Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Days of the French Revolution

I just read The Days of the French Revolution by Christopher Hibbert. The book follows the events of the French Revolution, emphasizing some of the key days in which especially notable or violent events took place. It is a real page turner, although some of the scenes described would distress many readers.

The government of France was heavily in debt entering and during the revolution, and its revenue did not suffice to deal with the debt in part because the aristocracy and the church were exempt from so many taxes and were willing and able to use their political power to avoid taxation. The poverty of the masses was exacerbated by years of poor harvests and a weak transportation infrastructure leading to wide spread hunger. What we would now call the middle classes (the more affluent and prestigious of the Third Estate) were demanding more political power, as indeed were the very poor (the sans culottes).

In keeping with the theme of this blog, it is hard to conceive of the French Revolution occurring had not the political, economic, social and other thought of the Enlightenment been widely spread in France. So too, many in France would have been familiar with the success of the people of the United States in their revolution that overthrew a monarchy and defeated (with French assistance) the professional army and navy supporting the monarch, to establish a democratic government, based on the concept of equality and with no state religion. The revolution itself was facilitated by a system for the publication and distribution of political pamphlets and by newspapers that published strong opinions, There was an extensive network of clubs in which these documents were made available and discussed. Indeed, the revolution began in 1789 with the convening of the Estates General which provided a public venue for wide discussion of the problems of the nation and its political system and succeeding governments continued the practice of public discussions; these were widely followed by the public and the debates were echoed in public fora.

It was hard for me to relate to the constantly changing cast of characters who rose to important positions in government, many with few qualifications and little ability to govern effectively. It was also difficult to grasp the level of violence that occurred in political life (although many among the tens of millions of French people must have been little involved in politics focusing instead on survival in difficult times). I suppose that the violence must be attributed to the anger fueled by hard times and a wealthy and uncaring elite, to mob psychology, to the recruitment of deviants and mentally ill by the mobs, and to a violent nature of our species which we usually manage to suppress or conceal.

Hibbert is a skillful writer and the book is a page turner, although some will wish not to have turned some pages due to the accounts of violence that the thereby uncovered, accounts that I found difficult to read. Still, I think it was useful to read this book to remind myself of how political systems can get out of hand, and of how cruel and violent people can be in the wrong circumstances.

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