Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern

The French novelist and essayist François–René Chateaubriand (1768–1848) was a royalist who for a time admired Napoleon. Like Burke, he denounced the revolutionary reliance on reason and advocated a return to Christian principles. Although Chateaubriand detested the revolutionaries and their principles, he recognized that the French Revolution required extended commentary. Here he analyzes the Jacobins whom he clearly despises.


These infuriated men alone could have devised the means, and what is still more incredible, partly have succeeded in the execution of their project. The means were doubtless execrable, but it must be acknowledged that they were of gigantic conception. The Jacobins possessed minds rarefied by the fire of republican enthusiasm, and they may be said to have been reduced, by their purifying scrutinies . . . to the quintessence of infamy. Hence they displayed, at the same time, a degree of energy which was completely without example, and an extent of crimes, which all those of history, put together, can scarcely equal.

They saw that to obtain the end which they had in view, the received systems of justice, the common axioms of humanity, and the whole range of principles, adopted by Lycurgus, would not be of use, and that they must arrive at the same object by another road. To wait till death took away the great proprietors of estates, or till they consented to their own spoliation; to wait till years rooted out fanaticism, and effected a change in customs and manners; to wait till recruits, raised in the ordinary way, could be sent to the armies: all this appeared doubtful and tedious. As if, therefore, the establishment of a republic and the defense of France, taken separately, afforded too little employment for their genius, they resolved on attempting both at the same time.

Agents having been placed at their posts in every corner of the republic, and the word communicated to affiliated societies, the monsters . . . gave the fearful signal which was to recall Sparta from its ruins. It resounded though France like the trump of the exterminating angel—the monuments of the sons of men crumbled away, and the graves opened.

At the same moment a thousand sanguinary guillotines were erected in all the towns and villages of France. The citizen was suddenly awoke in the night by the report of cannon and roll of the drum, to receive an order for his immediate departure to the army. He was thunderstruck, and knew not whether he was a wake. He hesitated and looked around him. There he espied the ghastly heads and hideous trunks of those unfortunate wretches, who had perhaps refused to march at the first summons, only that they might take a last farewell of their families. What could he do? Where were the leaders, under whom he could place himself in order to avoid the requisition? Every one, thus taken separately, found himself deprived of all defense. On one side he beheld certain death; on the other bands of volunteers, who, flying from the famine, persecution, and intolerance of the interior, were going to seek bread and liberty in the army. They were intoxicated, singing, full of all the ardor of youth; and the citizen, with a guillotine before his eyes, seeing no other resource but to join them, took his departure with despair in his heart. On arriving soon afterwards at the frontiers, the necessity of defending his life, the courage natural to the French, the inconstancy and the enthusiasm of which they are characteristically susceptible, considerable pay, abundant food, the tumult and dangers of a military life, the women, the wine, and his native gaiety of disposition, made him forget that he had been brought thither by force, and he became a hero. Thus persecution on the one hand, and rewards on the other, created armies by enchantment; for when once the first example had been set, and the requisition obeyed, men by a natural imitative impulse, were eager, whatever might be their opinions, to walk in the steps of others.

Here then were the rudiment of a military force, but it was necessary that this force should be organized. A committee, of which it has been said that its talents could not have been surpassed except by its crimes, employed itself in connecting these disjointed corps. Let no one, however, suppose that they resorted to the ancient tactics of Caesar and Turenne, No. Everything was to be new in this newly modeled world. It was no longer an object to save the life of man; it was no longer a rule to give battle only when the loss would at least be reciprocal. The art of war was now reduced to a calculation of numbers, rapidity, and time of attack. As to numbers, two or three armies immediately followed each other, to keep up an imposing mass of strength . . . . It might cost ten thousand men to take a place; it might be necessary to attack it twenty times, and on twenty successive days—still the place was to be taken. When the blood of men is reckoned as nothing, it is easy to make conquests. Were not deserters and spies sure to be found? The engineers trolled a song while they studied the weak points of the army, and secured victory in spite of the scientific secrets appertaining to their department of service. The telegraph conveyed flying orders, the earth yielded saltpeter, and France vomited forth innumerable legions.

While the armies were forming, the prisons were filled with all the wealthy persons of France. At one place they were drowned by thousands, at another the doors of the crowded dungeons were opened and the victims fired upon by cannon loaded with grapeshot. The guillotine was at work day and night. This implement of destruction was too slow for the haste of the executioner; and the artists of death invented a new kind, which cut off several heads with a single blow. The streets were so inundated with blood, as to become impassible; and it became necessary to change the place of execution. It was in vain that immense pits were opened to receive the dead bodies; they were soon filled, and new ones obliged to be dug. Grey-headed people of eighty years old and girls of sixteen, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, husbands, wives and children died covered with the blood of each other. Thus the Jacobins attained four leading points at once, towards the establishment of their republic; they destroyed the inequality of rank, leveled the fortunes of individuals, augmented the finances by the confiscation of every person's property who was condemned, and attached the army to their interest by buoying it up with the hope that it would some day posses these estates.

The people, now hearing of nothing but conspiracies, invasion, and treason, were afraid of their own friends, and fancying themselves upon a mine which was ready to burst beneath them, sunk into a state of torpid terror. This the Jacobins had foreseen. A man, if now asked for bread, gave it; if for his garment, he took it off; if for his life, he resigned it without regret. At the same time he saw all the churches shut, its ministers sacrificed, and the ancient worship of the country banished under pain of death. He was told that there is no celestial vengeance but a guillotine; while by a contradictory and inexplicable jargon, he was commanded to adore the virtues for which festivals were instituted, where girls, clothed in white, and crowned with roses, entertained idle curiosity by singing hymns in honor of the Gods. The unfortunate confounded people no longer knew where they were, nor whether they existed. They sought in vain for their ancient customs—these had vanished. They saw a foreign nation in strange attire, wandering through the public streets. If they asked which were their holidays, and which the days of their ordinary duties, new appellations struck their ears. The day of repose had disappeared. They trusted at least that the fixed return of the year would restore the natural state of affairs, and bring some consolation with it. Unfounded hope! As if condemned for ever to this new order of misery, the unknown months seemed to tell them that the revolution would extend to eternity; and in this land of prodigies, they had fears of losing themselves even in the midst of the streets, the names of which they no longer knew. . . .

Thus was the unhappy nation bandied about by the hands of a powerful faction, suddenly transported into another world, stunned by the cries of victims, and the acclamations of victory resounding from all the frontiers, when God, casting a look towards France, caused these monsters to sink into nothingness.

Such were the Jacobins, of whom much has been said, though few people knew them. Most persons have indulged in declamation and published their crimes, without stating the general principle on which they acted. This principle consisted in the system of perfection, towards which the first step to be made was the restoration of the Spartan laws. We have ascribed too much to passions and circumstances. A distinguishing feature of the French Revolution is, that it is necessary to admit speculative views and abstract doctrines, as infinite in their causes. It was in part effected by the men of letters, who were rather inhabitants of Rome and Athens than of their own country, and who endeavored to bring back the manners of antiquity into modern Europe.

Source: François-René Chateaubriand, Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern (English translation, 1815; original French Essai historique, politique et moral, sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes, considérées dans leurs rapports avec la Révolution française, 1815), 46–54.