Benjamin West/Philadelphia Museum of Art/Wikimedia
art history / power

Flash Mob: Revolution, Lightning, and the People’s Will

Why French revolutionaries, in need of an image to represent the all important “will of the people”, turned to the thunderbolt.
Revolutionary scientists designed a variety of strategies to make the will of the people discernable. They ranged from the statistical to the legalistic. However, one particular approach stood out, both for its intrinsic peculiarity and for its frequency: attempts to analogize the will of the people to lightning strikes. The historian Mary Ashburn Miller has documented the long history of symbolizing sovereignty as lightning. In the absolutist imagination, lightning symbolized royal power and its Jupiterian pretensions. The frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 Leviathan features a thunderbolt alongside a crown, cannon, and other items in absolutism’s symbolic ensemble.

With the Revolution, French intellectuals seized this lightning and redirected it against their kings. In 1792, as the Revolution radicalized into a democratic revolution, members of the National Convention found themselves debating what to do with Louis XVI. On 3 December 1792, Robespierre answered that the king should be summarily executed rather than tried for treason, because “A people does not judge as does a court of law. It does not hand down sentences, it hurls down thunderbolts.” Louis XVI was struck down by the guillotine in the Place de la Révolution on 21 January 1793.

The trope was ubiquitous, not only in texts and speeches, but also in the visual culture of the Revolution. An allegorical print from 1792 features “Liberty”, the figurehead and personification of the people. She is depicted striking down the remnants of monarchy with a fist full of lightning. Behind her, powerful bands of light (and enlightenment) repel the dark clouds that allude to the obscurity of monarchical superstition.
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