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.