“They said to her in a harsh voice: ‘Cry out: Long live the nation!’ – ‘No! no!’ she said. They made her climb onto a heap of corpses. … Then a killer seized her, tore off her dress and opened her belly. She fell, and was finished off by the others.” So ended the life of the Princess de Lamballe, a close confidante of Marie Antoinette, in 1792.
This harrowing episode is one of many documented in Peter McPhee’s 2016 book about the French Revolution, Liberty or Death: The French Revolution. This thorough and well-researched work takes off in pre-revolutionary France, which the author explains “was a land of mass poverty in which most people were vulnerable to harvest failure” and “in which the weight of authority guaranteed relative obedience and stability.” This state of obedience gradually disintegrated throughout the eighteenth century, as food-rioting and “complaints about the presumptions of the privileged” increased. A patchwork of overlapping authorities of monarchy, aristocracy and Church in those days, France was economically backward compared to England, where the Industrial Revolution was well underway by 1789. France’s peasants and artisans had ample reason for discontent with their rulers.
Their fury, however, set in motion a chain of events that few had foreseen, and that few would argue led ultimately to an improvement upon Louis XVI’s rule. McPhee details chapter by chapter the many phases of the Revolution, which in the eyes of its protagonists was never “completed”, not least because resistance to the rapid changes grew by the day. Concepts completely alien to the French population, such as a uniform rule of law, (more or less) free enterprise, separation of church and state and a national system of taxation, were introduced virtually overnight, to the dismay of many French.
A major pocket of rebellion was the Catholic Church, which had effectively been rendered a minion of the state, its property nationalized and its clergy forced to swear an oath of loyalty to the new government. “This was the moment that fractured the Revolution,” writes McPhee, for it split the clergy and their respective communities into two camps violently opposing each other. Full-scale civil war broke out in the Vendée region along France’s west coast.
To make matters worse, further pressure was put on the new republic by surrounding countries, which, in a precursor to the ‘domino theory’ in the era of Communism, feared they could fall prey to the republican virus too. Before long, the new French government found itself at war on multiple fronts.
The internal and external resistance to the young republic proved more than its defenders were willing to tolerate. Gradually new-found liberties were dialed back, sweeping government powers were instituted, enemies (real of perceived) were preventively detained, and in 1973 the infamous Committee of Public Safety was set up. Though the goal was to “secure the Republic” to a point where the new constitution could be fully implemented, instead the Revolution’s leaders grew more radical as all this played out — and their suspicions weren’t just aimed at recalcitrant Catholic priests either: “Those who battled over the implementation of the revolutionary changes,” McPhee says, “worked within pre-existing or newly formed networks of friends and the like-minded. There were others they came to mistrust, even to hate. Particular individuals came to be seen to personify particular phases of the Revolution, and were consequently loved or demonized.”
After the election of Maximilien Robespierre to the Committee of Public Safety on July 27, 1793, this government body, formed to protect the new republic against foreign and domestic threats, ignited a period of bloodshed later branded the ‘Reign of Terror’ and turned into a de facto dictatorship. Or did it? McPhee writes: “It has often been caricatured as a dictatorial, even totalitarian regime imposed by ideologues, particularly Robespierre and Saint-Just, to create a ‘virtuous’ society based on the violent exclusion of the ‘other’. Robespierre … was indeed the most articulate and admired of the Jacobin leaders (as well as the most despised by opponents), but the Jacobins were a mixed group of republicans applying exceptional laws in extraordinary circumstances as they grappled both to create a republican society and to defend it against its enemies.” He adds later: “It was the counter-revolution and the mixed emotions of panic, outrage, pride and fear that it aroused that fostered a willingness to believe that enemies were omnipresent. Then the outbreak of war transformed political divisions into matters of life and death.”
As is usual within these regimes, the revolutionaries ate their own before long and Robespierre was arrested and executed along with a few of his cronies, bringing an end to the Terror. A new constitution was adopted in 1795 with more emphasis on equality before the law than equality of outcome. However, the new leaders “were never able to feel confident that they acted with the willing support of most citizens,” and remained eager to resort to repression. The post-Robespierre regime “had the misfortune of having to establish itself during years of subsistence crisis,” McPhee writes. “But by its religious, military, economic and social policies, the regime further alienated large numbers of people …” There was ample resentment against military conscription, especially when the armies were employed to fight uprisings like in Brittany. The military adventures abroad, too, looked more and more like naked occupation than “revolutionary emancipation”.
It was within this political turmoil that an up and coming general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte staged a military coup in 1799 and effectively ended the French Revolution. A new constitution was adopted under which France was ruled by three consuls, Napoleon being one of them. “A Tribunate of a hundred members members was to discuss legislation but not vote,” while “a Legislative Assembly of three hundred was to vote on legislation without discussion.” Government was centralized and made more hierarchical in the years that followed. This is the point where Liberty or Death is concluded.
The book’s author is fairly even in his judgements of the many events between 1789 and 1799. On the one hand, he notes, “The most powerful image has always been the legacy of 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, seen to exemplify the highest aspirations for a society based on popular sovereignty, freedom of expression and opportunity, and respect for the rights of others.” On the other hand, an image can be painted “of 1789 as unnecessary popular excess that degenerated into destructive, bloody civil war. This image has been one of loss: of tradition, of respect for religion and authority, and of the rich tapestry of provincial institutions and cultures.”
Nevertheless, McPhee’s verdict on Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins, whom he argues were merely grappling to seize control of a nation in a state of panic and fear and not acting as all-out dictators, seems oddly mild. In the author’s own words, “the net necessary to ensnare enemies of the Revolution trapped many thousands of people whose only mistake was to be critical of government policy rather than being engaged in armed counter-revolutionary activity.” By “trapped”, McPhee means that their heads were chopped off by the guilotine, an act of cold-blooded murder of French citizens by their government. The Jacobins’ actions were based on an ideology preaching “the certainty about the innate goodness of the common people, corrupted by centuries of misery and ignorance and now by the deception, even conspiracy, of those who would prevent them from reaping the revolutionary harvest.” They learned this folly from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose works are today widely considered to be one of the foundations of socialism.
This reviewer is therefore tempted to give some consideration to Edmund Burke’s remark that “An ignorant man, who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers. Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill.” These words were written in 1790, mind you. ‘Leaders’ who, in service of a radical ideology, demonstrate such ample disregard for a people’s culture and traditions should not be given a free pass by the chroniclers of history, even if their actions helped spread the virtues of limited, republican government — for that outcome was only one side of the coin. It’s not a compliment that Lenin and his fellow Russian revolutionaries looked to the Jacobins with admiration a hundred years later.
I have another, smaller beef with the book. If you were looking for an engaging, invigorating account of the French Revolution, Liberty or Death might not be for you. Though at times interesting and packed with illustrative anecdotes, it often made me think of Dr. Johnson’s quip about Milton’s Paradise Lost that “None ever wished it longer than it is.” The book’s protagonists never really come to life. Their backgrounds are left in the dark and their personal motives are left unexplored. Too much the book lapses into providing a bird’s eye view of the events at hand. It makes for dry reading. The author’s use of the silly revolutionary calendar throughout the book doesn’t help matters.
That said, it is plain that an enormous amount of research went into Liberty or Death and Peter McPhee is to be commended for his efforts. I would recommend this book to serious students of the French Revolution, if perhaps not to those dipping their toes into this important subject for the first time.