French Revolution

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French Revolution

The French Revolution from 1789 to 1799 was a major European historical turning point that transformed France from a monarchy to a republic. This social, political, economic, and legal upheaval began modestly and was meant to limit royal absolutism. Yet as the revolution progressed, its proponents became more extreme in their desires for democracy. What began as a call for constitutional monarchy erupted into a decade of turmoil that resulted in six consecutive governments, the execution of the king, and finally, a dictatorship that ushered in the Napoleonic Era.

Ancien Régime

The ancien régime refers to the societal, economic, and political structure of France before the French Revolution. At the top of the regime's pyramid-like structure was King Louis XVI, an absolute monarch. He had succeeded to the throne in 1774 and inherited nearly insoluble problems from his predecessors. Below the king came the clergy, or the First Estate; then the nobles, or the Second Estate; and finally the remaining French subjects, or the Third Estate.

The First Estate comprised approximately 100,000 clergy, and the Second Estate comprised some 300,000 nobles. The tax-exempt nobles owned 20% of the land, while the clergy owned 10%. The Catholic Church was tax exempt as well. The remaining 23.5 million French people, the Third Estate, included lawyers, a rising bourgeoisie, workers, shopkeepers, and peasants. Approximately 90% of the people in the Third Estate were peasants. The Third Estate, despite being the poorest group, paid the taxes that ensured the financial well-being of the state, clergy, and nobles. All three groups were represented in the Estates-General, France's advisory body for the monarch, but the king had not convened the assembly for more than 100 years.

Causes of the French Revolution

Rather than simple disloyalty to the king, various causes contributed to the downfall of the ancien régime. First of all, throughout the 18th century, the development of Enlightenment thought led to increasing criticism of absolute monarchy and an interest in republican ideals. Considered subversive, literature by such writers as Voltaire, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau critiqued the monarchy and the Catholic Church and examined democratic forms of government. Enlightenment writings were widely disseminated and discussed in France, and they even played a role in the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776.

Second, a financial crisis contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution. France's heavy military expenditures during the American Revolution resulted in a national debt of approximately four billion livres in 1789. The country could not afford to meet its loan payments nor could it obtain more credit.

Third, compounding the financial crisis, a long cycle of industrial depression had been in effect since 1770. Some 50% of people in urban areas were unemployed. Successive bad harvests, especially in 1788, made the situation perilous. The most populated country in Europe could not feed itself. Starving commoners could not afford to buy bread, and food shortages contributed to bread riots, burning, and looting.

Fourth, members of the lower classes began to chafe at their lack of power in the government. The peasants, already burdened by the food shortages, were increasingly aware of the injustice of the feudal system, whereby the nobles enriched themselves through the toil and taxes of the commoners. Moreover, a relatively wealthy portion of the Third Estate, the members of the growing bourgeoisie, resented their exclusion from political power.

The social unrest and mounting financial problems led Louis XVI to call a meeting of the Estates-General for the first time since 1614.

Phase One of the Revolution: The National and Legislative Assemblies

The meeting of the Estates-General was held in May 1789 with 291 clergymen, 279 nobles, and 578 members of the Third Estate as representatives. Immediately, a dispute arose over the voting structure. The nobles of the Second Estate demanded the use of one vote per estate, which would effectively nullify any vote of the Third Estate. Accordingly, the Third Estate refused to participate, and along with a handful of sympathizers from the other Estates, seceded from the Estates-General on June 17, 1789. Declaring themselves the French National Assembly, they met at a tennis court, where they made an oath not to disband until they produced a constitution for the nation.

Meanwhile, rumors were growing about an aristocratic conspiracy to overthrow the Third Estate, and as troops gathered around Paris, mobs broke into buildings looking for weapons during a three-day frenzy. On July 14, the uprising culminated in the storming of the Bastille, the armory-prison that had become a symbol of the tyranny of the ancien régime. After taking over the building, the mob massacred the staff and freed the prisoners.

In the countryside, peasant uprisings known as the Great Fear coincided with the urban revolution. On August 4, the National Assembly, desiring to appease the peasants, abolished serfdom, old feudal privileges, and ecclesiastical tithing. The National Assembly codified the new civil equality on August 26 with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).

As the revolution grew, Louis XVI allowed the National Assembly to continue (he invited the nobility and clergy to join it) and grudgingly recognized the sovereignty of the people. Yet the king rejected the abolition of feudalism and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In response, angry women and men marched from Paris to the king's palace at Versailles on October 5. They were supported by some 20,000 National Guards. The marchers forced the royal family back to Paris and confined them in the old Tuileries Palace. On October 21, the National Assembly declared martial law.

Over the next several months, the National Assembly passed a series of liberal reforms. On November 2, the assembly nationalized Church property, and in February 1790, it forbade monastic vows. The assembly also proceeded to simplify France's complex administrative system. From 28 unequal provinces, the nation was reorganized into 83 equal departments, each administered by an elected assembly. On June 20, 1790, the assembly officially abolished the nobility. On August 16, it reorganized the judiciary and abolished the old, nobility-controlled parlements, or law courts.

In the summer of 1791, Louis and his family escaped Paris but were caught in Varennes and returned to Paris on June 25. Louis was soon forced to accept the new Constitution of 1791 that provided for a limited monarchy. The Constitution also created a new legislature to replace the National Assembly. On October 1, 1791, the unicameral French Legislative Assembly convened.

The one year of the Legislative Assembly's existence was marked by friction between Louis XVI, who could veto any law passed by the assembly, and the majority of representatives, known as the Girondins, who increasingly mistrusted the king's intentions. Meanwhile, the revolution had begun to concern the other powers in Europe, as revolutionary supporters, known as Jacobins, were growing in number. The possibility of a war between revolutionary France and the monarchies of Europe loomed.

In April 1792, Louis XVI, hoping that war with Austria and Prussia would result in French defeat and allow him to reestablish his lost authority, asked the Legislative Assembly to declare war. The assembly, hoping to unify the nation with military victory abroad, acquiesced. France went to war against Austria and Prussia, the first in a series of conflicts known as the French Revolutionary Wars.

Upset by several defeats in the war and suspecting Louis of betrayal, revolutionaries began demanding the overthrow of the monarchy. After successfully storming the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, they imprisoned the royal family. The following month, mobs of Parisians invaded the city's prisons and massacred imprisoned clergy and nobles. As sympathy for the monarch collapsed, a new constitution that denied the king's power was needed. The Legislative Assembly was dissolved and replaced by the French National Convention. After convening on September 20, the Convention abolished the monarchy and proclaimed a republic.

Phase Two of the Revolution: Convention and Reign of Terror

The next phase of the French Revolution was characterized by political extremism. In December 1792, the Convention voted to try Louis XVI for treason. Convicted and condemned to death, the former king was beheaded on January 21, 1793. The execution sent shockwaves throughout Europe.

In the spring of 1793, the Convention established the Committee of Public Safety (CPS), a 12-man committee that would function as the executive branch of the revolutionary government. Representatives of both dominant factions in the Convention, the Girondins and the Montagnards, were included on the committee. In May, however, the more moderate Girondins were purged from the Convention, and the more extreme Montagnards took control of the Convention and the CPS. Closely associated with the Jacobin Club, a Parisian revolutionary society, the Montagnards of the CPS began to use their broad powers to root out so-called enemies of the revolution.

The counterrevolutionary tactics of the CPS soon became known as the Reign of Terror. Under the direction of Maximilien Robespierre, the CPS executed tens of thousands of people by guillotine in the name of the revolution. At least 300,000 suspects were arrested, 17,000 were officially executed, and many died in prison or without trial.

Meanwhile, the Convention continued to pass legislative reforms. In August 1793, the revolutionary government imposed the levée en masse, a conscription of all able-bodied men between the the ages of 18 and 25. Much of the old officer corps was either forced into exile or executed, which allowed new officers from nonaristocratic backgrounds to rise rapidly through the ranks. The French Army grew to 1 million troops. In addition, in October 1793, as part of its goal to be a completely secular government, the Convention abolished the Gregorian calendar, which had Christian associations, and replaced it with what it viewed as a more scientific one. The 12 months were renamed, each month was divided into three so-called decades rather than weeks, and the year 1793 became known as year I.

Finally, in July 1794, in what is known as the Thermidorian reaction (named after the revolutionary month Thermidor), the Convention overthrew Robespierre and put an end to the Reign of Terror. Moderates in the Convention hoped to revive the original principles of the revolution, but a power struggle ensued with the reinstated Girondins and others who wanted revenge for the Terror.

Phase Three of the Revolution: Directory and Consulate

In 1795, wanting to decentralize power to prevent another Robespierre, the Convention drew up a new constitution that established the French Directory. Under this fifth revolutionary government, France was to be governed by five directors, chosen by a bicameral legislature divided into the Council of Five Hundred and an upper chamber of 250 "ancients." Ruled by the bourgeoisie, the Directory was plagued by the same problems encountered by the Convention. Struggles between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries persisted, and war in Europe raged on.

On November 9, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, a military hero of the revolutionary wars in Europe, overthrew the Directory in a coup d'état. Emmanuel Sieyès, who had helped plan the coup, drew up the Constitution of 1799, which established the French Consulate, the sixth and final revolutionary government. As first consul, Napoleon used his broad, dictatorial powers to bring the turmoil of the 10-year revolution to a close. In 1802, he was appointed consul for life, and in 1804, he proclaimed himself emperor Napoleon I of France.

The revolutionary dream of a French Republic would not be permanently realized until 1871, after the fall of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. Nevertheless, the massive societal reform begun during the French Revolution continued, and the revolution's republican ideals of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" inspired revolutionary groups throughout Europe and the New World.


Further Reading

Cobb, Richard, The French and Their Revolution, 1999; Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1990; Forrest, Alan I., Soldiers of the French Revolution, 1990; Godineau, Dominique, The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution, 1998; Jordan, David P., The King's Trial: The French Revolution v. Louis XVI, 1979; McManners, John. The French Revolution and the Church. New York: Harper & Row, 1970; Palmer, R. R. Twelve who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989; Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1989; Scott, Samuel F., and Barry Rothaus, eds., Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 1789-1799, 1985.

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