1793 to 2016: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death

1793 to 2016: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death

Revolution might be in vogue today, but Nancy Heath considers the historical context

There is a growing left-wing public presence in both the UK and the USA, spurred on by the accessibility of social media for expressing opinions and gaining widespread support. The word “revolution” is thrown around rather freely now in this environment, but has it lost its meaning?

Bernie Sanders answers questions on how he’ll pass radical liberal policies through an almost-certainly-Republican congress if he’s elected as President as simply “We’ll have a revolution”. The UK’s opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s personal support for radical liberal policies have been called revolutionary. It’s important to know what we’re referencing when we use this word, though. To do this, it’s best to look back through political history.

On 21st January 1793, the National Convention of France, which seized power during the Revolution between 1789 and the summer of 1792, executed a man called Louis Capet—a man who had previously been known as King Louis XVI.

Revolution is a loaded term. People mean different things when they use it, but it is impossible to completely strip it of its historical resonance, especially on anniversaries such as this.

The French Revolution is a pivotal moment in history and one of the most studied revolutions due to its spread out nature and the drastic measures it took. From a public takeover in 1789, with intentions of forming a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain’s today, to the guillotining of 40,000 citizens and ‘traitors to the state’ between 1793 and 1794 in the Terror, France’s situation clearly escalated beyond what people had imagined.

The French Revolution would have seemed even more drastic to its contemporaries. Unfortunately for France, the world had just seen how a revolution could take place relatively successfully. The American Revolution—the American War of Independence against Britain, commencing with the signing of the declaration of Independence in 1776 and generally concluding after American success at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781—was clean cut, compared to the murky moral ambiguities of the French attempt in 1789.

Executing the monarchy had not been on the cards for the first three years of the Revolution. The king and queen had been removed from Versailles outside Paris to the smaller Tuileries Palace in the centre of the capital following protests. The monarchy “officially” fell on 10th August 1792 when the people stormed this castle and the king and his family were imprisoned.

When considering a regime change of a less murderous sort in politics today, we should still consider the dramatic fallout of such radical upheavals. Change doesn’t come quickly, and if it does, then it will likely derail the entire current system.

The execution of King Louis influenced the establishment of the Committee for Public Safety in April 1793 under Georges-Jacques Danton which became the de facto ruling body the Terror. Louis XVI was the first victim of the Terror, and Danton himself would become a victim of it later too, at the hands of the fanatical Robespierre.

America’s journey to independence involved separating themselves from the rule of Britain’s King George III, but not removing him from his seat of governance in Britain, and certainly not killing him. One hopes that any radical ideas of revolution circulating today are along the same vein as the newly formed Americas’, rather than the French’s—after twenty years in Britain I’m rather attached to HRH.

So, next time you say you want a revolution when watching politicians on TV, remember your history, be careful what you say, and whatever you do, don’t lose your head.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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