The French Revolution (1789–1799) was the time of political and social rebellion in the history of France and the whole Europe. During that time governmental structure of France, which was before an absolute monarchy with feudal privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic clergy, suffered radical changes to politically opposite forms based on principles of democracy, citizenship, and inalienable rights, which were brought by the Enlightenment period. These changes were accompanied by violent outbreaks, executions and repression during the Reign of Terror among them, and military actions where every other major European power was involved.
Over the next 75 years France would be governed in turn as a republic, a dictatorship, a constitutional monarchy, and an empire. In this essay I am going to discuss the question why French revolution was feared so much by conservatives.
The revolution of 1789 brought together the critiques emanating from all three points of the triangle. Aristocrats revolted against the king, then lost their heads on the guillotine when power shifted to the crowd. The moment of revolt was organizationally unstable; the leaders of the crowd could not maintain power; Napoleon established a centralizing dictatorship, which in turn was followed by restoration of king and aristocracy. Christianity was abolished and then reestablished. The main political legacy of this period was that it established the ideal of the Left as a combination of all three lines of critique. Liberté egalité fraternité combined respectively the slogans of aristocratic decentralizers (liberty of individual rights), centralizing absolutists (equality under the law), and mass participation (fraternity of the entire community).
In fact, the French Revolution also marked the emergence of conservativism in the modern sense. Aristocratic opponents of the revolution like Chateaubriand and de Maistre were traditionalists in every aspect. They were authoritative in politics, not in order to impose universal law, but because they promoted tradition for its own sake. Conservatism was somewhat romantic, as opposed to the rationalism of the liberals; the conservatives even now uphold variety, arbitrariness, conventionality as it exists with all its historical peculiarities. They are similarly conservative in religion, upholding precisely its mysteriousness, its opposition to rational understanding. The French conservatives supported the Pope then and do it now, not because the Papacy is a center of universalism and codified doctrine, as a medieval reformer like Nicholas Cusanus had done, but because the Pope represents authority and tradition.
Another issue is how conservativism stood with respect to the triangles of political and religious organization. In fact, it had no obvious home base from which to implement its stance. As it has been already mentioned above, conservativism is romanticist, not least as it is an antirationalist opposition to all existing conditions. Conservatives during the French revolution liked neither the greater participation of the masses, the uniformity imposed by the central state, nor the autonomous rights of the individual.
The ten years of the French Revolution have since been reviewed in terms of the old historical concern with change and continuity. To the revolutionary demand for a "new secular order" came the conservative response that it is impossible to build the society anew. According to this interpretation, we are all inevitably part of our own age-- historically determined, hence socially indebted to previous generations. The usual analogy made to support this argument in those times was that of a house: the present occupant can renovate, alter, add new wings; but if an attempt is made to remove the foundation, the whole structure will fall.
Actually, in the very debate over what the French Revolution could and did accomplish the nineteenth-century concern with liberalism and conservatism can be found. To sweep away the old and begin the new was the liberal solution; it was proponed upon the supposition that human nature was generally good, mankind mostly rational, and the purpose of life the "pursuit of earthly happiness." However, the conservative solution was to respect the past and to work within the social structure that existed with some modifications. Conservatives did not want to destroy this conventional structure, and that is why they so feared French revolution. When contradicted, they argued that human nature was weak, mankind mostly selfish, and the purpose of life was the search for social stability and order. In French revolution, on the other hand, they saw nothing but instability and disorder.
Summing it all up, I should say that conservatives were so terrified by the French revolution because any revolution is a breach of traditions – frequently significant ones – and as the doctrine of conservatives is based predominantly on preservation of traditions, they perceived French revolution as evil. In fact, this revolution can be viewed not only as opposition of different society strata but as the opposition of liberal and conservative ideology. The gains of this or that ideology or their combination led to many forms of governance France lived through. It is probably the main reason why French revolution has remained a significant event not only in France but also in the framework of world history and politics.
Belchem, John; Price, Richard and Evans, Richard. Dictionary of 19th-century History, The Penguin. Puffin; Reprint edition (May 1, 1997).
Collins, Randall. Liberals and Conservatives, Religious and Political: A Conjuncture of Modern History. Sociology of Religion, Vol. 54, Issue 2, 1993. – p. 121
Collins, Randall. Liberals and Conservatives, Religious and Political: A Conjuncture of Modern History. Sociology of Religion, Vol. 54, Issue 2, 1993. – p. 122.
Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France” edited by L.G. Mitchell Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. – p. 102.