THE GUILLOTINE AND THE CROSS
by Warren H. Carroll
(Christendom Press, 2004, 203pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-0-93188-845-8. Available from Freedom Publishing)
In the popular imagination, an important stage in human progress was the French Revolution in which people were liberated from the arbitrary rule of a tyrant.
However, such a glowing interpretation of the French Revolution has not always been part of the Western consciousness. For example, although he expressed genuine concern for the poor, Charles Dickens presented a scathing portrait of the Revolution in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities.
Dr Warren Carroll, founder and first president of Christendom College, Virginia, and former chairman of its history department, challenges the popular interpretation of the French Revolution through an examination of the events from the transfer of the royal family on 10 August 1792 to the Temple prison to the execution of Robespierre, generally considered to signal the end of the Reign of Terror.
Treating his material in a largely chronological order, Carroll presents a highly critical interpretation of the Revolution. However, one thing remains constant throughout the work, and that is the violence of the revolutionaries, which continued to intensify, beginning with the brutal murder of those who attempted to protect the royal family as they were taken from the Tuileries Palace.
The trial and swift execution of Louis XVI are discussed in detail. It soon became obvious that any attempt to have him found not guilty would fail while the next recourse by more moderate elements, namely exile, also failed.
Following the King's death, the execution of real and imagined enemies of the revolution increased in tempo. Trials were swift, with the defendants having limited opportunity to defend themselves, and executions following without delay.
The trial of Marie Antoinette is in many respects illustrative of the overall denial of justice, she being found guilty of egregious and trumped up charges that suggested she had led an immoral life; and following her trial her defence lawyer was arrested and punished for simply doing his job.
The infamous guillotine provided the revolutionaries with an efficient means of killing their victims. However, they found other ways of being rid of their enemies, for example, barges full of people were steered into the middle of a river before being scuttled with specially designed valves to let the water in.
Not only does the constant violence underscore the account, but also the attack on Catholicism that became an integral part of the French Revolution.
The first major step was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790, which effectively established a parallel Church and within a couple of years this led to an all-out war on the Catholic Church. Perhaps the most famous incident was the transformation of Notre Dame Cathedral into a Temple of Reason. Priests and nuns were hunted down and marked out for execution, churches were closed and the practice of religion all but outlawed.
It is thus no wonder that there was resistance. Glossed over in most accounts, but dealt with extensively by Carroll, is the Vendee uprising.
In the wake of the judicial murder of Louis XVI, peasants led by aristocrats rose up against the revolutionary government. Although they succeeded for some time, without significant support from foreign powers, their uprising was doomed to failure. While according to Carroll the Vendeans generally spared their prisoners the revolutionaries by and large massacred theirs.
Most of the Vendee was subdued by the end of 1793 and what followed was a systematic destruction of Vendean farmlands and the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children. It is no wonder that guerrilla bands held out in the mountains for a few years after that.
Heroism also took the form of priests silently and secretly moving from place to place, administering the sacraments and celebrating Mass for their flocks. Some of the most moving accounts in The Guillotine and the Cross are of the priests and Carmelite nuns who calmly faced their deaths, forgiving their persecutors.
Much of Carroll's focus is on the revolutionary leader Danton. Carroll examines the evidence and offers the thesis that he may have secretly embraced Catholicism following his marriage.
The Guillotine and the Cross challenges the prevailing positive attitude towards the French Revolution in Western thought and the author draws extensively from secondary sources as well as original documents. At various points in the narrative, Carroll interprets events from a spiritual perspective, suggesting the role of divine providence, an approach not generally favoured by historians.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.