Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Days of the French Revolution by Christopher Hibbert

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

This is the best untangling of the subject that I have ever read. Hibbert follows the days, literally, that were the set pieces of the era, the days that got ordinary people out into the streets, and have remained vivid in books and movies ever since. This approach helps the reader to grasp a narrative that is otherwise mind-bogglingly complex and very gruesome.

The French Revolution seems to have started as a tax revolt among the upper classes, angry that King Louis XIV planned to solve France's economic problems by taxing their land. When they demanded that the King call a representative assembly to put the tax to a vote, ordinary French people, poor and middle class both, thrilled to the possibility that such an assembly might for the first time hear their complaints too. When the elected delegates met in Paris in 1789, representatives of the Third Estate -- ordinary people, neither nobles nor clergy -- insisted that they were not just a medieval category but were the nation. Amazingly, the upper classes' representatives reacted to this stunning new idea by agreeing to give up their privileges and join the Third Estate themselves, making it the National Assembly. The Enlightenment had truly arrived.

What spoiled these possibilities in the Revolution's palmy days was the fact that the King called in foreign mercenary troops to reverse the situation, and the people of Paris responded with mob action. Their first target was the Bastille fortress -- they were looking for gunpowder for their muskets -- and, later, the King. Once they nerved themselves to threaten and command the ultimate authority, intimidating elected representatives of successive neophyte governments became easier.

While foreign invasion, hunger, and civil war played out in the provinces, Parisians learned to make a republic the hard way. Communications were almost non-existent: the storming of the Bastille involved thousands of shouting, gesturing citizens in a courtyard facing hundreds of confused, gesturing soldiers high atop some ramparts. When people could make themselves understood, anywhere, they did not worry about libel, slander, or "fighting words." You could get up on a table in a cafe and shout that someone was a traitor, and then heaven help the traitor. Panic reigned. Men serving on various Assemblies, Conventions, Tribunals, and Committees fought like sharks for years just to say alive, all the while trying to govern. Many of the violent "days" in Paris took place in summer heat among a populace well-stoked by alcohol. The Revolution had opened a road so new and terrifying that within a few years, dissent against it virtually became a crime punishable by death on the guillotine.

After six years, reaction set in, and counter-revolutionaries prepared to bring back royal government by force. Chaotic though times were, that could not be allowed. They were dispersed by cannon under the command of the young Revolutionary general Napoleon Bonaparte, who gets an epilogue here. By his famous "whiff of grapeshot" he either put an end to all the nonsense and took charge, or he ruined French liberty, depending on the reader's perspectives.

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