The Original Godless Terrorists
Two hundred and twenty-three years ago the French Revolution began when a Parisian mob stormed and looted the Bastille, which at the time housed only seven non-political prisoners.
Many of the revolutionary agitators – Robespierre, Danton, Saint-Just, Marat, and Couthon – were determined to eliminate the Catholic Church and to replace it with a secular sacred society based on truth, reason, and liberty.
Because God and his holy Catholic Church were, in their view, antithetical to reason and freedom, these radicals, in the name of the people, snatched absolute power and set no limits on the changes their new faith could impose to create the secularized morality that would lead to a perfect society.
A catechism of morality, “in which no use would be made of religious principles,” they proclaimed, “is the first requirement of the nation. . . .The wise await it, the religious fanatics fear it; the government made it necessary.”
Jacobin Clubs were the churches of the new civic religion, which demanded blind obedience, the worship of human power, and unlimited faith in progress. Rousseau was the spiritual father, Robespierre the high priest who preached the gospel of terror.
The Liberty Tree (L’arbre de la liberté) replaced the cross. Nicolas Bonneville, leader of the Friends of Truth, called for a naturalistic version of Holy Communion: “Friends, this is the body of the sun which ripens the harvest. This is the body OF THE BREAD which the rich owe the poor!”
To eliminate Catholic culture that had held France together for over a thousand years, Church property was confiscated, hundreds of priests were murdered, and 30,000 were deported. The state stripped away from the Church the responsibility for education, charity, marriage, and the recording of births and deaths.
Revolutionaries placed ladders against the Cathedral of Notre Dame and attached nooses around the necks of the statues of over two-dozen French kings and yanked them to the ground. The roaring crowds decapitated the statues and tossed them into the River Seine.
Inside, statues and religious symbols were removed and the cathedral was rededicated to the goddess of reason. The altar was turned into a stage on which an actress tended by a corps de ballet danced to the song: “Thou, holy liberty, come dwell in the Temple, be the goddess of the French.”
Apostles of truth and reason were sent to towns and villages to preach the good news of the Republic. There were secular hymns sung, readings from the sacred texts of Rousseau, civic baptisms, and government holy water fonts. Over two thousand Catholic Churches were turned into temples of reason.
One witness, a British subject, wrote this description of a Festival of Reason held in the French countryside:
A delegate arrives some days in advance, accompanied by a goddess, if the town itself cannot supply a suitable one. She is attired in a Roman tunic of white satin, usually taken from a theatrical wardrobe, and wears a red cap trimmed with oak leaves. Her left arm rests on a plough, in her right hand she holds a lance.. . . .Installed on an altar. . .she addresses the people who in return pay her homage. . . .Wherever possible a priest is procured to abjure his Faith in public and to declare that Christianity is nothing but a fraud. The festival ends with a bonfire in which prayer-books, saints’ images, confessionals, and other pieces of church furniture are burnt. Most of those present stand looking on in silence, struck dumb with horror and amazement; others, either drunk or paid. . .dance around. . .
To complete their hold over the nation, the Jacobins eliminated elections and established the first modern dictatorship; the first police state. “The Republic,” Danton said, “was established fifty years before opinion was ready for it. . .free elections would be incompatible with its maintenance.”
They commenced a reign of terror that they believed was the only way to eliminate with lightning speed the forces of selfishness and corruption, i.e., the Church (among others). The Jacobin’s guiding principle was expressed by Saint-Just: “Until the will of the sovereign people represses the monarchist minority and reigns by the right of conquest. . . .You have to punish not only the traitors but also the indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the Republic and does nothing for it. . . .Those who cannot be ruled by justice must be ruled by the sword.”
Tens of thousands were arrested on mere suspicion. The accused were found guilty in groups. Presenting defense arguments was not permitted and prisoners were forbidden to speak in their own behalf. At least 30,000, most of whom were innocent, lost their lives at the guillotine.
In an infamous episode in the Vendée, the executioners decided the guillotine was too slow (though they managed to kill tens of thousands) and over 2,000 victims – Catholic counter-revolutionaries – were summarily drowned. The ex-Oratorian student Joseph Fouché massacred thousands at Lyons. Historian R.R. Palmer observes, “Those men inflicted death with a holy glee!”
The result of their reconstruction of society based on ideological abstractions: two-hundred years of political and social instability and unrest. Ten years after the storming of the Bastille, France had been ruled by six different governments. Since 1799, a dictator, two emperors, two kings, a rump Vichy government, and five republics have governed the nation.
In the 1790s, totalitarian terrorists created, in the name of the sovereign people, a tyranny of virtue. The great myth of such people’s republics, historian Eli Sagan, has concluded “is the rotten fruit of Modernity. As in so many other perversions of Modernity, the French Terror was the first regime to perform this ideological acrobatic trick, wherein the sovereignty of the people ends up destroying le peuple.”