“Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as Aristocracy or Monarchy. But while it lasts it is more bloody than either.” — John Adams, letter to John Taylor, Dec. 17, 1814
Although vividly documented by Navis Pictures’ War of the Vendée and Balzac’s novel The Chouans, the devastating conflict that took place in western France following the French Revolution is not really part of the popular consciousness. But a widely-publicized homily given by Robert Cardinal Sarah this past August might go a long way toward rectifying this state of affairs. According to His Eminence, those farmers who joined the Royal & Catholic Army of the Vendee in order to fight against the French Republic were not rebels at all, but were rather heroes from whom we today have much to learn:
Faced with the dictatorship of relativism, faced with the terrorism of thought which, once again, seeks to snatch God from the hearts of children, we need to rediscover the freshness of spirit and joyous simplicity and ardor of these saints and martyrs. When the Revolution sought to deprive the Vendeans of their priests, an entire people roused itself. Faced with cannons, these peasants had nothing but their sticks! Faced with guns, they had nothing but their scythes! Faced with the hatred of terrorist columns, they had nothing but their chaplet, their prayers, and the Sacred Heart sewn upon their breast!
From the very first the agrarian and conservative Vendée region had responded relatively coolly to the revolution of 1789 and the ensuing Declaration of the Rights of Man. In 1790, apathy and skepticism turned to hostility, as the government enacted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, thereby claiming for itself supreme jurisdiction over the Church in France. In March of 1793 came the last straw: when the government attempted to conscript able-bodied Vendeans for a revolutionary army that had by then become generally perceived as anti-Catholic, riots broke out. Thanks to the discipline and leadership of intensely devout peasants including Jacques Cathelineau and royalist officers such as the Comte de Rochejacquelein, what began as a mere revolt was transformed into a counter-revolution, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus as its emblem.
For almost a year the Royal & Catholic Army waged a feverish campaign against the revolutionary government. The counter-revolutionaries achieved notable victories at the towns of Thouars, Parthenay, and Fontenay, but by December the tide had turned, and shortly before Christmas the main Vendean force suffered defeat. Resistance never died out entirely, though, for the brutal retribution meted out by the government against the peasantry only served to provoke a series of small-scale uprisings. Following the downfall of Robespierre and his fellow Jacobin extremists in 1795, the more moderate “Thermidorian” regime finally conceded regional rights to the Vendée Catholics, and even granted them war reparations.
All Americans – but especially Catholics – should take an interest in these events, for in certain key respects the struggle between predominantly urban revolutionaries and predominantly rural Christians foreshadows the Blue-Red divide of our own time and society. And it is to the Revolution that we owe not only those twin ideological behemoths of our troubled age, liberalism and nationalism, but also the very terms “left” and “right.” For at the beginning of the revolutionary period, the left side of the National Assembly was occupied by proponents of subversion, even as the right side was held by traditionalists who defended the institutions which had created France: the guilds, the Crown, the aristocracy, and above all the Church.
Who were the Jacobins who overturned the greatest nation of Catholic Europe? As Claude Polin of the University of Paris-Sorbin explains, they
comprised all the people who, like Robespierre, Marat, or Hébert, deemed themselves victims of the former regime; they were supported by the rabble, whose main passion was a ferocious hatred of all those who appeared to have enjoyed some sort of privilege in the former system. Most of the leaders of the Jacobins were semi-intellectual, ambitious individuals living on the backstage of the previous society, in an obscurity they considered undeserved.
Although the Jacobins eventually succumbed to their own Reign of Terror, it would be a grave mistake to think that they became harmless after the guillotine had made them a head shorter. To the contrary, their legacy served as an inspiration for numerous later revolutionary movements, such as the Russian Bolsheviks and our own era’s “antifas.” For that matter, if we believe Claes Ryn of the Catholic University of America, the Jacobin spirit is even at work now among ostensibly respectable and civilized quarters, in the form of an American “Deep State” committed to democratic imperialism:
There are similarities between the advocates of the ideology of American empire and the ideologues who inspired and led the French Revolution of 1789. The Jacobins, too, claimed to represent universal principles, which they summed up in the slogan ‘‘liberte´, egalite´, et fraternite´.’’ […] They thought of themselves as fighting on the side of good against evil and called themselves ‘‘the virtuous.’’ They wanted a world much different from the one they had inherited. The result was protracted war and turbulence in Europe and elsewhere.
It might seem extravagant to equate neoconservatism with Jacobinism. On the other hand, if anyone has ever put forth any great effort to explain how the “global democratic revolution” of the G.W. Bush presidency differs from Robespierre’s project, I cannot say I am aware of it.
Let us not forget, either, that in a speech at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris in 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice saw fit to compare the French Revolution with the American War for Independence. After reminiscing about how honored she had felt when attending the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution, Madame Rice went on to insist that “founders of both the French and American republics were inspired by the very same values.” Needless to say, neither the Vendeans’ suffering nor persecution of the Church came up during her ostentatious praise of revolutionary politics. Too, I must emphasize that once upon a time such remarks would have caused prominent American Catholic scholars to go apoplectic, both for aligning American priorities with a French revolution that was at its very best misguided, and for misrepresenting the Founding Fathers as democratic ideologues.
Whatever apologists for Bush conservatism may say, His Eminence’s conclusions are far more in accord with Catholic thought than Rice’s revolutionary zeal:
History – true history – knows that in the end, the Vendean peasants triumphed. By their sacrifice they held back the lie of ideology from ruling as master. Thanks to the Vendeans, the Revolution threw off its mask and revealed its face of hatred for God and for faith. Thanks to the Vendeans, priests did not become servile slaves of a totalitarian state, they could remain free servants of Christ and of the Church. The Vendeans heard the appeal that Christ makes in the Gospel of today: “Confidence! It is I, be not afraid!”
To my mind, this is a welcome antidote indeed to the ubiquitous progressive propaganda that exhorts us to be “on the right side of history.” If history judges men, a Man judges history.