The French Revolution (Belloc)

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The French Revolution  (1911) 
by Hilaire Belloc

Home University Library of Modern Knowledge







Richard Clay & Sons, Limited,
bread street hill, e.c., and
bungay, suffolk.


The object of these few pages is not to recount once more the history of the Revolution: that can be followed in any one of a hundred text-books. Their object is rather to lay, if that be possible, an explanation of it before the English reader; so that he may understand both what it was and how it proceeded, and also why certain problems hitherto unfamiliar to Englishmen have risen out of it.

First, therefore, it is necessary to set down, clearly without modern accretion, that political theory which was a sort of religious creed, supplying the motive force of the whole business; of the new Civil Code as of the massacres; of the panics and capitulations as of the victories; of the successful transformation of society as of the conspicuous failures in detail which still menace the achievement of the Revolution.

This grasped, the way in which the main events followed each other, and the reason of their interlocking and proceeding as they did must be put forward—not, I repeat, in the shape of a chronicle, but in the shape of a thesis. Thus the reader must know not only that the failure of the royal family’s flight was followed by war, but how and why it was followed by war. He must not only appreciate the severity of the government of the great Committee, but why that severity was present, and of the conditions of war upon which it reposed. But in so explaining the development of the movement it is necessary to select for appreciation as the chief figures the characters of the time, since upon their will and manner depended the fate of the whole. For instance, had the Queen been French either in blood or in sympathy, had the King been alert, had any one character retained the old religious motives, all history would have been changed, and this human company must be seen if its action and drama are to be comprehended.

The reader interested in that capital event should further seize (and but too rarely has an opportunity for seizing) its military aspect; and this difficulty of his proceeds from two causes: the first, that historians, even when they recognise the importance of the military side of some past movement, are careless of the military aspect, and think it sufficient to relate particular victories and general actions. The military aspect of any period does not consist in these, but in the campaigns of which actions, however decisive, are but incidental parts. In other words, the reader must seize the movement and design of armies if he is to seize a military period, and these are not commonly given him. In the second place, the historian, however much alive to the importance of military affairs, too rarely presents them as part of a general position. He will make his story a story of war, or again, a story of civilian development, and the reader will fail to see how the two combine.

Now, the Revolution, more than any other modern period, turns upon, and is explained by, its military history. On this account has so considerable a space been devoted to the explaining of that feature.

The reader will note, again, that the quarrel between the Revolution and the Catholic Church has also been dealt with at length.

To emphasise this aspect of the revolutionary struggle may seem unusual and perhaps deserves a word of apology.

The reader is invited to consider the fact that the Revolution took place in a country which had, in the first place, definitely determined during the religious struggle of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to remain in communion with Rome; and had, in the second place, admitted a very large and important body of converts to the doctrines of the Reformation.

The determination of the French people, in the crisis of 1572-1610, to remain Catholic under a strong central Government, was a capital point in the future history of France. So was the presence of a wealthy, very large, and highly cultivated body of dissentients in the midst of the nation. The two phenomena hardly co-existed elsewhere in Europe. Between them they lent to the political history of France a peculiar character which the nineteenth century, even more than the Revolution itself, has emphasised; and it is the opinion of the present writer that it is impossible to understand the Revolution unless very high relief is given to the religious problem.

If a personal point may be noted, the fact that the writer of these pages is himself a Catholic and in political sympathy strongly attached to the political theory of the Revolution, should not be hidden from the reader. Such personal conditions have perhaps enabled him to treat the matter more thoroughly than it might have been treated by one who rejected either Republicanism upon the one hand, or Catholicism upon the other; but he believes that no personal and therefore exaggerated note has been allowed to intrude upon his description of what is a definite piece of objective history lying in the field of record rather than in that of opinion.

Some years ago the paramount importance of the quarrel between the Church and the Revolution might still have been questioned by men who had no personal experience of the struggle, and of its vast results. To-day the increasing consequences and the contemporary violence of that quarrel make its presentation an essential part of any study of the period.

The scheme thus outlined will show why I have given this sketch the divisions in which it lies.

H. Belloc

King’s Land,
January 1911.

Preface v
I The Political Theory of the Revolution 13
II Rousseau 29
III The Characters of the Revolution:
King Louis XVI 37
The Queen 45
Mirabeau 53
La Fayette 61
Dumouriez 61
Danton 67
Carnot 72
Marat 74
Robespierre 77
IV The Phases of the Revolution:
i. From May 1789 to 17th of July 1789 83
ii. From the 17th of July 1789 to the 6th of October 1789 93
iii. From October 1789 to June 1791 98
iv. From June 1791 to September 1792 108
V. From the Invasion of September 1792 to the Establishment of the Committee of Public Safety, April 1793. 118
vi. From April 1793 to July 1794. 126
V The Military Aspect of the Revolution 142
One 145
Two 156
Three 163
Four 179
Five 204
VI The Revolution and the Catholic Church 214
Index 255

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1953, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 69 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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