Reading about the French revolution in 1789, none of the readily available Sources (Wikipedia history.com encyclopedia.com) mentions much resistance to the revolution by the army, even though "The kings had ruled by ... their command of the army"

One would assume that a king who rules his country like a modern dictator would, if neccesary, call the army to subdue all efforts to strip him from power.

Where does this discrepancy come from? Some explanations I could think of are:

  • There were actual attempts to subdue the revolution, but as they didn't affect the outcome, they generally aren't mentioned
  • Louis XVI was already desperate when he called for the national assembly; he knew he needed them to solve France's financial trouble and didn't dare to antagonize them
  • After the 7 Years' War and the American Revolutionary War, with France's severe financial troubles, most of the army had already been disbanded and just wasn't in a position to put up much resistance
  • The army (especially the leaders) knew about the desolate state of the country, so they wanted something to happen no matter the outcome to the king
  • Many members of the army, having fought in the American Revolutionary War, had been exposed to the ideals of the Americans, secretly supported them, and because of this welcomed the revolution in France as well

Is there any research about which of these possibilities are true, and to which extend, especially the last one?


2 Answers 2


First, review the reasons for the French Revolution - pre-eminent among those reasons is that the French state was bankrupt. It could not pay bills or collect taxes. This was not a temporary problem, but a structural problem. See Revolutions Podcast (I linked to one episode, but strongly recommend the rest) is an excellent source. The French government was dysfunctional from the absolutist head, through the corrupt middle down to the ineffective and disengaged bottom.

Two further complexities:

1) If you can't pay your army, it isn't your army. If the King can't pay his bills, he doesn't have an army, he has a bunch of armed people with a grudge.

2) Due to peculiarities of the French system, most of the army did not report directly to the King, but to the high nobility. Duncan covers this better than I can.

Postscript - my professional historian girlfriend pointed out that our modern notions of nationalism are the result of the French Revolution. In the ancien regime, soldier's weren't fighting for "France!", they were fighting for pay, for their unit, for their leadership, but "France" was an abstraction. Soldiering was also a substantially lower status profession at the time.

  • 1
    The 3rd point is irrelevant, as it refers to the situation at a much later time. Nov 2, 2016 at 17:28
  • Excellent point - I deleted that item.
    – MCW
    Nov 2, 2016 at 17:39
  • France ended up with a "Revolutionary Army" after 1789 that's why. "Conscription" was not how Europe fought Wars save for the Prussians...which did have a very large standing Army too. Before Napoleon there was no such thing as "Nationalism"...and after him there was nothing but sad to say. So I would argue there was no French "Army" until after the Revolution..and obviously the Revolution got out of hand so the sudden appearance of a "French Army" was indeed quite dramatic. Ironically the United States wasn't a big fan... Nov 2, 2016 at 19:22
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    I think you're overcomplicating the issue. If you had asked anyone in 1788 whether France had an army, there would have been no debate.
    – MCW
    Nov 2, 2016 at 19:30
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    You don't need conscription for a powerful standing army. You do need money.
    – user15620
    Nov 2, 2016 at 20:36

One reason is that the French "Army" (its officers actually) looked up to a former general named the Marquis de Lafayette. He was a war hero who had fought for the Americans in the American Revolution, helping to defeat England, (France's arch enemy), and was firmly on the side of French Revolutionaries.

Lafayette was a mediator that was trusted by both sides. At one point, he calmed revolutionary tensions by kissing the hand of Queen Marie Antoinette in public.

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