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7 - Violence and the French Revolution

from Part I - France

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 October 2023

Wim Klooster
Affiliation:
Clark University, Massachusetts
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Summary

Violence helps to define revolution as a mode of historical change; however, violence is a factor, not an actor, in history. Widespread violence in a variety of forms persisted in France despite three constitutions (1791, 1795, 1799) and their accompanying claims to end the Revolution. The popular violence that began in 1789 helped to eliminate the vestiges of feudalism and abolish inherited privilege. In 1792, rural revolts, urban riots, and foreign war served to bring down the monarchy and promote social leveling. Dismantling the old order provoked widespread resistance, which inspired state-authorized terror, exceptional justice, and mass executions on an unprecedented scale in 1793-94. Royalism, Jacobinism, religious resistance, continuing war, and politicized vigilantism all fueled continuing cycles of violence after 1794. Economic chaos, parlous policing, and partisan judges also prolonged an endemic violence that ranged from solipsistic banditry to armed counter-revolution. These multivalent forces of instability could only be tamed by enhancing and depoliticizing the repressive powers of the state. Efforts both to ensconce the republic and contain violence, notably by militarizing justice, enhancing repression, and limiting democracy, spawned a growing liberal authoritarianism after 1797. Reducing factionalism, banditry, and regional resistance fostered a security state and personal dictatorship in 1802.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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