Myths about the French Revolution
The French Revolution is one of the most misunderstood events in history. In fact, much of what you believe about the French Revolution probably comprises myths.
For instance, most people believe the French Revolution was a conflict between virtuous peasants and greedy nobles. In reality, the French Revolution was a messy conflict which featured open warfare between the middle class and the peasantry.
Some Myths about the French Revolution you could believe include:
The Revolution began with the Fall of the Bastille
The widespread popularity of this myth is easy to understand. France’s national holiday is Bastille Day or 14 July.
Confusingly, the Revolution did not begin on 14 July 1789 when a mob tore down the Bastille a notorious Paris prison. Yet, France celebrates the destruction of the Bastille as the beginning of the Revolution.
Instead, historians mark the beginning of the Revolution as the great Fiscal Crisis that came to a head in 1788. Essentially, the French Monarchy could not raise enough money to pay its bills. The crisis began because the Monarchy lacked the legal power to impose the taxes needed to finance the government.
Instead, the fiscal crisis forced King Louis XVI to take drastic action. The drastic action was to convene the first meeting of France’s parliament, the Estates General, since 1614.
No king had convened an Estates General for 175 years because the body theoretically had the power to rewrite France’s constitution. Yet, Louis XVI felt he had no choice because the government needed money.
To explain, the King and his ministers hoped the Estates General could impose new taxes that could give the government the money to pay its bills. In addition, they hoped the Estates General could give the French Crown the ability to issue debt to finance the government as France’s archenemy, Great Britain, could.
Instead of fixing the fiscal crisis, the Estates General overhauled France’s entire system of government. That led to chaos, particularly in the streets of Paris and a new system of government.
The Nobility were the Main Victims of the French Revolution
The pop culture version of the French Revolution created by The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of Two Cities is that nobles comprised most of the Revolution’s victims. Consequently, the image of the Revolution most of us have is dandies in powdered wigs being marched to the guillotine for the Paris Mob’s entertainment.
In reality, most of the French Revolution’s victims were conservative Catholic peasants. The worst slaughter of the Revolution took place in the Western French region known as the Vendée.
When the French Army suppressed a counterrevolutionary guerrilla movement in the Vendée between 117,000 and 450,000 people were killed. The Army’s slaughter was so systematic historian Reynald Secher labels it genocide.
Most of the dead were peasants who opposed the Revolution. Additionally, most of the killing took place in the fields and forests of Western France, far from the squares of Paris. Hence, most of the French Revolution’s victims were the people it was supposedly helping.
Finally, many French nobles escaped the Revolution and returned under Napoleon’s First Consulate to reclaim their lands and position. The peasants of the Vendée had no means of escape.
Moreover, many of the victims of the Reign of Terror in Paris were middle class lawyers and intellectuals who had been revolutionary leaders. For example, Robespierre.
The Victims of the French Revolution were killed with the Guillotine
This myth is partially true. They used the guillotine for the most famous Revolutionary executions, such as those of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre.
However, French Revolutionaries used a wide variety of means to kill less famous enemies of the new order. For example, when Republican Forces recaptured the city of Anjou from Vendéean rebels in 1794, they shot and guillotined between 6,400 and 7,000 people.
In another infamous interlude of the Reign of Terror in Nantes. Republican forces drowned hundreds of accused counterrevolutionaries in the Loire River. Many of those drowned were priests, nuns, and monks who refused to join the new national church and abandon loyalty to the Pope and Rome.
The principal method of execution at Nantes was to load people into barges and sink them into the river. Authorities turned to drowning because the guillotine could not kill enough fast enough to satisfy their blood lust. Another reason for the drownings was to save ammunition for France’s ongoing war against the First Coalition. By drowning clergy, patriotic authorities were saving ammunition and powder for the troops at the front.
Firing squads that killed 1,800 to 2,600 people accompanied the Nantes drownings. Hence, authorities found some ammunition for executions. Moreover, thousands of people died from disease and starvation in over crowded prisons during the French Revolution.
Yes, the guillotine was the symbol of the French Revolution, but it was not the primary method of execution. Instead, most of the revolution’s victims were shot or starved.
The French Revolution was the End of the French Monarchy
Not true. Ironically, the French monarchy survived the French Revolution for 81 years. In fact, the monarchy survived in one form or another until 1870.
To explain, the Revolution brought down the Ancient Regime and led to the deaths of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. However, the first few Revolutionary governments wanted to keep Louis XVI around as a constitutional monarch.
Marie and Louis XVI sealed their fates by sneaking out of Paris and fleeing to Varennes on 20 June 1791. To explain, the fugitive royals were trying to reach Austrian territory and get troops to wage war on France from Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Despite Louis’s treason, monarchy remained a popular idea in France. For example, the French crowned four monarchs in the first four decades of the 19th century. Those monarchs were Emperor Napoleon I, King Louis XVIII, King Charles X, and King Louis-Philippe.
Strangely, German troops ended France’s monarchy by capturing Emperor Napoleon III (Bonaparte’s nephew) at the Battle of Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Napoleon III’s capture discredited the French Empire.
Oddly, the French monarchy almost survived 1870. To explain, France’s National Assembly offered the throne to the Comte de Chambord the last Legitimist or Bourbon heir to France’s throne.
Incredibly, Chambord rejected the throne because the Assembly kept the tricolor of the Republic as France’s flag. To explain, Chambord refused to swear loyalty to the flag of the Republic that had executed his family members.
Yet, 1870 was the last time French politicians offered anybody the crown. In 1875, they established the Third Republic. France has remained a republic since then.
Thus, the French Revolution did not destroy the Monarch. Bizarrely, history shows history made the monarchy more popular by establishing the crown and the Bourbons as symbols of resistance to the Revolution.
There are many myths about the French Revolution. Understanding those myths can help us understand that cataclysmic event and show us what future revolutions could look like.