European History/Revolution in France

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The First French Revolution of 1789 was a pivotal moment in French and European history. It marks the rise of the Third Estate, consisting of the merchant, artisan, and working poor. They revolted after centuries of paying high tax to the French monarchy. The revolution centered around anger over centuries of overtaxation and underrepresentation influenced by democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. Following the Seven Years’ War, this anger peaked due to a tax raise, massive droughts, and the rule of King Louis XVI as well as the lavish spender Queen Marie Antoinette. The people of France in 1789 were further influenced by an angered media’s reporting of the Queen’s lavish spending of public money and her many love affairs. The 5th of October, 1789 marked the start of the Revolution, when around 7,000 market women—and men dressed as women—marched on the Palace of Versailles, demanding the Queen's head and the King's immediate return to Paris. They started the march to protest the high cost of bread caused by famine and overtaxation. This march was a key event in the revolution. The women were successful in bringing the Royal family back to Paris and thus closer to the control of the leaders of the revolution. This was the first link in a chain of events that would lead to a new democratic government in France. That government would prove to be unstable, leading to a “Reign of Terror” which led to an increasingly unstable France that would ultimately lead to the reign of the dictator Napoleon. Though the revolution failed, its ideals lived on, influencing Western political, economic, and social thought for centuries to come.  [1] [2]

Reasons for the French Revolution[edit | edit source]

The French Revolution was the result of the rejection of ideals of premodern Europe. Countless ideas from the Enlightenment contributed to the French Revolution, including John Locke's Social Contract, which states that government is given power by the consent of the governed, so when the government fails in its duties, the people have the obligation to overthrow said government. It was also influenced by Rousseau's ideas of the general will. These ideas became common as the French government failed to respond to growing internal issues in France. The Enlightenment also critiqued religion, especially Catholicism. Philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau directly attacked the church and the divine right theory that Louis XVI of France used to justify his position. These ideas spread quickly in Salons and Coffeehouses, where philosophers shared ideas, and in encyclopedias, invented by Rousseau, which disseminated revolutionary ideals to many citizens. [3] [4]

[5] [6] [7]

Additionally, a harsh winter had resulted in no harvest and the lack of food, especially bread, causing massive food shortages across France. The Crown also waged constant wars and expensive revolutions, such as the global 7 Years War and American Revolution, which were both unpopular and expensive for the French People. The lavish spending habits of the government and king, led to debt and a disconnect from the struggles of the French People. Moreover, this spending, combined with some existing systemic financial issues led to the the financial crisis in France. One of the most prominent of these issues was the fact that the nobles were tax-exempt, and the nobles resisted any attempt by Louis to tax them. French tax collectors also were corrupt, which led to tremendous wastes of money. As a result, Louis called the Estates General, for assistance and advice to resolve the financial crisis [8] [9]

The Estates General was the French equivalent of the English Parliament. It was unlike Parliament however, as it had been shut down by the king and stripped of almost all its powers, except for taxation. The Estates General consisted of three estates: the first estate was made up of clergymen, the second estate was made up of nobles, and the third estate was made up of commoners, who represented at least 95% of the populace. Each Estate was afforded 1 vote, leading to the first two estates outvoting the Third to protect their interests from taxation. The third estate, angry over their disproportionate representation and their inability to act according to their needs, rebelled, and declared itself the National Assembly. In response King Louis barred the Third Estate from the Estates General leading to the delegates of the third estate taking the Oath of the Tennis Court, at an indoor tennis court nearby. They swore allegiance to the French nation and drew up a list of grievances (cahiers de doléances) against the king. They aimed to democratically represent the will of the people and give the people a constitution to prevent the abuses seen during the reign of Louis the 14th. [10]

Storming of the Bastille[edit | edit source]

The storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789

On July 14, 1789, egged on by the signers of the Tennis Court Oath, a revolting Paris mob stormed the Bastille. While only seven prisoners were housed behind its walls, none of whom could be considered political in any way, this event was essential because it symbolized that the people were rising of the people against the tyranny of absolutism. The fall of the Bastille was also the first time, but certainly not the last, during the Revolution that popular mobs would rise up and take action outside of the legislature. These later risings, known in French as journees, would prove to be both extremely influential on public opinion and a cause for major hand-wringing on the part of the legislature, who did not want to risk a massive popular revolution as opposed to the controlled "bourgeois" revolution. [11]






Women’s March on Versailles[edit | edit source]

The Women’s March on Versailles, which occurred in October 1789, saw nearly 7,000 working-class women stride fourteen miles from Paris, France to the Palace of Versailles in the pouring rain. They chanted “Bread! Bread!” as they stormed the palace gates, and eventually pushed past the 20,000 royal guards protecting the palace. They killed two guards and forced King Louis XVI to agree to the following terms: distribute all of the bread that the palace hoarded, accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and accompany the women back to Paris to see how citizens lived. From this moment forward, King Louis XVI's reign came to an end, and he became a prisoner of the revolution. [12]

New Governments[edit | edit source]

The revolutionaries in France established a new government in order to accomplish what they desired.

National Assembly 1789-1791[edit | edit source]

The members of the National Assembly came from the members of the third estate in the Estates General. These members tended to be from the upper middle class, or bourgeois. The factions that began to form were the moderate Girondins, who pushed for a constitutional monarchy. The other faction was often referred to as "Jacobins" since they frequently met in Jacobin clubs to discuss revolutionary ideals. [13]

The lower class third estate, or the rest of the citizenry, led the fighting arm of the revolution and the National Assembly at this time. They did not, however, take part in the government. The urban middle class led the storming on the Bastille and the march on Versailles. [14].

Efforts to Remake Society[edit | edit source]

The National Assembly took a number of actions to remake society. They established social equality, and signed the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, which was a social contract. It provided for freedom of religion, taxation of equality, legal equality, and freedom of press and expression. Due to the lack of women’s representation in this document, Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women which argued for women’s rights in the new society.[15] The National Assembly mostly ignored this document and wrote a constitution that established a constitutional monarchy with a parliament which excluded women. The parliament was to be run by the bourgeois, who were considered "active" citizens, while the rest of the citizens were considered "passive" citizens and would not be allowed to take part in government. People in government were to progress based upon merit. Finally, the National Assembly established the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), which clergymen would eventually be required to swear an oath to in 1791. In addition to nationalizing church property, the Civil Constitution also abolished religious vows and turned all Church clerics (including monks and nuns) into civil servants who received their pay and assignments not from Rome, but from Paris. While this was initially well received by many Frenchmen who applauded the "bringing home" of the church, the subsequent punitive measures taken against clergy who did not swear the oath (also known as the refractory clergy) would be a cause of great resentment in the Western provinces, and was one of the causes behind the Vendee rising in 1793.

Legislative Assembly 1791-1792[edit | edit source]

The provisions of the National Assembly established what was supposed to be a permanent constitutional monarchy, the Legislative Assembly, with Louis XVI as the monarch. However, the Legislative Assembly failed very quickly for a number of reasons. The lower third estate felt abandoned by the bourgeois politically. In addition, the Legislative Assembly failed to fix the food and unemployment problems. As a result, the working men of France, or the sans-culottes, rose against the Legislative Assembly.

War with Austria and Prussia[edit | edit source]

Emigres, or nobility that had fled France during the Revolution, in Austria wanted the Austrian government to crush the Revolution. Other nations feared revolution in their own countries. Austria signed the Declaration of Pillnitz (1791), which stated that if the other powers attack France, so would Austria. The French interpreted this as a virtual declaration of war.

The Brunswick Manifesto (1792) by Prussia stated that the Prussians would punish the citizens of Paris if they did anything to harm Louis XVI or Marie Antionette. Prussia and Austria allied for the balance of power, in order to weaken France. The draining of war on the newly formed government also contributed to its downfall.

Convention 1792-1795[edit | edit source]

Anonymous Portrait of Maximilien de Robespierre c. 1793 (Carnavalet Museum).

The convention was an emergency republic with universal male suffrage. The leading body of the convention was the Committee of Public Safety, who worked to suppress dissent and protect the revolution. The committee was composed of twelve members, of whom the dominant individual was Maximilien de Robespierre. The leadership of the Convention split into two factions: the Montagnards (or "Mountain"), who was more radical and included Robespierre, and the Girondin, which was more middle class.

The convention had a number of issues to address. First, and perhaps most importantly, they were actively engaged in war with Prussia and Austria. They instituted the first draft, called the levee en masse, and a nationalist feeling rose among troops. In 1794, the French army invaded Austria and was successful.

In addition, the Convention needed to remake society. Members instituted "dechristianization," which was essentially the purging of Christians in France.

The convention also needed to address the food problem, and established the "General Maximum" that controlled bread prices and wages.

Finally, the Convention needed to stop the counter-revolution and write a new constitution. During a period known as "The Terror," Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety utilized the newly invented guillotine to execute tens of thousands of counter-revolutionaries. The Convention successfully wrote a new constitution, establishing a government known as the Directory as a permanent republic.

On 27 July ("9 Thermidor" in the Revolutionary Calendar) 1794, Robespierre himself was arrested, and was executed the next day. The resulting "Thermidorian Reaction" was a response to France's swing to the left, during which the government briefly went to the right, and finally back to the center. The Jacobins and other Montagnards were replaced with the more moderate Girondins (Bourgeois), and many Montagnard members were executed.

Directory 1795-1799[edit | edit source]

The Directory was the first constitutional republic, which had an executive body of five directors, as well as a bicameral legislative body consisting of the Council of Ancients and the Council of 500. In 1797, the first free elections were held, and the people of France astonished members of the Directory by electing a majority of royalists to the legislature. Unwilling to risk the reversal of everything achieved since 1789, left-wing members of the legislature, combined with support from the military, purged the Directory of rightist members in the coup of 18 Fructidor, which established a dictatorship controlled by left-wing Directors. However, people grew fearful of a possible return of the Terror, thus, when Napoleon Bonaparte and Abbe Sieyes launched the coup of 18 Brumaire to end the Directory and instead establish the consulate, there was little opposition.

The Haitian Revolution 1791-1804[edit | edit source]

Following the French Revolution (1789-1799), a new revolution was staged by enslaved plantation workers in the French colony known as Saint-Domingue. Inspired by the quest for liberty, equality, and fraternity in France and fed up with the violent treatment of their people, the enslaved population in St. Domingue sought a new life for themselves. Saint-Domingue was one of the world’s most prosperous colonies; however, it relied on plantations exploiting slave labor to fuel its economy. [16] Through the use of chattel slavery, the colony grew and exported cane sugar at a rapid rate, providing extensive wealth for plantation owners. [17] The colony made money through the cultivation of sugar, however, African slaves, who accounted for 89% of the population in St. Domingue, were worked to death in horrific living conditions, often being tortured as a way of punishment. [18]

In 1791, a violent slave rebellion spread through the colony led by Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803). L’Ouverture, a black man born a slave who would eventually be freed, shared similar rage towards slave owners, which propelled him to take command of the revolt. [19] L’Ouverture trained his troops using guerilla warfare, a military tactic used by small populations against larger regular armies. [20] The enslaved population took control and burned plantations as an act of defiance, then divided the plantations into small plots of land for African families. In 1794, The French National Convention declared slaves free, and L’Ouverture was appointed governor of St. Domingue by the previous French governor. [21] For the following decade, the French army, headed by Napolean Bonaparte, would attempt to re-establish slavery in the colony but were unsuccessful. Eventually, in 1804, St. Domingue achieved independence from France and became known as Haiti. [22] The Haitian Revolution started due to the political, social, and economic outbreaks in France, and it is a central outcome to the story of  the French Revolution. The French Revolution inspired many revolutions, rebellions, and revolts across the globe. In fact, historian Laurent Dubois writes, “Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution [23]

  1. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  2. Popkin, Jeremy. “What Can We Learn from the French Revolution Today?” Aeon Magazine, January 20, 2020. https://aeon.co/essays/what-can-we-learn-from-the-french-revolution-today.
  3. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  4. Popkin, Jeremy. “What Can We Learn from the French Revolution Today?” Aeon Magazine, January 20, 2020.https://aeon.co/essays/what-can-we-learn-from-the-french-revolution-today.
  5. TED-Ed. “What Caused the French Revolution? - Tom Mullaney.” Video. YouTube, October 27, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBn7iWzrKoI&list=PLkn2TP7UpiKywZCULyBfJtyx3Od-eqhJX&index=9&ab_channel=TED-Ed.
  6. Daily Dose Documentary. “Age of Enlightenment: How the Ideas of the Enlightenment Led to Revolution.” Video. YouTube, September 23, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmhP5DYhpRw&ab_channel=DailyDoseDocumentary.
  7. Brewer, Holly. “Does Locke’s Entanglement with Slavery Undermine His Philosophy?” Aeon Magazine, September 12, 2018. https://aeon.co/essays/does-lockes-entanglement-with-slavery-undermine-his-philosophy.
  8. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  9. TED-Ed. “What Caused the French Revolution? - Tom Mullaney.” Video. YouTube, October 27, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBn7iWzrKoI&list=PLkn2TP7UpiKywZCULyBfJtyx3Od-eqhJX&index=9&ab_channel=TED-Ed.
  10. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  11. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  12. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon”, AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  13. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  14. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  15. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade. “8: The French Revolution and Napoleon” AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  16. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade.  Chapter 8, The French Revolution and Napoleon, AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  17. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade.  Chapter 8, The French Revolution and Napoleon, AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  18. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade.  Chapter 8, The French Revolution and Napoleon, AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  19. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade.  Chapter 8, The French Revolution and Napoleon, AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  20. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade.  Chapter 8, The French Revolution and Napoleon, AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  21. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade.  Chapter 8, The French Revolution and Napoleon, AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  22. Gallo, Lou, and Robert Wade.  Chapter 8, The French Revolution and Napoleon, AMSCO Advanced Placement European History. Perfection Learning, 2019.
  23. Dubois, Laurent. “Why Haiti Should Be at the Centre of the Age of Revolution.” Aeon Magazine, November 7, 2016. https://aeon.co/essays/why-haiti-should-be-at-the-centre-of-the-age-of-revolution.