THE FRENCH REVOLUTION RECONSIDERED
An Interview with Pierre Chaunu by Bemard Mitjavile for the magazine "the World and I".
Pierre Chaunu is one of France's most widely read and controversial historians of the Revolution. Together with another maverick scholar, François Furet, he has tried to demystify the "cult of 1789" by stressing the Revolution's negative impact on French demography, economic development, and even political reform. Chaunu and Furet have also carefully documented the derivation of revolutionary ideology from eighteenth-century conspiratorial movements, particularly the Freemasons, and they treat the terror of 1793 not as an aberration, but as the fulfillment of the revolutionary vision of a virtuous democracy of equals. In the interview that follows, Bernard Mitjavile questions Chaunu about his views on the Revolution.
Q: Wasn't the Revolution necessary to move France from an absolute monarchy in to the modern era ?
A: One should recall that Britain also went through this transition without going through the same type of revolution, so the Revolution in itself was not necessary for the transition towards the modern era. In 1820, the British society was at least as "modern" as the French one, but the transition there did not involve the burning of castles, the killing of aristocrats and priests, and the desecrating of churches.
Also, it is a bit simplistic to speak about an absolute monarchy, today we have detailed knowledge of French society during the period before the Revolution, mostly because of research done by English and American historians like Timothy Tackett from the United States and Allan Forest from Great Britain.
These studies of the prerevolutionary period have destroyed some clichés popularized by Jacobin historians. No one can say any longer that the monarchy before the Revolution exerted a tyranny over the people and had no respect for laws. In fact, the legal system was so powerful, with the parliaments playing the role of supreme courts, that it became almost impossible for King Louis XVI (who was beheaded during the Revolution) to implement any significant reform because of the legal battles it would have stirred. Louis XV decided to dissolve regional courts in order to implement some needed reforms, but the first major decision and the first blunder of Louis XVI was to restore these courts, which were under aristocratic control. This severely limited the possibility of implementing serious reforms.
It was once believed that the Revolution ended absolutism, but the central government and the administration became much more coercive and powerful after the Revolution, under Napoleon, than before.
The level of taxes compared to the average wealth in France was lower than in Britain. In other words, the state was less efficient, and so we cannot say that the Revolution resulted from excessive and abusive taxation.
During the eighteenth century, France like England was evolving from a society in which each group had its own liberties and rights toward a more open society. For various historical reasons, the French system was less flexible than the English one, specifically because of entrenched aristocratic power in the provinces. This inflexibility plus the large foreign debt incurred mainly by sending troops to the Unite States during the War of Independence were key factors igniting the Revolution.
Q: But do these factors really explain the Revolution.
A: They explain its beginning but after 1789 events went out of control, specially with the Terror period. The chief manifestation of the Terror was the persecution of the Catholic Church. The most essential freedom is freedom of worship, so when you abolish this freedom. as was the case during the Revolution, the consequences are very serious. I am a Protestant historian and I see a similar abuse of power, the same drift with damaging long-term consequences for France in the persecution of the Huguenots by Louis XIV. The difference is one of quantity because the Huguenots were only a minority representing about 10 percent of the population, while the Catholics formed the vast majority.
When the socialist government in the 1980's announced that it would prepare the celebration of the bicentenary of the Revolution, it was mainly for political and ideological reasons and not because of a genuine search for historical truth, I found this move offensive and ridiculous. A lot of money was wasted subsidizing studies on the Revolution by associations or people who were not qualified historians but who had connections with the socialist administration.
Still, I was asked to participate, and I said, Why not? If we have the funds to do research, let's do original work. Let us determine how many people, whole families, were massacred by revolutionary troops in the western provinces of France because they wanted to worship God according to the Catholic tradition. A book was then published by a brilliant young historian, Reynald Seycher, with the provocative title Le génocide Vendéen. It was a serious study about the massacres of peasant families in the Vendée province and it aroused controversy. Some historians objected to the word genocide even if it did describe reality in the Vendée, it was a kind of genocide fanned by ideological fanaticism. Thus, orders given to the revolutionary army under the leadership of General Turreau were very strict: "Exterminate all the population of the military Vendée," that is, 680 parishes and 810,000 inhabitants. These massacres took place after the rebels had been defeated and could not be justified for military reasons. The order said women should be killed because they are the reproductive furrow," and the same for children 'because they are future brigands."
Q: How do you explain this religious persecution including the slaughter of priests ? Can it be explained by anticlerical trends before the Revolution?
A: I believe that history can be explained partly by trends over long periods. but there are also critical periods when events and individual human responsibility play a decisive role. The Revolution was such a period. In the same way, in 1975, it was difficult to predict that Iran would evolve as it did under Ayatollah Khomeiny. but some serious mistakes made by western powers as well by Iranians unleashed the revolutionary process. When we see what has happened in Iran, one might think that it is too bad that Khomeiny did not die during his exile in France before the Islamic revolution.
At the beginning of the Revolution, a large majority of people felt that some aristocratic privileges had to be abolished, that gradually differences between the three orders (Clergy, Nobility, and Third Estate) should see their importance reduced. But when we look at the studies by Timothy Tackett on the demands of the Third Estate to the king in 1789, we see that radical reforms that were later implemented had little popular support. Less than 2 percent of the people believed that the state should seize the properties of the Church; only 1 percent were demanding the election of priests and bishops; and less than 10 percent were asking for the abolition of the dime (tithing by the Church), for which the people were taxed.
How could this minority manipulate the majority? Not by democratic methods, but by intimidation, by bullying the National Assembly.
It is interesting to see what did happen on the night of August 4. 1798, when aristocratic and clerical privileges were abolished. A bishop rose to ask for the abolition of the nobility's hunting rights. But then the duke of the Chatelet, who liked hunting, said, "If so, why should we not also suppress the dime (tithing)" This was done in an irresponsible and demagogic manner without thinking about the consequences. With the abolition of the dime, the Church of France lost more than 60 percent of its revenues. In England, tithing by the Church did not disappear until the beginning of the twentieth century. It must be understood that the Church was then playing the role of today's social security system with much more limited means at her disposal, and the dime was the equivalent of our contributions to this system. Certainly it should have been reformed because people were often unjustly taxed, but to suppress it at once placed the Church as well as poor people in a difficult situation. We have to see these things not with modern eyes but as something that had been working for centuries with its origin in the Bible.
The Estates General that the king convened in July 1789 with representatives of the nobility, the clergy, and the commons met specifically to find a solution for the government debt. The nobles were good at defending their proper-ties, and the right of property was guaranteed by the Declaration of Human Rights of 1789. But when revolutionary leaders saw that the Church could not effectively oppose the loss of the tithe, they took the next step a month later. In September 1789, the new revolutionary assembly demanded that the properties of the Church be at the disposal of the nation. This was very serious because the properties of the Church had been gathered over centuries by popular donations.
Donors throughout centuries gave some of their wealth specifically to the Church or for some charities sponsored by the Church, so in seizing these properties. the revolutionaries were violating the will of generations of devout donors. Some orators were then arguing that these donations had been given for the poor; after the Revolution there would no longer be poor people, and so the state could use Church properties to repay its debt.
The law allowing confiscation was adopted in November 1789. The majority of the representatives who voted for this law did not consider its consequences and saw in it the most expedient way to raise money. Yet a minority voted for the law as a weapon against the Church and the clergy that would be left defenseless.
The 200,000 priests were reassured. They were told that they would be paid by the state and that their salaries would be increased. It was a complete, hoax. Before, the Church had its own properties and was able to pay its priests. With the seizure of its properties and the loss of the tithe, it became totally dependent on the Will of the State.
Before the Revolution, Louis XVI signed an edict of tolerance granting freedom of worship to both Protestants and Catholics. From the point of view of religious freedom, the Revolution was a return to medieval times, with complete confusion between the spiritual and temporal powers.
Once having seized the properties of the Church, the next step was to change its structures. Myths about an idealized primitive church, ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers, and charges against the Church from both deist circles and Jansenists (Catholic mystics who had been severely persecuted under Louis XIV) were circulated. The revolutionaries thought that the duty of the priests was to become civil servants. Priests were to be nominated by the state and be obedient, and they should support the Revolution unconditionally. On July 12. 1790, a bill on the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was voted and then an unbelievable thing took place. Louis XVI, poorly advised and not understanding what was at stake, signed this bill intended to undermine the Catholic Church.
Now I am republican and a Protestant; yet like Tocqueville, I think we should put the Revolution on trial.
The pope was quite embarrassed; if he condemned the Constitution, he had to excommunicate the king of France, which he did not want to do. About 40 percent of the clergy signed the bill and 60 percent rejected it.
About two-thirds of the country rebelled against the constitution, particularly in the west of France, Lyons, and Marseilles. People did not want to attend the Mass when it was celebrated by a priest who had pledged loyalty to the Revolution. The government after having made such a blunder. could not retreat because its authority was at stake. So it sent troops against the so-called counterrevolutionaries. At the end of 1790, the western departments [provinces] began to deport the priests who had refused to sign the bill; they no longer had the right to remain in their towns. Later a law was passed ordering all these priests to leave France within fifteen days of the date of the vote, something physically impossible for many because it took more than three weeks to reach the border from the center of France. This meant a death sentence for half of those priests. Old priests, those over sixty, were gathered in camps where most of them died.
The fate of the priests who signed the bill on the clergy was no better. First, in the fall of 1790, religious ceremonies were forbidden. Then the priests were ordered to officiate at the weddings of fellow priests who decided to marry. even though it went against their consciences. In November 1793, all churches were closed and transformed into stables.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris became a place to celebrate the cult of the Supreme Being (a revolutionary deity), with ballerinas dancing before the altar. Then the priests were all ordered to renounce their vows.
But all these antireligious measures were undertaken by a group representing a tiny minority of the population. We have a police report showing that at the last religious procession in Paris in April 1793, all the men and women bowed down before the Blessed Sacrament.
Put in this perspective, we can see that the main achievement of Napoleon was to put an end to this absurd situation by signing an agreement with the pope.
Q: But what is the relationship between this religious persecution and the ideology guiding the revolutionaries?
A: Religious persecution is what caused the Terror. The largest group of people sent to their deaths were priests, nuns, and people who supported them. Inhabitants of the Vendée were only asking for freedom of conscience, nothing else. They were not aristocrat's but mostly peasants and did not want to restore the privileges of the nobility. But they could not accept being told how they should worship God.
The revolutionaries could not accept this because of their totalitarian ideology; they thought they knew how to make people happy and believed that anyone opposing them must be a traitor. They were cut off from reality and dominated by a kind of ideological folly, speaking always in the name of the people but organizing massacres of this same people in French provinces.
Q: What lessons can be drawn today?
A: Yes, what is important is the situation today. I personally belong to that school of historians who, while loving their country, think it is necessary to recognize all aspects of its history including the dark aspects. For example, the massacres 1688 made by the armies of Louis XIV in the German Palatinate were atrocious. I lived in Spain and could still see evidence of the inexcusable behavior of the Grand Army (under Napoleon) between 1809 and 1813. Napoleon treated Spain as the revolutionaries had treated the Vendée. I wouldn't have the right to condemn dictatorships such as Hitler's Germany or the Soviet regime if I ignored cruelty and revolutionary excesses in French history. Today nobody in France would sanction the persecution of Protestants that occurred under Louis XIV, but I would like Frenchmen to condemn in the same way the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the persecution in the Vendée.
The old debate was a debate between the partisans of the Ancient Régime and partisans of the new society. I am republican and Protestant; yet I think like Tocqueville that we should put the Revolution on trial in the name of freedom. We want to study how this type of cancer originated. It came about because of a power that denies dialogue and denies opposition. I strongly believe in the phrase, "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Q: Weren't there factors in French history that contributed to the Revolution going out of control?
A: I believe this comes from the way in which France, as opposed to England, confronted the problem of reform. It is true that the state was too oppressive and powerful. but that was not fatal. Human responsibility was crucial. If Louis XVI had not been an idiot, even though a brave idiot, things might have developed differently. I spent much of my life studying significant long term trends and am a founder of quantitative history, but I still believe that luck and men count.
The Revolution led to a break in moral values that had crucial demographic repercussions. For ten years there was no veneration of the saints or study of the catechism. Victor Hugo, for example, never knew if he had been baptized, and when he was married to a Catholic woman, it was the philosopher Lamennais, by then a lapsed priest. who furnished him with a false certificate of baptism.
Q: But still, one can argue that the Revolution brought an end to absolute Monarchy
A: But what is absolute monarchy? Central power was infinitely more oppressive, more coercive after the Revolution under Napoleon than under the king. When Louis XVI agreed to an edict of tolerance in favor of the Protestants, and this before the Revolution, he did so in the tradition of an early French king, Henry IV; he showed the way towards reforming the monarchy. It should have continued in this direction.
Sill today one must assume the past. I am for reconciliation among French people but this reconciliation must be made centered on truth and not on denying historical facts.
Copyright "the World and I"