The Psychology of Revolution
Part 3 out of 6
each of which is perfectly correct, according to the point of
view assumed--that of the moralist or that of the psychologist.
The moralist must think exclusively of the interest of society,
and must judge men only according to that interest. By the very
fact that it exists and wishes to continue to exist a society is
obliged to admit a certain number of rules, to have an
indestructible standard of good and evil, and consequently to
create very definite distinctions between vice and virtue. It
thus finally creates average types, to which the man of the
period approaches more or less closely, and from which he cannot
depart very widely without peril to society.
It is by such similar types and the rules derived from social
necessities that the moralist must judge the men of the past.
Praising those which were useful and blaming the rest, he thus
helps to form the moral types which are indispensable to the
progress of civilisation and which may serve others as models.
Poets such as Corneille, for example, create heroes superior to
the majority of men, and possibly inimitable; but they thereby
help greatly to stimulate our efforts. The example of heroes
must always be set before a people in order to ennoble its mind.
Such is the moralist's point of view. That of the psychologist
would be quite different. While a society has no right to be
tolerant, because its first duty is to live, the psychologist may
remain indifferent. Considering things as a scientist, he no
longer asks their utilitarian value, but seeks merely to explain
His situation is that of the observer before any phenomenon. It
is obviously difficult to read in cold blood that Carrier ordered
his victims to be buried up to the neck so that they might then
be blinded and subjected to horrible torments. Yet if we wish to
comprehend such acts we must be no more indignant than the
naturalist before the spider slowly devouring a fly. As soon as
the reason is moved it is no longer reason, and can explain
The functions of the historian and the psychologist are not, as
we see, identical, but of both we may demand the endeavour, by a
wise interpretation of the facts, to discover, under the visible
evidences, the invisible forces which determine them.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS OF THE ANCIEN REGIME
1. The Absolute Monarchy and the Bases of the Ancien Regime.
Many historians assure us that the Revolution was directed
against the autocracy of the monarchy. In reality the kings of
France had ceased to be absolute monarchs long before its
Only very late in history--not until the reign of Louis XIV.--did
they finally obtain incontestable power. All the preceding
sovereigns, even the most powerful, such as Francis I., for
example, had to sustain a constant struggle either against the
seigneurs, or the clergy, or the parliaments, and they did not
always win. Francis himself had not sufficient power to protect
his most intimate friends against the Sorbonne and the
Parliament. His friend and councillor Berquin, having offended
the Sorbonne, was arrested upon the order of the latter body.
The king ordered his release, which was refused. He was obliged
to send archers to remove him from the Conciergerie, and could
find no other means of protecting him than that of keeping him
beside him in the Louvre. The Sorbonne by no means considered
itself beaten. Profiting by the king's absence, it
arrested Berquin again and had him tried by Parliament.
Condemned at ten in the morning, he was burned alive at noon.
Built up very gradually, the power of the kings of France was not
absolute until the time of Louis XIV. It then rapidly declined,
and it would be truly difficult to speak of the absolutism of
This pretended master was the slave of his court, his ministers,
the clergy, and the nobles. He did what they forced him to do
and rarely what he wished. Perhaps no Frenchman was so little
free as the king.
The great power of the monarchy resided originally in the Divine
origin which was attributed to it, and in the traditions which
had accumulated during the ages. These formed the real social
framework of the country.
The true cause of the disappearance of the ancien regime was
simply the weakening of the traditions which served as its
foundations. When after repeated criticism it could find no more
defenders, the ancien regime crumbled like a building whose
foundations have been destroyed.
2. The Inconveniences of the Ancien Regime
A long-established system of government will always finally seem
acceptable to the people governed. Habit masks its
inconveniences, which appear only when men begin to think. Then
they ask how they could ever have supported them. The truly
unhappy man is the man who believes himself miserable.
It was precisely this belief which was gaining ground at the time
of the Revolution, under the influence of the writers whose work
we shall presently study. Then the imperfections of the
ancien regime stared all men in the face. They were
numerous; it is enough to mention a few.
Despite the apparent authority of the central power, the kingdom,
formed by the successive conquest of independent provinces, was
divided into territories each of which had its own laws and
customs, and each of which paid different imposts. Internal
customs-houses separated them. The unity of France was thus
somewhat artificial. It represented an aggregate of various
countries which the repeated efforts of the kings, including
Louis XIV., had not succeeded in wholly unifying. The most
useful effect of the Revolution was this very unification.
To such material divisions were added social divisions
constituted by different classes--nobles, clergy, and the Third
Estate, whose rigid barriers could only with the utmost
difficulty be crossed.
Regarding the division of the classes as one of its sources of
power, the ancien regime had rigorously maintained that
division. This became the principal cause of the hatreds which
the system inspired. Much of the violence of the triumphant
bourgeoisie represented vengeance for a long past of disdain
and oppression. The wounds of self-love are the most difficult
of all to forget. The Third Estate had suffered many such
wounds. At a meeting of the States General in 1614, at which its
representatives were obliged to remain bareheaded on their knees,
one member of the Third Estate having dared to say that the three
orders were like three brothers, the spokesman of the nobles
replied ``that there was no fraternity between it and the Third;
that the nobles did not wish the children of cobblers and
tanners to call them their brothers.''
Despite the march of enlightenment the nobles and the clergy
obstinately preserved their privileges and their demands, no
longer justifiable now that these classes had ceased to render
Kept from the exercise of public functions by the royal power,
which distrusted them, and progressively replaced by a
bourgeoisie which was more and more learned and capable, the
social role of nobility and clergy was only an empty show.
This point has been luminously expounded by Taine:--
``Since the nobility, having lost its special capacity, and the
Third Estate, having acquired general capacity, were now on a
level in respect of education and aptitudes, the inequality which
divided them had become hurtful and useless. Instituted by
custom, it was no longer ratified by the consciousness, and the
Third Estate was with reason angered by privileges which nothing
justified, neither the capacity of the nobles nor the incapacity
of the bourgeoisie.''
By reason of the rigidity of castes established by a long past we
cannot see what could have persuaded the nobles and the clergy to
renounce their privileges. Certainly they did finally abandon
them one memorable evening, when events forced them to do so; but
then it was too late, and the Revolution, unchained, was pursuing
It is certain that modern progress would successively have
established all that the Revolution effected--the equality of
citizens before the law, the suppression of the privileges of
birth, &c. Despite the conservative spirit of the Latins, these
things would have been won, as they were by the majority
of the peoples. We might in this manner have been saved twenty
years of warfare and devastation; but we must have had a
different mental constitution, and, above all, different
The profound hostility of the bourgeoisie against the classes
maintained above it by tradition was one of the great factors of
the Revolution, and perfectly explains why, after its triumph,
the first class despoiled the vanquished of their wealth. They
behaved as conquerors--like William the Conqueror, who, after the
conquest of England, distributed the soil among his soldiers.
But although the bourgeoisie detested the nobility they had no
hatred for royalty, and did not regard it as revocable. The
maladdress of the king and his appeals to foreign powers only
very gradually made him unpopular.
The first Assembly never dreamed of founding a republic.
Extremely royalist, in fact, it thought simply to substitute a
constitutional for an absolute monarchy. Only the consciousness
of its increasing power exasperated it against the resistance of
the king; but it dared not overthrow him.
3. Life under the Ancien Regime.
It is difficult to form a very clear idea of life under the
ancien regime, and, above all, of the real situation of the
The writers who defend the Revolution as theologians defend
religious dogmas draw such gloomy pictures of the existence of
the peasants under the ancien regime that we ask ourselves
how it was that all these unhappy creatures had not died
of hunger long before. A good example of this style of writing
may be found in a book by M. A. Rambaud, formerly professor at
the Sorbonne, published under the title History of the French
Revolution. One notices especially an engraving bearing the
legend, Poverty of Peasants under Louis XIV. In the foreground
a man is fighting some dogs for some bones, which for that matter
are already quite fleshless. Beside him a wretched fellow is
twisting himself and compressing his stomach. Farther back a
woman lying on the ground is eating grass. At the back of the
landscape figures of which one cannot say whether they are
corpses or persons starving are also stretched on the soil. As
an example of the administration of the ancien regime the
same author assures us that ``a place in the police cost 300
livres and brought in 400,000.'' Such figures surely indicate a
great disinterestedness on the part of those who sold such
productive employment! He also informs us ``that it cost only
120 livres to get people arrested,'' and that ``under Louis XV.
more than 150,000 lettres de cachet were distributed.''
The majority of books dealing with the Revolution are conceived
with as little impartiality and critical spirit, which is one
reason why this period is really so little known to us.
Certainly there is no lack of documents, but they are absolutely
contradictory. To the celebrated description of La Bruyere we
may oppose the enthusiastic picture drawn by the English
traveller Young of the prosperous condition of the peasants of
some of the French provinces.
Were they really crushed by taxation, and did they, as has been
stated, pay four-fifths of their revenue instead of a fifth as
to-day? Impossible to say with certainty. One capital fact,
however, seems to prove that under the ancien regime the
situation of the inhabitants of the rural districts could not
have been so very wretched, since it seems established that more
than a third of the soil had been bought by peasants.
We are better informed as to the financial system. It was very
oppressive and extremely complicated. The budgets usually showed
deficits, and the imposts of all kinds were raised by tyrannical
farmers-general. At the very moment of the Revolution this
condition of the finances became the cause of universal
discontent, which is expressed in the cahiers of the States
General. Let us remark that these cahiers did not represent a
previous state of affairs, but an actual condition due to a
crisis of poverty produced by the bad harvest of 1788 and the
hard winter of 1789. What would these cahiers have told us had
they been written ten years earlier?
Despite these unfavourable circumstances the cahiers contained
no revolutionary ideas. The most advanced merely asked that
taxes should be imposed only with the consent of the States
General and paid by all alike. The same cahiers sometimes
expressed a wish that the power of the king should be limited by
a Constitution defining his rights and those of the nation. If
these wishes had been granted a constitutional monarchy could
very easily have been substituted for the absolute monarchy, and
the Revolution would probably have been avoided.
Unhappily, the nobility and the clergy were too strong and Louis
XVI. too weak for such a solution to be possible.
Moreover, it would have been rendered extremely difficult by the
demands of the bourgeoisie, who claimed to substitute themselves
for the nobles, and were the real authors of the Revolution. The
movement started by the middle classes rapidly exceeded their
hopes, needs, and aspirations. They had claimed equality for
their own profit, but the people also demanded equality. The
Revolution thus finally became the popular government which it
was not and had no intention of becoming at the outset.
4. Evolution of Monarchical Feeling during the Revolution.
Despite the slow evolution of the affective elements, it is
certain that during the Revolution the sentiments, not of the
people only, but also of the revolutionary Assemblies with regard
to the monarchy, underwent a very rapid change. Between the
moment when the legislators of the first Assembly surrounded
Louis XVI. with respect and the moment when his head was cut off
a very few years had elapsed.
These changes, superficial rather than profound, were in reality
a mere transposition of sentiments of the same order. The love
which the men of this period professed for the king was
transferred to the new Government which had inherited his power.
The mechanism of such a transfer may easily be demonstrated.
Under the ancien regime, the sovereign, holding his power by
Divine right, was for this reason invested with a kind of
supernatural power. His people looked up to him from every
corner of the country.
This mystic belief in the absolute power of royalty was shattered
only when repeated experience proved that the power attributed to
the adored being was fictitious. He then lost his prestige.
Now, when prestige is lost the crowd will not forgive the fallen
idol for deluding them, and seek anew the idol without which they
From the outset of the Revolution numerous facts, which were
daily repeated, revealed to the most fervent believers the fact
that royalty no longer possessed any power, and that there were
other powers capable, not only of contending with royalty, but
possessed of superior force.
What, for instance, was thought of the royal power by the
multitudes who saw the king held in check by the Assembly, and
incapable, in the heart of Paris, of defending his strongest
fortress against the attacks of armed bands?
The royal weakness thus being obvious, the power of the Assembly
was increasing. Now, in the eyes of the crowd weakness has no
prestige; it turns always to force.
In the Assemblies feeling was very fluid, but did not evolve very
rapidly, for which reason the monarchical faith survived the
taking of the Bastille the flight of the king, and his
understanding with foreign sovereigns.
The royalist faith was still so powerful that the Parisian riots
and the events which led to the execution of Louis XVI. were not
enough finally to destroy, in the provinces, the species
of secular piety which enveloped the old monarchy.
 As an instance of the depth of this hereditary love of the
people for its kings, Michelet relates the following fact, which
occurred in the reign of Louis XV.: ``When it was known in Paris
that Louis XV., who had left for the army, was detained ill at
Metz, it was night. People got up and ran tumultuously hither
and thither without knowing where they were going; the churches
were opened in the middle of the night . . . people assembled at
every cross-road, jostling and questioning one another without
knowing what they were after. In several churches the priest who
was reciting the prayer for the king's health was stopped by his
tears, and the people replied by sobs and cries. . . . The
courier who brought the news of his convalescence was embraced
and almost stifled; people kissed his horse, and led him in
triumph. . . . Every street resounded with a cry of joy: `The
king is healed.' ''
It persisted in a great part of France during the whole of the
Revolution, and was the origin of the royalist conspiracies and
insurrections in various departments which the Convention had
such trouble to suppress. The royalist faith had disappeared in
Paris, where the weakness of the king was too plainly visible;
but in the provinces the royal power, representing God on earth,
still retained its prestige.
The royalist sentiments of the people must have been deeply
rooted to survive the guillotine. The royalist movements
persisted, indeed, during the whole of the Revolution, and were
accentuated under the Directory, when forty-nine departments sent
royalist deputies to Paris, which provoked the Directory to the
coup d'etat of Fructidor.
This monarchical-feeling, with difficulty repressed by the
Revolution, contributed to the success of Bonaparte when he came
to occupy the throne of the ancient kings, and in great measure
to re-establish the ancien regime.
MENTAL ANARCHY AT THE TIME OF THE REVOLUTION AND THE INFLUENCE
ATTRIBUTED TO THE PHILOSOPHERS
1. Origin and Propagation of Revolutionary Ideas.
The outward life of men in every age is moulded upon an inward
life consisting of a framework of traditions, sentiments, and
moral influences which direct their conduct and maintain certain
fundamental notions which they accept without discussion.
Let the resistance of this social framework weaken, and ideas
which could have had no force before will germinate and develop.
Certain theories whose success was enormous at the time of the
Revolution would have encountered an impregnable wall two
The aim of these considerations is to recall to the reader the
fact that the outward events of revolutions are always a
consequence of invisible transformations which have slowly gone
forward in men's minds. Any profound study of a revolution
necessitates a study of the mental soil upon which the ideas that
direct its course have to germinate.
Generally slow in the extreme, the evolution of ideas is often
invisible for a whole generation. Its extent can only be grasped
by comparing the mental condition of the same social
classes at the two extremities of the curve which the mind has
followed. To realise the different conceptions of royalty
entertained by educated men under Louis XIV. and Louis XVI., we
must compare the political theories of Bossuet and Turgot.
Bossuet expressed the general conceptions of his time concerning
the absolute monarchy when he based the authority of a Government
upon the will of God, ``sole judge of the actions of kings,
always irresponsible before men.'' Religious faith was then as
strong as the monarchical faith from which it seemed inseparable,
and no philosopher could have shaken it.
The writings of the reforming ministers of Louis XVI., those of
Turgot, for instance, are animated by quite another spirit. Of
the Divine right of kings there is hardly a word, and the rights
of the peoples begin to be clearly defined.
Many events had contributed to prepare for such an evolution--
unfortunate wars, famines, imposts, general poverty at the end of
the reign of Louis XV., &c. Slowly destroyed, respect for
monarchical authority was replaced by a mental revolt which was
ready to manifest itself as soon as occasion should arise.
When once the mental framework commences to crumble the end comes
rapidly. This is why at the time of the Revolution ideas were so
quickly propagated which were by no means new, but which until
then had exerted no influence, as they had not fallen on fruitful
Yet the ideas which were then so attractive and effectual had
often been expressed. For a long time they had inspired the
politics of England. Two thousand years earlier the Greek and
Latin authors had written in defence of liberty, had
cursed tyrants, and proclaimed the rights of popular sovereignty.
The middle classes who effected the Revolution, although, like
their fathers, they had learned all these things in text-books,
were not in any degree moved by them, because the moment when
such ideas could move them had not arrived. How should the
people have been impressed by them at a time when all men were
accustomed to regard all hierarchies as natural necessities?
The actual influence of the philosophers in the genesis of the
Revolution was not that which was attributed to them. They
revealed nothing new, but they developed the critical spirit
which no dogma can resist once the way is prepared for its
Under the influence of this developing critical spirit things
which were no longer very greatly respected came to be respected
less and less. When tradition and prestige had disappeared the
social edifice suddenly fell.
This progressive disaggregation finally descended to the people,
but was not commenced by the people. The people follows
examples, but never sets them.
The philosophers, who could not have exerted any influence over
the people, did exert a great influence over the enlightened
portion of the nation. The unemployed nobility, who had long
been ousted from their old functions, and who were consequently
inclined to be censorious, followed their leadership. Incapable
of foresight, the nobles were the first to break with the
traditions that were their only raison d'etre. As steeped
in humanitarianism and rationalism as the bourgeoisie of to-
day, they continually sapped their own privileges by their
criticisms. As to-day, the most ardent reformers were found
among the favourites of fortune. The aristocracy encouraged
dissertations on the social contract, the rights of man, and the
equality of citizens. At the theatre it applauded plays which
criticised privileges, the arbitrariness and the incapacity of
men in high places, and abuses of all kinds.
As soon as men lose confidence in the foundations of the mental
framework which guides their conduct they feel at first uneasy
and then discontented. All classes felt their old motives of
action gradually disappearing. Things that had seemed sacred for
centuries were now sacred no longer.
The censorious spirit of the nobility and of the writers of the
day would not have sufficed to move the heavy load of tradition,
but that its action was added to that of other powerful
influences. We have already stated, in citing Bossuet, that
under the ancien regime the religious and civil governments,
widely separated in our days, were intimately connected. To
injure one was inevitably to injure the other. Now, even before
the monarchical idea was shaken the force of religious tradition
was greatly diminished among cultivated men. The constant
progress of knowledge had sent an increasing number of minds from
theology to science by opposing the truth observed to the truth
This mental evolution, although as yet very vague, was sufficient
to show that the traditions which for so many centuries had
guided men had not the value which had been attributed to them,
and that it would soon be necessary to replace them.
But where discover the new elements which might; take the place
of tradition? Where seek the magic ring which would raise a new
social edifice on the remains of that which no longer contented
Men were agreed in attributing to reason the power that tradition
and the gods seemed to have lost. How could its force be
doubted? Its discoveries having been innumerable, was it not
legitimate to suppose that by applying it to the construction of
societies it would entirely transform them? Its possible
function increased very rapidly in the thoughts of the more
enlightened, in proportion as tradition seemed more and more to
The sovereign power attributed to reason must be regarded as the
culminating idea which not only engendered the Revolution but
governed it throughout. During the whole Revolution men gave
themselves up to the most persevering efforts to break with the
past, and to erect society upon a new plan dictated by logic.
Slowly filtering downward, the rationalistic theories of the
philosophers meant to the people simply that all the things which
had been regarded as worthy of respect were now no longer worthy.
Men being declared equal, the old masters need no longer be
The multitude easily succeeded in ceasing to respect what the
upper classes themselves no longer respected. When the barrier
of respect was down the Revolution was accomplished.
The first result of this new mentality was a general
insubordination. Mme. Vigee Lebrun relates that on the
promenade at Longchamps men of the people leaped on the
footboards of the carriages, saying, ``Next year you will be
behind and we shall be inside.''
The populace was not alone in manifesting insubordination and
discontent. These sentiments were general on the eve of the
Revolution. ``The lesser clergy,'' says Taine, ``are hostile to
the prelates; the provincial gentry to the nobility of the court;
the vassals to the seigneurs; the peasants to the townsmen,'' &c.
This state of mind, which had been communicated from the nobles
and clergy to the people, also invaded the army. At the moment
the States General were opened Necker said: ``We are not sure of
the troops.'' The officers were becoming humanitarian and
philosophical. The soldiers, recruited from the lowest class of
the population, did not philosophise, but they no longer obeyed.
In their feeble minds the ideas of equality meant simply the
suppression of all leaders and masters, and therefore of all
obedience. In 1790 more than twenty regiments threatened their
officers, and sometimes, as at Nancy, threw them into prison.
The mental anarchy which, after spreading through all the classes
of society, finally invaded the army was the principal cause of
the disappearance of the ancien regime. ``It was the
defection of the army affected by the ideas of the Third
Estate,'' wrote Rivarol, ``that destroyed royalty.''
2. The supposed Influence of the Philosophers of the Eighteenth
Century upon the Genesis of the Revolution--Their dislike of
Although the philosophers who have been supposed the inspirers of
the French Revolution did attack certain privileges and
abuses, we must not for that reason regard them as partisans of
popular government. Democracy, whose role in Greek history
was familiar to them, was generally highly antipathetic to them.
They were not ignorant of the destruction and violence which are
its invariable accompaniments, and knew that in the time of
Aristotle it was already defined as ``a State in which
everything, even the law, depends on the multitude set up as a
tyrant and governed by a few declamatory speakers.''
Pierre Bayle, the true forerunner of Voltaire, recalled in the
following terms the consequences of popular government in
``If one considers this history, which displays at great length
the tumult of the assemblies, the factions dividing the city, the
seditious disturbing it, the most illustrious subjects
persecuted, exiled, and punished by death at the will of a
violent windbag, one would conclude that this people, which so
prided itself on its liberty, was really the slave of a small
number of caballers, whom they called demagogues, and who made it
turn now in this direction, now in that, as their passions
changed, almost as the sea heaps the waves now one way, now
another, according to the winds which trouble it. You will seek
in vain in Macedonia, which was a monarchy, for as many examples
of tyranny as Athenian history will afford.''
Montesquieu had no greater admiration for the democracy. Having
described the three forms of government--republican, monarchical,
and despotic--he shows very clearly what popular government may
``Men were free with laws; men would fain be free without
them; what was a maxim is called severity; what was order is
called hindrance. Formerly the welfare of individuals
constituted the public wealth, but now the public wealth becomes
the patrimony of individuals. The republic is spoil, and its
strength is merely the power of a few citizens and the licence of
``. . . Little petty tyrants spring up who have all the vices of
a single tyrant. Very soon what is left of liberty becomes
untenable; a single tyrant arises, and the people loses all, even
the advantages of corruption.
``Democracy has therefore two extremes to avoid; the extreme of
the spirit of equality leads to the despotism of a single person,
as the despotism of a single person leads to conquest.''
The ideal of Montesquieu was the English constitutional
government, which prevented the monarchy from degenerating into
despotism. Otherwise the influence of this philosopher at the
moment of the Revolution was very slight.
As for the Encyclopaedists, to whom such a considerable
role is attributed, they hardly dealt with politics,
excepting d'Holbach, a liberal monarchist like Voltaire and
Diderot. They wrote chiefly in defence of individual liberty,
opposing the encroachments of the Church, at that time extremely
intolerant and inimical to philosophers. Being neither
Socialists nor democrats, the Revolution could not utilise any of
Voltaire himself was by no means a partisan of democracy.
``Democracy,'' he said, ``seems only to suit a very small
country, and even then it must be fortunately situated.
Little as it may be, it will make many mistakes, because it will
be composed of men. Discord will prevail there as in a convent
full of monks; but there will be no St. Bartholomew's day, no
Irish massacres, no Sicilian Vespers, no Inquisition, no
condemnation to the galleys for having taken water from the sea
without paying for it; unless we suppose this republic to be
composed of devils in a corner of hell.''
All these men who are supposed to have inspired the Revolution
had opinions which were far from subversive, and it is really
difficult to see that they had any real influence on the
development of the revolutionary movement. Rousseau was one of
the very few democratic philosophers of his age, which is why his
Contrat Social became the Bible of the men of the Terror. It
seemed to furnish the rational justification necessary to excuse
the acts deriving from unconscious mystic and affective impulses
which no philosophy had inspired.
To be quite truthful, the democratic instincts of Rousseau were
by no means above suspicion. He himself considered that his
projects for social reorganisation, based upon popular
sovereignty, could be applied only to a very small State; and
when the Poles asked him for a draft democratic Constitution he
advised them to choose a hereditary monarch.
Among the theories of Rousseau that relating to the perfection of
the primitive social state had a great success. He asserted,
together with various writers of his time, that primitive mankind
was perfect; it was corrupted only by society. By modifying
society by means of good laws one might bring back the
happiness of the early world. Ignorant of all psychology, he
believed that men were the same throughout time and space and
that they could all be ruled by the same laws and institutions.
This was then the general belief. ``The vices and virtues of the
people,'' wrote Helvetius, ``are always a necessary effect of its
legislation. . . . How can we doubt that virtue is in the case
of all peoples the result of the wisdom, more or less perfect, of
There could be no greater mistake.
3. The Philosophical Ideas of the Bourgeoisie at the Time of
It is by no means easy to say just what were the social and
political conceptions of a Frenchman of the middle classes at the
moment of the Revolution. They might be reduced to a few
formulae concerning fraternity, equality, and popular
government, summed up in the celebrated Declaration of the Rights
of Man, of which we shall have occasion to quote a few passages.
The philosophers of the eighteenth century do not seem to have
been very highly rated by the men of the Revolution. Rarely are
they quoted in the speeches of the time. Hypnotised by their
classical memories of Greece and Rome, the new legislators re-
read their Plato and their Plutarch. They wished to revive the
constitution of Sparta, with its manners, its frugal habits, and
Lycurgus, Solon, Miltiades, Manlius Torquatus, Brutus, Mucius
Scaevola, even the fabulous Minos himself, became as familiar
in the tribune as in the theatre, and the public went crazy over
them. The shades of the heroes of antiquity hovered over
the revolutionary assemblies. Posterity alone has replaced them
by the shades of the philosophers of the eighteenth century.
We shall see that in reality the men of this period, generally
represented as bold innovators guided by subtle philosophers,
professed to effect no innovations whatever, but to return to a
past long buried in the mists of history, and which, moreover,
they scarcely ever in the least understood.
The more reasonable, who did not go so far back for their models,
aimed merely at adopting the English constitutional system, of
which Montesquieu and Voltaire had sung the praises, and which
all nations were finally to imitate without violent crises.
Their ambitions were confined to a desire to perfect the existing
monarchy, not to overthrow it. But in time of revolution men
often take a very different path from that they propose to take.
At the time of the convocation of the States General no one would
ever have supposed that a revolution of peaceful bourgeoisie
and men of letters would rapidly be transformed into one of the
most sanguinary dictatorships of history.
PSYCHOLOGICAL ILLUSIONS RESPECTING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
1. Illusions respecting Primitive Man, the Return to a State of
Nature, and the Psychology of the People.
We have already repeated, and shall again repeat, that the errors
of a doctrine do not hinder its propagation, so that all we have
to consider here is its influence upon men's minds.
But although the criticism of erroneous doctrines is seldom of
practical utility, it is extremely interesting from a
psychological point of view. The philosopher who wishes to
understand the working of men's minds should always carefully
consider the illusions which they live with. Never, perhaps, in
the course of history have these illusions appeared so profound
and so numerous as during the Revolution.
One of the most prominent was the singular conception of the
nature of our first ancestors and primitive societies.
Anthropology not having as yet revealed the conditions of our
remoter forbears, men supposed, being influenced by the legends
of the Bible, that man had issued perfect from the hands of the
Creator. The first societies were models which were afterwards
ruined by civilisation, but to which mankind must return.
The return to the state of nature was very soon the general cry.
``The fundamental principle of all morality, of which I have
treated in my writings,'' said Rousseau, ``is that man is a being
naturally good, loving justice and order.''
Modern science, by determining, from the surviving remnants, the
conditions of life of our first ancestors, has long ago shown the
error of this doctrine. Primitive man has become an ignorant and
ferocious brute, as ignorant as the modern savage of goodness,
morality, and pity. Governed only by his instinctive impulses,
he throws himself on his prey when hunger drives him from his
cave, and falls upon his enemy the moment he is aroused by
hatred. Reason, not being born, could have no hold over his
The aim of civilisation, contrary to all revolutionary beliefs,
has been not to return to the state of nature but to escape from
it. It was precisely because the Jacobins led mankind back to
the primitive condition by destroying all the social restraints
without which no civilisation can exist that they transformed a
political society into a barbarian horde.
The ideas of these theorists concerning the nature of man were
about as valuable as those of a Roman general concerning the
power of omens. Yet their influence as motives of action was
considerable. The Convention was always inspired by such ideas.
The errors concerning our primitive ancestors were excusable
enough, since before modern discoveries had shown us the real
conditions of their existence these were absolutely unknown. But
the absolute ignorance of human psychology displayed by the men
of the Revolution is far less easy to understand.
It would really seem as though the philosophers and writers of
the eighteenth century must have been totally deficient in the
smallest faculty of observation. They lived amidst their
contemporaries without seeing them and without understanding
them. Above all, they had not a suspicion of the true nature of
the popular mind. The man of the people always appeared to them
in the likeness of the chimerical model created by their dreams.
As ignorant of psychology as of the teachings of history, they
considered the plebeian man as naturally good, affectionate,
grateful, and always ready to listen to reason.
The speeches delivered by members of the Assembly show how
profound were these illusions. When the peasants began to burn
the chateaux they were greatly astonished, and addressed
them in sentimental harangues, praying them to cease, in order
not to ``give pain to their good king,'' and adjured them ``to
surprise him by their virtues.''
2. Illusions respecting the Possibility of separating Man from
his Past and the Power of Transformation attributed to the Law.
One of the principles which served as a foundation for the
revolutionary institutions was that man may readily be cut off
from his past, and that a society may be re-made in all its parts
by means of institutions. Persuaded in the light of reason that,
except for the primitive ages which were to serve as models, the
past represented an inheritance of errors and superstitions, the
legislators of the day resolved to break entirely with that past.
The better to emphasise their intention, they founded a
new era, transformed the calendar, and changed the names of the
months and seasons.
Supposing all men to be alike, they thought they could legislate
for the human race. Condorcet imagined that he was expressing an
evident truth when he said: ``A good law must be good for all
men, just as a geometrical proposition is true for all.''
The theorists of the Revolution never perceived, behind the world
of visible things, the secret springs which moved them. A
century of biological progress was needed to show how grievous
were their mistakes, and how wholly a being of whatever species
depends on its past.
With the influence of the past, the reformers of the Revolution
were always clashing, without ever understanding it. They wanted
to annihilate it, but were annihilated by it instead.
The faith of law-makers in the absolute power of laws and
institutions, rudely shaken by the end of the Revolution, was
absolute at its outbreak. Gregoire said from the tribune of
the Constituent Assembly, without provoking the least
astonishment: ``We could if we would change religion, but we do
not want to.'' We know that they did want to later, and we know
how miserably their attempt failed.
Yet the Jacobins had in their hands all the elements of success.
Thanks to the completest of tyrannies, all obstacles were
removed, and the laws which it pleased them to impose were always
accepted. After ten years of violence, of destruction and
burning and pillage and massacre and general upheaval,
their impotence was revealed so startlingly that they fell into
universal reprobation. The dictator then invoked by the whole of
France was obliged to re-establish the greater part of that which
had been destroyed.
The attempt of the Jacobins to re-fashion society in the name of
pure reason constitutes an experiment of the highest interest.
Probably mankind will never have occasion to repeat it on so vast
Although the lesson was a terrible one, it does not seem to have
been sufficient for a considerable class of minds, since even in
our days we hear Socialists propose to rebuild society from top
to bottom according to their chimerical plans.
3. Illusions respecting the Theoretical Value of the great
The fundamental principles on which the Revolution was based in
order to create a new dispensation are contained in the
Declarations of Rights which were formulated successively in
1789, 1793, and 1795. All three Declarations agree in
proclaiming that ``the principle of sovereignty resides in the
For the rest, the three Declarations differ on several points,
notably in the matter of equality. That of 1789 simply states
(Article 1): ``Men are born and remain free and having equal
rights.'' That of 1793 goes farther, and assures us (Article 3):
``All men are equal by nature.'' That of 1795 is more modest and
says (Article 3): ``Equality consists in the law being the same
for all.'' Besides this, having mentioned rights, the third
Declaration considers it useful to speak of duties. Its
morality is simply that of the Gospel. Article 2 says: ``All
the duties of a man and a citizen derive from these two
principles engraved on all hearts by nature: do not do unto
others that which you would not they should do unto you; do
constantly unto others the good you would wish to receive from
The essential portions of these proclamations, the only portions
which have really survived, were those relating to equality and
Despite the weakness of its rational meaning, the part played by
the Republican device, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, was
This magic formula, which is still left engraven on many of our
walls until it shall be engraven on our hearts, has really
possessed the supernatural power attributed to certain words by
the old sorcerers.
Thanks to the new hopes excited by its promises, its power of
expansion was considerable. Thousands of men lost their lives
for it. Even in our days, when a revolution breaks out in any
part of the world, the same formula is always invoked.
Its choice was happy in the extreme. It belongs to the category
of indefinite dream-evoking sentences, which every one is free to
interpret according to his own desires, hatreds, and hopes. In
matters of faith the real sense of words matters very little; it
is the meaning attached to them that makes their importance.
Of the three principles of the revolutionary device, equality was
most fruitful of consequences. We shall see in another part of
this book that it is almost the only one which still
survives, and is still productive of effects.
It was certainly not the Revolution that introduced the idea of
equality into the world. Without going back even to the Greek
republics, we may remark that the theory of equality was taught
in the clearest fashion by Christianity and Islamism. All men,
subjects of the one God, were equal before Him, and judged solely
according to their merits. The dogma of the equality of souls
before God was an essential dogma with Mohammedans as well as
But to proclaim a principle is not enough to secure its
observation. The Christian Church soon renounced its theoretical
equality, and the men of the Revolution only remembered it in
The sense of the term ``equality'' varies according to the
persons using it. It often conceals sentiments very contrary to
its real sense, and then represents the imperious need of having
no one above one, joined to the no less lively desire to feel
above others. With the Jacobins of the Revolution, as with those
of our days, the word ``equality'' simply involves a jealous
hatred of all superiority. To efface superiority, such men
pretend to unify manners, customs, and situations. All
despotisms but that exercised by themselves seem odious.
Not being able to avoid the natural inequalities, they deny them.
The second Declaration of Rights, that of 1793, affirms, contrary
to the evidence, that ``all men are equal by nature.''
It would seem that in many of the men of the Revolution
the ardent desire for equality merely concealed an intense need
of inequalities. Napoleon was obliged to re-establish titles of
nobility and decorations for their benefit. Having shown that it
was among the most rabid revolutionists that he found the most
docile instruments of domination, Taine continues:--
``Suddenly, through all their preaching of liberty and equality,
appeared their authoritative instincts, their need of commanding,
even as subordinates, and also, in most cases, an appetite for
money or for pleasure. Between the delegate of the Committee of
Public Safety and the minister, prefect, or subprefect of the
Empire the difference is small: it is the same man under the two
costumes, first en carmagnole, then in the braided coat.''
The dogma of equality had as its first consequence the
proclamation of popular sovereignty by the bourgeoisie. This
sovereignty remained otherwise highly theoretical during the
The principle of authority was the lasting legacy of the
Revolution. The two terms ``liberty'' and ``fraternity'' which
accompany it in the republican device had never much influence.
We may even say that they had none during the Revolution and the
Empire, but merely served to decorate men's speeches.
Their influence was hardly more considerable later. Fraternity
was never practised and the peoples have never cared much for
liberty. To-day our working-men have completely surrendered it
to their unions.
To sum up: although the Republican motto has been little
applied it has exerted a very great influence. Of the French
Revolution practically nothing has remained in the popular mind
but the three celebrated words which sum up its gospel, and which
its armies spread over Europe.
THE RATIONAL, AFFECTIVE, MYSTIC, AND COLLECTIVE INFLUENCES ACTIVE
DURING THE REVOLUTION
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY
1. Psychological Influences active during the French Revolution.
The genesis of the French Revolution, as well as its duration,
was conditioned by elements of a rational, affective, mystic, and
collective nature, each category of which was ruled by a
different logic. It is, as I have said, because they have not
been able to dissociate the respective influences of these
factors that so many historians have interpreted this period so
The rational element usually invoked as an explanation exerted in
reality but a very slight influence. It prepared the way for the
Revolution, but maintained it only at the outset, while it was
still exclusively middle-class. Its action was manifested by
many measures of the time, such as the proposals to reform the
taxes, the suppression of the privileges of a useless nobility,
As soon as the Revolution reached the people, the influence of
the rational elements speedily vanished before that of the
affective and collective elements. As for the mystic elements,
the foundation of the revolutionary faith, they made the army
fanatical and propagated the new belief throughout the world.
We shall see these various elements as they appeared in events
and in the psychology of individuals. Perhaps the most important
was the mystic element. The Revolution cannot be clearly
comprehended--we cannot repeat it too often--unless it is
considered as the formation of a religious belief. What I have
said elsewhere of all beliefs applies equally to the Revolution.
Referring, for instance, to the chapter on the Reformation, the
reader will see that it presents more than one analogy with the
Having wasted so much time in demonstrating the slight rational
value of beliefs, the philosophers are to-day beginning to
understand their function better. They have been forced to admit
that these are the only factors which possess an influence
sufficient to transform all the elements of a civilisation.
They impose themselves on men apart from reason and have the
power to polarise men's thoughts and feelings in one direction.
Pure reason had never such a power, for men were never
impassioned by reason.
The religious form rapidly assumed by the Revolution explains its
power of expansion and the prestige which it possessed and has
Few historians have understood that this great monument ought to
be regarded as the foundation of a new religion. The penetrating
mind of Tocqueville, I believe, was the first to perceive as
``The French Revolution,'' he wrote, ``was a political revolution
which operated in the manner of and assumed something of the
aspect of a religious revolution. See by what regular and
characteristic traits it finally resembled the latter: not only
did it spread itself far and wide like a religious revolution,
but, like the latter, it spread itself by means of preaching and
propaganda. A political revolution which inspires proselytes,
which is preached as passionately to foreigners as it is
accomplished at home: consider what a novel spectacle was this.''
The religious side of the Revolution being granted, the
accompanying fury and devastation are easily explained. History
shows us that such are always the accompaniments of the birth of
religions. The Revolution was therefore certain to provoke the
violence and intolerance the triumphant deities demand from their
adepts. It overturned all Europe for twenty years, ruined
France, caused the death of millions of men, and cost the country
several invasions: but it is as a rule only at the cost of such
catastrophes that a people can change its beliefs.
Although the mystic element is always the foundation of beliefs,
certain affective and rational elements are quickly added
thereto. A belief thus serves to group sentiments and passions
and interests which belong to the affective domain. Reason then
envelops the whole, seeking to justify events in which, however,
it played no part whatever.
At the moment of the Revolution every one, according to his
aspirations, dressed the new belief in a different rational
vesture. The peoples saw in it only the suppression of the
religious and political despotisms and hierarchies under
which they had so often suffered. Writers like Goethe and
thinkers like Kant imagined that they saw in it the triumph of
reason. Foreigners like Humboldt came to France ``to breathe the
air of liberty and to assist at the obsequies of despotism.''
These intellectual illusions did not last long. The evolution of
the drama soon revealed the true foundations of the dream.
2. Dissolution of the Ancien Regime. The assembling of the
Before they are realised in action, revolutions are sketched out
in men's thoughts. Prepared by the causes already studied, the
French Revolution commenced in reality with the reign of Louis
XVI. More discontented and censorious every day, the middle
classes added claim to claim. Everybody was calling for reform.
Louis XVI. thoroughly understood the utility of reform, but he
was too weak to impose it on the clergy and the nobility. He
could not even retain his reforming ministers, Malesherbes and
Turgot. What with famines and increased taxation, the poverty of
all classes increased, and the huge pensions drawn by the Court
formed a shocking contrast to the general distress.
The notables convoked to attempt to remedy the financial
situation refused a system of equal taxation, and granted only
insignificant reforms which the Parliament did not even consent
to register. It had to be dissolved. The provincial Parliaments
made common cause with that of Paris, and were also dissolved.
But they led opinion, and in all parts of France promoted
the demand for a meeting of the States General, which had not
been convoked for nearly two hundred years.
The decision was taken: 5,000,000 Frenchmen, of whom 100,000
were ecclesiastics and 150,000 nobles, sent their
representatives. There were in all 1,200 deputies, of whom 578
were of the Third Estate, consisting chiefly of magistrates,
advocates, and physicians. Of the 300 deputies of the clergy,
200, of plebeian origin, threw in their lot with the Third Estate
against the nobility and clergy.
From the first sessions a psychological conflict broke out
between the deputies of different social conditions and
(therefore) different mentalities. The magnificent costumes of
the privileged deputies contrasted in a humiliating fashion with
the sombre fashions of the Third Estate.
At the first session the members of the nobility and the clergy
were covered, according to the prerogatives of their class,
before the king. Those of the Third Estate wished to imitate
them, but the privileged members protested. On the following day
more protests of wounded self-love were heard. The deputies of
the Third Estate invited those of the nobility and the clergy who
were sitting in separate halls to join them for the verification
of their powers. The nobles refused. The negotiations lasted
more than a month. Finally, the deputies of the Third Estate, on
the proposition of the Abbe Sieyes, considering that
they represented 95 per cent. of the nation, declared themselves
constituted as a National Assembly. From that moment the
Revolution pursued its course.
3. The Constituent Assembly.
The power of a political assembly resides, above all, in the
weakness of its adversaries. Astonished by the slight resistance
encountered, and carried away by the ascendancy of a handful of
orators, the Constituent Assembly, from its earliest sessions,
spoke and acted as a sovereign body. Notably it arrogated to
itself the power of decreeing imposts, a serious encroachment
upon the prerogatives of the royal power.
The resistance of Louis XVI. was feeble enough. He simply had
the hall in which the States assembled closed. The deputies then
met in the hall of the tennis-court, and took the oath that they
would not separate until the Constitution of the kingdom was an
The majority of the deputies of the clergy went with them. The
king revoked the decision of the Assembly, and ordered the
deputies to retire. The Marquis de Dreux-Breze, the Grand
Master of Ceremonies, having invited them to obey the order of
the sovereign, the President of the Assembly declared ``that the
nation assembled cannot receive orders,'' and Mirabeau replied to
the envoy of the sovereign that, being united by the will of the
people, the Assembly would only withdraw at the point of the
bayonet. Again the king gave way.
On the 9th of June the meeting of deputies took the title of the
Constituent Assembly. For the first time in centuries the king
was forced to recognise the existence of a new power, formerly
ignored--that of the people, represented by its elected
representatives. The absolute monarchy was no more.
Feeling himself more and more seriously threatened, Louis XVI.
summoned to Versailles a number of regiments composed of foreign
mercenaries. The Assembly demanded the withdrawal of the troops.
The king refused, and dismissed Necker, replacing him by the
Marshal de Broglie, reputed to be an extremely authoritative
But the Assembly had able supporters. Camille Desmoulins and
others harangued the crowd in all directions, calling it to the
defence of liberty. They sounded the tocsin, organised a militia
of 12,000 men, took muskets and cannon from the Invalides, and on
the 14th of July the armed bands marched upon the Bastille. The
fortress, barely defended, capitulated in a few hours. Seven
prisoners were found within it, of whom one was an idiot and four
were accused of forgery.
The Bastille, the prison of many victims of arbitrary power,
symbolised the royal power to many minds; but the people who
demolished it had not suffered by it. Scarcely any but members
of the nobility were imprisoned there.
The influence exercised by the taking of this fortress has
continued to our days. Serious historians like M. Rambaud assure
us that ``the taking of the Bastille is a culminating fact in the
history, not of France only but of all Europe, and inaugurates a
new epoch in the history of the world.''
Such credulity is a little excessive. The importance of the
event lay simply in the psychological fact that for the first
time the people received an obvious proof of the weakness of an
authority which had lately been formidable.
When the principle of authority is injured in the public mind it
dissolves very rapidly. What might not one demand of a king who
could not defend his principal fortress against popular attacks?
The master regarded as all-powerful had ceased to be so.
The taking of the Bastille was the beginning of one of those
phenomena of mental contagion which abound in the history of the
Revolution. The foreign mercenary troops, although they could
scarcely be interested in the movement, began to show symptoms of
mutiny. Louis XVI. was reduced to accepting their disbandment.
He recalled Necker, went to the Hotel de Ville, sanctioned by
his presence the accomplished facts, and accepted from La
Fayette, commandant of the National Guard, the new cockade of
red, white, and blue which allied the colours of Paris to those
of the king.
Although the riot which ended in the taking of the Bastille can
by no means be regarded as ``a culminating fact in history,'' it
does mark the precise moment of the commencement of popular
government. The armed people thenceforth intervened daily in the
deliberations of the revolutionary Assemblies, and seriously
influenced their conduct.
This intervention of the people in conformity with the dogma of
its sovereignty has provoked the respectful admiration of many
historians of the Revolution. Even a superficial study of the
psychology of crowds would speedily have shown them that the
mystic entity which they call the people was merely translating
the will of a few leaders. It is not correct to say that the
people took the Bastille, attacked the Tuileries, invaded the
Convention, &c., but that certain leaders--generally by
means of the clubs--united armed bands of the populace, which
they led against the Bastille, the Tuileries, &c. During the
Revolution the same crowds attacked or defended the most contrary
parties, according to the leaders who happened to be at their
heads. A crowd never has any opinion but that of its leaders.
Example constituting one of the most potent forms of suggestion,
the taking of the Bastille was inevitably followed by the
destruction of other fortresses. Many chateaux were regarded as
so many little Bastilles, and in order to imitate the Parisians
who had destroyed theirs the peasants began to burn them. They
did so with the greater fury because the seigneurial homes
contained the titles of feudal dues. It was a species of
The Constituent Assembly, so proud and haughty towards the king,
was, like all the revolutionary assemblies which followed it,
extremely pusillanimous before the people.
Hoping to put an end to the disorders of the night of August 4th,
it voted, on the proposition of a member of the nobility, the
Comte de Noailles, the abolition of seigneurial rights. Although
this measure suppressed at one stroke the privileges of the
nobles, it was voted with tears and embracings. Such accesses of
sentimental enthusiasm are readily explained when we recall how
contagious emotion is in a crowd, above all in an assembly
oppressed by fear.
If the renunciation of their rights had been effected by the
nobility a few years earlier, the Revolution would doubtless have
been avoided, but it was now too late. To give way only when one
is forced to do so merely increases the demands of those
to whom one yields. In politics one should always look ahead and
give way long before one is forced to do so.
Louis XVI. hesitated for two months to ratify the decisions voted
by the Assembly on the night of the 4th of August. He had
retired to Versailles. The leaders sent thither a band of 7,000
or 8,000 men and women of the people, assuring them that the
royal residence contained great stores of bread. The railings of
the palace were forced, some of the bodyguard were killed, and
the king and all his family were led back to Paris in the midst
of a shrieking crowd, many of whom bore on the ends of their
pikes the heads of the soldiers massacred. The dreadful journey
lasted six hours. These events constituted what are known as the
``days'' of October.
The popular power increased, and in reality the king, like the
whole assembly, was henceforth in the hands of the people--that
is, at the mercy of the clubs and their leaders. This popular
power was to prevail for nearly ten years, and the Revolution was
to be almost entirely its work.
While proclaiming that the people constituted the only sovereign,
the Assembly was greatly embarrassed by riots which went far
beyond its theoretical expectations. It had supposed that order
would be restored while it fabricated a Constitution destined to
assure the eternal happiness of mankind.
We know that during the whole duration of the Revolution one of
the chief occupations of the assemblies was to make, unmake, and
remake Constitutions. The theorists attributed to them then, as
they do to-day, the power of transforming society; the
Assembly, therefore, could not neglect its task. In the meantime
it published a solemn Declaration of the Rights of Man which
summarised its principles.
The Constitution, proclamations, declarations, and speeches had
not the slightest effect on the popular movements, nor on the
dissentients who daily increased in number in the heart of the
Assembly. The latter became more and more subjected to the
ascendancy of the advanced party, which was supported by the
clubs. Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and later Marat and
Hebert, violently excited the populace by their harangues and
their journals. The Assembly was rapidly going down the slope
that leads to extremes.
During all these disorders the finances of the country were not
improving. Finally convinced that philanthropic speeches would
not alter their lamentable condition, and seeing that bankruptcy
threatened, the Assembly decreed, on the 2nd of November, 1789,
the confiscation of the goods of the Church. Their revenues,
consisting of the tithes collected from the faithful, amounted to
some L8,000,000, and their value was estimated at about
L120,000,000. They were divided among some hundreds of
prelates, Court abbes, &c., who owned a quarter of all France.
These goods, henceforth entitled is ``national domains,'' formed
the guarantee of the assignats, the first issue of which was
for 400,000,000 francs (L16,000,000 sterling). The public
accepted them at the outset, but they multiplied so under the
Directory and the Convention, which issued 45,000,000,000 francs
in this form (L1,800,000,000 sterling), that an assignat of
100 livres was finally worth only a few halfpence.
Stimulated by his advisers, the feeble Louis attempted in
vain to struggle against the decrees of the Assembly by refusing
to sanction them.
Under the influence of the daily suggestions of the leaders and
the power of mental contagion the revolutionary movement was
spreading everywhere independently of the Assembly and often even
In the towns and villages revolutionary municipalities were
instituted, protected by the local National Guards. Those of
neighbouring towns commenced to make mutual arrangements to
defend themselves should need arise. Thus federations were
formed, which were soon rolled into one; this sent 14,000
National Guards to Paris, who assembled on the Champ-de-Mars on
the 14th of July, 1790. There the king swore to maintain the
Constitution decreed by the National Assembly.
Despite this vain oath it became more evident every day that no
agreement was possible between the hereditary principles of the
monarchy and those proclaimed by the Assembly.
Feeling himself completely powerless, the king thought only of
flight. Arrested at Varennes and brought back a prisoner to
Paris, he was shut up in the Tuileries. The Assembly, although
still extremely royalist, suspended him from power, and decided
to assume the sole charge of the government.
Never did sovereign find himself in a position so difficult as
that of Louis at the time of his flight. The genius of a
Richelieu would hardly have extricated him. The only element of
defence on which he could have relied had from the beginning
absolutely failed him.
During the whole duration of the Constituent Assembly the
immense majority of Frenchmen and of the Assembly remained
royalist, so that had the sovereign accepted a liberal monarchy
he could perhaps have remained in power. It would seem that
Louis had little to promise in order to come to an agreement with
Little, perhaps, but with his structure of mind that little was
strictly impossible. All the shades of his forbears would have
risen up in front of him had he consented to modify the mechanism
of the monarchy inherited from so many ancestors. And even had
he attempted to do so, the opposition of his family, the clergy,
the nobles, and the Court could never have been surmounted. The
ancient castes on which the monarchy rested, the nobility and the
clergy, were then almost as powerful as the monarch himself.
Every time it seemed as though he might yield to the injunctions
of the Assembly it was because he was constrained to do so by
force, and to attempt to gain time. His appeals to alien Powers
represented the resolution of a desperate man who had seen all
his natural defences fail him.
He, and especially the queen, entertained the strangest illusions
as to the possible assistance of Austria, for centuries the rival
of France. If Austria indolently consented to come to his aid,
it was only in the hope of receiving a great reward. Mercy gave
him to understand that the payment expected consisted of Alsace,
the Alps, and Navarre.
The leaders of the clubs, finding the Assembly too royalist, sent
the people against it. A petition was signed, inviting the
Assembly to convoke a new constituent power to proceed to the
trial of Louis XVI.
Monarchical in spite of all, and finding that the Revolution was
assuming a character far too demagogic, the Assembly resolved to
defend itself against the actions of the people. A battalion of
the National Guard, commanded by La Fayette, was sent to the
Champ-de-Mars, where the crowd was assembled, to disperse it.
Fifty of those present were killed.
The Assembly did not long persist in its feeble resistance.
Extremely fearful of the people, it increased its arrogance
towards the king, depriving him every day of some part of his
prerogatives and authority. He was now scarcely more than a mere
official obliged to execute the wishes of others.
The Assembly had imagined that it would be able to exercise the
authority of which it had deprived the king, but such a task was
infinitely above its resources. A power so divided is always
weak. ``I know nothing more terrible,'' said Mirabeau, ``than
the sovereign authority of six hundred persons.''
Having flattered itself that it could combine in itself all the
powers of the State, and exercise them as Louis XVI. had done,
the Assembly very soon exercised none whatever.
As its authority failed anarchy increased. The popular leaders
continually stirred up the people. Riot and insurrection became
the sole power. Every day the Assembly was invaded by rowdy and
imperious delegations which operated by means of threats and
All these popular movements, which the Assembly, under the stress
of fear, invariably obeyed, had nothing spontaneous about them.
They simply represented the manifestations of new powers--the
clubs and the Commune--which had been set up beside the
The most powerful of these clubs was the Jacobin, which had
quickly created more than five hundred branches in the country,
all of which were under the orders of the central body. Its
influence remained preponderant during the whole duration of the
Revolution. It was the master of the Assembly, and then of
France, its only rival the insurrectionary Commune, whose power
was exercised only in Paris.
The weakness of the national Assembly and all its failures had
made it extremely unpopular. It became conscious of this, and,
feeling that it was every day more powerless, decided to hasten
the creation of the new Constitution in order that it might
dissolve. Its last action, which was tactless enough, was to
decree that no member of the Constituent Assembly should be
elected to the Legislative Assembly. The members of the latter
were thus deprived of the experience acquired by their
The Constitution was completed on the 3rd of September, 1791, and
accepted on the 13th by the king, to whom the Assembly had
restored his powers.
This Constitution organised a representative Government,
delegating the legislative power to deputies elected by the
people, and the executive power to the king, whose right of veto
over the decrees of the Assembly was recognised. New
departmental divisions were substituted for the old provinces.
The imposts were abolished, and replaced by direct and indirect
taxes, which are still in force.
The Assembly, which had just altered the territorial divisions
and overthrown all the old social organisation, thought
itself powerful enough to transform the religious organisation of
the country also. It claimed notably that the members of the
clergy should be elected by the people, and should be thus
withdrawn from the influence of their supreme head, the Pope.
This civil constitution of the clergy was the origin of religious
struggles and persecutions which lasted until the days of the
Consulate. Two-thirds of the priests refused the oath demanded
During the three years which represented the life of the
Constituent Assembly the Revolution had produced considerable
results. The principal result was perhaps the beginning of the
transference to the Third Estate of the riches of the privileged
classes. In this way while interests were created to be defended
fervent adherents were raised up to the new regime. A
Revolution supported by the gratification of acquired appetites
is bound to be powerful. The Third Estate, which had supplanted
the nobles, and the peasants, who had bought the national
domains, would readily understand that the restoration of the
ancien regime would despoil them of all their advantages.
The energetic defence of the Revolution was merely the defence of
their own fortunes.
This is why we see, during part of the Revolution, nearly half
the departments vainly rising against the despotism that crushed
them. The Republicans triumphed over all opposition. They were
extremely powerful in that they had to defend, not only a new
ideal, but new material interests. We shall see that the
influence of these two factors lasted during the whole of the
Revolution, and contributed powerfully to the establishment of
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY
1. Political Events during the Life of the Legislative Assembly.
Before examining the mental characteristics of the Legislative
Assembly let us briefly sum up the considerable political events
which marked its short year's life. They naturally played an
important part in respect of its psychological manifestations.
Extremely monarchical, the Legislative Assembly had no more idea
than its predecessor of destroying the monarchy. The king
appeared to it to be slightly suspect, but it still hoped to be
able to retain him on the throne.
Unhappily for him, Louis was incessantly begging for intervention
from abroad. Shut up in the Tuileries, defended only by his
Swiss Guards, the timid sovereign was drifting among contrary
influences. He subsidised journals intended to modify public
opinion, but the obscure ``penny-a-liners'' who edited them knew
nothing of acting on the mind of the crowd. Their only means of
persuasion was to menace with the gallows all the partisans of
the Revolution, and to predict the invasion of France by an army
which would rescue the king.
Royalty no longer counted on anything but the foreign
Courts. The nobles were emigrating. Prussia, Austria, and
Russia were threatening France with a war of invasion. The Court
favoured their lead. To the coalition of the three kings against
France the Jacobin Club proposed to oppose a league of peoples.
The Girondists were then, with the Jacobins, at the head of the
revolutionary movement. They incited the masses to arm
themselves--600,000 volunteers were equipped. The Court accepted
a Girondist minister. Dominated by him, Louis XVI. was obliged
to propose to the Assembly a war against Austria. It was
immediately agreed to.
In declaring war the king was not sincere. The queen revealed
the French plans of campaign and the secret deliberations of the
Council to the Austrians.
The beginnings of the struggle were disastrous. Several columns
of troops, attacked by panic, disbanded. Stimulated by the
clubs, and persuaded--justly, for that matter--that the king was
conspiring with the enemies of France, the population of the
faubourgs rose in insurrection. Its leaders, the Jacobins, and
above all Danton, sent to the Tuileries on the 20th of June a
petition threatening the king with revocation. It then invaded
the Tuileries, heaping invectives on the sovereign.
Fatality impelled Louis toward his tragic destiny. While the
threats of the Jacobins against royalty had roused many of the
departments to indignation, it was learned that a Prussian army
had arrived on the frontiers of Lorraine.
The hope of the king and queen respecting the help to be obtained
from abroad was highly chimerical. Marie-Antoinette
suffered from an absolute illusion as to the psychology of the
Austrian and the French peoples. Seeing France terrorised by a
few energumens, she supposed that it would be equally easy to
terrify the Parisians, and by means of threats to lead them back
under the king's authority. Inspired by her, Fersen undertook to
publish the manifesto of the Duke of Brunswick, threatening Paris
with ``total subversion if the royal family were molested.''
The effect produced was diametrically opposite to that intended.
The manifesto aroused indignation against the monarch, who was
regarded as an accomplice, and increased his unpopularity. From
that day he was marked for the scaffold.
Carried away by Danton, the delegates of the sections installed
themselves at the Hotel de Ville as an insurrectionary
Commune, which arrested the commandant of the National Guard, who
was devoted to the king, sounded the tocsin, equipped the
National Guard, and on the 10th of August hurled them, with the
populace, against the Tuileries. The regiments called in by
Louis disbanded themselves. Soon none were left to defend him
but his Swiss and a few gentlemen. Nearly all were killed. Left
alone, the king took refuge with the Assembly. The crowds
demanded his denouncement. The Legislative Assembly decreed his
suspension and left a future Assembly, the Convention, to decide
upon his fate.
2. Mental Characteristics of the Legislative Assembly.
The Legislative Assembly, formed of new men, presented quite a
special interest from the psychological point of view.
Few assemblies have offered in such a degree the characteristics
of the political collectivity.
It comprised seven hundred and fifty deputies, divided into pure
royalists, constitutional royalists, republicans, Girondists, and
Montagnards. Advocates and men of letters formed the majority.
It also contained, but in smaller numbers, superior officers,
priests, and a very few scientists.
The philosophical conceptions of the members of this Assembly
seem rudimentary enough. Many were imbued with Rousseau's idea
of a return to a state of nature. But all, like their
predecessors, were dominated more especially by recollections of
Greek and Latin antiquity. Cato, Brutus, Gracchus, Plutarch,
Marcus Aurelius, and Plato, continually evoked, furnished the
images of their speech. When the orator wished to insult Louis
XVI. he called him Caligula.
In hoping to destroy tradition they were revolutionaries, but in
claiming to return to a remote past they showed themselves
For the rest, all these theories had very little influence on
their conduct. Reason was continually figuring in their
speeches, but never in their actions. These were always
dominated by those affective and mystic elements whose potency we
have so often demonstrated.
The psychological characteristics of the Legislative Assembly
were those of the Constituent Assembly, but were greatly
accentuated. They may be summed up in four words:
impressionability, mobility, timidity, and weakness.
This mobility and impressionability are revealed in the constant
variability of their conduct. One day they exchange noisy
invective and blows. On the following day we see them ``throwing
themselves into one another's arms with torrents of tears.''
They eagerly applaud an address demanding the punishment of those
who have petitioned for the king's dethronement, and the same day
accord the honours of the session to a delegation which has come
to demand his downfall.
The pusillanimity and weakness of the Assembly in the face of
threats was extreme. Although royalist it voted the suspension
of the king, and on the demand of the Commune delivered him, with
his family, to be imprisoned in the Temple,
Thanks to its weakness, it was as incapable as the Constituent
Assembly of exercising any power, and allowed itself to be
dominated by the Commune and the clubs, which were directed by
such influential leaders as Hebert, Tallien, Rossignol, Marat,
Until Thermidor, 1794, the insurrectionary Commune constituted
the chief power in the State, and behaved precisely as if it had
been charged with the government of Paris.
It was the Commune that demanded the imprisonment of Louis XVI.
in the tower of the Temple, when the Assembly wished to imprison
him in the palace of the Luxembourg. It was the Commune again
that filled the prisons with suspects, and then ordered them to
We know with what refinements of cruelty a handful of some 150
bandits, paid at the rate of 24 livres a day, and directed by a
few members of the Commune, exterminated some 1,200 persons in
four days. This crime was known as the massacre of September.
The mayor of Paris, Petion, received the band of assassins with
respect, and gave them drink. A few Girondists protested
somewhat, but the Jacobins were silent.
The terrorised Assembly affected at first to ignore the
massacres, which were encouraged by several of its more
influential deputies, notably Couthon and Billaud-Varenne. When
at last it decided to condemn them it was without attempting to
prevent their continuation.
Conscious of its impotence, the Legislative Assembly dissolved
itself a fortnight later in order to give way to the Convention.
Its work was obviously disastrous, not in intention but in fact.
Royalist, it abandoned the monarchy; humanitarian, it allowed the
massacres of September; pacific, it pushed France into a
formidable war, thus showing that a weak Government always ends
by bringing ruin upon its country.
The history of the two previous revolutionary Assemblies proves
once more to what point events carry within them their inevitable
consequences. They constitute a train of necessities of which we
can sometimes choose the first, but which then evolve without
consulting us. We are free to make a decision, but powerless to
avert its consequences.
The first measures of the Constituent Assembly were rational and
voluntary, but the results which followed were beyond all will or
reason or foresight.
Which of the men of 1789 would have ventured to desire or predict
the death of Louis XVI., the wars of La Vendee, the Terror, the
permanent guillotine and the final anarchy, or the ensuing return
to tradition and order, guided by the iron hand of a soldier?
In the development of events which ensued from the early actions
of the revolutionary Assemblies the most striking, perhaps, was
the rise and development of the government of the crowd--of mob
Behind the facts which we have been considering--the taking of
the Bastille, the invasion of Versailles, the massacres of
September, the attack on the Tuileries, the murder of the Swiss
Guards, and the downfall and imprisonment of the king--we can
readily perceive the laws affecting the psychology of crowds and
We shall now see that the power of the multitude will
progressively increase, overcome all other powers, and finally
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CONVENTION
1. The Legend of the Convention.
The history of the Convention is not merely fertile in
psychological documents. It also shows how powerless the
witnesses of any period and even their immediate successors are
to form an exact idea of the events which they have witnessed,
and the men who have surrounded them.
More than a century has elapsed since the Revolution, and men are
only just beginning to form judgments concerning this period
which, if still often doubtful enough, are slightly more accurate
than of old.
This happens, not only because new documents are being drawn from
the archives, but because the legends which enveloped that
sanguinary period in a magical cloud are gradually vanishing with
the passage of time.
Perhaps the most tenacious legend of all was that which until
formerly used to surround the personages to whom our fathers
applied the glorious epithet, ``the Giants of the Convention.''
The struggles of the Convention against France in insurrection
and Europe in arms produced such an impression that the heroes of
this formidable struggle seemed to belong to a race of supermen
The epithet ``giant'' seemed justified so long as the events of
the period were confused and massed together. Regarded as
connected when it was simply simultaneous, the work of the armies
was confounded with that of the Convention. The glory of the
first recoiled upon the second, and served as an excuse for the
hecatombs of the Terror, the ferocity of the civil war, and the
devastation of France.
Under the penetrating scrutiny of modern criticism, the
heterogeneous mass of events has been slowly disentangled. The
armies of the Republic have retained their old prestige, but we
have been forced to recognise that the men of the Convention,
absorbed entirely by their intestine conflicts, had very little
to do with their victories. At the most two or three members of
the committees of the Assembly were concerned with the armies,
and the fact that they were victorious was due, apart from their
numbers and the talents of their young generals, to the
enthusiasm with which a new faith had inspired them.
In a later chapter, devoted to the revolutionary armies, we shall
see how they conquered Europe in arms. They set out inspired by
the ideas of liberty and equality which constituted the new
gospel, and once on the frontiers, which were to keep them so
long, they retained a special mentality, very different from that
of the Government, which they first knew nothing of and
Having no part whatever in their victories, the men of the
Convention contented themselves with legislating at hazard
according to the injunctions of the leaders who directed them,
and who claimed to be regenerating France by means of the
But it was thanks to these valiant armies that the history of the
Convention was transformed into an apotheosis which affected
several generations with a religious respect which even to-day is
Studying in detail the psychology of the ``Giants'' of the
Convention, we find their magnitude shrink very rapidly. They
were in general extremely mediocre. Their most fervent
defenders, such as M. Aulard, are obliged to admit as much.
This is how M. Aulard puts it in his History of the French
``It has been said that the generation which from 1789 to 1799
did such great and terrible things was a generation of giants,
or, to put it more plainly, that it was a generation more
distinguished than that which preceded it or that which followed.
This is a retrospective illusion. The citizens who formed the
municipal and Jacobin or nationalist groups by which the
Revolution was effected do not seem to have been superior, either
in enlightenment or in talents, to the Frenchmen of the time of
Louis XV. or of Louis Philippe. Were those exceptionally gifted
whose names history has retained because they appeared on the
stage of Paris, or because they were the most brilliant orators
of the various revolutionary Assemblies? Mirabeau, up to a
certain point, deserved the title of genius; but as to the rest--
Robespierre, Danton, Vergniaud--had they truly more talent, for
example, than our modern orators? In 1793, in the time of the
supposed `giants,' Mme. Roland wrote in her memoirs: `France was
as though drained of men; their dearth during this revolution is
truly surprising; there have scarcely been any but pigmies.' ''
If after considering the men of the Convention individually we
consider them in a body, we may say that they did not shine
either by intelligence or by virtue or by courage. Never did a
body of men manifest such pusillanimity. They had no courage
save in their speeches or in respect of remote dangers. This
Assembly, so proud and threatening in its speech when addressing
royalty, was perhaps the most timid and docile political
collectivity that the world has ever known. We see it slavishly
obedient to the orders of the clubs and the Commune, trembling
before the popular delegations which invaded it daily, and
obeying the injunctions of the rioters to the point of handing
over to them its most brilliant members. The Convention affords
the world a melancholy spectacle, voting, at the popular behest,
laws so absurd that it is obliged to annul them as soon as the
rioters have quitted the hall.
Few Assemblies have given proof of such weakness. When we wish
to show how low a popular Government can fall we have only to
point to the Convention.
2. Results of the Triumph of the Jacobin Religion
Among the causes that gave the Convention its special
physiognomy, one of the most important was the definite
establishment of a revolutionary religion. A dogma which was at
first in process of formation was at last finally erected.
This dogma was composed of an aggregate of somewhat inconsistent
elements. Nature, the rights of man, liberty, equality, the
social contract, hatred of tyrants, and popular sovereignty
formed the articles of a gospel which, to its disciples, was
above discussion. The new truths had found apostles who were
certain of their power, and who finally, like believers all the
world over, sought to impose them by force. No heed should be
taken of the opinion of unbelievers; they all deserved to be
The hatred of heretics having been always, as we have seen, in
respect of the Reformation, an irreducible characteristic of
great beliefs, we can readily comprehend the intolerance of the
The history of the Reformation proves also that the conflict
between two allied beliefs is very bitter. We must not,
therefore, be astonished that in the Convention the Jacobins
fought furiously against the other republicans, whose faith
hardly differed from their own.
The propaganda of the new apostles was very energetic. To
convert the provinces they sent thither zealous disciples
escorted by guillotines. The inquisitors of the new faith would
have no paltering with error. As Robespierre said, ``The
republic is the destruction of everything that is opposed to
it.'' What matter that the country refused to be regenerated?
It should be regenerated despite itself. ``We will make a
cemetery of France,'' said Carrier, ``rather than fail to
regenerate it in our own way.''
The Jacobin policy derived from the new faith was very simple.
It consisted in a sort of equalitarian Socialism, directed by a
dictatorship which would brook no opposition.
Of practical ideas consistent with the economic necessities and
the true nature of man, the theorists who ruled France would have
nothing to say. Speech and the guillotine sufficed them. Their
speeches were childish. ``Never a fact,'' says Taine, ``nothing
but abstractions, strings of sentences about Nature, reason, the
people, tyrants, liberty: like so many puffed-out balloons
uselessly jostling in space. If we did not know that it all
ended in practical and dreadful results, we should think they
were games of logic, school exercises, academical demonstrations,
The theories of the Jacobins amounted practically to an absolute
tyranny. To them it seemed evident that a sovereign State must
be obeyed without discussion by citizens rendered equal as to
conditions and fortune.
The power with which they invested themselves was far greater
than that of the monarchs who had preceded them. They fixed the
prices of merchandise and arrogated the right to dispose of the
life and property of citizens.
Their confidence in the regenerative virtues of the revolutionary
faith was such that after having declared war upon kings they
declared war upon the gods. A calendar was established from
which the saints were banished. They created a new divinity,
Reason, whose worship was celebrated in Notre-Dame, with
ceremonies which were in many ways identical with those of the
Catholic faith, upon the altar of the ``late Holy Virgin.'' This
cult lasted until Robespierre substituted a personal religion of
which he constituted himself the high priest.
The sole masters of France, the Jacobins and their
disciples were able to plunder the country with impunity,
although they were never in the majority anywhere.
Their numbers are not easy to determine exactly. We know only
that they were very small. Taine valued them at 5,000 in Paris,
among 700,000 inhabitants; in Besancon 300 among 300,000; and
in all France about 300,000.
``A small feudality of brigands, set over a conquered France,''
according to the words of the same author, they were able, in
spite of their small numbers, to dominate the country, and this
for several reasons. In the first place, their faith gave them a
considerable strength. Then, because they represented the
Government, and for centuries the French had obeyed those who
were in command. Finally, because it was believed that to
overthrow them would be to bring back the ancien regime,
which was greatly dreaded by the numerous purchasers of the
national domains. Their tyranny must have grown frightful indeed
to force so many departments to rise against them.
The first factor of their power was very important. In the
conflict between powerful faiths and weak faiths victory never
falls to the latter. A powerful faith creates strong wills,
which will always overpower weak wills. That the Jacobins
themselves did finally perish was because their accumulated
violence had bound together thousands of weak wills whose united
weight overbalanced their own strong wills.
It is true that the Girondists, whom the Jacobins persecuted with
so much hatred, had also well-established beliefs, but in the
struggle which ensued their education told against them,
together with their respect for certain traditions and the rights
of others, scruples which did not in the least trouble their
``The majority of the sentiments of the Girondists,'' writes
Emile Ollivier, ``were delicate and generous; those of the
Jacobin mob were low, gross, and brutal. The name of Vergniaud,
compared with that of the `divine' Marat, measures a gulf which
nothing could span.''
Dominating the Convention at the outset by the superiority of
their talents and their eloquence, the Girondists soon fell under
the domination of the Montagnards--worthless energumens, who
carried little weight, but were always active, and who knew how
to excite the passions of the populace. It was violence and not
talent that impressed the Assemblies.
3. Mental Characteristics of the Convention.
Beside the characteristics common to all assemblies there are
some created by influences of environment and circumstances,
which give any particular assembly of men a special physiognomy.
Most of the characteristics observable in the Constituent and
Legislative Assemblies reappeared, in an exaggerated form, in the
This Assembly comprised about seven hundred and fifty deputies,
of whom rather more than a third had sat in the Constituent or
the Legislative Assembly. By terrorising the population the
Jacobins contrived to triumph at the elections. The majority of
the electors, six millions out of seven, preferred to abstain
As to the professions, the Assembly contained a large number of
lawyers, advocates, notaries, bailiffs, ex-magistrates, and a few
The mentality of the Convention was not homogeneous. Now, an
assembly composed of individuals of widely different characters
soon splits up into a number of groups. The Convention very
early contained three--the Gironde, the Mountain, and the Plain.
The constitutional monarchists had almost disappeared.
The Gironde and the Mountain, extreme parties, consisted of about
a hundred members apiece, who successively became leaders. In
the Mountain were the most advanced members: Couthon, Herault
de Sechelles, Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Marat, Collot
d'Herbois, Billaud-Varennes, Barras, Saint-Just, Fouche,
Tallien, Carrier, Robespierre, &c. In the Gironde were Brissot,
Petion, Condorcet, Vergniaud, &c.
The five hundred other members of the Assembly--that is, the
great majority--constituted what was known as the Plain.
This latter formed a floating mass, silent, undecided, and timid;
ready to follow every impulse and to be carried away by the
excitement of the moment. It gave ear indifferently to the
stronger of the two preceding groups. After obeying the Gironde
for some time it allowed itself to be led away by the Mountain,
Back to Full Books