Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Living the French Revolution (audio)

Over the summer, I spent three weeks in Paris with my family. I'd visited a few times in the past, but only for a few days at a time. Since we had so much time and just one home base in St. Germain, I felt immersed in the city. Upon returning home, I wanted to keep that connection alive, and delve deeper into French history and culture.

The lecture proceeds roughly chronologically, covering France between 1789 and 1814. It is informally split into two parts. The first thirty or so lectures cover the French Revolution, including causes and ramifications, and the remaining 18 focus on Napoleon. Overall, I found it super informative and interesting, once you get used to the sometimes monotonous delivery style. It's hard to summarize such a long and detailed account in this format, so I'll try to just pick out the stuff that really stuck out to me.

First half: The French Revolution

In 1789, the people of France came together into a general assembly. I finally learned the meaning of the three estates. The clergy were the first estate, nobles the second, and lastly, the third estate referred to the commoners. (Much later, and in a different country, the fourth estate came to refer to journalists. The fifth estate is an even newer notion, referring to journalism with non-mainstream viewpoints, sometimes on the internet. There are also enumerated estates greater than five, but it seems the higher the estate number, the more suspect the source.)

Political spectrum: during the contentious reign of Louis XVI, monarchists sat on the king's right, while the republicans sat on his left.

Major causes of the revolution:

  1. Home grown enlightenment ideas (Voltaire, Rousseau) became extremely popular with the French people.
  2. The French government was going bankrupt due to poor domestic management, and large expenditures on foreign wars with England. Thank Ben Franklin for that! He was quite the diplomat, and made a splash with the French people, who were impressed by the combination of beaver hat and ability to wax philosophically.
  3. A series of bad harvests led to bread riots in the late 1780s.

After the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the revolution had started in earnest. Louis XVI was coerced into moving to Paris to be closer to the people, but as revolutionary fervor escalated, many nobles escaped France. Publicly, Louis XVI supported the revolution, but privately he thought that Paris was under control of Jacobin extremists. The king himself eventually attempted to escape, but it and attempts to frame it as a kidnapping failed embarassingly. Anti-monarchist sentiments flared and eventually the king was guillotined.

The revolutionaries instituted a variety of interesting changes:

  • Catholic priests were coerced to take an oath to the republic of France, against the will of the pope. About half declined, along the left-right divide.
  • A new revolutionary calendar was introduced. Each month was composed of three 10 day weeks called decades. It started on September 22 to celebrate the death of Louis XVI.
  • New, explicitly secular holidays were created to supplant the old ones. (This reminded me of Rationalist Solstice.)

These changes were pretty radical, and led to a counter revolution, spurred on by a desire for religious freedom, rebellion against increased military taxation, and hunger. Peasant uprisings in the west were especially prevalent on religious grounds. The Republican army wore blue which is why French soccer team wears blue as well, hence the French cheer "Allez les Bleus". Monarchists such as the Vendee from the west wore white with king and church front and center.

The new government, a highly factional assembly of people, was led by the Jacobins, with Robespierre at the helm. They needed to maintain control, quashing opposition. Marat's writing was emblematic of the mood in 1793 just as the reign of terror was starting. He advocated for violence as necessary to establish the Republic. “The death of ___ had become a necessity” is a recurring theme in this sad story. Robespierre seems to be a tragic hero. Initially opposed to the death penalty, he slipped towards the terror one step at a time, first arguing in favor of the death of Louis XVI, next killing others that were seen as opponents to the revolution. This is the sort of thing that happens when means and ends get mixed up.

There was also a strong proselytizing, international aspect to the revolution, foreshadowing the Comintern. In the grand scheme, it was a war of people against kings. This led to war with Austria, which was desired by all sides. The revolutionaries wanted it to spread the revolution, but Louis XVI, still alive and nominally in control at the start of the war, wanted it so that France could lose and be rescued by his relative by marriage, the emperor of Austria.

I was surprised to learn that by time of the Terror, America-France relations had crumbled. I didn't realize how pro-British some of the American federalist were. For a few years America was allowing Privateers to raid French vessels. As an aside, I realized that "privateer", "mercenary", and the more modern "military contractor" are all basically interchangeable terms for guns for hire.

Here's a resolution to some confusing terminology. In France, "federation" refers to multiple states that have equal political rights. In the US, the same word has the opposite meaning: a strong central government; US "confederation" = French "federation".

Second half: Napoleon

Napoleon came to power through a coup in 1799. By then the French people were too tired to resist yet another upheval, exhausted by the infighting of the revolution, terror, and frustrated by a newly instated Directorate system, whose weak executive branch couldn't rule effectively. Upon seizing power, Napoleon drafted an illiberal constitution that greatly increased executive power. This was the fourth French constitution of the decade of the 1790s.

At his core, Napoleon was a pragmatist. In 1806, Napoleon turned down the revolutionary calendar. He distanced itself from the revolutionary ideals in favor of stability, French nationalism and catholicism. I loved this quote:

"It is by making myself Catholic that I brought peace to Brittany and Vendée. It is by making myself Italian that I won minds in Italy. It is by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt. If I governed a nation of Jews, I should reestablish the Temple of Solomon."

In 1806, Napoleon crowned himself emperor after a popular vote. He then amended the constitution allowing for hereditary rule. By becoming emperor he solved the monarchist threat, but the Jacobin threat remained. He dealt with the Jacobins by using them as scapegoats for any rebellious acts and then punishing them by exile or death.

Napoleon's strategy seems to have been driven by several modus operandi:

  • Nepotism: he placed his many brothers into positions of power, used his siblings for strategic marriages with European royalty.
  • Military autonomy: he restructured the Grand Armee into separately managed corps to be more autonomous.
  • Expansionary conscription: he used the newly conquered peoples to expand the Grand Armee with fresh blood, and eventually reduced the draft age.
  • Foraging and looting: by relying more on eating off of conquered lands and less on supply trains, Napoleon's armies could move faster and be larger than his opposition.
  • Domestic improvement: due to general mistrust of the people, he instituted great public works projects that would placate and benefit them.
  • Military glory: due to a deep-seated sense of illegitimacy, Napoleon craved great military victories.
  • Propaganda: whatever the outcome of his military campaigns, Napoleon made sure his image was propped up by cherry picking just the good parts.
  • British nemesis: the French navy was consistently crushed by the British. In retaliation, and because of a general French hatred of the British, Napoleon banned English imports throughout the French empire.

Napoleon's conquests are many and varied. At its peak in 1812, the French Empire spanned from Spain to Poland.

  • Egypt: one of Napoleon's earliest campaigns was a PR success, but ultimately a defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain. This expedition led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.
  • Italy: after self-crowning as emperor, he created the Kingdom of Italy and the Italian flag, which was inspired by the tricolor of the French revolution.
  • Austria: by 1806, at Austerlitz, France defeated Austria and its allies including the Russian empire. This was the formal end of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • Britain: at the Battle of Trafalgar, the French navy was crushed by Admiral Lord Nelson's forces (Rule, Britannia!), which cemented Napoleon's hatred for Britain. During the battle, Nelson was shot and killed by a French musketeer.
  • Prussia: in 1807, French forces pushed into Prussia and defeated Friedrich Wilhelm III in two parallel decisive battles led by different corps of the Grand Armee.
  • Spain: Napoleon offered to resolve a succession dispute between the Spanish king and his heir, but instead exiled the royal family and installed his brother Joseph there. He was overly confident that the Spanish would be on the French side, underestimated their conservatism and their ability to resist. 200K Grand Armee soldiers were stationed there in order to try to keep the peace. The term guerilla (little war) comes from this period.
  • Russia: by 1812 Napoleon needed another great victory to maintain his legitimacy as emperor. Once improving Russian relations had soured since Alexander I felt threatened by French proximity in Warsaw. Napoleon marched east with 650K strong and conquered Vilnius and by the time he entered Belarus he'd lost half due to disease, extreme heat and cold. The day after he took Moscow it was burned down by retreating Russian forces. Napoleon was eventually forced to retreat and returned home with one fifth the men.

Weakened after the Russian campaign, Napoleon's forces were crushed decisively by a joint force of Austrians, Russians, and Prussians. Louis XVIII, a cousin of Louis XVI, returned from exile and was placed onto the throne by the victorious coalition. This Louis introduced a new constitution, attempted turn back time, reverting France to the divine right of kings. He forced a lot of the army retire and was unpopular with the people.

Napoleon didn’t last long in his exile at Elba. He was given reign over the island where he gathered a force of 1000 men and marched back to France. On his way, the French forces sent to stop him joined his cause instead. He entered Paris unopposed, framing himself as a product of the revolution in opposition to the tyrannical Louis XVIII. Upon his return, Napoleon amended the constitution he drafted with limits to executive power, making France more of a constitutional Monarchy. Of course, his foreign opponents were unhappy with his return and decided to stop him once and for all. Napoleon had to prove himself once more with a decisive battle at Waterloo.

Defeated, Bonaparte was exiled to St. Helena where he spent his last 6 years. Even after his death, Napoleon remained incredibly popular and became more and more associated with the revolution. After Napoleon's final exile, Louis XVIII returned to the throne and was followed by his successor Charles X, in a period called the Bourbon Restoration. The royal lineage was overthrown by Napoleon's nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who was elected democratically, but like his uncle, crowned himself Emperor.

Truth be told, my interest was initially piqued by events of the mid-19th century: the surprising rise of Napoleon III in 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1871, which I knew nothing about until my most recent trip to Paris. This lecture series was as close as TTC offered on this turbulent period. I'd have loved to hear the lecturer continue on in French history. It will be nice to return to the subject later.