The French Revolution Was the Beginning of the Modern World

Conservative ideologues have dismissed the French Revolution as an unnecessary bloodbath. But a fresh look at the Revolution shows us its vital relevance to contemporary political issues, from demands for economic equality to the struggle against racism.

Anonymous, Storming of the Bastille, painting circa 1789–91. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, more than two hundred years since the dramatic events that began in 1789, the story of the French Revolution is still relevant to all those who believe in liberty and democracy. Whenever movements for freedom take place anywhere in the world, their supporters claim to be following the example of the Parisians who stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789.

Whoever reads the words of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen published in August 1789 immediately recognizes the basic principles of individual liberty, legal equality, and representative government that define modern democracies. When we think of the French Revolution, however, we also remember the violent conflicts that divided those who participated in it, and the executions carried out with the guillotine. Likewise, we remember the rise to power of Napoleon, the charismatic general whose dictatorship ended the movement.

When I began my own career as a scholar and teacher in the 1970s, the memory of the worldwide student protest movements on university campuses in the 1960s was still fresh. Those movements inspired interest in the French Revolution, which seemed to stand alongside the Russian Revolution of 1917 as one of the great examples of a successful overthrow of an oppressive society.

Ironically, in those years of upheaval, the understanding of the French Revolution seemed largely fixed. Virtually all historians agreed that it resulted from the frustrations of a rising “bourgeois” class determined to challenge a “feudal” old order that stood in the way of political and economic progress. However, by the time I participated, along with researchers from all over the globe, in commemorations of the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, the situation had changed drastically.

The communist regimes in Eastern Europe were tottering, and the fact that the French Revolution had been viewed by the Soviets as an inspiration was now a reason to ask whether the upheaval in France in 1789 had foreshadowed totalitarian excesses more than social progress. The polemical essays of a dynamic French historian, François Furet, challenged the orthodoxy that had dominated study of the Revolution; among other things, he appealed to scholars in the English-speaking world to turn to the subject with fresh eyes.

New Perspectives

The decades since 1989 have brought new questions about the French Revolution to the fore. In 1789, the French proclaimed that “all men are born and remain free and equal in rights” — but what about women? At the start of the American Revolution, John Adams’s wife, Abigail, famously urged him in a letter to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” In revolutionary France, the issues about women’s rights and relations between the sexes that still preoccupy us today were openly debated in the press, in political clubs, and even in the nation’s legislature.

Mary Wollstonecraft, recognized as the pioneer of modern feminism, wrote her trailblazing Vindication of the Rights of Women in revolutionary Paris, but a French reviewer commented that women there had already shown that they could do more than even Wollstonecraft imagined. Some of the women of the period — the playwright and pamphleteer Olympe de Gouges, the novelist and salon hostess Madame de Staël, the backroom politician Madame Roland, and the unhappy queen Marie Antoinette — became prominent public figures and left ample records of their thoughts.

Others took part in mass uprisings or exerted influence through their daily grumbling about bread prices. Under the new laws on marriage and divorce, some women welcomed the possibility of changes in family life; others played a key role in frustrating male revolutionaries’ efforts to do away with the Catholic Church. A history of the French Revolution that does not “remember the ladies” is incomplete.

In today’s world, the confrontations of the French revolutionaries with the issues of race and slavery also command attention they did not receive in the past. On the map, the scattered islands of France’s overseas empire in 1789 looked insignificant compared to the holdings of the British, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, but their importance was out of all proportion to their size. In 1787, the colonies provided 37 percent of the goods imported into France and took 22 percent of its exports. One French colony alone — Saint-Domingue, today’s Haiti — provided half the world’s supply of sugar and coffee.

These profits came from the labor of enslaved black men and women. In 1789, the eight hundred thousand slaves in the French sugar islands in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean outnumbered the six hundred fifty thousand in the thirteen United States, and the number of Africans transported to the French colonies reached its all-time peak just as the revolutionaries were proclaiming that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

The colonies and their slaves were far away from Europe, but they preoccupied the minds of thinkers in France. The abbé Raynal’s History of the Two Indies, a multivolume work with passages condemning colonialism and slavery, was a bestseller throughout the prerevolutionary years. In 1788, Marie Antoinette authorized the gift of a gilded watch for “Jean-Pierre, Madame de Boisnormand’s mulatto,” a playmate of her son.

The question of how to reconcile the principles of freedom with the economic importance of the colonies preoccupied revolutionary leaders throughout the 1790s. After much controversy, they voted to abolish slavery and to grant full rights to people of all races, but only after they were faced with history’s largest slave uprising, the beginning of a “Haitian Revolution” that ended in 1804 with the creation of the first independent black nation in the Americas. A history of the French Revolution that gives this previously neglected topic the attention it deserves changes our understanding of the movement’s meaning.

Echoes of the Marseillaise

The events of the first decades of our century, which have led to widespread questioning of traditional political institutions, also send us back to the French Revolution. Revolutionary-era protests against economic globalization and the consequences of free trade often sound eerily similar to present-day movements. Because they argued that government needed to represent the will of the people, the French revolutionaries were the forerunners both of modern political democracy and of modern anti-elitist populism, and the events of the 1790s in France vividly demonstrate the conflicts that can arise between the two.

As the world attempts to cope with a resurgence of militant nationalism, the ways in which the French Revolution turned the word “nation” into an explosive force demand new attention. The Revolution’s violent debates about the proper place of religion in society and the powerful resistance to its efforts to introduce secular values foreshadow conflicts of our own time.

Like people today, participants in the French Revolution had the feeling that they were experiencing a transformation of the communications media. The proliferation of newspapers and pamphlets, for example, made it seem as though time itself had sped up, and difficulties in distinguishing between political truth and false rumors were a constant of the period.

Finally, in an era in which “disruption” has become a political program, the history of the French Revolution’s experiment in deliberately demolishing an existing order has never been more relevant. Our own experience of disruption also lends new relevance to the revolutionaries’ efforts, in the five years between the end of the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon, to stabilize their society without undoing the positive achievements of the movement.

In what follows, I will discuss two episodes of striking contemporary relevance: the decision of the Parisian revolutionary leaders to impose restrictions on the free market in the name of popular welfare, and the abolition of slavery in the French colonies under pressure from the slave revolt in Haiti.

“Society Is Obliged to Provide”

Despite the turbulent atmosphere in Paris and in the National Convention during 1793, the revolutionary deputies did not forget that they were supposed to be drafting a new constitution. Maximilien Robespierre used the resumption of the debate on the subject on April 24 to give a powerful statement of his political ideas. In a bow in the direction of populism, he proposed to include in the new constitution’s Declaration of Rights an article stating that “any institution that does not postulate that the people is good and that magistrates are corruptible is vicious.”

In sharp contrast to Nicolas de Condorcet, who had made an emphatic defense of absolute property rights and free enterprise in his draft declaration, Robespierre proposed a very different definition of the right of property. Even as he assured his audience that he only wanted to “make poverty honorable” and promised that he would not advocate a redistribution of property, he dismissed the rich as “mud-stained souls who only value gold,” insisting that “the extreme disproportion of fortunes is the cause of many evils and many crimes.” Whereas the revolutionaries of 1789 had considered the wealthier strata of the population to be the more enlightened and virtuous citizens, Robespierre clearly thought the opposite.

Robespierre proposed to consider property legitimate only if it did not “prejudice the security, or the freedom, or the existence, or the property of our fellow men.” Among other things, this justified measures to force grain merchants to sell their stocks at prices fixed by the authorities. From his principles, Robespierre also drew the consequence that citizens whose income was at or below the subsistence level should be entirely exempt from taxes, a suggestion Condorcet had already made in his proposal.

Robespierre added that tax rates on those with more wealth should be progressive. The wealthy should fund welfare programs, which Robespierre considered “an obligation of those who have a surplus.” Whereas the militant agitators in the streets emphasized the issue of bread prices, Robespierre wanted to assure that they would be able to earn enough to support themselves.

He hoped to accomplish this by incorporating into the Declaration of Rights an article stating that “society is obliged to provide for the subsistence of all its members, either in providing work for them, or in assuring the means of existence to those who are not able to work.” This basic principle of modern welfare states had been foreshadowed early in the Revolution by the proposals of the National Assembly’s welfare committee, but Robespierre now proposed giving it constitutional status.

Beyond Liberalism

Claiming to be outlining eternal principles, Robespierre was in fact keeping a close eye on the political situation that surrounded him. His proposed Declaration of Rights was a weapon against his Girondin foes and an invitation to the popular militants to help the radical Montagnard deputies defeat them. One of the Girondin arguments against the petition of the Paris sections demanding their expulsion from the Convention was that no one section of the country had the right to speak for the citizenry as a whole.

Robespierre’s draft declaration conceded that only the entire people was sovereign, but it insisted that “every assembled section of the sovereign should have the complete liberty to express its will.” Going beyond the original declaration’s reference to a right of resistance to oppression, Robespierre defined what constituted a pretext for such resistance and added language stating that when rights were violated, “insurrection is . . . the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.” This made it clear that he, and by extension the rest of the Montagnard party, would accept a popular uprising to eliminate the Girondins from the Convention.

Outside the Convention, protests of all kinds multiplied. On May 1, 1793, women from Versailles angrily complained to the deputies that “every day, mothers, weighed down with families, are forced to stand at the door of a bakery from four in the morning until ten” and reminded them that “our husbands are fighting for the salvation of the republic.”

On the same day, representatives of the always restive faubourg Saint-Antoine demanded that a maximum price be set for grain; they also wanted all unmarried men, including priests, to be drafted into the army, plus an emergency tax on the rich. “The burden of the revolution has so far been borne only by the class of the poor,” they complained. “It is time that the rich and the egoists also become republicans.” They threatened to stage an insurrection if their demands were not met.

Pressed by the demands from the women and the faubourg Saint-Antoine militants, on May 3, 1793, the Convention reluctantly approved an emergency measure to establish a maximum price for grain. It also instituted procedures intended to compel farmers and grain merchants to put whatever supplies they had on the market. The decision meant abandoning the liberal economic principles that most of the deputies, Girondins and Montagnards alike, held as articles of faith.

A little-known deputy, Jean Desvars, protested the decision in a way that amounted to a textbook summary of free-market principles. “I want to avoid government intervention in matters concerned with subsistence, and searches of private property, equally dangerous for liberty,” he insisted. “Respect property, because it is the first law of societies.” The problem was that the market was visibly not functioning, and even Desvars conceded that a system of price controls was needed. A Girondin, François Buzot, agreed, although he also criticized “the weakness we have shown in not sticking to the principles of free transportation and commerce.”

For the more radical deputies, those principles were precisely the problem. “The unconstrained freedom of the grain trade allows free rein to the insatiable greed of the merchants,” one of them contended. Recognizing that it was politically impossible to wait for “the natural course of things to reduce the price of goods,” as another Girondin deputy wanted, the Convention endorsed the maximum and the state intervention in the economy it implied.

“Without Distinction of Color”

In the midst of tense maneuvers between the political factions in Paris, the colonial question and the issue of slavery, the greatest contradiction of the revolutionary claim to be defending liberty, suddenly resurfaced. The news of the destruction of Saint-Domingue’s largest city, Cap Français, had helped inspire the Parisian journée of September 5, 1793. The Convention initially accepted the proslavery colonists’ version of that event, blaming the revolutionary officials Léger Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel and their Girondin patrons for this disaster.

Robespierre himself had endorsed the accusations of the white colonists against Sonthonax and Polverel in a major speech laying out the Committee of Public Safety’s foreign policy on November 17, 1793. The alliance of the Paris revolutionaries with the slaveowners was threatened in late December, when word arrived that the remaining white colonists in Saint-Domingue had allowed British forces to occupy positions on the colony’s western coast. The colonists’ representatives in the capital persuaded the Montagnards to accept their argument that the whites were “forced to choose between death or subjection to the king of England.”

On January 23, 1794, however, the colonists were jolted by the news that three men from Saint-Domingue — a white ally of Sonthonax and Polverel, a black man, and a man of mixed race — had appeared in Paris with documents showing that they had been elected as the colony’s deputies to the Convention. Their mission was to get the assembly to endorse the emancipation of the slaves that Sonthonax and Polverel had carried out.

The white colonists managed to get their allies on the Committee of General Security to issue arrest warrants for the members of this “tricolor” delegation from Saint-Domingue, but before they could be imprisoned, the men met with several members of the Committee of Public Safety, which ordered them released. Bertrand Barère, always a barometer of the way the wind was blowing in that committee, stunned the proslavery lobbyists by telling them that he now realized that “the whites are aristocrats in that colony and that the men of color and the Negroes are patriots.”

Having never previously shown much interest in the question of slavery, the embattled followers of Georges Danton suddenly embraced the cause and persuaded the Convention to accept the credentials of the Saint-Domingue deputies. The African-born Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former slave, and James Mills, a mixed-race planter, became the first black men to sit in the legislature of a European country, preceding by more than seventy years the black senators and representatives in the United States elected during Reconstruction.

On February 4, 1794, one day after they had been admitted, Louis Dufay, the white member of the group, delivered a three-hour speech to the Convention. He justified the actions Sonthonax and Polverel had taken in Cap Français the previous June and promised that “your colony of Saint-Domingue, cultivated by free hands, will be more flourishing . . . it will soon dominate the entire archipelago of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Dufay was careful to justify the measures Sonthonax and Polverel had taken as expedients to deal with a crisis rather than casting them as the fulfillment of the Revolution’s principles of liberty and equality. He did not have the support of the Committee of Public Safety: although it had freed him and his colleagues from prison, none of the committee members were even present to hear his speech. Instead, they were holding an emergency meeting with the representatives of the white colonists, who pleaded with them to head off any attack on the slave system.

As the lobbyists exited the meeting, they learned that it was too late. Fired with enthusiasm by Dufay’s words, the deputy René Levasseur immediately moved to “decree as of this moment that slavery is abolished throughout the territory of the Republic,” insisting that “I want all men to be free, without distinction of color.” The Dantonist Jean-François Delacroix told the assembly not to “dishonor itself with a longer discussion” and in a matter of minutes the institution that had been fundamental to the creation of France’s overseas empire was struck down.

A Political Volcano

Not only were the blacks declared free, but they were immediately granted full rights as French citizens. A wave of emotion reminiscent of the night of August 4, 1789, when the National Assembly declared the feudal system abolished, ran through the room: the deputies had finally faced up to the greatest contradiction of the principles of liberty and equality in the French Empire. The Convention’s president embraced the two black deputies as other members cheered.

Even longtime supporters of abolition were shocked by the suddenness of this shift. Henri Grégoire, a consistent advocate of racial equality in the Revolution’s early years, feared that Levasseur’s motion would be “disastrous . . . the political equivalent of a volcano.” Perhaps aware of the unease many deputies felt about the radicalism of their action, Danton let his allies push the motion through before demonstrating, for one final time, his uncanny ability to combine daring and caution.

He predicted that, thanks to the Convention’s actions, “as of today, England is dead”: the slaves in its colonies would surely rise in revolt and disrupt its economy. But he urged the deputies, some of whom wanted to send the news to the colonies immediately, to leave the decree’s implementation to the Committee of Public Safety. It was his last significant intervention in revolutionary politics before his arrest.

Perhaps Danton hoped the Committee would be grateful to him for upholding its authority. The Committee did in fact decide against sending the decree to the French colonies in the Indian Ocean, fearing that the plantation owners there would simply turn the islands over to the British. And one prominent committee member remained unreconciled to the decision.

A few weeks later, while debating what charges to bring against Danton at his trial, Robespierre tried unsuccessfully to have him specifically blamed for the passage of a decree “whose likely result was the loss of our colonies.” It was a measure of how thoroughly obsessed he was with the idea of a foreign conspiracy against French interests.

Far different was the reaction of Toussaint Louverture, the black general who had rejected the offer of freedom from local revolutionary officials in Saint-Domingue in August 1793. When news of the Convention’s proclamation reached Saint-Domingue, he broke with the other leaders of the black movement and their Spanish backers and announced his conversion to the republican cause. His soldiers became the core of the French army that kept the colony from falling into the hands of the country’s enemies.