The revolution of 1789–93 that toppled the Bourbon monarchy of France and set up continental Europe’s first democratic government became the crucible of modern conspiracy theories and is still frequently cited by modern writers on the extreme right as the classic example of a national government subverted and destroyed by secret societies. These claims are all the more ironic in that nearly every other revolution in modern times offers more evidence of secret society activities. Where the American Revolution of 1776–83 can hardly be described without referring to the activities of the Committees of Correspondence and the Sons of Liberty and the Russian revolution of October 1917 was stage-managed by the Bolshevik Party, the role of secret societies in the French Revolution is equivocal at best.
The ultimate cause of the collapse of the French monarchy in 1789 was the collision between France’s ambitions as a world power and the corrupt, archaic, and inefficient system of taxation and finance that French kings relied on to fund their overseas ventures. The European wars of Louis XIV had placed the kingdom under a burden of debt that grew steadily through the reigns of his son and grandson. France’s part in the American Revolution, financed almost entirely by loans, pushed the Ancien Régime to the brink; in the national budget of 1788, expenses exceeded income by 20 percent, and more than half of expenses went to service the national debt. The royal government’s attempts to reorganize the tax system were systematically blocked by the aristocracy, which sought to preserve its own tax-exempt status and hoped to use the fiscal crisis to regain some of the political power it had lost during the sweeping reforms of Louis XIV.
With every other option closed to him by aristocratic intransigence, the king summoned the Estates-General, the rarely convened national parliament of France, which alone had the power to levy new taxes. Many aristocrats supported this move, as they hoped to force the king to accept a constitutional monarchy with a privileged place for the nobility. However, this plan backfired explosively on June 17, 1789 when the lowest of the three houses of the Estates-General, representing the commoners, declared itself the sole National Assembly and invited liberal members of the other two houses to join them in a new national government. While the king and conservative aristocrats bickered and temporized, the National Assembly created its own army, the National Guard. In July the Bastille in Paris, the symbol of the king’s absolute rule, was seized and sacked by the Paris mob, and in October the king and his family were forced to leave Versailles for Paris as virtual prisoners of the new government.
From 1789 to 1792 the National Assembly governed France in the king’s name, abolished the privileges of the aristocracy and nationalized the property of the Catholic Church in France. An attempt by the king to flee to the German border, take command of the border garrisons, and retake power was thwarted when a mob stopped him and forced him back to Paris. More serious was the outbreak of war with the Austrian Empire, which sought to return France to royal control. After the poorly equipped French army suffered a series of defeats, a group of Paris radicals seized control of the government, dissolved the National Assembly and abolished the monarchy. A new governing body, the National Convention, called up a massive new army that soon turned the tide against the invaders, driving them back beyond France’s borders and launching a successful invasion of Italy.
The Convention soon broke apart in bitter internal struggles, though, and in April of 1793 Maximilien Robespierre – the head of the extremist Jacobin party – seized power and established a revolutionary dictatorship. In September of the same year the Terror began as the Jacobins started rounding up and executing their real or imagined opponents. By the time Robespierre alienated his own supporters and went to the guillotine himself, on 28 July 1794, some 40,000 people had been executed, including the king and queen. A more moderate government, the Directory, took power in 1795 and held it until 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican in French service who had risen through the ranks to command the army, seized power in a coup. In 1804 he renamed himself Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Defeated and exiled in 1814, he staged a dramatic return to power the next year, but was defeated again at the battle of Waterloo and spent the rest of his life in exile on the bleak island of St Helena in the South Atlantic.
The role of secret societies in these convulsions is complex. Freemasonry had reached France in the 1720s with Jacobite exiles; purely an aristocratic pursuit in its early years, it soon made its way down the social ladder and became popular among the educated middle classes. Many of the moderates in the revolutionary government (though relatively few of the radicals) were Freemasons. Further to the left was the Social Club, a political society headed by Louis d’Orleans, and its offspring, the Social Circle, took a position on the extreme left after its founding in 1790. Nicholas de Bonneville, the founder of the Social Circle, had connections with the Bavarian Illuminati, a liberal secret society active in Germany between 1776 and 1786. All these secret societies helped spread liberal and egalitarian social ideas before and during the Revolution. Still, evidence that any of these groups took any more active role in the Revolution is effectively absent.
Ironically, the best-documented secret societies in France during the revolutionary era all opposed the governments that succeeded Louis XVI in power. The Conspiracy of Equals, a secret society headed by François “Gracchus” Babeuf and Filippo Buonarroti, attempted in 1796 to overthrow the Directorate. Later, during Napoleon’s reign, the Chevaliers of Faith and the Philadelphes worked to overthrow him within France, while a dizzying array of Italian secret societies – the Raggi, the Carbonari, and others – formed to oppose French imperial pretensions in Italy.
The claim that secret societies stage-managed the French Revolution – a claim that has featured in scores of conspiracy theories since that time – was a product of two conservative authors of the 1790s, the French Jesuit Augustin de Barruel and the Scottish Freemason John Robison. In sensationalistic books published within a year of one another, de Barruel and Robison both argued that the Bavarian Illuminati, acting through Freemasonry, had pursued a centuries-old vendetta, originally launched by the Knights Templar, against the French monarchy – a campaign that ultimately aimed at the violent overthrow of Christianity and all the monarchies of Europe. Both these books were wartime propaganda meant to turn public opinion against the French revolutionary government at a time when many on the left saw the spread of revolution outward from France as their own best hope of liberty. The viewpoint they presented assumed that nothing except the unseen hand of the Illuminati could explain the collapse of a corrupt, incompetent, and mismanaged French monarchy that had long since lost its legitimacy in the eyes of most of its own subjects. Despite the noticeable weaknesses in this claim, it has remained popular among reactionaries ever since.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006