Today marks 228 years since the storming of the Bastille, the medieval prison in Paris, which has become a symbol of the French Revolution. While a conflict that found inspiration from the American Revolution that had occurred some 14 years beforehand, it ultimately led to a far different conclusion…one that provides a historical reminder of how revolutions are far from an assured positive outcome. The monarchy and aristocracy were ultimately overthrown after many years of political abuse, but the revolt led to the tyranny of the Jacobins under the absolute morality of Maximilian Robespierre, which presided over the hellish Reign of Terror that led to the deaths of 18,000 people, including royals, aristocrats, moderates, and eventually Robespierre himself. The vacuum of power left behind by the Terror, as well as the perpetual war that revolutionaries began in order to impose their brand upon the rest of Europe, ultimately gave rise to a whole new monarchy under Napoleon Bonaparte within a few short years (crowned as Napoleon I)…who would go on to expand his influence throughout most of the continent until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. France continued to go through various governments until well into the 20th century (with another Napoleon taking power for a time in the interim), now within it’s fifth republican state.
Perhaps the best representation of the morass of the French Revolution, and what sets it apart from ours can be found in the document that represents it…the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. While many of it’s verses echo the document that inspired it (the Declaration of Independence), it also placed all sovereignty and will within the power of the state (“The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation”)….a far different and dissonant note from what the Founding Fathers here saw for governance, believing instead that sovereignty should rest with the people (“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”). It would prove to be a fatal flaw, as by putting one’s full faith in the state (or any form of class or organization) leaves accountability potentially with individuals that can serve to abuse that faith for their own means, which has much unfortunate expression throughout history.