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.

Yes, and it devolved to multiple factions of revolutionaries that turned on each other, as these experiments tend to do. Robespierre is a fine example of a zealot who sent many to the guillotine and eventually got sent there himself.

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

Well technically yes, but that sentence is full of half thruth.

– The average person washed far before the french revolution. That’s a pretty bad misconception of history.

– Peasant were in the field outside of cities, so their were not a big part of the revolution. Most of the people that were involved were member of the military and people that lived in the city. They were merchants, artisan, bourgeois, etc.

– Kidnap is not really the real term. It was a civil war, a change of governement and people ”brought to justice” to pay for their crimes.

– Actually only a small percentage of the noblity was executed. Most of the nobles left France before things started to go bad.


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

Yes. The Trial of Louix XVI took place in december 1792 and his execution was in January 1793. There was 33 charges ranging from shutting down the Estates-General (basically removing the governement), ordering the army to march against citizen, complicit in the Champ de Mars Massacre, etc. Basically, he was accused of being a ruler that use his power against the population, which was what all of them were doing at the time and the people had enough.

In september of 1793 the Law of Suspects was passed by the new governement. This was basically a free pass to arrest any ennemies of the revolution. This included uncooperative former nobles (nobility was not illegal, but it was revoked), émigrés, former governement official, ex-officers of the military, hoaders of goods, etc.

There was no purge of the nobility or of the rich (many of the leader of the revolution were wealthy middle class of the third estate (first is clergy, second is nobles, third is everybody else) in france at the time. It was a political purge against anyone that went against the revolution. The governement was attacking their political opponent with all the necessary and except that this can create.

There was around 17 thousand executions, and around 10 thousands more people are believed to have died in prison or without a trial. At least 3/4 of those were of the third estates.

> Did a mass of unwashed peasants

Calling them “unwashed peasants” probably isn’t helping you to understand things.

That was kind of their point, that just because they were poor didn’t mean they were any less capable of running things than the rich.

There’s one important part to this- the military defected to the side of the Revolution, or stood aside.

This is how a lot of revolutions get won, because if you have a trained military versus a crowd of peasants the revolution is going to be short and unsuccessful.

Other people have given your answer, but I just want to plug the Revolutions Podcast section on the French Revolution if you are interested in getting the whole story in detail.

Most aristocrats fled France. Most of them went to Austria, which had become an ally of France. They then raised armies in exile and tried to invade France along with a coalition of surrounding monarchical countries who were afraid the Revolution would spread. This began the Coalition Wars, which were 7 in all. The first two are sometimes called the French Revolutionary Wars and the remaining five are commonly called the Napoleonic Wars.

The period of mass executions by guillotine was called The Reign of Terror and didn’t start until several years into the Revolution. It was not led by hordes of peasants who mindlessly rebelled against the aristocracy. It was led by the bourgeoisie, which were rich non-aristocrats. The targets were not necessarily the nobility. Some members of the nobility actually joined the Revolution. The targets were royalists-people of all classes who supported the monarchy. Some Jacobins, called the girondin faction, actually wanted a constitutional monarchy. They were mostly pushed out of the National Assembly and many of them executed. Then the two leaders of the Jacobin Club-Danton and Robespierre-were locked into a power struggle. Robespierre had Danton and his followers executed for being to moderate and had the enrage faction members executed for being too extreme and Robespierre briefly became essentially a dictator until he was executed by the Assembly and they instituted a 5-person government called the Directory.

There were masses of unwashed peasants who led uprisings, such as the destruction of the bastille and the arrest of the royal family at Versailles. But launching the national assembly and directing the various competing factions of the Revolution was all done among the bourgeoisie. The few aristocrats who joined the Revolution were military commanders in the Coalition Wars.