Revolution swept France like a sudden wild fire in 1789 mercilessly destroying up the political, social and economic structure long established in that country. Although the church, monarchy and the aristocracy were its most prominent victims they were by no means its only ones. The revolution operated like some kind of kaleidoscope such that even the bourgeoisie, peasants and workers long considered its beneficiaries also had their turn to grieve.
Even outside France the revolution quickly attracted the wrath even of those countries that had initially been supportive. The picture of this period is that of a revolutionary experiment that made enemies of virtually every group in France and nation in Europe albeit at different times. All told, the purpose of this essay is to show that the threat posed to the revolution by these internal and external enemies was so serious such that by 1793 France was not only ablaze with civil war but also repelling foreign invasion from the Austrians, Prussians, Dutch and British among others Louis XVI was a very serious threat to the revolution because he acted in ways that suggested that he was opposed to the revolution and encouraged his supporters within and outside France to oppose it.
Louis XVI and the entire monarchical establishment were natural enemies of the revolution because The revolution systematically destroyed royal authority first byreducing Louis XVI to a constitutional monarch before eliminating the monarchy altogether in 1792. He was a threat to the revolution because it is clear that he did not willingly consent to revolutionary changes such as the abolition of the nobility’s privileges and the civil constitution of the clergy among others. He actually used his veto against the Legislative Assembly’s decision to deprive priests of their income if they did not take the civil oath within a week in November 1791.
He also vetoed the decree that compelled the émigrés to return to France by 1January 1792 or face the death sentence. Such actions suggested that he was an opponent of the revolution and sided with those that sought to destroy it. Twice he attempted to flee France and that suggested that the revolutionaries were holding him against his will. The very presence of a king who was opposed to the internal developments was dangerous for the revolution.
A king was a like a molecule around which counter-revolution both internal and external could crystallise. That was indeed the case as demonstrated by rebellions in the provinces. The most serious of the revolts occurred in Vendee and Lyons. There was the Declaration of Pilnitz and the Brunswick Manifesto issued by the Austrians and Prussians in support of Louis XVI. They threatened the revolutionaries with ‘fire and brimstone’ if Louis XVI was harmed in any way and if the Ancien Regime was not restored to its former glory. The king was seen to be a grave threat so much such that the revolutionaries took the monumental decisions of abolishing the monarchy altogether and executing him in January 1793.
Such actions together with other factors only served to harden opposition to the revolution thereby proving that the monarchy was a serious threat even if posthumously The clergy were a serious threat because they opposed the civil constitution and incited the peasants into civil unrest which resulted in civil war and the Reign of Terror. The church and nobility were also a threat because materially and psychologically they suffered and lost the most during the revolutionary upheavals e.g. they lost land and property.
The nobility lost privileges that included exemption from taxation and the church was practically reduced to a mere state agency through the civil constitution of the clergy The clergy and nobles posed a serious threat because many of them fled into exile as émigrés from where they conspired with foreign governments against revolutionary France and even raised an army to invade France. Theclergy also became a nucleus of counter-revolution especially after a significant proportion of their number rejected the civil constitution of the clergy which was also denounced by the pope.
The church was a serious threat because the revolts that flared up in Vendee and Brittany were largely inspired by anger at the revolutionaries’ treatment of the church and religion. The revolutionaries’ response of instituting the Reign of Terror is clear testimony of the gravity of the threat posed by the church and nobility. So many of them were victims of the terror as they were arrested, imprisoned and executed The peasants were a serious threat because they joined the clergy and other royalists in a revolt which the government only suppressed with great difficulty.
The peasants were also enemies because although they had derived some benefits there were many aspects of the revolution they hated. They detested conscription into the revolutionary army and the requisitioning of food which led to hunger. They also abhorred the civil constitution of the clergy and the subsequent attempts to destroy religion. They were a serious threat because they provided the bulk of resistance in the provincial rebellions in Vendee and Lyons. Their determined resistance in defence of Catholicism hugely contributed to the revolutionaries’ failure to de-Christianise France a project which was quickly abandoned Revolutionaries seriously undermined their own revolution through their persistent bickering and in-fighting.
The divisions and factionalism in the revolutionary movement were just as bad for the revolution as the machinations of its opponents. Belloc writes about the Girondist faction’s struggle with the Jacobins which was so serious to the extent that the former actually enlisted the support of the royalists in Lyons even though it was an open secret that the royalists were opposed to the revolution. The Girondist-royalist alliance had serious consequences in the Lyons uprising resulted in the capture of the town hall and the establishment of an unelected and rebel municipal government.
Another such municipal government was established in Toulouse in 1793 after an uprising The pope was a significant threat to the revolution through his exhortations to the Catholics to resist the civil constitution. In 1790, the pope rejected and condemned in very strong terms the civil constitution passed by the revolutionary government to limit the power of the Catholic Church andsubordinate it to the state. He denounced it as a heresy and called on all Catholics to resist it. The Pope’s decision weighed with most of the bishops and priests in France who rejected the civil constitution and came to be known as refractory or non- juring priests.
That certainly put Louis XVI in a difficult position as head of state and Catholic on the other hand. He had a dilemma deciding whether to act as head of state and approve the legislation or follow his religious convictions and reject the new law. Either way it was a difficult situation and when Louis XVI chose to follow the pope’s example in denouncing the civil constitution, he undermined his standing in the revolutionary government.
That gave his opponents yet another excuse to seek his ouster and eventual execution in 1793. His downfall marked the end of the moderate course in France’s revolution. The Pope’s decision influenced catholic countries such as Austria to oppose France’s revolutionary but moderate government. The clergy also influenced the peasants to turn against the revolutionary government. Foreign and civil war quickly followed the rejection of the civil constitution at home and abroad. Faced with war, the revolutionaries abandoned moderation and adopted repressive measures such as conscription, requisitioning and suspension of civil rights in a desperate struggle for survival.
They also attempted to completely destroy the church. Priests were persecuted and many of them were forced into exile in the aftermath of the failure of the Civil Constitution. Foreign governments seriously undermined the revolution by attacking France, providing refuge for French rebels and armed them to attack France. External enemies included Austria, Prussia, Holland, Spain and England. Their opposition stemmed from the fact that the revolutionaries violated some European treaties by annexing papal territory and abolishing the feudal rights of the Austrian princes in Alsace.
In any case the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were a threat to the monarchical governments of Europe (the revolutionaries actually promised support for rebellions aimed at destroying monarchical rule in Europe) These external enemies posed the biggest threat to the revolution because they actually captured some strategic French towns including Longway and Verdun in 1792 and even threatened to march onto Paris which was vulnerable during that period. They scored such important victories that Dumouriez who was acclaimed as the best French general felt compelled todefect to the Austro-Prussian alliance in early 1793. They also fomented internal rebellion against the revolutionary government especially in the frontier regions. They even teamed up with rebels e.g. the Spanish and English fleets teamed up with rebels in Toulouse to defend the town against the revolutionaries.
They also hosted the émigrés and gave them assistance to plot the overthrow of the revolutionaries. In conclusion it is clear that the French revolution attracted both internal and external enemies. Internal enemies included the monarchy, nobility, church and even factions of the revolutionary movement. External enemies included the émigrés, the monarchical governments of Austria, England and Holland. It is also clear that these posed a serious threat to the revolution when they operated singularly or in tandem. The threat was always greatest when the revolutionaries had to deal with so many enemies on different fronts all at once.
The enormity of the threats is better appreciated when one takes into account the momentary successes of the rebels and foreign invaders as well as the setting up of the Committee of Public Safety. The revolutionary government was ultimately forced to adopt desperate measures such as the Reign of Terror and that was clear evidence that the enemies were no pushovers.