Louis XVI had called for the convocation of the Estates General, and as the year 1789 opened it began to assemble.
The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland
He had no choice, really. The state’s finances were a mess. He would have the support of most of the first two estates – the clergy and the nobility – as long as no new taxes were involved. The third estate was not so obliging. More than mere financial reform was expected; they wanted to see action on many fronts, where critical views were now circulating on the shape and nature of the state itself.
Here is where the vision of Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be decisive. None of the Augustinian anthropological pessimism for him. “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” Man is not born evil, but good. It is human society that corrupts him. The restoration of innocence is possible, but only through a transformation of society.
A “general will” replaces the individual will. This general will offers an escape from evil that is neither natural nor supernatural. Idealism and self-sacrifice are required. And, of course, revolution.
By the time the Estates General convened in May of 1789, revolution was already brewing. The third estate demanded a national assembly to serve the interests of the majority of the population. Louis scoffed, an insurrection was fomented, and on July 14 the Bastille was stormed. Mostly symbolic by this time, except for the garrison manning this prison. Massacred, and the commander beheaded. Terror would soon Reign, replacing the reign of the monarch.
In the meantime, the self-proclaimed National Assembly created a constitutional monarchy modeled on that of Britain.
All Roman Catholic Church property was confiscated; monastic orders were dissolved. In 1790 a law was passed, demanding that Roman Catholic clergy swear an oath of obedience to the revolutionary government. Many would refuse to take the oath.
In 1791, Louis would attempt to flee France in disguise. Discovered, he was forced to return to Paris. In 1792, Austria and Prussia would invade France to defend the principle of absolutism; national conscription helped to keep this enemy at bay.
The Terror would now reach its full force: Roman Catholic priests chased down and hacked to pieces; the king and queen were publicly executed. The guillotine reached its place in infamy – symbolizing the terror to come.
As is almost always the case, the most radical of the revolutionaries would be the ones to seize power. The Jacobins, with their leader Maximilien Robespierre, were fervent utopians. A deist who would not survive even a couple of years after this, would proclaim the aim of the revolution as a wish…
“…to fulfil the course of nature…accomplish the destiny of mankind…make good the promises of philosophy…absolve Providence from the long reign of tyranny and crime.”
This new France would be a model to all nations and a terror to oppressors. They would seal their work with blood.
“That is our ambition. That is our aim.”
The clergy and nobility were to be eradicated. As an aside, the so-called nobility of our time (including many who feign Christianity) seem to believe that they can be spared this fate by also joining sides against the clergy.
The Committee for Public Safety (perhaps creating the tradition of naming such entities in precisely the opposite manner of their actual objective) would issue thousands of death sentences in the years 1793 and 1794.
No more Christian calendar. Marking time would now begin with the incarnation of utopia, meaning the death of the monarchy. The names of months would be changed and the Lord’s Day abolished. Faithful Christians were put to death – tens-of-thousands summarily executed by guillotine or grapeshot. Barges, hatches and doors locked and stuffed with the “recalcitrant,” were put out to the river and sunk.
Notre Dame would be the Temple of Reason. The torchlit busts of “a secular trinity” would be at the summit of this temple: Voltaire, Rousseau…and Benjamin Franklin. Robespierre would see this cult of reason as much too provocative for a recently Christian nation. Hence, he would replace this cult with the cult of the Supreme Being.
This revolution, like many before and since, would eat its own. The story of Robespierre serves as an example. As the dominant personality on the Committee of Public Safety, he had overseen and ordered some of the executions of the revolution’s chief enemies. He was there when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were dragged through the street and beheaded.
In July 1794, Robespierre would make a speech in the chamber not unlike many he had given before: a tirade about the revolution and its enemies. But this time the reception was different:
The deputies, it seemed, had finally had enough. “Down with the tyrant!” they yelled.
He would return to confront the irreverent crowd, but to no effect. Knowing his fate was sealed, he somehow managed to make his way back to his apartment. At two in the morning, the police came. Failing to kill himself with a pistol, he was taken away to the guillotine.
Utopia without Christendom. It can only end this way, even for the most enthusiastic.