H.G. Wells > A Short History of the World > 55. The French Revolution and the Restoration of Monarchy in France
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H.G. Wells (1866–1946).  A Short History of the World.  1922.

LV.  The French Revolution and the Restoration of Monarchy in France


BRITAIN had hardly lost the Thirteen Colonies-in America before a profound social and political convulsion at the very heart of Grand Monarchy was to remind Europe still more vividly of the essentially temporary nature of the political arrangements of the world.   1
  We have said that the French monarchy was the most successful of the personal monarchies in Europe. It was the envy and model of a multitude of competing and minor courts. But it flourished on a basis of injustice that led to its dramatic collapse. It was brilliant and aggressive, but it was wasteful of the life and substance of its common people. The clergy and nobility were protected from taxation by a system of exemption that threw the whole burden of the state upon the middle and lower classes. The peasants were ground down by taxation; the middle classes were dominated and humiliated by the nobility.   2
  In 1787 this French monarchy found itself bankrupt and obliged to call representatives of the different classes of the realm into consultation upon the perplexities of defective income and excessive expenditure. In 1789 the States General, a gathering of the nobles, clergy and commons, roughly equivalent to the earlier form of the British Parliament, was called together at Versailles. It had not assembled since 1610. For all that time France had been an absolute monarchy. Now the people found a means of expressing their long fermenting discontent. Disputes immediately broke out between the three estates, due to the resolve of the Third Estate, the Commons, to control the Assembly. The Commons got the better of these disputes and the States General became a National Assembly, clearly resolved to keep the crown in order, as the British Parliament kept the British crown in order. The king (Louis XVI) prepared for a struggle and brought up troops from the provinces. Whereupon Paris and France revolted.   3
  The collapse of the absolute monarchy was very swift. The grim-looking prison of the Bastille was stormed by the people of Paris, and the insurrection spread rapidly throughout France. In the east and north-west provinces many chateaux belonging to the nobility were burnt by the peasants, their title-deeds carefully destroyed, and the owners murdered or driven away. In a month the ancient and decayed system of the aristocratic order had collapsed. Many of the leading princes and courtiers of the queen’s party fled abroad. A provisional city government was set up in Paris and in most of the other large cities, and a new armed force, the National Guard, a force designed primarily and plainly to resist the forces of the crown, was brought into existence by these municipal bodies. The National Assembly found itself called upon to create a new political and social system for a new age.   4
  It was a task that tried the powers of that gathering to the utmost. It made a great sweep of the chief injustices of the absolutist regime; it abolished tax exemptions, serfdom, aristocratic titles and privileges and sought to establish a constitutional monarchy in Paris. The king abandoned Versailles and its splendours and kept a diminished state in the palace of the Tuileries in Paris.   5
  For two years it seemed that the National Assembly might struggle through to an effective modernized government. Much of its work was sound and still endures, if much was experimental and had to be undone. Much was ineffective. There was a clearing up of the penal code; torture, arbitrary imprisonment and persecutions for heresy were abolished. The ancient provinces of France, Normandy, Burgundy and the like gave place to eighty departments. Promotion to the highest ranks in the army was laid open to men of every class. An excellent and simple system of law courts was set up, but its value was much vitiated by having the judges appointed by popular election for short periods of time. This made the crowd a sort of final court of appeal, and the judges, like the members of the Assembly, were forced to play to the gallery. And the whole vast property of the church was seized and administered by the state; religious establishments not engaged in education or works of charity were broken up, and the salaries of the clergy made a charge upon the nation. This in itself was not a bad thing for the lower clergy in France, who were often scandalously underpaid in comparison with the richer dignitaries. But in addition the choice of priests and bishops was made elective, which struck at the very root idea of the Roman Church, which centred everything upon the Pope, and in which all authority is from above downward. Practically the National Assembly wanted at one blow to make the church in France Protestant, in organization if not in doctrine. Everywhere there were disputes and conflicts between the state priests created by the National Assembly and the recalcitrant (non-juring) priests who were loyal to Rome.   6
  In 1791 the experiment of Constitutional monarchy in France was brought to an abrupt end by the action of the king and queen, working in concert with their aristocratic and monarchist friends abroad. Foreign armies gathered on the Eastern frontier and one night in June the king and queen and their children slipped away from the Tuileries and fled to join the foreigners and the aristocratic exiles. They were caught at Varennes and brought back to Paris, and all France flamed up into a passion of patriotic republicanism. A Republic was proclaimed, open war with Austria and Prussia ensued, and the king was tried and executed (January, 1793) on the model already set by England, for treason to his people.   7
  And now followed a strange phase in the history of the French people. There arose a great flame of enthusiasm for France and the Republic. There was to be an end to compromise at home and abroad; at home royalists and every form of disloyalty were to be stamped out; abroad France was to be the protector and helper of all revolutionaries. All Europe, all the world, was to become Republican. The youth of France poured into the Republican armies; a new and wonderful song spread through the land, a song that still warms the blood like wine, the Marseillaise. Before that chant and the leaping columns of French bayonets and their enthusiastically served guns the foreign armies rolled back; before the end of 1792 the French armies had gone far beyond the utmost achievements of Louis XIV; everywhere they stood on foreign soil. They were in Brussels, they had overrun Savoy, they had raided to Mayence; they had seized the Scheldt from Holland. Then the French Government did an unwise thing. It had been exasperated by the expulsion of its representative from England upon the execution of Louis, and it declared war against England. It was an unwise thing to do, because the revolution which had given France a new enthusiastic infantry and a brilliant artillery released from its aristocratic officers and many cramping conditions had destroyed the discipline of the navy, and the English were supreme upon the sea. And this provocation united all England against France, whereas there had been at first a very considerable liberal movement in Great Britain in sympathy with the revolution.   8
  Of the fight that France made in the next few years against a European coalition we cannot tell in any detail. She drove the Austrians for ever out of Belgium, and made Holland a republic. The Dutch fleet, frozen in the Texel, surrendered to a handful of cavalry without firing its guns. For some time the French thrust towards Ita’y was hung up, and it was only in 1796 that a new general, Napoleon Bonaparte, led the ragged and hungry republican armies in triumph across Piedmont to Mantua and Verona. Says C. F. Atkinson, “What astonished the Allies most of all was the number and the velocity of the Republicans. These improvised armies had in fact nothing to delay them. Tents were unprocurable for want of money, untransportable for want of the enormous number of wagons that would have been required, and also unnecessary, for the discomfort that would have caused wholesale desertion in professional armies was cheerfully borne by the men of 1793–94. Supplies for armies of then unheard-of size could not be carried in convoys, and the French soon became familiar with ‘living on the country.’ Thus 1793 saw the birth of the modern system of war—rapidity of movement, full development of national strength, bivouacs, requisitions and force as against cautious manœuvring, small professional armies, tents and full rations, and chicane. The first represented the decision-compelling spirit, the second the spirit of risking little to gain a littleƒ.”   9
  And while these ragged hosts of enthusiasts were chanting the Marseillaise and fighting for la France, manifestly never quite clear in their minds whether they were looting or liberating the countries into which they poured, the republican enthusiasm in Paris was spending itself in a far less glorious fashion. The revolution was now under the sway of a fanatical leader, Robespierre. This man is difficult to judge; he was a man of poor physique, naturally timid, and a prig. But he had that most necessary gift for power, faith. He set himself to save the Republic as he conceived it, and he imagined it could be saved by no other man than he. So that to keep in power was to save the Republic. The living spirit of the Republic, it seemed, had sprung from a slaughter of royalists and the execution of the king. There were insurrections; one in the west, in the district of La Vendée, where the people rose against the conscription and against the dispossession of the orthodox clergy, and were led by noblemen and priests; one in the south, where Lyons and Marseilles had risen and the royalists of Toulon had admitted an English and Spanish garrison. To which there seemed no more effectual reply than to go on killing royalists.  10
  The Revolutionary Tribunal went to work, and a steady slaughtering began. The invention of the guillotine was opportune to this mood. The queen was guillotined, most of Robespierre’s antagonists were guillotined, atheists who argued that there was no Supreme Being were guillotined; day by day, week by week, this infernal new machine chopped off heads and more heads and more. The reign of Robespierre lived, it seemed, on blood; and needed more and more, as an opium-taker needs more and more opium.  11
  Finally in the summer of 1794 Robespierre himself was overthrown and guillotined. He was succeeded by a Directory of five men which carried on the war of defence abroad and held France together at home for five years. Their reign formed a curious interlude in this history of violent changes. They took things as they found them. The propagandist zeal of the revolution carried the French armies into Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, south Germany and north Italy. Everywhere kings were expelled and republics set up. But such propagandist zeal as animated the Directorate did not prevent the looting of the treasures of the liberated peoples to relieve the financial embarrassment of the French Government. Their wars became less and less the holy wars of freedom, and more and more like the aggressive wars of the ancient regime. The last feature of Grand Monarchy that France was disposed to discard was her tradition of foreign policy. One discovers it still as vigorous under the Directorate as if there had been no revolution.  12
  Unhappily for France and the world a man arose who embodied in its intensest form this national egotism of the French. He gave that country ten years of glory and the humiliation of a final defeat. This was that same Napoleon Bonaparte who had led the armies of the Directory to victory in Italy.  13
  Throughout the five years of the Directorate he had been scheming and working for self-advancement. Gradually he clambered to supreme power. He was a man of severely limited understanding but of ruthless directness and great energy. He had begun life as an extremist of the school of Robespierre; he owed his first promotion to that side; but he had no real grasp of the new forces that were working in Europe. His utmost political imagination carried him to a belated and tawdry attempt to restore the Western Empire. He tried to destroy the remains of the old Holy Roman Empire, intending to replace it by a new one centring upon Paris. The Emperor in Vienna ceased to be the Holy Roman Emperor and became simply Emperor of Austria. Napoleon divorced his French wife in order to marry an Austrian princess.  14
  He became practically monarch of France as First Consul in 1799, and he made himself Emperor of France in 1804 in direct imitation of Charlemagne. He was crowned by the Pope in Paris, taking the crown from the Pope and putting it upon his own head himself as Charlemagne had directed. His son was crowned King of Rome.  15
  For some years Napoleon’s reign was a career of victory. He conquered most of Italy and Spain, defeated Prussia and Austria, and dominated all Europe west of Russia. But he never won the command of the sea from the British and his fleets sustained a conclusive defeat inflicted by the British Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar (1805). Spain rose against him in 1808 and a British army under Wellington thrust the French armies slowly northward out of the peninsula. In 1811 Napoleon came into conflict with the Tsar Alexander I, and in 1812 he invaded Russia with a great conglomerate army of 600,000 men, that was defeated and largely destroyed by the Russians and the Russian winter. Germany rose against him, Sweden turned against him. The French armies were beaten back and at Fontainebleau Napoleon abdicated (1814). He was exiled to Elba, returned to France for one last effort in 1815 and was defeated by the allied British, Belgians and Prussians at Waterloo. He died a British prisoner at St. Helena in 1821.  16
  The forces released by the French revolution were wasted and finished. A great Congress of the victorious allies met at Vienna to restore as far as possible the state of affairs that the great storm had rent to pieces. For nearly forty years a sort of peace, a peace of exhausted effort, was maintained in Europe.In his article, “French Revolutionary Wars,” in the Encyclopædia Britannica.  17



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