A Supportive and Integrated Revolution

The French Revolution was in itself, a catalyst for political and cultural change. The classes; clergy, nobles, and third estate were amongst a ruler that had no interest in creating change that benefited all. Thus, the third estate and other groups banded together to influence the changes in their society. These changes were a necessity to bring about the new political and cultural views that were seen in this new society, from a new calendar system to the way individuals wore their clothing. These individuals wanted no reminder of what oppression was before them, they only wanted to alter their culture for future generations to come.

Robespierre argued in “The Cult of the Supreme Being”, that this revolution attempted “to totally transform human society in every way”. His piece instilled in the people, more of the will to fight by believing in a higher power, no matter what religion an individual followed. The same argument goes “La Marseillaise”, as the writing in this French national anthem allows an individual to hone in on their own experiences and express a sense of pride for what they may be fighting for. In this case the third estate saw to it to take a stand on what they thought was right. Moreover, inverting the power system was a great shift in control for the third estate, since they were the minority and became the majority. The core concept of equality became a more integral part of the French society. This French revolt was a classic example of a strong catalyst for a necessary change.

Questions to Consider:

1.) What would it take for the minority to overthrow or influence the majority?( i.e What other lingering factors must a one group do to influence the other?)

2.) What examples of revolt, depicted in the French Revolution do we see in a more modern society?

La Marseillaise and The Cult of the Supreme Being

When reading “La Marseillaise”, the French national anthem, I found it surprising that Rouget, who composed this anthem himself, refused to take the oath (Halsall,1997). The main focus of this anthem was to rise the people during the French revolution, the goal was to also convince them to stand up for what they believed in. It is to gather the people to go against their tyrant who is unjust. This is stated in the line “shall hateful tyrants, mischief breeding (Rouget,1792)”. This song was to inspire the army to continue on in triumph. This song explains the argument that they can either live in misery or stand up against those repressing them and state their beliefs. This document is a religious document.

In the Cult of the Supreme Being, a similar idea is stated. Robespierre (1758-94), was a leader during one of the most radical, violent stages in the revolution (Halsall, 1997). I thought it was interesting how Halsall pointed out that although this is the period of the reign of terror, it was also a time period where the government had a great deal of control. The people have seen torture, violence and have watched the king demolish a great deal of the human race. This is a time period where the people are in need of peace. Rather than uprising the people as the anthem “La marseillaise” did, it is directed towards the army. This statement is drastically against the idea of having a king, and states the negative affects of all kings rulings.

The Cult of the Supreme Being

One of the main factors contributing to the French Revolution was an intensifying contempt for the relationship between the Catholic church and the State. Robespierre alludes to this dissatisfaction in his writing saying, “He did not create priests to harness us … to the chariots of kings”. Robespierre was one of the most influential figures in the French Revolution, but rather than lead a charge against the Church and religion like some of his revolutionary peers, he is able to rally a cause for revolution fueled by new, but fervent religious grounds. The Cult of the Supreme Being calls asserts the existence of benevolent and divine being, “who, from the beginning of time, decreed for all the ages and for all peoples liberty, good faith, and justice.” It is He who provides the revolutionists with the strength and purpose for their cause Robespierre asserts. Robespierre’s call to action is one based on religious service and natural rights: “Our blood flows for the cause of humanity. Behold our prayer. Behold our sacrifices. Behold the worship we offer Thee.”

Again, this call to sacred action appears in La Marseillaise, which claims a “Sacred love of the fatherland” will guide the revolution to victory over the “impure blood” of their enemies.

From these two readings, it becomes visible just how much the French Revolution is changing perceptions of religion and the people’s place in the State.

La Marseillaise

The French Revolution is often considered one of the most important revolutions in world history, because it was one of the most violent and yet romanticized series of events, and one of the most influential and impacting revolutions in history. For many, it served as a cautionary tale of what could happen to a country or a state if class struggles and separation became too great. (In fact, the French Revolution later impacted Karl Marx’s views toward capitalism and elitism. He came to see it as a step towards a proletarian revolution and heading down the path he was thinking.) However, such a revolution would not have occurred had it not been for those who inspired it with their speeches, their songs, or their essays. A state of discontent or disapproval is not enough to get a revolution started, rather, someone needs to stir the proverbial pot and provide a rallying cry around the misfortune. It’s quite ironic that the composer of one of the most famous pieces of the French Revolution was a royalist, who wrote it while defending France against the Austrians.

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[youtube_sc url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K1q9Ntcr5g” title=”La%20Marseillaise,%20French%20National%20Anthem%20(Fr%2FEn)”]

((“La Marseillaise, French National Anthem (Fr/En),” YouTube video, 5:21, posted by “bursty13,” September 1,
2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K1q9Ntcr5g.))

La Marseillaise Sheet Music ((Rouget de Lisle, Claude Joseph. La Marseillaise. Retrieved from http://imslp.org/wiki/La_Marseillaise_%28Rouget_de_Lisle,_Claude-Joseph%29 ))


“La Marseillaise,” composed and written in April 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836), was quite the revolutionary piece of music. The song itself follows much like a march, and has an easy and catchy tune. The refrain of the piece, or the repeated part of music, has simple words and simple notes, and therefore makes it easy for everyone to sing, hum, or whisper along. Thus, it intrinsically represents one of the ideals presented by John Locke, and that many revolutionaries believed in – equal opportunity. More specifically, it presents the opportunity for everyone who wants to sing along to be able to sing along. The piece’s style, therefore, in itself makes it revolutionary.

Secondly, the lyrics make the song revolutionary as well. Often times, the lyrics express the need to defend the “fatherland” (verse one, line one) against the enemies “tyranny” (verse one, line three) and “savage soldiers” (verse one, line seven). The lyrics therefore express the unification of one group of people facing the oppression or aggression of another individual/group. Such a description also depicts what is considered to be a revolution. To be put simply, during the French Revolution, the suppressed impoverished and middle class unified to take on the oppression of royalty and nobility. Lastly, the second verse highlights the need for the defense of liberty and freedom, also a rallying cry of the French Revolution.

Lastly, the song generated lots of controversy in the years following the French Revolution due to its root history. Despite being declared France’s national anthem in the years following the Revolution, Napoleon I banned the piece soon after becoming ruler in France. Following this, the song underwent periods of being banned and legal for the next three quarters of a century. It appears that, for many, the piece’s revolutionary undertones were too much for the rulers that followed and as such, the piece consistently was controversial and under scrutiny. However, following its reinstatement as the national anthem in 1879, it has remained that way since then.

Possible Questions to Consider:

Do you agree with my argument that the song’s catchy nature makes it effective as a revolutionary song?

Why might a song be especially effective at transmitting attitudes and thoughts? Or rather, what might make a song more effective than an essay or a novel/book?

Are there any other famous revolutionary songs that you may be able to compare this one too?


Nationalism and La Marseillaise

Nationalism, according to Halsall, is the “most successful political philosophy of the modern era”. In order to be considered a nation, a state or group of states must have a language, tradition, or common history that binds the people, which, as stated by von Herder, must be honored by the ruler. Also, a nation is considered more legitimate in its basis than other forms of government labeled “theocracies”, “empires”, and “dynastic rights”. As a German himself, von Herder recognizes Germany’s characteristics to compile those which resemble a nation, but discerns that they are unique, “peculiar”, and different from typical attributes of a nation. Von Herder takes pride in the distinct character of his country, and believes that Germany is unparalleled in its originality and its archetype.

France distinguishes itself as a nation in a manner different from Germany. At the time of the French Revolution, nationalism is powerful in France. After having overthrown the monarchy and establishing more rights and freedoms for its people, France’s pride is at an all-time high. The French Revolution inspires the poem and national anthem “La Marseillaise”, which can be considered the embodiment of France’s status as a true nation. Through the writing of this poem, and later, France’s adoption of it as its national anthem, a type of patriotism is born. Written in French with lyrics speaking of a common history of the people, de Lisle legitimizes France as a nation. However, the national anthem is not the only factor that validates France’s standing as a nation. When Napoleon Bonaparte takes control of France, he establishes a strong and powerful army. With the foundation of an army, a nation becomes more legitimate. It can wield more power and express its character through its actions. Furthermore, the unification of a large group such as an army creates a strong identity for a country. Although he did not willingly leave his position as military leader, Napoleon strengthened France’s identity among the European nations and increased its status as a nation.

Questions to consider: Because Napoleon’s conquests were spread so far and wide, did it delegitimize France’s status as a nation? In order to be considered a nation, does a country’s population and/or geographic size need to be under a certain limit? As a nation increases in size, does it lose its identity, its respect for common history? Do greater populations result in more dialects and languages, eliminating the common language that binds a nation’s people?


French Nationalism

Nationalism is a feeling of pride or patriotism to one’s country, it is the effort of an individual to attach their identity to their country. Nationalism was vital to the success of the French Revolution. Being united by history, a common language and customs made it possible for the French to stick together instead of tearing their nation apart. In Halsall’s introduction to Herder’s “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind”, he says that “people are not ‘naturally’ aware that they belong to a nation in the sense that they might be aware they belong to a family, clan, village, town, or locality.” A nation has larger boundaries and the people who belong to it will go to great lengths to not only define these boundaries but also to protect them. A nation’s physical boundaries are defined by agricultural landmarks, separating different groups of people by nature. Therefore, to define a nation, one has to establish a character belonging to that nation; a character preserved by its people through history. To Halsall, an important part of this character of a nation is language. He believes that a nation should be united by one language, and that to take that away would be begrudging the people “of its one eternal good”. To Halsall, language holds “tradition, history, religion, and basis of life, all its heart and soul”.

To Halsall, Nationalism is dependent on common language, traditions, and history. To him, it seems the past very much defines the future of a nation. What brings a people together and keeps them together is the stability of a nation’s “character”, and other cultures or languages hold a threat against this character. La Marseillaise calls for the “children” to rise up and protect the “fatherland”. This goes along with Halsall’s theory of a nation finding its identity and strength through their forefathers (or the founding fathers of their nation). The song goes on to say that the French need to unite against the “foreign cohorts” threatening their nation. This shows that they as a nation believe that foreigners taking over would ruin the nations character and thereby take away the identity they have attached to their nation. It is fitting that this became the marching song for the French troops because it reminded them why they were fighting- to protect the land as well as its traditions, language, and control of their interpretation of history that were so vital to its character.

Nationalism and the Frenc

Nationalism major part of the French Revolution, which itself was the creation of a new French nation.  In the introduction to Johann Gottfried von Herder’s “Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind” Paul Halsall wrote “People are not naturally aware that they belong to a nation”.  The French Revolution went a long way in establishing the idea of French nationalism.  An important factor of that was the poem “La Marseillaise” which later became the national anthem of France.  The entire poem is about defending the “fatherland” from “foreign cohorts”.  The French Revolution went a long way in creating a new French national identity.

The nationalists in France worked very hard to keep their vision alive.  They define what Halsall described as “In almost every case nationalists envision much broader boundaries, and have gone to considerable trouble to construct and defend these boundaries with particular interpretations of history.”  The French went to a lot of trouble during their revolution, a time that featured many executions in order to maintain control.  They also had very different views of their place then the nobles or clergy did.  The Third Estate believed that their Supreme Being did not give them their tyrants but it was their job to rid the country of them.  The French Third Estate spared no expense when it came to enforcing the new, national way of living.  They created an entire new society to fit with the new ideas of France.  From creating a new calendar to editing playing cards and chess the French definitely went to “considerable trouble” to maintain their beliefs.


The Value of Revolutionary Culture

The nature of revolutionaries is always emotional, and it is essential for all the revolutionaries. The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, was composed and completed in one nightThe anthem calls directly for fighting against tyranny, with the core idea of retrieving liberty from the tyranny by “swords and shield.” As it is stated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the “natural and imprescriptible” rights of man are “Liberty, Property, Security and Resistance of Oppression.” When a government cannot ensure these rights for its people, it ought to be replaced by a new one. In the process of destroying the old government and constructing a new one, conflict arises between the people who are in control and those controlled – there will be blood. One of the key values of  the revolutionary culture is that, it out speaks about the fact that man could lose his life in fighting, yet it encourages and empowers man to risk his life in order to retrieve other inalienable rights. Thus people must be charged with emotions, mostly through a justification for their actions. For example, in La Marseillaise, it goes:

Shall hateful tyrants, mischief breeding,
With hireling hosts a ruffian band
Affright and desolate the land
While peace and liberty lie bleeding?
To arms, to arms, ye brave!
Th’avenging sword unsheathe!
March on, march on, all hearts resolved
On liberty or death.

By provoking the repressed emotion of the people, the anthem brings people together because it stresses the common resentment towards the tyrants. Peace and Liberty can be achieved only if the public fight bravely for them, even at the cost of their lives. Revolutionaries must be emotional, for without passion, courage and sacrifice, change cannot be taken place.

The Cult of the Supreme Being by Maximilien Robespierre provides French people justification for their revolution in a religious context. He states that the Supreme Being did not “create kings to devour the human race; he did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood.” With a rejection to all the behaviors that the Supreme Being did not want to create, Robespierre justifies the French people’s fight against these roles. He also addresses that the revolution is the responsibility of the French people, for the Supreme Being would like to see the justice be brought back to the earth. Robespierre achieved in using religion, as opposed to the way it has been used hundreds of years before, which is to stabilized the political situation and prevent the rise of revolution, to fuel people with motive and emotion so as to push revolution forward.

Revolutionary Culture & Religion

As the French Revolution began to transition from phase one, the Liberal Revolution, to the Revolution of War, Terror, and the Rise of Republican France, culture was extremely effected. In La Marseillaise, written by laude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, he uses his song to call all citizens to arms to defend against “The roar of these savage soldiers” as
“They come right into our arms, To cut the throats of your sons, your country.”   La Marseillaiseis still the national Anthem of France, which is a prime example of how the cultural changes in the Revolution have made a lasting impact even to the present day.  I found the situation in which La Marseillaise was written was somewhat similar to that of the Star Spangled Banner.  Written in one night, by someone who was not primarily a poet/song writer (laude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle was a captain of the engineers, and Francis Scott Key was a lawyer).  Also, neither instance was written specifically to be a national anthem.  La Marseillaise was for a banquet at Marseillaise, and Francis Scott Key’s was a simple retelling of what he say aboard a British Vessel.

Religion also changed dramatically during the revolution.  Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the Committee of Public Safety wrote The Cult of the Supreme Being, almost as a new declaration of religion.  Along with more tame pieces, concerning Monarchical rule and the waste of the clergy, stating “He did not create kings to devour the human race. He did not create priests to harness us, like vile animals, to the chariots of kings and to give to the world examples of baseness, pride, perfidy, avarice, debauchery, and falsehood.” Robespierre also included many radical statements.  He called for outlawing the traditional calendar, and to replace it with a completely different one.  This caused extreme confusion within the nation.  Additionally, he called” Republican Frenchmen, it is yours to purify the earth which they have soiled, and to recall to it the justice that they have banished!”  This is similar the Karl Marx’s final quote in the communist manifesto in which he calls the working class to reclaim the earth from the elite class.  With the removal of Christianity from France, all religious traditions were deemed hostile to the success of France, causing the populous to be under threat of execution.

Values and Goals of the French Revolution

The bloodiness of the French Revolution came from its values, which are especially seen in La Marseillaise and The Cult of the Supreme Being. The French National anthem is drastically different from the American equivalent. It promotes values of war and violence to achieve liberty. La Marseillaise inspired citizens to take up arms to end government tyranny. The anthem is appropriate for troops marching into combat under heavy fire whereas the Star-Spangled Banner focuses on the values achieved by the war’s success such as liberty and equality.

The Cult of the Supreme Being, written by Robespierre in the Reign of Terror, represents similar values of violence and rebellion but from a very different angle. Robespierre justifies the call to arms with religion. He merges God with war by saying the He created men to help one another and that it is their duty to “purify the earth which they have soiled.” His radical writings are faith with fanaticism. Robespierre is careful to give “Him” a new name–The Supreme Being–to avoid losing the supports of more religious people of the Third Estate.

The dramatic text is an extreme, twisted version of civil religion. Instead of creating loyalty to the state through religious symbolism, he creates loyalty to the French Revolution with religious symbolism. He is certainly not the first to make his own perspective on religious to further violent goals.

The goals of the famous texts which inspired the revolution were corrupted during the actual revolution. Instead of achieving enlightenment through thinking for oneself or engaging in intellectual debate to better civil society, the goal became a violent overthrow of government tyranny. The French Revolution was an accurate depiction of Hobbes’ state of nature. Perhaps a contributing factor to the French Revolution’s unsuccessfulness (as compared to America) was that the civil religion used to inspire and justify the bloody revolution was never adapted for peacetime. Just a speculation…