The French Revolution—A Foregleam of Things to Come
By Awake! correspondent in France
The French Revolution took place 200 years ago, in 1789. What were its causes? What example of things to come did it leave?
“IS IT a revolt?” asked the king.
“No, Sire, it is a revolution.”
French king Louis XVI asked that question on July 14, 1789, the day the Bastille was stormed in Paris. He showed that French royalty was unable to recognize events that would bring about lasting changes in France and that would provide a foregleam of things to come.
During the 18th century, hunger had already caused many revolts in France. On the eve of the revolution, about 10 million out of a population of 25 million depended on charity for survival. In addition, royal power was decaying, the administration was apathetic about reforms, and intellectuals questioned whether the king’s authority should be superior to national interests.
In 1788 the regime was faced with a financial crisis, largely due to French support for the Americans in their War of Independence against Britain. The king was obliged to assemble what was called the States-General. This was made up of representatives from the three classes of the nation: the clergy (the first estate); the nobility (the second estate); and the common people (the third estate).
The clergy represented only 150,000 people, the nobility about 500,000, and the third estate over 24,500,000. Each of the three classes had one vote. This meant that the common people (with one vote) could not bring about any reforms unless the clergy and the nobility (with two votes) agreed. So the clergy and the nobility—about 3 percent of the population—could outvote the other 97 percent! Furthermore, the clergy and the nobility owned about 36 percent of the land and did not have to pay land taxes.
When so many people were hungry, the representatives of the common people denounced the despotism of the government, the unfair tax and voting systems, and the injustices and opulence of the Catholic hierarchy as well as the nobility. However, the king seemed secure, since he was thought to rule by divine right. And people still had faith in the Catholic religion. Yet, in less than four years, the monarchy was overthrown, and a process of dechristianization was launched.
In the spring of 1789, the revolutionary process began. Because some of the nobility refused to accept a change in election procedure, the deputies of the third estate declared themselves the National Assembly. This marked the triumph of the bourgeois revolution and the end of absolute monarchy.
The peasants, however, feared a conspiracy by the king and the aristocracy to overthrow the third estate. This drove the people to pillage castles and manors, which degenerated into mass revolt. On the night of August 4, 1789, to keep order, the Assembly decided to eliminate the privileges of the nobility and abolish the feudal regime. Thus, in just a few days, the foundations of the old regime were shattered.
The Rights of Man
The Assembly then introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity were proclaimed. But the Assembly had to overcome the opposition of the clergy before inserting articles 10 and 11, which recognized the rights of freedom of religion and of expression.
Many believed that they had found the perfect government. They were due for a disappointment, however, because the church, represented by Pope Pius VI, condemned the Declaration. Many revolutionaries also spurned the Declaration, giving in to an insatiable thirst for blood.
More than 150 years later, in 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inspired by the French text of 1789. But today, as in the past, many who pay lip service to such rights show utter disregard for the principles set forth. How true are the words of Ecclesiastes 8:9: “Some men have power and others have to suffer under them.”—Today’s English Version.
The Church Divided
In August 1789 certain deputies submitted the idea of nationalizing church property. The proposition became law, and the state seized church property. Additionally, the Assembly obliged priests to swear loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that it had drawn up.
The church became divided. There were the state priests (60 percent of the clergy), who accepted the oath, and the priests who refused to swear loyalty, remaining loyal to Rome. This division gave rise to many conflicts. The priests who refused the oath were often considered to be enemies of the revolution and of the country.
Terror and Bloodshed
Outside perils also threatened the revolution. Foreign monarchies were considering intervening in French affairs to put the king back on the throne. As for the common people, they lost confidence in Louis XVI when, on June 21, 1791, he tried to flee the country.
In the spring of 1792, in view of mounting opposition to the revolution in other European countries, France declared war on the king of Bohemia and Hungary. The war spread to all of Europe and continued until 1799, with over 500,000 French victims.
In August and September 1792, the revolution turned radical. The king was deposed, condemned to death, and a republic was proclaimed. The king was executed on January 21, 1793, and the queen, Marie Antoinette, was executed on October 16, 1793. Many uncooperative priests were deported. The revolutionaries felt they had to liberate other peoples who were still under tyrannical monarchies. But the liberators often ended up despots themselves.
Nothing, however, brought relief from the difficulties that had been worsened by the war. Following a decree to draft 300,000 men, trouble broke out in the country. In western France, a royalist Catholic army was formed under the emblem of the cross and the sacred heart. It took control of towns in four areas and massacred the republicans there.
The central government took advantage of these problems to give itself dictatorial powers in the hands of a “Committee of Public Safety,” with Robespierre as a dominant member. Terror became a principle of government. Often, the rights laid down in the 1789 Declaration were trampled on. The revolutionary tribunals passed more and more death sentences, and the guillotine became notorious.
From autumn 1793, the revolutionary government set up a vast plan for dechristianization. The aim was to build a “new man” who would be rid of vice. The Catholic religion was accused of trying to take advantage of the people’s credulity. Some churches were destroyed, while others were turned into barracks. The clergy were forced to quit their vocation and marry. Those who refused were arrested and executed. Some fled the country.
The Catholic religion was replaced by the religion of Reason. Some viewed Reason as a goddess, the “Mother of the homeland.” Then, worship of Reason was replaced by a deistic religion imposed by Robespierre. He eliminated his opponents and established a ruthless dictatorship. This frenzy for blood later cost him his own life. He was dragged screaming to the guillotine on July 28, 1794.
The politicians who survived wanted to avoid a one-man dictatorship, so they entrusted power to a directory of five members. But as the war resumed and the financial situation worsened, the placing of power in the hands of an individual, Napoleon Bonaparte, was favored. The way was open for another dictatorship.
The French Revolution sowed ideas that later grew into both democracies and dictatorships. It also showed what can happen when political powers suddenly turn against organized religion. In this, it may provide a foregleam of things to come.—Revelation 17:16; 18:1-24.
[Picture on page 28]
Inside Notre Dame Cathedral, an idolatrous festival for the goddess Reason
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
[Picture Credit Line on page 26]
From an old engraving, by H. Bricher sc.