Heads Would Roll, But That Wasn’t Enough

Just as Louis XIV  created symbols of his power as the absolute ruler of France, such as the palace of Versailles and even himself (he was the “Sun King” and claimed that he was the state/the state was him), so did the leaders of the French Revolution create their own symbols and culture in order to aid their overthrow of the monarchy and subsequent attempts to create a whole  new society.

In a pamphlet entitled What is the Third Estate?, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès wrote that the Third Estate was “everything.” He argued that because the Third Estate made up the vast majority of France’s people (about 96%), and because it was the only segment of the Estates-General that contributed to the maintenance and betterment of the state, that it therefore was the state. Here, Sieyès made the opposite claim as Louis XIV, but he makes his claim for the same reason: to show where the power of France should lay. Instead of making the king the symbol of France, Sieyès made the common people the symbol of the nation. This trend continued in some of the artwork of the revolutionary period, as common people were shown dressed in fine clothing and in improved health but also performing tasks that would be useful to both themselves and the greater good of the state.

When Maximilien Robespierre wrote about the Supreme Being, he did so not out of religious fervor (although that could have played a role) but because the revolutionaries needed another way to unite the diverse peoples of France. Robespierre asserted that the French Revolution would be supported by the Supreme Being, as He created man to seek liberty and punish tyrants. Robespierre cleverly wrote about the Supreme Being in a Deist manner that would allow both Catholics and people of a more agnostic/atheist persuasion to relate to Robespierre’s argument, and his version of the Supreme Being also enabled him to maintain the Enlightenment ideal of Reason without completely trampling religion into the dirt.

Fashion during the revolutionary period also took on an Enlightenment spin, as dressing in clothes inspired by ancient Greece became a trend. The French thought of the people of ancient Greece as great thinkers and writers, so they sought to emulate this society that placed a value on reason that they saw as being like France’s. Additionally, the first known democracy occurred in ancient Greece, and while France by no means became the paragon of democracy at that point, people of a revolutionary mindset wanted to invoke the Greeks as an example of a nation that placed a high value on liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Chopping off some elaborately coiffed heads could not transform France alone; alongside the political actions and ramifications of the revolution, revolutionary leaders changed the symbols and culture of France in order to unite the Third Estate in rejection of the old order.

Questions for your consideration:

How does Robespierre’s treatment of religion compare to or differ from that of other revolutionary leaders (such as those in the American Revolution or the Communist revolution in Russia)?

In what other ways did the revolutionaries of France use symbols to their advantage? What kinds of symbols do we and/or our leaders use in the U.S. today?

Do you agree that the political revolution in France would not have been possible had it not been accompanied by a cultural one as well?