Monday, April 27, 2009

History 112: the French Revolution (Q&A)

1. Was there a single event or meeting that caused France to volunteer tobe on America's side of the American Revolution? Or was it just, "We hate England too.”

The fact that Louis XVI helped the American colonies should serve to indicate that he was not the reactionary autocrat that proponents of the Revolution made him out to be. Louis XVI was part of a generation of “enlightened despots” who viewed themselves as upholders of Enlightenment ideals. A word should also be put in for a very effective American diplomatic effort, to court French upper class opinion. The main person in this was Benjamin Franklin, an American philosophe.

2. Davies writes that "the revolution was imminent in almost all of Europe." So why exactly did it break out in France first and not somewhere else? What was unique about France's situation that caused a revolution?

This is a million dollar question that historians are still debating. It is important to realize that this very much is a question. From our teleological perspective it is very easy to take it for granted that the French monarchy was hopelessly inept and that Enlightenment thought would inevitably lead to a revolution. In truth there were things right with the French government and it could have made the necessary changes to stave off revolution.
If I were living in 1788 and was told that either England or France would have a revolution and chop their king’s head off I would have said England. England had plenty of heterodox thinkers running around, an unpopular monarch, George III, intent on increasing royal power when he was not insane and plenty of useless aristocrats lording over the populace and creating popular resentment. Most importantly England had already got rid of their king once before, during the English Civil War. So what that the French government was bankrupt and bread prices were going through the roof, there is nothing unusual about that.

3. Why did Necker getting kicked off cause such a controversy?

Jacques Necker was the finance minister, who first pointed out that the government was heading toward financial disaster and that spending cuts, particularly in the realm of the royal household budget, were needed. This lost Necker his job. He then went public with this and did the unheard of thing of publishing the government budget. Necker was not an aristocrat; he was Swiss and came from a common background. Louis XVI brought him back in 1788 precisely because he was seen as someone who commanded the public trust. Of course this did help matters when Louis XVI continued to get annoyed with Necker for saying the same things that got him fired in the first place and fired him again. If you hire the “people’s man” because he is the “people’s man” and then fire him for saying the sort of things that made him the “people’s man” in the first place the people are going to take it quite personally.

4. The French revolution in itself seems very bloody and violent. However, I am still surprised when Davies writes, "The Revolution started to devour its own children...Danton and his associates were denounced and executed in April 1794, for questioning the purpose of the terror. Robespierre, the chief terrorist, met denunciation and death on 28 July 1794. "Is there a way of explaining the seemly illogical and counter-intuitive executioner's list of the French Revolution?

The fact that the Revolution turned to such violence should not be surprising. The Revolution from the get go was built around violence the moment things moved beyond the Tennis Court Oath to the Bastille. If you build an ideology around revolution and the notion of revolution having some innate value than the revolution has to keep going. How else are you going to keep the revolution going if not by going to further extremes? If there is going to be the side of revolution than there has to be a side of "counter revolution." So one has to continuously search for “counter revolutionaries.” If you get rid of the “obvious counter revolutionaries” such as royalists and Catholic loyalist than you have to turn those who are not revolutionary “enough” and make them the new “counter revolutionaries.”

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