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Conspiracy Theory and the French Revolution


Since 1989 is the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution this is an especially apt time to consider the conspiratorial theory of history presented in Mrs. Nesta Webster’s classic, The French Revolution. Mrs. Webster presents not one conspiracy, but several, insisting that plots by the Freemasons and Illuminati, mixed with those by the Duc d'Orleans and foreign powers combined to produce the tragedy of the French Revolution.

Taking these in turn, Webster suggests that:

The lodges of the German Freemasons and Illuminati were thus the source whence emanated all those anarchic schemes which culminated in the Terror, and it was at a great meeting of the Freemasons in Frankfurt-am-Main, three years before the French Revolution began, that the deaths of Louis XVI and Gustavus III of Sweden were first planned. [1]

One argument against this would appear to be the argument of Jean-Joseph Mounier, an active participant in the French Revolution, who proposed the Tennis Court Oath and helped frame the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In his book On the Influence Attributed to Philosophers, Freemasons, and to the Illuminati on the Revolution of France, Mounier remarks:

Among the noble conspirators who prepared the death of Gustavus, I do not know a single one who has been desirous of playing a part in the Revolution of France, although this would have been extremely easy for them; as the French demagogues were then calling to their ranks all the madmen of Europe. But the Swedish conspirators had not the same systems; and their guilty measures were not destined to effect the establishment of a democracy. [2]

Mounier’s book is most important, written as it was by an active participant in the Revolution, and it does serve against the conspiracy theory, since Mournier insists that neither the philosophes, nor the Freemasons, nor the Illuminati had any major part in creating the Revolution.

As a matter of fact, R.R. Palmer, in The Age of the Democratic Revolution, cites Mounier’s book as the major refutation of the “plot theory.” It does, in fact, devote much of its space to refuting the claims of the Abbé Barruel about the Freemason and Illuminati plot, and also John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy. [3]

Mrs. Webster does not give enough attention to the challenge posed by Mounier’s book to the conspiracy theory, but she does remark, in another book, World Revolution:

When we come to examine Mounier’s attitude more closely, however, certain considerations present themselves, too lengthy to enter into here, which detract somewhat from the value of his testimony. Of these the most important is the fact that Mounier wrote his book in Germany, where he was living under the protection of the Duke of Weimar, who had placed him at the head of a school in that city where Boettiger himself was director of the college and, according to the editor of Mounier’s work, it was from Bode, who was also at Weimar and whom Boettiger declared to be the head of the Illuminati, that Mounier collected his information! And this is the sort of evidence seriously quoted against that of innumerable other contemporaries who testified to the influence of Illuminism on the French Revolution. [4]

It could be added that Mounier had no first-hand experience of the Revolution from the period between May 1790, when he fled the border into exile, until he returned to France under the rule of Napoleon in 1801. [5]

For the early period of the Revolution, in 1789-1790, however, Mounier’s observations are important, and he was inclined to play down the role of the Duc d'Orléans, who for Mrs. Webster plays such a dominant role in the period. Thus, Mounier remarks that:

… some vile intriguers exerted themselves to excite the ambition of the Duke of Orléans, in order to seize upon the sovereign authority in his name; and entered into a league with those who, from whatever motive, wished for a general dissolution. But in the beginning all those voluntary and involuntary agents of anarchy did not amount to the number of 80 in an assembly of 8 or 900 persons … but … there would have been a very great majority against the factions by the union of the Orders. [8]

At the same time, Mounier had personally experienced Mirabeau, and tends to cast doubt upon his possible dedication as a servant of the Duc d'Orléans:

The restless ambition of Mirabeau, his excessive desire of increasing his own celebrity, and of acquiring riches and power, disposed him to serve all parties.. I have myself seen him go from the nocturnal committees held by the friends of the Duke of Orléans to those of the enthusiastic republicans, and from their secret conferences to the cabinets of the King’s Ministers: but if in the first months the ministers had agreed to treat with him, he would have preferred supporting the royal authority to joining with men whom he despised. [Emphasis added] [7]

The point made above is that Mirabeau was a man whose fingers were in a great many pies, who used the Duc d'Orléans when it served him but would just as readily jump into bed with other parties. In this case Mrs. Webster could be at fault in designating him as an “Orléanist,” when that was only one of his public Faces.”

Perhaps not too much importance need be made of the fact that the Duke was chosen Grand Master of the French lodges. Mounier says:

The Freemasons, nothwithstanding their pretended zeal for equality, were fond of seeing at their head a man of illustrious rank. He succeeded the Prince of Conti. Besides, all the Lodges of France did not acknowledge him as Chief; several were affiliated to the Grand Orient of London. [8]

Perhaps they were not so radical politically, if they preferred a nobleman, “a man of illustrious rank,” at their head, rather than one of the “bourgeois.” There may be something to be said in favor of the investigations of historians writing after Mrs. Webster, who have suggested that, though the Masonic lodges had some influence, nevertheless they were not hotbeds of revolution. For example, Albert Soboul, analyzing the situation, decides that the Freemasons of France were divided by the French Revolution. Most aristocratic “brothers” opposed it, while most bourgeois Masons at first supported it. But these initial supporters came to oppose the radicals, and many went over to the counter-Revolution. After Thermidor, there was a revival of Masonic influence in France. It was only in the 19th century that the Masonic lodges became liberal in politics. [9] This is not to say that Freemasons had no influence. Crane Brinton admits that many Freemasons were among the founders of the first Jacobin clubs in many parts of France. Many Masonic customs were used, such as the word “brother” for fellow Masons and secret votes with blackballs. Brinton concludes that:

Masons undoubtedly worked through the press and the literary societies to prepare for the revolution, to draw up the cahiers, to get people aware that political change was possible and desirable. But of an organized plot in the melodramatic sense there is no proof. Too many non-Masons were obviously active in the early societies.

He adds that:

Many Jacobin clubs, however, even in the first years of the Revolution, cannot be traced at the moment of actual establishment either to literary societies or to Masonic lodges. The circumstances of their origin vary greatly, and afford an instance — and by no means the last we shall notice — of the extraordinary diversity of French provincial life, a diversity which even the centralizing government of the Terror was never able wholly to destroy. [10]

Michael L. Kennedy comes to similar conclusions, while conceding that “there is something to be said for Gaston-Martin’s contention that the Jacobin network was modeled on that of the Masons.” [11] It could be said that the form of presentation, but not the radical content of the speeches, was influenced by Freemasonry. Soboul’s work, mentioned earlier, does not support the assumption of widespread radicalism in Masonry.

This stands against Mrs. Webster’s presentation. When it comes to Mrs. Webster’s presentation of the Orléanist conspiracy, there are also some caveats.

There is no doubt of the Duc d'Orléans' financial ability to finance a revolution. He was the second largest landowner in the Old Regime, after the King himself, with revenues of over 7 million livres. He could afford to buy “idea men” to oppose the Crown. [12]

His main problem was lack of persistence in his conspiracies. Brissot, writing of the Duc d'Orléans, said that “the prince was rather fond of conspiracies that lasted only twenty-four hours — any longer and he grew frightened.” [13]

In effect, Kelly agrees with Mrs. Webster that Madame de Genlis, who educated the Duke in republican principles, and Choderlos de Laclos, had d'Orléans in his grip. [14] Kelly speaks of the …

… vitual certainty that [Laclos] used the duke’s money to subsidize the pen of Marat for d'Orléans and against Lafayette in 1790, and his later machinations in 1791 after the king’s flight to varennes when, as permanent secretary to the Jacobins, he attempted to rally the power of the society, perhaps with the approval of Danton, to the cause of an Orléanist regency. [15]

Also according to Kelly:

… if we add together the many (often unreliable) accounts of the period, we learn that not only Brissot, but Barère, Mirabeau, Sieyès, Desmoulins, Danton, Duport, Dumouriez, and Marat all passed through the Orléanist receiving line … we will always, however, find the names of Mounier, Lafayette, and Robespierre conspicuously absent these men were bitter enemies and not for hire. {16]

Kelly nevertheless takes the view, contrary to Mrs Webster that d'Orléans did not instigate the French people to rebellion by depriving them of bread: “The harsh winter, crop failures, and an alarming ascent of prices from 1785 on accounted for that.” [17]

The Duke succeeded in fostering revolution but never in becoming regent, in which role, because of his indolence and foppishness, he would have been unsuitable.

One important event in which the Duc d'Orléans is said to have been involved is in financing the storming of the Bastille George Rudé appears to give some support to this. Writing about looting on July 11, 1789, he states, fit is clear that the Palais Royal had a hand in the affair; it is no doubt significant that the posts said to belong to the Duc d'Orléans were deliberately moved by the incendiaries.” [18] Later, he writes:

A more or less peacefully disposed Sunday crowd of strollers in the Palais Royal was galvanized into revolutionary vigour by the news of Necker’s dismissal and the call to arms issued by orators of the entourage of the Duc d'Orléans. [Emphasis added] [19]

Rudé virtually agrees with Mrs. Webster’s claim that “of the 800,000 inhabitants of Paris only approximately 1000 took any part in the siege of the Bastille.” [20] Rudé sets the number at “between 800 and 900 persons.” [21] Yet, Rudé makes a further important claim, that “at the peak of the insurrection there may have been a quarter of a million Parisians — some thought more — under arms,” and in a footnote he adds that Nicolas de Bonneville, the original promotor of the milice bourgeois, later wrote that, on 14 July, Paris had 300,000 men under arms … Barnave, on 18 July, wrote of 180,000. [22]

Rudé analyzes the revolutionary crowd and concludes that most were small tradesmen, artisans and wage-earners. [23] But he makes no mention of the foreigners said to have been part of the Bastille conquerors, according to Mrs. Webster. [24] And, in opposition to

That the Duc d'Orléans did play a major role in financing agitation during the Revolution is established, but there seems to be some doubt about some of the details presented by Mrs. Webster, details which are the key to her thesis of a long-term revolutionary plot.

Either modern historians are engaged in a conspiracy of their own to deny the truth about the French Revolution, or else one can concede that much of what Mrs. Webster has presented deserves modification in the light of later information. This article has only touched on a fraction of her fascinating book, but Revisionist historians who want to defend Mrs. Webster against her critics will need to be able to show in what way she has been misrepresented. Until such time, her theory stands in need of modification.


  1. Webster, Nesta H., The French Revolution, (n.p.), 1919 (republished by The Noontide Press, Costa Mesa, CA in 1988), p. 21.
  2. Mounier, Jean Joseph, On the Influence Attributed to Philosophers, Free-Masons, and to the Illuminati on the Revolution of France, facsimile reproduction with an introduction by Theodore A. DiPadove. Delmar, New York, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1974, p.69.
  3. Mounier, op. cit., Introductory Note, no. 4, and Mounier’s book passim.
  4. Webster, Nesta H., World Revolution. London, Constable & Co., 1921, p. 81.
  5. Mounier, op. cit., Introduction.
  6. Mounier, p. 90.
  7. Mounier, p. 91.
  8. Mounier, p. 155.
  9. Soboul, Albert, “La Franc-Maçonnerie et la Révolution Française (Free-Masonry and the French Revolution),” Annales Historiques de la Revolution Française, 1974, 46 (1), pp. 76-88.
  10. Brinton, Crane, The Jacobins: An Essay in the New History, New York Macmillan, 1930, pp.15-16.
  11. Kennedy, Michael L., The Foundation of the Jacobin Clubs and the Development of the Jacobin Club Network, 1789-1791,” Journal of Modern History, 51 (Dec., 1979) p.703.
  12. Barker, Nancy N., “Phillippe d'Orléans, Frere Unique du Roi: Founder of the Family Fortune,” French Historical Studies, Vol 13 (2), Fall 1983, p.170.
  13. Kelly, George Armstrong, “The Machine of the Duc d'Orléans and the New Politics,” Journal of Modern History, 51, Dec. 1979, p.671.
  14. Kelly, p. 673; cf Webster, The French Revolution, pp. 10-11.
  15. Kelly, footnote no. 27, p.673.
  16. Kelly, p. 674.
  17. Kelly, p. 677.
  18. Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1959, p.49.
  19. Rudé, p. 220.
  20. Webster, The French Revolution, p. 95.
  21. Rudé, p. 56.
  22. Rudé, p. 59.
  23. Rudé, p. 57.
  24. Webster, The French Revolution, p. 39.
  25. Rudé, p. 58.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 109-115.