonplace.  Among the Third Estate (the poor).  The First Estate (the Church) was doing well.  The Second Estate (the nobility), too.  Unemployed and hungry, the poor looked at the clergy and the nobility who were not. 

The Church was largely exempt from paying taxes. And the Church was the largest landholder in France.  The Church levied a 10% tax (i.e., a tithe) on the general population.  A lot of that was collected in-kind (food crops).  So the Church had more land, money and food than the starving, suffering masses.  Who became an angry mob.  That demanded democracy.

The people stormed the Bastille.  Confiscated Church property.  Overthrew the monarchy.  And sent the king and queen, and many others, to the guillotine.  Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror.  They executed political enemies, including priests, and displayed their severed heads to the angry mob.  They de-Christianized France, destroying churches and religious symbols.  They tried to do away with the Church altogether and replace it with civic and community events and organizations.  It was a revolution against Church and state.  Against law and order.  Against restraint.  They would send Robespierre himself to the guillotine at the end of his terror.  Then another terror followed to avenge the previous terror. 

There’s more to the French Revolution.  But that should suffice for now. 

FRANCE WAS IN the epicenter of the Enlightenment.  Some of the great minds of the Enlightenment were French.  But France was older than America.  And more populated.  With centuries of wrongs to right.  It was anything but a blank canvas.  Egalitarianism soon devolved into angry mob rule.  Democracy.  They went from the tyranny of a minority to the tyranny of the majority without stopping in that fertile middle ground.  As was the case in America.  Why?

It’s that blank canvas thing.  We weren’t overthrowing our history to start anew.  We had little history.  Maybe a century or two of English colonists who literally started with raw earth.  There wasn’t a rich and privileged Church.  So there wasn’t a festering resentment against the Church.  No, the early colonists escaped religious oppression and came here for religious freedom.  Which they found.  And enjoyed.

The American Revolution was more restrained.  There were no bloody reprisals after the War.  There were isolated instances of mob violence during the War, but the ‘mob’ was never in control.  The ‘gentlemen’ were always in control.  Gentlemen steeped in Judeo-Christian ethics.  From the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, the Founding Fathers built a new nation upon the Rule of Law.  And at its heart were the God-given rights enumerated in those documents.  That no man, or minority, or majority, or mob, could take away.

GOD WAS HERE before the United States.  So we can give our heart to Jesus.  But our ass belongs to the Rule of Law.

Or something like that.  We are a secular nation with a de-emphasis on the religious part.  Yes, legal punishment may dissuade you from doing wrong.  If you think the cops can catch you.  But it’s our morality that will keep us from doing wrong in the first place.  And the people at our founding were moral.  And Christian.  Or deists with Judeo-Christian ethics.

And to those who fear antidisestablishmentarianism, don’t.  I doubt the Catholics and the Protestants could agree on what an established church would be, let alone the myriad other religions peacefully coexisting with each other.  No, more religion would not result in an established church.  It may, though, result in government leaders who fear God and, maybe, they would be better leaders for it.  It sure beats us living in fear of them.

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