The French Revolution

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION is conventionally dated from 14 July 1789, the day of the storming of the ancient Parisian prison, the Bastille, and the symbolic emancipation of its handful of prisoners. What had begun slightly earlier and continued throughout the ‘revolutionary decade’ of the 1790s was the effective dismantling of the institutions and the social and political hierarchies of ancien régime of France, carried on argumentatively within a newly constituted and representative National Assembly, as well as (concurrently and more violently) in the streets and fields of the nation. For three years (1789-1792), France remained a constitutional monarchy on the British precedent, through its National (later Constituent) Assembly carrying out a number of liberal reforms in the political, ecclesiastical, legal, and economic administration of the country and drafting its Declaration of the Rights of Man (1791). This period, however, saw the rise to power of the left-wing Jacobin Convention, headed by Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton, which initiated a second, more radical revolutionary phase during which the king, Louis XVI, was deposed and eventually executed (January 1793) and a series of savage retaliatory reprisals, driven by paranoia and intimidation and known as the Reign of Terror, was carried out. This was halted by the Thermidorian coup of July 1794, then from October 1795 a coalition known as the Directory attempted to reinstate the more bourgeois constitutional values of the Revolution’s first phase, only to be removed by the military coup of November 1799 which brought Napoleon to power.

‘The French Revolution’, wrote the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘may be called the master theme of the epoch in which we live’. Certainly a consciousness of the Revolution – and of the possibility of revolution – pervades the pages of the Edinburgh Review, just as it pervaded Britain itself throughout the 1790s and beyond. After an initially enlightened welcome from British intellectuals, the Revolution was widely – and, by conservative alarmists, indiscriminately – execrated, as Britain went to war with revolutionary France in 1793. By and large, the Edinburgh was concerned to salvage what it took to be the positive aspects of the Revolution from hysterical attacks by the anti-Jacobins, while condemning the extreme rationalism and radical extremism that undermined attempts in France to establish an historically informed liberal constitutionalism. In the very opening article of the Edinburgh, Jeffrey congratulates Jean Joseph Mounier for not being ‘one of those, whom the horrors of the revolution have terrified into an abjuration of the principles of liberty’ and in speculating on the causes of the French Revolution offers a rationale for what would become its own reformist agenda: ‘It proceeded from the change that had taken place in the condition and the sentiments of the people; from the progress of commercial opulence; from the diffusion of information, and the prevalence of political discussion’ [ER, 1 (1802), 2, 7-8].

It looks to me as if I were in a great crisis, not of the affairs of France alone,, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe. All circumstances taken together, the French Revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world.

— Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. C. D. Clark (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2001), p. 154.

It created the politics of the impossible, turned madness into a theory, and blind audacity into a cult.

— Alex de Tocqueville, from an unfinished volume on the French Revolution, Œuvres Complètes, ed. J. P. Mayer  (Paris, 1951—), vol. 2, part 2, p. 255



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