Revolutionary Words

Explaining the French Revolution by the Evolution of Language and Semantics

Through the opening half of the eighteenth-century, the French language was characterized by semantic endurance. However, as France entered into the 1770s, the former stability of French words became noticeably unsettled; enlightenment thinkers deliberated on the meanings of persons and progress; peasants openly resented the dialogue of taxes, tithes and feudalism; the up and coming bourgeoisie sought a political voice; and poor harvests and foreign entanglements were the subjects of economic discussions. These stress points coalesced and asserted themselves linguistically, and by 1789 the declarations and acts of various social groups effected a process of great mutation -- the French Revolution. By this mutation, the most immutable of French words and institutions were overturned, and the meanings of the concepts "state" and "government" were redefined by the lights and upward force of revolutionary words.

Linguistically speaking, France's revolution of words and the attendant political Revolution were commentaries on the dispositions of various social groups. Importantly then, because semantics and epistemology are the roots around which social realities are organized, examination of the linguistic revolution is one of the most important exploratory and explanatory devices available to the historian.

At the highest and most conspicuous level of language, the linguistic revolution was manifest in the word "state," whose meaning transitioned away from association to attributes such as "royalist," "privilege," "exclusion," and "arbitrary," towards correlation with attributes such as "patriotic," "reason," and "equality." In this mutation we see that even the most canonical of words, whose meanings had been hardened by centuries of social activity, were subject to radical redefinition. Because definition and redefinition occur within a system, the meaning of one word is connected to the meaning of all other words, and hence we appreciate how it is that the semantic shift of the term "state" is representative of the semantic shift of all words that are (socially and conceptually speaking) subordinate to it. Therefore, because "state" subordinates all other elements of society, its meaning may be explained by examining the major transformations of its subordinate elements. Accordingly, the French Revolution may be understood by examining the shifting semantics of France's various social elements.

To this end, we shall here study the great mutation known as the French Revolution by way of its revolutionary words, using the era's linguistic mutations as an analytic framework. We will begin with a description of the pre-revolutionary context and its social organization, and then proceed chronologically, studying the evolution of the demands and actions of various social groups, connecting them to key events, and analyzing their transformative impact on the Revolution and the meaning of "state." Because of their importance to the Revolution, extra emphasis will be placed on the pre-revolutionary era, as well as the organization and cahiers of the Estates General.

The discourse of pre-revolutionary, old regime France was characterized by stability: stability in politics; economics; institutions; and overall order. Proportionately, the language of social groups in the old regime was also characterized by stability. The "three orders of the kingdom" were well defined, the monarchy and elites controlled the state, and there were few royal transitions. Nobles and the church possessed much of the land, and the words of work and life maintained their content for extended periods, as the pace of technological advancement was slow and rarely necessitated change. Some variations existed, being influenced by regional circumstances, as seen for example in the concentration of high agriculture in the North, and the dominance of pastoral work in mountainous regions. But nonetheless, broadly speaking the French could expect society and semantics to operate with familiarity and regularity.

Although French life and terminology writ large had been stable for generations, Paris itself was a mix of crumbling medieval buildings and more recent organic structures. Symbolically, the incongruous architectures of the capital city reflected the indeterminate administrative constructs of the state, for the governance of pre-revolutionary France rested atop a complex maze of contentions and opposing imperatives, based on competition between royalty and privileged groups. Job descriptions and jurisdictions overlapped, and because governance was organized by the equivocation of elites, life and language were therefore organized and given their substance -- or lack thereof -- from the top down. Thusly, prior to 1789 the term "state" was bound by the choices of elite social groups, and represented subordinate aspects such as ambiguity, "humiliating [feudal] dues and ... burdens," and "venality."

In this environment of ambiguity and vested interests, royal finances were in a dire circumstance, and in 1789 the controller general of finances, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, summoned an assembly of notables to discuss tax reform. By fiscal reform, Calonne (as well as earlier and subsequent administrators) sought to include the nobility and clergy in the tax base. The privileged groups resisted, and, with the assistance of popular pressure, convinced the king to convene a meeting of the Estates General.

In preparation for the Estates, all three orders undertook a process of electing deputies and compiling cahiers containing concerns and declarations. In addition to elections, the third estate also undertook an extensive campaign of education, and thus the people at large were politicized. This activity was a crucial one, as for the first time ever France's third order became engaged in the critical examination of words that had hitherto been restricted physically and conceptually to the social groups connected with Versailles.

Here began the French revolution of words. Popular newspapers and political clubs nourished the third estate's analytic and rhetorical skills, and where some 150 pamphlets had been circulated in 1787, production in 1789 exceeded 2500. In this way, though unintentionally, the decision to convene the Estates opened a nationwide dialogue regarding the meaning of the "state," and promoted the evolution of semantics.

Evolution was not however a motive force for the privileged orders, and the language used in their cahiers transparently expressed their definite object: to maintain and enhance privilege. The nobility proclaimed the foundations of the state "constitution should be simple; they may be reduced to two: Security for person, security for property." Such securities were to be actuated by installing only taxes that enjoyed "the consent and free and voluntary approval of the nation," predicated upon termination of the "regulations governing manufactures, [and] the rights of inspection ... which burden industry with a tax that yields no profit to the public." Of course, regulations and inspections primarily burdened industry owners and not the public, and thus the noble appeal to "approval of the nation" was little more than an attempt to expand the basis for legitimating elite privilege. Both the nobility and clergy supported only changes that would permanently ensure privilege. Where the nobility demanded "forever the periodical assembly of the States General ... without ... any act emanating from the executive power"; the clergy duly affirmed the point; "For the welfare of the kingdom we ask ... that this convocation be periodical and fixed, as we particularly desire."

In contrast to the peremptory demands of the first and second estate, the cahiers brought by the third estate to the assembly contained emotional but deferential descriptions and requests. One statement, from the inhabitants of the seigneury of Montjoye-Vaufrey, outlined the "inhumane and detestable feudal system" that held all inhabitants "in the cruelest fear," and yet the statement made no explicit demand for redress. The citizens of Bailliage did request redress, but framed the request in obeisance; "imbued with gratitude prompted by the paternal kindness of the King, who deigns to ... accept the grievances ... to the foot of the throne." As a group, the women of the third estate adopted a stance of obeisance as a condition of nature. In this regard, the male contributors of the 1756 Encyclopedia article "Woman" defined females by servility; for "Nature seems to have conferred on men the right to govern"; and here women acceded the point: "For we are certainly willing to leave valor and genius to men, but we will always challenge them over the ... precious gift of sensibility; we defy them to love you better than we do." Thus, even with 600 seats allotted them in the Estates, the third order's language was not commanding, but intoned obedience.

However, despite the possession of 600 assembly seats, the influence of the third estate over the Estates General was in fact limited by design. Although the assembly was wrapped in the rhetoric of "reform" and "representation," it was conceived not as a manifestation of progressive ideas, but as an appeal to bygone tradition. As evinced in the imperative proclamations discussed above, the privileged orders hoped to use the assembly as recourse to medieval politics -- an outmoded era of heightened noble and clerical influence, having last assembled in 1614. Pace 1614, the privileged estates of 1789 presumed business should be transacted by estate and not by head, thus giving the clergy and nobility domination of the assembly, and incredible power over France. From the perspective of the social group comprised of the privileged orders, the new Estates General was little more than a mechanism for redefining contemporary government in terms of the past, and returning to an enhanced semantics of privilege. Here were counter-revolutionary words even before a revolution existed.

The limitations of the Estates General were a source of immediate friction when the assembly convened. The king eventually conceded to vote by head, however, armed with new political awareness and vocabulary, the delegates of the third estate were unimpressed and broke off to compose their own National Assembly, thus sparking Revolution. The Assembly claimed authority by its representation of the people and not the estates; soon the clergy and nobility joined, and control was formally transferred from the Estates. Significantly, though the revolutionary Assembly was formed of the people that formed the Estates, the power of the populace in the Assembly -- and thus in the definition of the "state" -- had increased drastically, and a new semantic foundation began to establish itself atop the effete conceptual rubble of the Old Regime.

The revolutionary shift in power and language was perhaps most evident in the interactions between the formerly least powerful and most powerful elements of the state: women and the king. In October, the women of Paris were no longer "willing to leave valor ... to men," and marched on Versailles to see the king and "ask him for bread"; and executed precisely that. Here we observe a revolution in women's desire to express their own "right to govern," as well as an evolution in the monarch's understanding of the activities that could be subsumed by the state. Soon thereafter, the women of Paris expressed themselves far more dramatically; congregating in the thousands, breaking into City Hall intent on burning all "papers in the building," storming the all male Assembly, and forcibly relocating the royal family from Versailles to Paris. Where life and language had previously been organized from the top down, even the physical movements of the monarch were suddenly being dictated from the bottom up.

By 1790, the dictates, activities, and rights of women had been the focus of much discussion. While 1756 had seen the defense of women's subjugation by an appeal to natural conditions, 1790 saw Nicolas Condorcet calling for the "Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship" and defending his call by a different appeal to nature; for as Condorcet explained, any difference of ability between men and women is rooted not in "nature but rather education and social conditions." Adding to this philosophy, women challenged the Declaration of the Rights of Man by their "Declaration of the Rights of Woman," therein attempting to expand the concept of sovereignty to rest "with the nation, which is nothing but the union of woman and man." By the time of this Declaration, the meaning of the "state" as understood by women had shifted far from the meaning they accepted only a few years prior. Counter to this revolutionary trend in female conceptions however, both women and men soon found their mobility restricted by the anxiety and state repression that established itself during the Terror.

Already in 1791 the National Assembly began to question the words of political clubs, and their meaning for the revolution. Contra to the revolution of words that brought the revolution of state and redefined its meaning by the upward voice of the populace, Jean Le Chapelier pronounced "There must ... be neither affiliations among societies, nor newspapers reporting their debates." Power now slipped away from the deputies of the people, and was by 1793 focused in the state Convention's Committee for Public Safety. Soon the handful of people comprising the Committee spoke as the state, and under their control the state produced a series of reactionary decrees aimed at stabilizing the meaning of the state by normalizing the use of violence.

In 1793 the state qua the Committee issued the "Decree against Profiteers" of July, and followed this by "The Law of Suspects" and "The Maximum" of September. The content of these edicts was captured in the Convention speeches of September 5, where speakers took aim at vague targets such as profiteers and enemies of the revolution. Georges-Jacques Danton suggested the state should forge its meaning by the actions of a new revolutionary army, and he announced his "firm resolution of having as many guns and almost as many cannon as there are sans-culottes." This statement was particularly instructive, for per Danton, the number of weapons was to match the number of sans-culottes, the powerful group that underwrote the de facto sovereignty of the Committee by way of fear and violence. Comparatively speaking then, much like the pre-revolutionary regime, the revolutionary definition of the "state" that obtained during the Terror was based on ambiguity and rested atop a maze of tensions. The state was now defined by the equivocation of new political elites, and life and language were again organized and given substance from the top down. Hence, just as the privileged orders had employed self-serving semantics in seeking the assembly of 1789, we again meet the words of a narrow self-interest in 1793.

Looking broadly at France between 1770 and 1793, we observe that the semantics of the "state" underwent a great mutation. Prior to 1789, the meaning of the "state" was defined downwards by elites; between 1789 and 1793, the "state" was revolutionized, becoming defined upwards by people and their delegates; and again by 1793, the definition of "state" flowed downwards from a select group of state actors. However, though the power of the state again flowed downwards, the meaning of the state rested on a new conceptual foundation, having maintained the revolutionary shift of the Revolutionary era, and having substituted "privilege" with "equality," and "arbitrary" with "reason" -- even if yielding once again to hierarchical domination. Thusly, by studying the trajectory of France's revolutionary words before, during, and after the French Revolution, we understand how the evolution of the linguistic trajectory -- that is, the demands and actions -- of various social groups serves to explain the political trajectory of France.

Part of the series: UWO

[ essay :: history, politics ]

Last updated January 12, 2011