No One Likes Armed Missionaries

The most extravagant idea that can take root in the head of a politician is to believe that it is enough for one people to invade a foreign people to make it adopt its laws and constitution. No one likes armed missionaries; and the first advice given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies.

-Maximilien Robespierre, January 2, 1792

Maximilien Robespierre

Maximilien Robespierre

Robespierre, the Jacobin leader, was not talking about the invasion of Iraq. He was a fierce opponent of another war, one that would be declared by France and would last, interrupted by short-lived truces and failed peace treaties, for twenty-three years.

When Robespierre made this speech, he no longer held elected office. In modern parlance, he was term-limited. He was speaking as a private citizen from the tribune of the Jacobins, one of the many political clubs that flourished in Paris during the Revolution.

France, less than two years into the Revolution, was now a constitutional monarchy. The legislative branch of government was controlled by a party called the Girondins. Their leader, Brissot, had an idea: spreading the ideals of the French Revolution, as they had been set forth in the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was to become the inspiration for the American Bill of Rights. The Declaration of Rights guaranteed freedom from arbitrary detention, the presumption of innocence, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion and the equality of all before the law. The Girondins wanted to disseminate these values through military force, by invading despotic countries.

Robespierre strongly opposed the Girondins’ position. He too believed in the universal value of the Declaration of Rights, but he opposed the idea of spreading democracy at gunpoint. He spoke of the horrors of war, the waste of treasure, the risk of a military dictatorship.The Girondins eerily foreshadow the Neocons. Some call the Neocons “Neo-Jacobins.” Au contraire! For all the faults, flaws, mistakes and crimes of Robespierre and his friends, they believed that the democratic ideals of the Revolution would spread by virtue of sheer merit and not at the gunpoint.

But in 1792 the Girondins, not the Jacobins, controlled the legislative branch of government. On the executive side, King Louis XVI signed a declaration of war on the Austrian Emperor Francis II, Queen Marie-Antoinette’s nephew. The King and Queen supported the war as enthusiastically as the Girondins, though for different reasons. They hoped that the French army would be routed, that the Austrians would invade the country, consign the Declaration of Rights to the dust heap of history and restore absolute monarchy. Indeed the war turned into a military disaster. Yet Louis XVI vetoed military preparations. The Duke of Brunswick, head of the Austro-Prussian army, issued a proclamation in support of the King and Queen. Their collusion with the enemy became obvious.

The monarchy fell when thousands of insurgents, singing La Marseillaise, stormed the royal palace. The King, and later the Queen were tried for treason and guillotined. The Girondins fared no better. The Jacobins seized power in a coup in June 1793. Brissot and his friends were charged with “using
their influence to have war declared at a time when our armies, our strongholds were in a state of utter dereliction and entrusted to traitors appointed by a perjurious King.” The Girondins leaders too went to the guillotine. Eighteen months after the declaration of war, all who had instigated it had perished.

Robespierre and his friends now held power, but he inherited a war he had opposed. There was no turning back, no phased redeployments, no bringing the troops home. The fighting took place within or near the national territory. The war made a draft unavoidable, thus triggering a domestic insurgency. Food shortages worsened. The Jacobins resorted to emergency measures that undermined the Declaration of Rights. Citizens, encouraged by the government, saw traitors and conspiracies everywhere. The Reign of Terror became “the order of the day.” The remaining monarchies of Europe considered a radicalized France an intolerable menace to their survival. Peace was impossible.

The Jacobins prosecuted the war with competence and determination, and by the time of Robespierre’s fall in 1794, the French armies were victorious. However, as he had predicted, the conflict, far from spreading democracy abroad, caused its demise at home. Bonaparte’s dictatorship ensued, and an Empire arose that would briefly dominate the entire continent.

But France did not have the means to pursue war in Europe and at the same time maintain its overseas empire. The Louisiana Purchase ensued in 1803. Bonaparte sold
to the United States France’s American possessions, a huge territory comprising not only Louisiana itself, but all of the present-day States of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, most of the Dakotas, and parts of Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. France had now relinquished any claims to its former status as a superpower.

The loss of France’s 18th century overseas empire was only a first step in its decline on the international scene. At last, after millions had died on battlefields across Europe, the war ended in Waterloo with the crushing defeat of the nation that had commenced it.

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