The Paris Revolution
Posted by aogFriday, 23 June 2006 at 09:42 TrackBack Ping URL

I finally finished Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien Robespierre. Although not specifically about the French Revolution, it of course spends quite a bit of time on that event. It makes a fascinating contrast to the American Revolution and one can see that the paths of those two events diverged from the very beginning.

One of the biggest contrasts was the level of organization. The A.R. had its issues with coordination, but it was the very model of planning compared to the F.R. Ironically, one could make the argument that the A.R. benefitted from being run by an existing elite, who were already adept in the ways of power and politics. The F.R. was run primarily by amatuers and posers with big ideals and little experience. Yet it was the style of the F.R. that later gave rise to true professional revolutionaries.

The other big difference was the blood thirstiness of the F.R. While there were pogroms under the A.R., these were incidental and regretted (for the most part) by the leadership. The F.R., in contrast, willingly embraced bloodshed, oppression, and executions. I had known this before, of course, but I had not realized how early and centrally it had happened, that Robespierre wasn’t an aberration who managed to gain control but in fact was a typical revolutionary.

I did end up feeling more sympathetic with France. What became clear to me as I read was how much of the F.R. was really the Paris Revolution. When one considers the turning points that put the F.R. on the path to blood and tyranny, Paris the city always looms large. It was the appeasement of the Parisian mobs, the fact that control of Paris meant control of France, that was the determinative factor. At one point Robespierre is fighting with former colleagues, who have a much more federal and (dare I say it?) Anglospheric view of where the F.R. should go. But Robespierre is left in charge of Paris and this dooms his opponents. It also leads to brutal repression of any other city that dares dispute the primacy of Paris. Perhaps this is another key difference in the Revolutions, that the leaders of the A.R had to deal with each other as equals because there was no one dominant colony or city.

Be that as it may, in the end the dominance of Paris lead to the failure of the French Revolution and in turn the creation of modern day France, which makes its nickname as “the City of Light” quite the misnomer. So don’t blame France, blame Paris. There were Frenchmen during the Revolution who figured out what made the A.R. so successful but they were unable to overcome the Parisian legacy.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Jeff Guinn Friday, 23 June 2006 at 20:37


Very nice, succinct analysis.

France did face circumstances the US did not. France was surrounded by monarchies who viewed the revolution as a viral menace, and hoped to end it through invasion.

In contrast, the US had no peer competitor within a couple months sailing distance — except for the British monarch, we effectively had no external enemies.

Natalie Solent Monday, 26 June 2006 at 10:48

I’ve heard it said that the “seed” of difference between the two, and the thing that has determined whether subsequent revolutions would go the French way or the American way, was the attitude of the two revolutions to property.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 26 June 2006 at 16:57

Hmmm. I didn’t get an impression that there was that much of a difference there between the two revolutions. Certainly subsequent revolutions seem to have that distinction, I don’t see where that really came up as an important issue.

I would lean more toward the utopian / leave me alone dichotomy as the seed. The American Revolution was far more of the latter, where the colonists wanted to keep on doing what they were doing, just on their own. The French Revolution, on the other hand, wanted to overturn everything and completely restructure society. The issue with property seems to me to be just an implication of this difference, not fundamental in itself.

Patrick Crozier Tuesday, 27 June 2006 at 13:51

I’ve long felt that the American Revolution is misnamed. There wasn’t anything particularly revolutionary about it. For the most part the Declaration of Independence was a list of complaints that George III wasn’t obeying his own laws.

Indeed, you’d struggle to compile a list of freedoms that Americans had in 1790 that Britons did not.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 27 June 2006 at 14:35

I would agree with that. There certainly some significant changes in government, but not really a revolution in the standard sense. As I noted in my previous comment, we see very little change in the day to day lives of the citizenry. And the true revolution in government, the US Constitution, didn’t show up for years afterwards, although it clearly required the American Revolution as a precursor.

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