The popular image of Bastille Day, indeed of the French Revolution itself, is that the liberty-loving French folk in Paris spontaneously rose up against a tyrannical king and his haughty wife, and heroically stormed the symbol of the Old Regime — the prison fortress known as the Bastille — liberating hundreds of political prisoners. This led to an abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a government dedicated to liberty for all the people of France.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The French Revolution was actually the fruit of decades of radical agitation stirred up by anti-Christian, power-seeking secret societies which drank freely from the poison well of the Enlightenment, and it has served as the template for every radical leftist revolution since that time.
Obviously only so much can be said in a short article; however, to begin: The seeds of the French Revolution were sown in the cafes, coffee houses, and secret societies that emerged in the Enlightenment. This is not to say that the entire Enlightenment was evil, but many of the personalities and ideas which emerged from it were certainly radical. The Enlightenment has been described as a philosophical movement which grew in strength in Europe throughout much of the 18th century. It was marked by an increasing opposition to the existing order, specifically orthodox Christianity.
For example, among the most important events of the Enlightenment was the publication between 1751 and 1772 of the 35-volume Encylopedia, compiled by the intensely anti-Christian Denis Diderot, and others of like mind. The first edition even featured a winged Lucifer on its title page. (One might note that Saul Alinsky dedicated his 1971 book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer, also known as the devil or Satan.) Few Enlightenment figures were openly atheist, but instead held to a new worldview known as deism. Under deism, God is the Creator, but His intervention into human affairs is denied, and the authority of the Bible is questioned, with particular opposition to literal miracles. In other words, it is a religious view which leaves man unrestrained.
Many of these Enlightenment figures became increasingly radical. A radical is defined as a person who desires the destruction of the present society, replacing it with a new order in the world.
With the continuing spread of these ideas — discussed openly in cafes, coffee houses, reading rooms, salons, and the like across Europe — some of these radicals began to discuss revolution, in secret societies.
Indeed, it was “the best of times … the worst of times.” 1789 was the fateful year in which, on one side of the Atlantic Ocean, a constitutional Republic was established by honorable, temperate men who acknowledged the sovereignty of Almighty God; and, on the other side, a “Democracy” characterized by the basest tyranny was created by profane creatures who reviled Heaven.
Various theories have been advanced concerning the causes of the French Revolution — “famine and the grinding poverty of the peasants,” “the influences of Voltaire, Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists,” “the unbearable oppression of the Ancient Regime,” “excessive taxation and feudal privilege,” “the economic bankruptcy of the Crown” — all specious. “The practice of attributing the revolution to such causes, as though a quasi-physical law had been operating which necessitated that effect (revolution), is a grave error,” observes Rev. Clarence Kelly in his book Conspiracy Against God And Man. “To the extent that such conditions did exist, one cannot say that the revolution was a necessary consequence. If economic problems and despotism necessarily cause revolution, then surely no Communist regime would stand long.”
By the standards of the day, France under the Bourbon monarchy was anything but “backward,” “impoverished,” or “oppressive.” As the premier power of Europe, France was the largest, wealthiest, most populous nation on the continent, with a well-developed middle class, and a strong agricultural, industrial, and foreign trade base. In science, literature, and culture France led the world. According to all the most credible accounts by contemporary travelers, France was the place to live in the 18th Century, whatever one’s station in life.
In The French Revolution, the late Nesta H. Webster cited both impartial and pro-revolutionary witnesses whose testimony puts the lie to the “starving peasant uprising” arguments. An Englishman named Dr. Rigby, for instance, wrote to his wife from France during the summer of 1789: “The general appearance of the people is different to what I expected; they are strong and well-made…. Everything we see bears the marks of industry, and all the people look happy…. We have seen few of the lower classes in rags, idleness and misery. What strange prejudices we are apt to take regarding foreigners!”
A far different aspect greeted the good doctor when he entered Prussia: “There was a gloom and an appearance of disease in almost every man’s face we saw; their persons also looked filthy. The state of wretchedness in which they live seems to deprive them of every power of exertion.” Rigby was struck by the comparative vitality of France: “How every country and every people we have seen since we left France sink in comparison with that animated country!”
Thomas Jefferson, after extensive excursions throughout the French countryside and a close examination of agricultural practices there, was pleasantly surprised to find that the conditions of the peasants were far better than he had been led to believe. “I have been pleased to find among the people a less degree of physical misery than I had expected,” Jefferson wrote to Lafayette in 1787. “They are generally well clothed, and have plenty of food, not animal indeed, but vegetable, which is as wholesome.”
Even the celebrated Marxist historian Georges Lefebvre, president of the Société des Etudes Robespierristes and editor of the Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française, noted in The Great Fear of 1789 that the “agrarian crisis would have been acute indeed if the farming system [in France] had not been far more favorable to the peasants than anywhere else in Europe.”
Savior of the Public Liberty
Far from having been the cruel despot he is often portrayed as, Louis XVI was a well-intentioned, though often weak and inept, monarch thrust into circumstances beyond the measure, perhaps, of even the wisest and most adroit ruler. A devout Christian eager to improve the plight of his subjects, he launched a serious program of reform in the first year of his reign. In the decade and a half leading up to 1789 he had abolished torture and all forms of servitude in his domain, granted liberty of conscience to Protestant sects, reformed the prisons and hospitals, and proposed the abolition of the salt tax and lettres de cachet (arrest warrants that permitted imprisonment without trial).
Louis XVI had undertaken these genuine reform efforts on his own initiative, without compulsion. In fact, it was the French Parliament that obstructed many needed reforms. There is no evidence that the French people had entertained any notion of overthrowing the Crown.
Prior to convening the Estates General, the King had called for cahiers de doleances, or lists of grievances, to be drawn up and sent in from all the provinces, to aid in the process of reform. According to 1789, published by American Opinion, “Not one [cahier] contemplates the abolition of the monarchy. Not even the petition presented by the City of Paris, for all its obstreperous demands and radical animosity, would dare to suggest such a profound upturning of the national constitution. ‘The person of the monarch is sacred and inviolable,’ says the memorandum…. Religion is praised as a necessary condition of man. The object of law is to safeguard liberty and property. The commissioners would like the Bastille torn down, and a noble column erected on the site bearing the inscription, ‘To Louis XVI, Savior of the Public Liberty.’”
The Bourbon monarch was also most tolerant of dissent. “Paris had more printers, bookstalls, book dealers, journalists, and theorists than any city had ever before seen,” records historian Otto Scott in his biography of Robespierre. “Censorship was still on the books but no longer enforced….”
It was Louis XVI’s liberal tolerance toward the champions of so-called “enlightenment” and “reason” that undermined both Church and Crown. While, in the main, the French people — particularly the peasants and working people — remained staunchly Christian and monarchist, the disaffected nobility and the habitués of the intellectual salons gave sway to libertine passions and head, “new” doctrines. Of the decade preceding the revolution Scott writes:
Strange cults appeared; sex rituals, black magic, Satanism. Perversion became not only acceptable but fashionable. Homosexuals held public balls to which heterosexuals were invited and the police guarded their carriages. Prostitutes were admired; swindles and sharp business practices increased. Political clubs of the more radical sort proliferated. The Freemasons, whose lodges ranged from the sedate to the wild-eyed, extended across the nation. There were hundreds of such lodges in Paris alone, and thousands throughout the country. The air grew thick with plans to restructure and reconstruct all traditional French society and institutions.
“The press, for the first time in history, was the spearhead, font and fuel for these discussions,” writes Scott. The journals of that day, like so many now, “were mixtures of politics and smut. They admired agitators extravagantly and never discussed the Church without mention of scandal nor government without criticism. They relied heavily on tales of sin in high places and highhanded outrages of the Court.”
In his Paris in the Terror, Stanley Loomis notes the irony that “of all countries in Europe, France was the only one that could have had a revolution — not because she groaned under the lash of tyranny, but on the contrary, because she tolerated and even invited every conceivable dissension. Restlessness, a passion for novelty and the pursuit of excitement were everywhere in the air. They were the fruits of idleness and leisure, not of poverty.”
Marie Antoinette supposedly once remarked, “Let them eat cake,” in response to being informed that the poor had no bread. The real Antoinette said no such thing. In fact she lodged and fed 12 poor families, at her own expense, at Trianon. She founded the Society of Ladies of Maternal Charity. She even once stopped her carriage for over an hour to aid an injured person, and waited until a surgeon was located.
Historian Antonia Fraser disputed this cruel libel in her book Marie Antoinette, the Journey, writing, “As a handy journalistic cliché [“Let them eat cake”], it may never die,” adding that “such ignorant behavior would have been quite out of character. The unfashionably philanthropic Marie Antoinette would have been far more likely to bestow her own cake impulsively upon the starving people before her.”
Perhaps the greatest error of Marie Antoinette’s husband, Louis XVI of the House of Bourbon, was involving his nation in the war between Great Britain and her American colonies. Most of the debt of France was incurred before he came to the throne, during the four wars of Louis XIV, followed by the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in America) under Louis XV. France had no business involving itself in yet another war. While some modern Americans even use the French intervention as a justification for American intervention into the affairs of other countries today, it could just as well be cited as a reason to refrain from such foreign adventures. It is not certain if Louis could have avoided national bankruptcy even if he had opted to stay out of the American Revolution, but he no doubt deepened the problem and hastened his own demise by jumping in.
By 1788, the fiscal situation for the French government was desperate, and Louis XVI called the Estates-General to help him. The Estates-General was divided into the three “Estates,” the first being the clergy, the second, the nobility, and the third, everyone else.
The radicals sensed that their time had come. On June 10, 1789, the Third Estate urged the nobles and the clergy to unite with them. Many did, and on June 17 they proclaimed themselves the National Assembly of France. On June 20, the new National Assembly found the meeting hall closed, so the deputies went to a nearby indoor tennis court to escape the rain. There, they took the Tennis-Court Oath, in which they pledged not to adjourn until they had adopted a new constitution for France.
It is true that the French treasury was in desperate straits, but that condition was not simply the result of Court extravagance, as is often asserted. In her first years as queen, Marie Antoinette established a reputation as an insatiable spendthrift with a taste for lavish soirées. But historians have documented the rapid maturing of her character and her development of simpler tastes when she became a mother.
When Louis XVI ascended to the throne, the French government was spending 235 million francs a year and had revenues of only 213.4 million francs. He attempted to remedy the deficit inherited from his grandfather, Louis XV, but, being untrained in economics, left the management of the treasury up to others. Unfortunately, his finance ministers — Necker, Calonne, Brienne, and Necker again — attempted to create the impression of prosperity by juggling the books, launching massive welfare and public works projects, taking out new loans, and padding their own accounts.
Details about the finances of the government in pre-revolutionary France are recorded in the book 1789:
In 1789, only six percent of the national revenue was budgeted for the entire expense of the Court; and only a small fraction of that went for personal needs. Army, Navy and diplomacy ate up twenty-five percent. And fifty percent — mark that, fifty percent — went for debt services on that four and one-half billion national debt…. And what was the single biggest cause of the debt? Two-thirds of the debt, three billion livres, had been spent to support the United States in the American Revolutionary War.
Yes, it was “wicked” King Louis — not the revolutionary Jacobins — who aided the American colonists in their struggle against King George. It is also worth remembering, in this year of our bicentennial, that our nation was barely founded when the Jacobins sent their agents (most notably, Citizen Genet) here to establish subversive “Democratic Clubs” and topple our infant republic.
Louis the Sixteenth, at the beginning of 1789, was faced with many problems, but “the people” were not one of them. “The masses remained pious,” Will and Ariel Durant point out in Rousseau and Revolution, “but their leaders had lost respect for priests and kings; the masses loved Louis XVI to the end, but the leaders cut off his head.” Even the king’s enemies conceded that he was a benign ruler. Frederick II of Prussia (dubbed “the Great” by Voltaire), who conspired with Mirabeau and the Orleanistes to depose Louis, wrote to d’Alembert: “You have a very good king…. A king who is wise and virtuous is more to be feared by his rivals than a prince who has only courage.” D’Alembert replied: “He loves goodness, justice, economy, and peace…. He is just what we ought to desire as our king, if a propitious fate had not given him to us.” Voltaire also agreed: “All that Louis has done since his accession has endeared him to France.”
If the people of France loved their king, enjoyed a higher standard of living than most others on the continent, and had every prospect of improving their lot in life with a reform-minded ruler, why then did they revolt? The answer, of course, is that the revolution, from the fall of the Bastille to the accession of Napoleon, was never a movement of “the people.”
Citizens of Paris witnessed the mysterious arrival of thousands of frightful strangers in their midst in the spring of 1789. In The French Revolution, Nesta Webster painstakingly reconstructed the scene from primary sources:
Towards the end of April the peaceful citizens saw with bewilderment bands of ragged men of horrible appearance, armed with thick knotted sticks, flocking through the barriers into the city. This sinister contingent is not, as certain historians would have us believe, to be confused with the former crowds of peasants — “they were neither workmen nor peasants,” says Madame Vigee le Brun, “they seemed to belong to no class unless that of bandits, so terrifying were their faces,” and Montjoie adds that this aspect was intentional — “they had been instructed to disfigure their faces in a manner so hideous that they were objects of horror to all the Parisians.” Other contemporaries, whose accounts exactly coincide with the foregoing, add that these men were “foreigners” — “they spoke a strange tongue….” Marmontel describes them as “Marseillais … men of rapine and carnage, thirsting for blood and booty, who, mingling with the people, inspired them with their own ferocity.”
These “brigands” and “bandits,” referred to in so many of the accounts of the day, had been brought to the city in the employ of Louis Philippe, the Duc d’Orleans. By various estimates they numbered between 20,000 and 40,000. The immensely wealthy and powerful duke harbored intense hatred for his cousin, Louis XVI, and his lust for the throne was transparent. He was as dissolute and amoral as the king was sober and virtuous. Grand Master of all Grand Orient Lodges of Freemasonry, he had an unequaled network for communications, intelligence, and propaganda.
What Really Happened
During the summer of 1789 the Duc d’Orleans’ murderous brigands terrorized Paris and created a famine by commandeering and/or destroying shipments of grain coming into the city. Other agents of the duke bought up grain supplies and held them off the market. Still other Orleaniste agents “buffeted the populace with calamitous rumors: that economic collapse was imminent; that the king’s troops were massacring citizens in various parts of the city; that the king had mined the Assembly to blow up the legislators; that the bread and wine had been poisoned.”
The king’s cousin, the Duke of Orleans, began bribing hungry Parisians to rebel and overthrow the government. Thousands stood outside bakeries all day, waiting for bread. Rumors of all sorts were floated among the populace: one had it that the king had even mined the meeting hall of the National Assembly. On July 13, mobs were led to break into gunsmiths’ shops, searching for weapons. A new rumor circulated on July 14, causing the greatest alarm yet. According to this rumor, soldiers were supposedly poised to attack the city.
At this point, someone suggested that the mob attack the Hôtel des Invalides, where they found nearly 30,000 muskets. But since there were few cartridges, and only small stores of powder, someone then shouted that they should storm the Bastille, which was said to contain vast stores of both cartridges and gunpowder.
While the French Revolution has been presented as a spontaneous uprising, it seems there was guidance every step along the way.
The Bastille was a 14th-century castle that Louis XVI would have already destroyed, but he lacked the funds. At one time, during the absolute rule of his great-great-great grandfather, the “Sun King,” Louis XIV, the Bastille had housed hundreds of political prisoners. Now, it housed only seven inmates, four of whom were forgers, one in the jail for incest, and two others, probably insane. None was a “political” dissident.
But all this information was unknown to the mob. They were told the Bastille still held hundreds of political dissidents, suffering horrific tortures within its thick walls. Someone in the mob shouted that cannons atop the Bastille could kill many in the enraged Paris mob. Upon hearing this, the governor of the Bastille, Bernard-René De Launay, directed that the cannons be withdrawn from visibility. At this, someone shouted that they were loading the cannons, with intentions of murdering the mob.
Governor De Launay couldn’t bring himself to fire on his own countrymen. Bearing in mind the king’s aversion to violence, he allowed his men to put up only token resistance before he surrendered to the mob. With shouts from within the mob to kill them all, De Launay was butchered — shot and stabbed. A sword was used, along with a pocket knife, to decapitate him. His severed head was then placed at the end of a pike and paraded through the streets of Paris.
Rumors spread that hundreds of political prisoners had been liberated from the Bastille. Thus began the revolution.
This whole episode is hardly something to celebrate; however, it is held up by many — not only in France, but around the world, including in the United States — as somehow the equivalent of the embattled farmers standing at Lexington and Concord and firing the shot heard ‘round the world.
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