Did the French really kill a bunch of rich people during the French Revolution?


I’ve read A Tale of Two Cities. I took high school history. I have access to Wikipedia.

But I somehow can’t really believe it. Did a mass of unwashed peasants really kidnap hundreds, maybe thousands of aristocrats and send them to the guillotine? Were there trials? What was the legal pretense, if any, for doing this? Who was rich enough to get executed and who was considered not rich enough? Did it even really happen or was it just the royal family that was executed, and it was exaggerated over time?

In: Other

Not exactly the rich, but the nobility. If you visit the Versailles Palace near Paris and see how absurdly extravagant the lives of the royal family and their court friends was, especially in comparison to how the population was living, it is not that hard to believe.

>Did a mass of unwashed peasants really kidnap hundreds, maybe thousands of aristocrats and send them to the guillotine?


>Were there trials?

Not really.

>What was the legal pretense, if any, for doing this?

“You did the same to us”

>Who was rich enough to get executed and who was considered not rich enough?

In the first phase it was only about people of noble birth. Those that claimed god gave them the right to rule. The rich citizens were actually supporting the revolution.

>Did it even really happen or was it just the royal family that was executed, and it was exaggerated over time?

It really happened. And later the phase of terror started with everyone being executed who was deemed an enemy of the revolution, and then Robespierre, the “leader” of the revolution losing his head too because people got fed up with the terror.

All in all it was a huge violent mess.

Sort of yes. Essentially France was still working under the feudal system. Virtually all of the power lay in the hands of the nobility and the church. And the big problem here is that they severely mismanaged the country to the point where France’s rapid population growth under their governance created extreme social and economic inequality.

It wasn’t so much that France didn’t have the resources to support its population, it was simply that those resources were mismanaged and largely hoarded by the nobility and the church. Eventually, this situation boiled over and revolution occurred.

The revolution essentially removed the feudal system where noble land owners collected taxes and other fees on the peasants farming their land. Effectively this removed the primary income streams from the nobles and in part the church. Which obviously created a lot of tension.

The revolutionary government that replaced the old guard eventually created a state of affairs they called the reign of terror. The general idea was that counter-revolutionaries (those supporting the old system) were a serious threat to the republic.

Terrors were essentially round-ups of people, including many nobles, who were suspected of being counter-revolutionaries. These people were put on trial, convicted and executed by power of the new revolutionary government.

In reality, these trials were often just rush jobs. At the height of the terror people could only get acquitted or sentenced to death and lines people were rushed past their judges.

Some 17.000 people were executed under the guillotine during this period while another 10.000 or so died awaiting trial.

Eventually, people realised that the architect of the terror had garnered far too much power and was something of a dictator himself. He to in turn lost his head when people got sick of the terror and things finally calmed down.

Interestingly, today we tend to describe the French revolution in terms of the poor against the rich. But it was also very much a revolution of capitalism against feudalism.

French feudalism had the country in a stranglehold. The nobles and the church possessed the land, set the taxes and effectively had the majority for writing the law.

It was the socioeconomic inequality that set off the French revolution. But it didn’t do away with the rich. Instead, it shifted wealth from hereditary nobility in a feudal system to merchants in a capitalist system.

It wasn’t legal. It was a revolution. People were pissed and they took action. I also don’t think it was thousands of people killed. Like today the wealth and power distribution was like a pyramid with fewer people having all the wealth and power at the top and all the poor at the bottom. It is a dangerous distribution. The less people have the less they have to loose and the less risky drastic action becomes.

Update: I spoke before I googled. The internet says 2,639 people were guillotined. That is indeed thousands of people. However 50,000 total were killed. I can’t find how many were nobles. I still think most of what I said checks out even if I underestimated (by a lot) the number of dead.

It was a lot more organized then what you might imagine. It would have been as you describe on the streets during the more violent part of the revolution but it was a far more orderly afair. Even though France were a monarchy and the king and nobles held all the power there were a lot of regular people required to actually run the country. The government ministers, kings cabinet, clerks, officers, etc. And they were very influenced by the philosophers of the enligtenment and would clearly see the downfall of the monarchy and try to possition themselves favorably. The revolution actually took place over several years with the kings power slowly declining. For example the storming of the Bastille (something which were easy when all the soldiers were loyal to the people rather then the king) did not directly end the monarchy but forced the king to give key members of the cabinet he had let go back their possitions. Eventually there were trials. The king was found guilty of treason and executed, similar to his English peer over a hundred years prior.

Being rich or even noble did not become illegal. But all the rights of nobles were stripped away and a lot of the property of the rich were given back to the people. For example if you rented a house before the revolution you would typically be given the house for free, and if your previous landlord tried to stop this he would be dealt with by the guards.