Hippolyte Taine on the French Revolution

Literary critic and historian, Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893) was lionized by late–nineteenth–century republican France. He emphasized rationalism and mathematical simplicity, being a bitter critic of the ideological abstractions that had occupied France since 1789. He searched for formulas to understand history and human behavior to comprehend France’s humiliation by Prussia in 1870–71 and, here in his study of the French Revolution, he attacked the revolutionaries for their lack of respect for government and for being petty despots.


So far, the weakness of the legal government is extreme. For four years, whatever its kind, everywhere and constantly, it has been disobeyed; for four years, whatever its kind, it has never dared enforce obedience. Recruited among the cultivated and refined class, the rulers of the country have brought with them into power the prejudices and sensibilities of the epoch; under the empire of the prevailing dogma they have deferred to the will of the multitude and, with too much faith in the rights of man, they have had too little in the rights of the magistrate; moreover, through humanity, they have abhorred bloodshed and, unwilling to repress, they have allowed themselves to be repressed. Thus, from the 1st of May, 1789, to 2 June 1793, they have carried on the administration, or legislated, athwart innumerable insurrections, almost all of them going unpunished; while their constitutions, so many unhealthy products of theory and fear, have done no more than transform spontaneous anarchy into legal anarchy. Willfully and through distrust of authority they have undermined the principle of command, reduced the King to the post of a decorative puppet, and almost annihilated the central power: from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy the superior has lost his hold on the inferior, the minister on the departments, the departments on the districts, and the districts on the communes; throughout all branches of the service, the chief, elected on the spot and by his subordinates, has come to depend on them. Thenceforth, each post in which authority is vested is found isolated, dismantled and preyed upon, while, to crown all, the Declaration of Rights, proclaiming "the jurisdiction of constituents over their clerks,"1 has invited the assailants to make the assault. On the strength of this a faction arises which ends in becoming an organized band: under its clamorings, its menaces and its pikes, at Paris and in the provinces, at the polls and in the parliament, the majorities are all silenced, while the minorities vote, decree and govern; the Legislative Assembly is purged, the King is dethroned, and the Convention is mutilated. Of all the garrisons of the central citadel, whether royalists, constitutionalists, or Girondists, not one has been able to defend itself, to re-fashion the executive instrument, to draw the sword and use it in the streets: on the first attack, often at the first summons, all have surrendered, and now the citadel, with every other public fortress, is in the hands of the Jacobins.

This time, its occupants are of a different stamp. Aside from the great mass of well-disposed people fond of a quiet life, the Revolution has sifted out and separated from the rest all who are fanatical, brutal or perverse enough to have lost respect for others; these form the new garrison—sectarians blinded by their creed, the roughs (assommeurs) who are hardened by their calling, and those who make all they can out of their offices. None of this class are scrupulous concerning human life or property; for, as we have seen, they have shaped the theory to suit themselves, and reduced popular sovereignty to their sovereignty. The commonwealth, according to the Jacobin, is his; with him, the commonwealth comprises all private possessions, bodies, estates, souls and consciences; everything belongs to him; the fact of being a Jacobin makes him legitimately czar and pope. Little does he care about the wills of actually living Frenchmen; his mandate does not emanate from a vote; it descends to him from aloft, conferred on him by Truth, by Reason, by Virtue. As he alone is enlightened, and the only patriot, he alone is worthy to take command, while resistance, according to his imperious pride, is criminal. If the majority protests, it is because the majority is imbecile or corrupt; in either case, it merits a check, and a check it shall have. Accordingly, the Jacobin does nothing else from the outset; insurrections, usurpations, pillagings, murders, assaults on individuals, on magistrates, on assemblies, violations of law, attacks on the State, on communities—there is no outrage not committed by him. He has always acted as sovereign instinctively; he was so as a private individual and clubbist; he is not to cease being so, now that he possesses legal authority, and all the more because if he hesitates he knows he is lost; to save himself from the scaffold he has no refuge but in a dictatorship. Such a man, unlike his predecessors, will not allow himself to be turned out; on the contrary, he will exact obedience at any cost. He will not hesitate to restore the central power; he will put back the local wheels that have been detached; he will repair the old forcing-gear; he will set it agoing so as to work more rudely and arbitrarily than ever, with greater contempt for private rights and public liberties than either a Louis XIV or a Napoleon.

1The words of Marat.

Source: Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, trans. John Durand, vol. 3 (New York: Peter Smith, 1931), 2–4.