This will be my last post about the French Revolution. I’m surrendering to the reality that picking various aspects of the conflicts and talking about them does not do justice to what happened in France during the decade of 1789-1799. I’ve read a couple of dozen in-depth articles from the Encyclopedia Britannica and three books (the best of which is The French Revolution, A Quick Immersion, by Jay M. Smith), and I am overwhelmed by the difficulty of putting all the pieces together into a coherent picture. My review of the French Revolution has been fascinating and there are many parallels between it and the current US national environment, but I’m out of my league on this one.
I do want to return to why I was interested in the first place: the French Revolution’s test for an individual’s loyalty and patriotism.
It turned out, in my opinion, that the “test” had nothing to do with loyalty or patriotism, but had everything to do with the fear of punishment.
It begins with recognizing and valuing the inherent rights of individuals.
The principles of universal individual rights consumed several 18th century philosophers and theorists, including those centered around Paris, like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. For me, I recognize the usual key words, like Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, petition, and the right to keep and bear arms; the right to due process and to having counsel (remember Gideon’s Trumpet from high school?).
Rights can be expressed in different ways. FDR, for example, laid out four fundamental freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. Today, many other things are referred to as “rights” but I’m not sure they all qualify.
In the second half of the 1700s, France was a hotbed of discussions about individual rights, and it was an advantage for the Enlightened Leaders to have a populace familiar with the ideas. On August 29, 1789 (two months after the storming of the Bastille), the newly formed National Assembly voted for a document that became the guiding light for the Revolution: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
It included some familiar and some unfamiliar items: Men are born free and equal in respect to their rights, which included liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression; freedom to speak, write and publish; freedom to participate in setting taxes; the right of citizens that all agents [representatives of local and federal governments] should be held accountable; and the right to property.
But every time a “right” is cited, it’s followed by a specific or general caveat—that the rights of the society are superior to the rights of individuals. Specifically, the freedom of speech is absolute, unless it disturbs the public order established by law; the freedom of property is absolute, except in cases of “evident public necessity”, according to law; political liberty consists in the power of doing whatever does not injure another, with limits set by law; every man is presumed innocent until convicted, as provided by law.
In general, individual rights have limits or may be applied differently when individuals choose to live and function together, while laws are determined by the “will of the people”.
Remembering that the Declaration was produced by a nation only lately removed from hundreds of years of feudalism and absolute monarchies, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was enthusiastically received, supported and included in the upcoming French constitutions: the National Assembly of 1789-91, the National Legislative Assembly of 1791-92, and the National Convention of 1792-95, which produced a Declaration of Rights in 1793 that included the right of insurrection as “the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties” whenever the government “violates the rights of the people”. There was also a version for The Directorate, which was the French governing body of 1795-99. Napolean produced his Civil Code in 1804, something he felt was his greatest accomplishment. They were all modeled after the document of 1789.
There is no question that the delineation and declaration of a code for Rights is a dramatic and enduring legacy of the French Revolution. Recall that the United States’ Bill of Rights was accepted in December of 1791, so there’s no doubt that each nation was influenced by what was happening across the Atlantic.
This emphasis and recognition of individual and national rights makes it very hard for me to understand the following:
- the National Assembly issued a decree on August 10, 1789, that called on all local militias and public officials to be vigilant, to keep lists of known “disreputable persons”, and to take all measures necessary to preserve the public peace.
- the National Assembly splintered into political parties devoted to undermining its own unity, which resulted in the passionate Revolutionaries siting on the left-most side of the gallery and their opponents (the more conservative delegates) seated on the right, which originated the common usage of the “left wing” and “right wing” in politics. These parties were ruthlessly hostile and antagonist towards each other.
- the National Assembly nationalized the considerable landholdings of the Roman Catholic Church in France, as well as its gold and silver. It also decreed the abolishment of monastic vows, requiring that supreme loyalty be directed toward the nation and not a religious institution.
- The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, in 1790, made the clergy of the Catholic Church civil servants of the government, requiring them to take an oath of loyalty to the nation and not to the Church (France was overwhelmingly a Roman Catholic nation, so this was not a popular move. The Pope didn’t like it, either. Nonetheless, it was enforced.).
- the exile of 30,000 priests and the killing of hundreds more. Many priests were forced to marry against their will, and to perform Mass after they had denied allegiance to the Church. Many more were imprisoned or deported to penal colonies.
- the renaming of cathedrals (Notre Dame was called “the Notre Dame Temple of Reason”), and the forbidding of the ringing of church bells, religious processions and displays of the Christian cross.
- on July 17, 1791, a protest against the National Assembly’s actions resulted in the Champ de Mars massacre, where National Guard troops killed dozens of bystanders and unarmed protesters, and resulted in the Assembly banning political clubs and collective protests.
- the establishment of “surveillance committees” across France to watch for, identify and incarcerate “suspects” who were against the revolution or its principles, and the establishment of a special Revolutionary Tribunal to judge and execute those “suspects”. They were accused of “political crimes”.
- on August 30, 1792, home-to-home searches were authorized for the “requisition” of guns and ammunition, and the rooting out of any remaining counter-revolutionaries, a term that had just been coined.
- the appropriation of buildings owned by people [mainly nobles] who had immigrated to other countries during the revolution, or that were owned by the Church. They were converted to foundries or barracks for soldiers. Horses and draught animals were “requisitioned’; women were conscripted to work in hospitals, or to make uniforms or tents.
- in Vendee, a section of France south of Brittany that had previously surrendered during a British attack, Revolutionary generals indiscriminately slaughtered men, women, and children as punishment. Whole villages disappeared in the carnage. Boats were loaded with shackled captives and sunk in the Loire river; thousands were drowned. In all, the revolutionary forces were estimated to have killed over 100,000 people.
- in December, 1793, local Jacobins (a popular Revolutionary society) were sanctioned to execute a thousand citizens of Toulon in punishment for their non-revolutionary views.
- in August of 1793, the Law of Suspects was passed. It demanded that any person be identified as a “suspect” if they were against the revolution or the National Convention, and to then be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal for judging. Local “surveillance committees” again roamed the towns.
- the Committee of Public Safety, a committee of the National Convention, not only punished “traitors” but “even those who were indifferent” to revolutionary causes. The Committee developed an obsessive and violent desire to “purify” the political ground and to “cleanse” the Republic of France of those who had betrayed it before or those who might betray it in the future. Two former leaders of the revolutionary movement were guillotined for having been “moderates” in the Assembly.
- the passing of the Law of 22 Prairial on June 10, 1794, (Prairial was the name of a month in the new Revolutionary Calendar), that allowed the Revolutionary Tribunal to hear cases of people accused of “slandering patriotism”, “seeking to inspire discouragement”, “spreading false news”, and “depraving morals, corrupting the public conscience and impairing the purity and energy of the revolutionary government”. It required all citizens to identify, denounce, and bring to justice these “suspects”, making rumors sufficient for bringing someone to trial. It limited the trials by the Tribunal to three days; it was prevented from calling witnesses; it was not allowed to provide defense counsel for the accused; it established the principle of the accused being guilty unless proven innocent; and it required the Tribunal to come to only one of two possible verdicts in any case – acquittal or death.
How’s that for upholding the inherent and universal Rights of Man?
It is estimated that more than 16,000 people were sentenced to death by guillotine or hanging, while ten thousand more died in prisons waiting for trial. The total number of casualties is estimated to be from 250,000 to 500,000. Many were leaders of the Revolution one year, who had their heads cut off the next. Many had served faithfully in the Assembly, just to have their heads cut off by the Convention. Whole political societies were started, became dominant, and then were assassinated out of existence.
It was a time of great exuberance in new freedoms, but also a time of great, great fear. It resulted in absolute, pervasive, and savage intolerance. France became a nation set on destroying itself.
Besides individuals being punished solely for personal beliefs and convictions, I saw other warnings for our current political and social situations:
The last years of the 18th century was a terrible time to live in France. The country began as an absolute monarchy (a divinely recognized king) with a feudal system (landlords commanding non-landowning peasants), but, by the last decade, several factors had combined to make it a hotbed of violence and rebellion.
First, the feudal system was crumbling as a social structure and had already disappeared in parts of Europe, mainly due to the improvement of the standard of living and education among the lower classes of the population. The peasants didn’t look like the peasants of old and they wanted more rights; those citizens who were business owners, craftsmen, or merchants wanted more power and control.
Second, the population of Europe had doubled between 1715 and 1800. France, with 26 million inhabitants in 1789, was Europe’s most populated country. There were constant demands for more food and consumer goods, while inflated prices and hoarding did nothing but increase the brutal poverty and hunger of its citizens.
Third, there was a rise of intellectualism concerning the inherent “rights of man”, led by notable philosophers like Montesquieu and Voltaire. Everything had become questionable: political structures (like the long established “Divine Right of Kings”), social environments (the class structure), economics (the opulence of the aristocracy versus the rampant poverty); and religion (the dominance of the Catholic Church, its integration with the aristocracy, the burden of tithing). This Enlightenment was spread throughout the culture by popular clubs, lodges, “societies of thought”, agricultural societies, and reading rooms, leading to many people becoming “woke”.
Fourth, France had spent heavily fighting in or supporting wars, the most recent being the revolution in America, leaving it deeply in debt. That translated into more and higher taxes, forced conscription for the military, and widespread anger with the actions of the aristocracy.
By the last decade, all that was needed was some incident to bring an eruption to the discontent.
It occurred on July 14, 1789, at the fortress of Bastille.
The stage had already been prepped. In June, a National Assembly had been formed from groups of non-aristocrats, non-upper-clergy, and non-nobles, that resembled a representative form of government. It’s proclaimed purpose was to create a French constitution, which the Assembly expected the king to accept. King Louis XVI was not so inclined and suppressed the idea, but was eventually forced by the various powers surrounding him to acknowledge that the Assembly had a popular authority. The Assembly renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly on July 9th, 1789, and blatantly stated that its power was equivalent to the king’s.
There had already been skirmishes: a crowd had broken into a prison to release grenadiers of the French guards, reportedly imprisoned because they refused to fire on locals; large crowds had formed to protest the King’s dismissal of Jacques Necker, a finance minister sympathetic to the commoners, businessmen, and crafts people; attacks were launched on customs posts that were blamed for causing increased food and wine prices; and the plundering of a number of places in Paris where food, guns, and supplies were thought to be stored.
By July 13th, the Hotel des Invalides [“hotel” was a general description, not a Holiday Inn] had been invaded to procure around 30,000 muskets. Unfortunately, the commandant of the Invalides had previously moved 250 barrels of gunpowder and shot needed for the muskets to the Bastille for safer storage.
By the morning of July 14th, Paris was in a virtual uproar. A crowd of about a thousand people gathered outside the Bastille and demanded the gunpowder and shot. Representatives were sent inside to negotiate demands. The negotiations dragged on and, around 1:30, the crowd grew restless and surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate and released the drawbridge that allowed access to the large, wooden door of the fortress.
This lit up the crowd, but amid the ensuing noise and confusion, as the soldiers of the garrison inside shouted for the people to withdraw, the shouts were misinterpreted as encouragements to enter. Then somebody fired a shot and the whole place erupted; the crowd became a mob. The fighting increased in intensity and violence, and any calls for a cease-fire were ignored. There were 5,000 Royal Army troops nearby that could have put down the crowd, but were not ordered to do so.
Meanwhile, the commander of the garrison inside the Bastille knew that he had enough cannons to fire cannister shot into the crowd, killing all or most, or that he could have torched the gunpowder and blown the place up (he did make that threat). He finally made the decision that the carnage was not worth it. He announced his surrender, opened the gates and the crowd swept into the fortress at 5:30 pm.
Ninety-eight attackers and one defender died in the actual fighting. The commander of the fortress was taken and stabbed to death, as was a local magistrate. Their heads were chopped off, mounted on pikestaffs, and paraded through the streets. Three officers were savaged and killed by the crowd, and two militiamen were hanged.
In retrospect, the crowd had taken a 400-hundred-year-old, decrepit, outdated, massive stone prison that they hadn’t come for in the first place. Once inside, the crowd found only seven prisoners, and it was becoming evening; I can’t imagine what the bowels of the Bastille felt like by the light of a torch. People came back in the daylight and when they did, the search became one of looking for souvenirs (some thought they found the skeleton of The Man in the Iron Mask). I found no reference to any fires being set or of any wholesale destruction. I assume that they did get their barrels of powder and shot, but there was no great hoard of food or treasure; the garrison of soldiers had been small and ill-supplied.
King Louis XVI did not learn of the action until the morning after, but it was confirmed that his troops had been defeated and the fortress taken. He told his commanders stationed in other military positions around Paris to return to the garrisons on the frontier, and then announced that he would recall Jacques Necker as finance minister, probably hoping that the de-escalation would cause the whole thing to blow over.
It didn’t. The “storming of the Bastille” became the “inciting incident” that would soon be promoted for what the revolutionaries wanted it to be: a symbol of insurrection, unity, and the defeat of tyranny. It gave the majority of the country a readily-identifiable event that allowed them to disregard royal authority, to recognize popular sovereignty, and a reason to set up parallel structures of municipalities for civic governance and local militias for civic protection. In rural areas, many people burned title-deeds as well as a number of chateaux. A “Great Fear” spread across the countryside during the weeks of July 20 to August 5, with attacks on wealthy landlords, led by the belief that the aristocracy was trying to put down the revolution. Many of the nobles fled to other countries.
The Bastille, itself, was proposed as a monument to liberation, or as housing for a revolutionary Guard, but the municipality of Paris ordered it destroyed as planned. The demolition began immediately and was finished in five months. Bricks from the rubble were carved into replicas of the fortress and sold, along with medals supposedly made from the chains used on prisoners.
In 1790, the Marquis de Lafayette [the same Lafayette of the American Revolution] gave the wrought-iron, one-pound and three-ounce key to the Bastille’s front door to the President of the United States, George Washington. It is now on display at Mount Vernon.
The Bastille Saint-Antoine (“The Bastille”) is one of the most famous fortresses in European history. Its biggest moment was as the location of the inciting incident that anchored the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.
The foundation work started in 1357, with the main construction occurring after 1370. The end result was a massive stone enclosure secured by eight circular stone towers several stories tall. Its initial purpose was to house the soldiers and cannons that protected the eastern end of the river that flows through the center of Paris. The fortress served in various defensive roles in different wars and battles for many years. From 1659 onwards, it functioned as a state penitentiary.
In the 1700s, Louis XIV (he’s the one who built the Palace of Versailles) used the Bastille as a prison for upper-class members of French society who had opposed or angered him, including a few French Protestants. Louis XV and Louis XVI also used it for political prisoners, but by July of 1789, it was mostly empty. It held only seven prisoners (four forgers, a “lunatic” imprisoned at the request of his family, an assassin who had attempted to kill Louis XV thirty years before, and the son of an aristocrat who had been imprisoned by his father). The decision had already been made to tear it down and replace it with an open public space, but demolition had not yet begun.
From the thousands who had passed through its gates, one prisoner became famous.
A letter written in July of 1669 was sent from one of Louis XIV’s ministers, to Benigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of a prison in southeast France. In the letter, a prisoner named “Eustache Dauger” was due to arrive in the next month or so. A cell was to be prepared for him, but it should have multiple doors, one door closing upon the other, to prevent anyone from listening to anything spoken inside the cell. The prisoner was to be seen only once a day, and he should never speak about anything other than his immediate needs, under threat of death. The man would be wearing a veil (a mask or hood) over his face when he arrived and was required to wear it continually. No one was to see his face.
The prisoner would wear that veil for the next 34 years.
Saint-Mars did as he was told and when appointed governor of a different prison in 1681, took Dauger with him. In 1687, Saint-Mars was posted to a prison on an island half a mile offshore from Cannes, and, again, took the veiled man with him. A similar cell with multiple doors had been arranged.
It was during this time that rumors spread that the man was wearing not a cloth veil, but an iron mask.
Twelve years later, Saint-Mars became the governor of the Bastille prison in Paris. As Dauger was again moved, an officer of the Bastille witnessed that the prisoner wore “a mask of black velvet”. It was in the Bastille that the prisoner died in November of 1703, never having been seen without the mask.
What little is known about the historical Man in the Iron Mask is based mainly on correspondence between Saint-Mars and his superiors in Paris. Some 800 documents were discovered in 2015 that indicated that Saint-Mars was, indeed, the lifetime jailer of Dauger and had been diverting for his own use the money provided by the king for his care. This could be an explanation of why Saint-Mars always took the prisoner with him to his new assignments. The documents also provided a description of the cell used by the masked prisoner, which contained only a sleeping mat, but no luxuries, as was previously thought.
The Man in the Iron Mask became a well-known character through the French author Alexandre Dumas in the late 1840s; a section in one of his Muskateer novels featured The Man in the Iron Mask. In it, the man is forced to wear an iron mask, and is portrayed as Louis XIV’s identical twin.
The rumors had already been going on for years. Voltaire claimed that the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and was therefore an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV. In a 1965 essay, another author claimed that the prisoner was, indeed, Louie’s twin, but was born second, and was kept hidden in order to avoid a dispute over who would ascend to the throne.
There were other claims, including that the man was the natural father of Louis XIV; the illegitimate son or grandson of Henry IV; a French General who had angered Louis XIV; the son of Charles II of England; or an Italian diplomat kidnapped by the French; or just a common valet who had fallen from favor.
I remember the 1977 movie that featured Richard Chamberlain and Patrick McGoohan, but missed the more recent 1998 remake with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, and John Malkovich. There is a long list of other appearances in the media by The Man in the Iron Mask, including DuckTales, and an episode of The Simpsons.
I became interested in the French Revolution listening to a history lecture by the travel guru Rick Steves. He referred to the Reign of Terror as having a test for patriotism during the French Revolution. Wanting to know more, I was soon swamped by descriptions of the Revolutionary Enlightenment, the storming of the Bastille, the various governing bodies and constitutions, the horrors of recurring persecutions, the shifting values of the politicians, and some of the individuals involved, all occurring in the decade after 1789.
I’m going to write about that decade for the next few blogs because I find a lot of similarities between what was happening then and what is happening now in the political and social climate of America. We can, again, see history repeating itself.
I was in a ZOOM meeting yesterday that featured a question-and-answer session with David Morrell. He lives in Santa Fe and most of you probably don’t recognize his name, but every one of you know the name of his first book’s main character – John Rambo.
That’s how he’s usually introduced, and many of the questions in a typical Q&A with him will center around the Rambo movies and how “Rambo” got into the Oxford American Dictionary (I just looked it up). But David Morrell is so much more. First Blood (Rambo #1) was only the beginning of a forty-year career (so far; he’s currently working on his first Western) that has included more than twenty major novels, movie novelizations (including Rambo #2 and #3), a TV miniseries (The Brotherhood of the Rose), and countless other short stories, reviews, and nonfiction books.
His most recent work includes a three-book set of detective/mysteries involving Thomas DeQuincy (a real person who became famous for exposing his own opium addiction), all set in 1850s England. I’ve read the three and the stories are enthralling and mysterious, as well as being incredibly interesting. He writes well enough that I feel like I’m walking the dirty smelly fog-laden streets of Old London and need to clean my shoes.
For you writers, read his Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, published by Writer’s Digest in 2002.
The Q&A felt like a conversation with a simple, straightforward, smart, comfortable, and genuine guy who loves to talk. He packed his interview with a wealth of experience, advice, and wisdom. I could have listened to him for another couple of hours.
I like to read about writers as much as I like to read their books, sometimes more. My list so far includes Ernest Hemingway, Louis L’Amour, Jack London, Harper Lee, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Larry McMurtry, John Steinbeck, Robert Ruark, Tony Hillerman, Willa Cather, Norah Ephron, Anne Lamont, and Stephen King.
It's fascinating to hear about their childhoods, the teen years, their education, jobs and families, what inspired them to become writers, and especially how hard they had to work at it. They are all people of grit and determination, and I’ve found none that didn’t have to sacrifice to reach their goals.
David Morrell’s father was killed in WWII; David never knew him. After the war, his mother couldn’t support the two of them, so he was placed in an orphanage and, later, with a Mennonite farm family. His mother eventually remarried and he was brought back into the home, but the husband didn’t like children. He was also abusive, so David recounts plumping up his pillow under his sheets to look like he was asleep and then hiding under his bed for protection. He told himself stories to bring on sleep. He was in a gang as a teenager and was declared worthless by his school principal. Everyone was astounded when he got interested in being a writer and went on to get a doctorate in English literature.
This is not to say that every well-known writer had a terrible childhood, nor that anyone who aspires to be a successful writer has to experience major traumas, nor that they have to be well-schooled in literature. Or that they have to be excessively quirky, unusual, or gifted with talent. Yes, there are writers who are a little strange, like the guy who rented a small office with no windows, put on a suit every day, left his house and family, went to the room, took off all his clothes, and wrote naked all day long. Promptly at five, he’d put his suit back on and go home.
Or, the writer who grew up with dysfunctional and mentally ill, alcoholic parents, traveled the world, became internationally recognized for his newspaper columns, repeatedly cheated on his wife, stayed more drunk than sober, and then died when he was fifty from a liver that had turned to mush.
Or the writer who became internationally famous for her first book and never wrote another.
David Morrell always asks two questions at the beginning of his writing classes: why people want to write, and why people want to be writers. The surface answers have to do with wealth, fame, creativity, freedom, and such, but Morrell would claim that great writers become writers because they have to—that there is something inside of them that has to get out, that demands to get out, some bare necessity of survival that overwhelms them to communicate, to explain, to teach, to demonstrate, to elucidate and articulate for other people what’s going on inside them.
It’s a complex question and typically has complex answers.
I’m not a great writer and certainly not one who knows the real me well enough to tell you all the reasons why I want to write novels. I do appreciate the honesty involved because it does, indeed, reveal what’s inside of me. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not, but it’s always interesting finding out.
Writing something meaningful involves a lot of work and a good, working knowledge of writing craft, and when it all comes together in the right place and right time, it feels almost like magic. I will sometimes write a paragraph that is spot on, says exactly what I wanted to say, says it in an interesting and enlightened way, with the right words, has rhythm, pace, and reads easily, and causes sympathetic feelings in the reader; at the end of the paragraph, they feel my emotions as if they were their emotions.
It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I feel more than just good—it is a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, and delight, and that's one of the reasons I write.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.