The Worst Excesses: How to Tell Your French Revolutions Apart -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

“Then he gets involved in a French Revolution, but not the big famous one, a little later one you thought you didn’t know anything about.” —Forbidden Broadway Vol. 2, “More Miserable.”

We’re going to solve this problem right now. 

An Army of Lawyers Cannot Fail: “The French Revolution”

France was in debt, partially from supporting the American Revolution, but also because the nobility and the church were exempt from taxation: a thing which never happens anymore. Louis XVI couldn’t tax the wealthy because the nobility controlled the parlements. So the Revolution began with a revolt of the nobles: the nobility refused to honor the king’s attempts to levy taxes unless the Estates General were called, knowing that they would dominate such a meeting. 

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 2.59.26 PM

“The Tennis Court Oath at Versailles” Jacques-Louis David (1791)

Instead, the Third Estate protested the meeting’s structure. On June 20, 1789, they signed the Oath of the Tennis Court, declaring themselves the National Assembly and vowing to draft a constitution.

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 3.00.52 PM

“The Marquis de Launay, gouverneur de la Bastille, Foulon….drawn from life” Anne-Louis Girodet (1789)

On July 14, a mob of Parisians stormed the Bastille. Rioters dragged out De Launay, the prison’s governor, and beheaded him, parading his severed head through the city on a pike. Elsewhere, Foulon de Doué, the Controller-General of Finances whose appointment sparked the riots, was lynched and beheaded. Foulon was famous for suggesting “if the people are hungry, let them eat grass,” his death is described in A Tale of Two Cities:

…Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass! Foulon who told my old father that he might eat grass, when I had no bread to give him! Foulon who told my baby it might suck grass, when these breasts where dry with want! O mother of God, this Foulon! O Heaven our suffering! Hear me, my dead baby and my withered father: I swear on my knees, on these stones, to avenge you on Foulon! Husbands, and brothers, and young men, Give us the blood of Foulon, Give us the head of Foulon, Give us the heart of Foulon, Give us the body and soul of Foulon, Rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, that grass may grow from him! With these cries, numbers of the women, lashed into blind frenzy, whirled about, striking and tearing at their own friends until they dropped into a passionate swoon, and were only saved by the men belonging to them from being trampled under foot. […] Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.

Résultats: The National Assembly established a constitutional monarchy against the wishes of the king, who tried to flee. Most men over 25 could vote for “electors” by paying a tax; the electors, who paid a higher tax, selected legislative deputies. They also selected bishops and priests. All clergy were required to swear a loyalty oath to the state. 

In popular culture: Everywhere. Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, because politics are better with fraught queer love quadrangles. A Tale of Two Cities is The Woman in White with guillotines. The vampire farce Bite Me! is in print now. The French comic Petit Miracle tells the adventures of Denis, the son of a nun and a decapitated man, who can detach his head from his body. All 40 episodes of cross-dressing shoujo epic The Rose of Versailles are on Hulu. In Farewell, My Queen, one of Marie-Antoinette’s readers takes the place of her supposed lover, Yolande de Polignac, so that the latter may escape to safety.


What’s the Point of a Revolution Without General Copulation: The Reign of Terror 

Image: The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David (1793) 

This was the international, we-will-assist-all-peoples-wishing-to-recover-their-liberty, let’s-go-to-war-with-all-of-Europe, let’s-kill-the-king phase of the French Revolution. On August 10, 1792, a mob stormed the Tuileries and imprisoned the royal family. The insurgents invalidated the constitution and provided for the election of a new National Convention. They murdered some 1,100 prisoners in the subsequent September Massacres, including the Princesse de Lamballe, rumored to have once been one of Marie-Antoinette’s lovers. A mob carried Lamballe’s head to the Temple on a pike, demanding that the queen be made to kiss her girlfriend; only at the last minute were they persuaded to march their trophy through the streets instead.

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 3.08.40 PM

James Gillray, “Un petit souper, à la parisienne : – or – a Family of sans-culottes refreshing, after the fatigues of the day” (20 September 1792)

What about the Committee of Public Safety? Yes, this was the phase with the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre & co. established a program of revolutionary trials to defend the Republic against internal enemies. Some 40,000 people died during the Terror. At Nantes, refractory clergy were subjected to “vertical deportation,” i.e., mass drownings in which prisoners were forced onto barges which were deliberately sunk in the Loire. There’s still some question as to whether the famous “Republican marriages,” in which a priest and a nun were stripped naked and bound to one another before drowning, actually took place.

Résultats: The First French Republic. Universal male suffrage. Divorce was in, slavery was out, the state was dechristianized, and compulsory heterosexuality was enshrined as a republican virtue. 

In popular culture: The Scarlet Pimpernel is the name of a humble English wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in all the world, so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do. Marat/Sade. Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian for the cultural afterlife of Marie Antoinette. Leslie Dick’s The Skull of Charlotte Corday is about, guess what. “Thermidor,” collected in the Sandman volume Fables and Reflections, is a story about smuggling Opheus’s animate disembodied head out of Paris while Robespierre slides from power. Unchallenged at work? The French Revolution Digital Archive has 12,000 images to browse through. But who has a job, no one has jobs anymore. Sit in your mother’s, girlfriend’s, husband’s house; sit in the apartment you can’t afford; look at pictures like this. Perhaps you could take up knitting.  


The July Revolution is the one with the Delacroix painting

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 3.12.47 PM

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix (1830)

The monarchy restored after the fall of Napoleon was a constitutional monarchy, and the new[ish] king, Charles X, wanted to push back these limited reforms. On July 26, 1830, he dissolved the Chamber of Deputies, imposed censorship of the press, and limited the voting power of the middle class. Republicans barricaded the streets, the king abdicated, and the bourgeoisie seized control with the appointment of comparatively liberal “citizen-king” Louis Philippe. This revolution was three days long.

Résultats: Symbolism aside, this was more about maintaining existing privileges than winning new ones. The electorate was slightly enlarged, but 1830 is the classic example of a revolution co-opted by the upper middle class. The July Monarchy was not the republic workers and students had fought for. 

In popular culture: People talk about a “lost generation” of 1830: children of the Revolution, raised in the glamorous shadow of the glamorous Napoleonic wars, who struggled as adults under the comparative oppression of the Restoration. So, The Red and the Black. Middlemarch‘s Lydgate studied in Paris around this time and arrogantly considered joining the Saint Simonians “in order to turn them against some of their own doctrines,” a telling moment which is also a good descriptor of people who think they know what Middlemarch is about without reading it. Dumas fought in 1830, and the discussions of barricades in Twenty Years After have more to do with the 19th c. than the 17th c. (“…moreover, no generation ever does the same thing twice.”)


A Generation Does the Same Thing Twice: June 5-6, 1832

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 4.14.34 PM

Enjolras and His Lieutenants, Lynd Ward (1938)

1832 wasn’t a real revolution. We’re only talking about it because Victor Hugo used it to kill off half the characters in Les Miserables. It was a riot by the same groups who rose up in 1830 and felt their revolution had been stolen from them. It was an uprising in which people who’d risked their lives to get rid of the old king decided that a new king wasn’t good enough. But it was also about cholera, about the fact that nearly 20,000 people had just died from cholera in Paris alone, and nobody knew why but it was probably the government’s fault.

It probably was the government’s fault.

Riots are good for some things, but not for bringing people back to life. The cholera epidemic was in April, and April in Paris is good for some things, but not for overthrowing the government. You overthrow the government in July or August, when tempers and temperatures are high. You riot in June when you’ve been waiting since April and are impatient. Funerals are good times for groups that aren’t supposed to be assembling to assemble. Did you think this was about Lamarque? Who cares about Lamarque?

Résultats: About 800 people died? Good work, team.

In popular culture: Les Miserables, the novel. Les Miserables, the stage musical with too much recitative. Les Miserables, lots of movies, including the 1995 Claude LeLouch film in which the story is re-set during the Holocaust. None of the time-lost protagonists of the ’95 film kill Hitler: another fail for the Doomed Youth. 


1848: Nope!

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 4.18.54 PM

Barricade on the rue Soufflot, Horace Vernet (1848)

Barricades went up again in February 1848, and Louis-Philippe abdicated in a matter of days. What an easy revolution. Why did anyone think this would be difficult? It’s not summer yet, mes enfants. Wait for summer, say 24-26 June, 1848.

Karl Marx, writing in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 29 June 1848: 

…the people thought they had destroyed their enemy when they had overthrown the enemy of their enemies, their common enemy. The February revolution was the nice revolution, the revolution of universal sympathies, because the contradictions which erupted in it against the monarchy were still undeveloped and peacefully dormant, because the social struggle which formed their background had only achieved an ephemeral existence, an existence in phrases, in words. The June revolution is the ugly revolution, the nasty revolution, because the phrases have given place to the real thing, because the republic has bared the head of the monster by knocking off the crown which shielded and concealed it. 

The Second Republic was finally established, but there was no agreement on how socialist that republic should be. When more conservative factions seemed poised to prevail yet again, a violent class war broke out in the streets of Paris. Martial law was declared, and for three days workers and soldiers shot at each other in the barricade-clotted streets. 10,000 died.

In the aftermath, the frightened Assembly decided their new Republic should be led by a strong executive branch, preferably one descended from a famous dictator, ideally with the dictator’s same name. 

Résultats: The Second French Republic lasted less than four years. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president by universal male suffrage in December 1848, staged a coup in 1851, and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852.

In popular culture: L’Éducation sentimentale. The French comic Sambre is a multigenerational family saga which begins with the revolution of 1848. This is the revolution Marx was talking about when he wrote “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”


Let’s do the Paris Commune again (1871)

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 4.23.18 PM

Le Cri du peuple, Jacques Tardi (2001)

After the Franco-Prussian war ended in 1871, France was permitted to elect a constitutional assembly by universal male suffrage. Paris, far to the left of the provincial voters, refused to recognize the new government, and a civil war broke out from March-May 1871 as Paris essentially seceded from the country. Most of the Commune’s demands were identical to measures which had already been passed under the First Republic: the separation of church and state, the 10-hour workday, the right to divorce.

This would have worked better in the old Paris, but one project of the Second Empire had been to widen the streets, making barricades ineffective. Street battles were no longer a level playing field, and the army’s advance became a series of mass executions. Insurgents, realizing they were doomed, set fire to the Tuileries, the Hotel de Ville, the Louvre, the Prefecture of Police. The commune ended in a bloody standoff at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where 150 communards fought among the tombs as darkness fell.

Résultats: 20,000 insurgents were put to death. 

In popular culture: Jacques Tardi’s Le cri du peuple is a 4-volume comic adaptation of Jean Vautrin’s novel about the Commune. Peter Watkins’s La Commune is a faux-documentary in which more than 200 characters share their feelings about the uprising. Brecht’s 1949 play The Days of the Commune has lines like “Resolve from now on we shall fear death less / Than we fear living wretchedly.”

It’s a nice slogan / I’m not sure it would work for me.

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 4.25.23 PM

Executed communards, 1871


Lauren Naturale is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again