Why do some reject the French Revolution?

Jun 2016
1,863
England, 200 yards from Wales
At one time during my college years, I was under the impression that the French Revolution was a single, singular event. That shows you how little attention I paid in that course. Over the ensuing years, I gradually became aware through various readings on the subject that the reality was quite different. Like a coat of many colors, the French Revolution turned out to be a rather complex event that took decades to come to fruition. Oh yeah, there were some kings and an emperor that stood in the way of its realization. That, and heads that rolled into bushel baskets, but we don’t need to sensationalize this, do we?

So, it was a “revolution” that, well, that failed and it wasn’t until, literally, decades later, it finally succeeded. I’m wondering why so many posters in here lionize this revolution so much considering what a bloody botch it really was. Understand, I fully believe that France needed a revolution, just not one that was so throughly botched in its execution and the apparently low quality of the revolution’s leaders. The whole ”Napoleon thing” wound up costing the French nation around a million of their citizens’ lives. Great job.

The French Revolution was certainly an earthquake in the European landscape and it’s easy to see why monarchies next to France experienced feelings of existential angst which, following the advent of Napoleon was well and fully justified.

With higher quality and thoughtful leadership it might have gone differently. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
I don't wholly agree about the low quality of the leaders. The variety of leaders was as 'unsimple' as you rightly say the events were. There were others better than the leaders of the Terror, but, as is often the case in times of chaos and upset, the most ruthless prevailed (as with Stalin, even Cromwell in a way).
 

royal744

Ad Honoris
Jul 2013
10,647
San Antonio, Tx
Liberté, égalité, fraternité - Vive le Emperor.

They came close, but ultimately ended up with the Bourbons 2.0. After many acts of state brutality, over a few different revolutions.

Or perhaps Napoleon was more like the Hapsburgs given the expansionist *Empire* and, more importantly, putting his family on the thrones of Europe – how any thinks Napoleon is anything other than yet another absolute monarch is beyond me!
You’re right. I’m truly puzzled - not to say amazed - why anyone worships at the feet of the French Revolution. It failed, ended badly and had to wait all the way to Napoleon III to finally succeed. Meanwhile, there was a real revolution across the Atlantic and it’s still in business.
 

royal744

Ad Honoris
Jul 2013
10,647
San Antonio, Tx
American revolution was not a true revolution like the French was. French revolution just about destroyed the old system which was not the case of the American revolution.

French revolution gave women and ethnic and religious minorities many rights.To me the French revolution was the true revolution.
Is this true? I read somewhere that women in FRance didn’t get complete voting rights until the 1960s? So, which is it?
 

royal744

Ad Honoris
Jul 2013
10,647
San Antonio, Tx
You never had to contend with entire empires (several) of monarchical absolutists by the Grace of God, armed willing and ready, sitting right on top of you. Britain was an ocean away, a fraction as resolute about putting down that rebellion compared to the absolute monarchs were about the French, and politically the UK ALREADY was a liberal society in most ways that mattered. Add to that the American colonial society ALREADY was the kind of liberal society that the French revolutionaries first had to create, and were successful at. The US could make a revolution to create a democracy because it didn't NEED to first have a revolution to create the society in which a democracy even made sense, which was what the French did.

There's really no comparison to what the French had to overcome. The US was even aided by being a colonial society, and by European common agreement what people got up to there was of no actual consequence; unlike France, the heart of Europe and its entire political system.

For the rest there is a problem of relative US myopia and over-focus on its own history. That's usually fine, everyone is of course entitled to being keenly interested in their national or local history, until that interest itself it's taken as "proof" that this bias matters more than what happened in Europe. Or is somehow "proof" that the US did better. In those cases one has to conclude that Americans don't quite understand the issues.
Thanks for your patronizing remarks.
 

royal744

Ad Honoris
Jul 2013
10,647
San Antonio, Tx
Can't really compare them in that way. 2 different situations and historical contexts.

French also didn't need to start a civil war in the middle of 19th century that took hundred thousands of lives to get rid of slavery in their country and bring back the other half of their territory.
You are correct in this.
 

royal744

Ad Honoris
Jul 2013
10,647
San Antonio, Tx
... but they do tend to get irritated when people claim that the ideas of freedom, equality etc. were French inventions deriving from the revolution.
Agree, Linschoten. A poster here said that these somewhat random deaths - chopping off the heads of innocents - was somehow to be expected because, after all it was a revolution. Not a very admirable result and not one that was inevitable. The idea of individual liberty, equality and representative government were not new in France, nor even in America whose revolution has stood thetest of time.

On paper, the goals of the French Revolution seemed to change with the passage of its first years. These goals were certainly admirable in conception if not so much in execution. And then, the French Revolution took literally decades to be realized.while dining lustily on the flesh of its own creators. It might even have succeeded without this bloody interregnum.
 

royal744

Ad Honoris
Jul 2013
10,647
San Antonio, Tx
They were ideas deriving from the Enlightenment, which had two major political offsprings: the political frame of the newly born American Republic (its Constitution, Bill of Rights, etc) and, above all, the French Revolution and its declarations. However, the influence of the American revolution was limited, at least in Europe, whereas the influence of the French revolution has been immense. Perhaps to the British and the Americans not so much, as both countries followed their own particular path, but to the rest of the Europe, and perhaps to large parts of the world, the significance of the French Revolution in spreading the ideals of Enlightened thinking is undeniable. These ideals, equality, freedom, etc, were not invented by the French revolutionaries or solely by French intellectuals (though a great number of Enlightened thinkers were indeed French), but the French revolution was such a cataclysmic event that it yelled those ideals thunderously for all the world to hear. Yes, they were marred by mob practices and an excessive zeal for retribution and violence (a frequent trend in revolutions), and yes, the immediate aftermath of the Revolution was chaos and death across Europe, but still, the French Revolution took the Enlightenment out of intellectual circles, transforming it into action that shook the world. It gave flesh to ideals, making them an affair of the common man too, not just of the few educated, forcing the world to look those ideals in the eye and take a stance; they could no longer be ignored or allowed time to mature and adopted gradually. From now on, the world would largely revolve around the legacy of those ideals, not just the world of thinkers, but also the material, practical world of political and social developments and historical events. To my knowledge, most historians agree that the French Revolution was one of the most important events in human history, marking the end of an era and the beginning of the modern one. What it aspired to achieve was so revolutionary at that time that I can think of nothing as radical and ambitious. Perhaps that is why it failed in the short term. However, its legacy was so immense and far-reaching that the immediate aftermath was inconsequential; the French Revolution would have its victory through the decades, in the end. Modern Europe is, to a great extent, the child of that very revolution.

To be honest, I too have some difficulty understanding why some people dismiss the French Revolution as unimportant or as simply a violent episode of European history. I can understand why it can be disliked because of personal political orientation, but I also observe a trend among British and Americans. Perhaps it has to do with how the educational system of each country treats the French Revolution, thus instilling an interest and admiration, or the opposite. Perhaps it has to do with historical reasons, the British were perhaps the greatest opponents of the French Revolutionaries (and of the French in general, throughout much of their history). Maybe it's natural to take a negative stance against something that your country tried so much to counter and negate in the past. Maybe there are mentality issues as well. Risking a generalisation and excuse me if I'm wrong, as far as I know, the British prefer a more tempered, phlegmatic approach to issues, taking the long road of gradual change and adaptation instead of the fiery, world-changing revolutionary path that others seem to have a tendency towards. The history of British politics is indeed one without any major breaking points, one of almost uninterrupted evolution from absolutism to modern democracy through a process of gradual change that lasted centuries upon centuries. To people accustomed to such a conservative approach to their trek through history, mistrust and distaste may come natural towards radical changes and decisive swings and turns.

Finally, it may have to do with the fact that both Britain and USA followed their own path towards modernity, one that was not affected by the French Revolution as much as that of other countries. And we often tend to view history in general through the lenses of the part of history that is most familiar and relevant to us, that is, our own national history. I've shared above a few of my thoughts about the special case of British political evolution, a rather introvert process of almost stubborn fixation in its own path, absorbing and filtering external shockwaves like the French Revolution.

And regarding the Americans, they had no need of the French to boom "Enlightenment" in their ears, they had already embarked on their own path of ethnogenesis and state creation based on documents directly inspired by the Enlightenment. What the French tried to achieve through their great revolution and against a whole continent of very powerful, reactionary monarchies, the Americans were able to formulate in a tabula rasa, a blank political slate, once they won their independence and could create a new state of their own. It is one thing to win your independence and be free to design your own political and social model from scratch, with an ocean separating you from the great powers of the time, and quite another to try and radically change centuries-old institutions and deeply embedded and entrenched sociopolitical models. Which, additionally, were quite powerful and surrounded by equally powerful monarchies next door, determined to maintain the status quo. The American revolution was more of a war for independence, not a radical socio-political breakthrough from the past, and in that sense, not a true revolution like the French one. In my opinion, the truly remarkable thing regarding the American revolution is not how and why the Americans won their independence, but what they did with it, meaning the Constitution and Rights setting the political and social frame of their newly founded Republic. But again, influential as those may be, they were not even close to the influence the French Revolution have exerted in European affairs for years to come, ever since. The Americans showed that those Enlightened ideals could be adopted in state creation, but their fight against the British empire, their revolution, was not for these ideals, it was a fight for independence. The French showed that those ideals could and would fight back against those repressing them, forever changing the world around them.
Thank you. Superbly written and crafted response. The US was indeed very fortunate to be far enough away from Europe to make malicious post-revolutionary meddling too difficult to bother with.
 

royal744

Ad Honoris
Jul 2013
10,647
San Antonio, Tx
Are you absolutely sure? Seems to me that, in the case of France for example, the Republic has never really got rid of symbols and customs of the monarchy in the way the state is run.
Good point; I’ve wondered about this myself.