Historical News and Comment
Conspiracy Theory and the French RevolutionGEOFF MUIRDEN
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:
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:
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. 
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:
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. 
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:
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 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:
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.  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:
He adds that:
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."  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. 
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." 
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.  Kelly speaks of the ...
Also according to Kelly:
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." 
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."  Later, he writes:
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."  Rudé sets the number at "between 800 and 900 persons."  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. 
Rudé analyzes the revolutionary crowd and concludes that most were small tradesmen, artisans and wage-earners.  But he makes no mention of the foreigners said to have been part of the Bastille conquerors, according to Mrs. Webster.  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.
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 109-115.