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January 29, 2014
French Revolution - World History
The French Revolution
On 14 July 1789 a furious, hungry mob attacked theBastille prison in the centre of Paris. They surged into the prison, liberating four bewildered counterfeiters, an aristocrat accused of debauchery and two mad men. There were no other prisoners. Then they turned their attention to destroying the hated building to which so many ordinary people had been committed without trial. Then the angry tide swept throughout Paris. Soon the severed heads of feeble assistants and commandant of the royal-fortress prison swayed from the rebels pikes.
Twenty kilometres away at Versailles,King Louis XVI slept in tranquility. When awakened with news of the disturbances, a perplexed Louis asked,"Is it a revolt?""No sire," came the reply,"it is a revolution".
The storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of a bloody revolution which completely demolished the foundations on which the 800 years of French monarchy rested. It was a revolution in which the down-trodden common man demanded from the absolute monarch his right to'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'. It was a revolution that cost the king his power, then his throne, then his liberty, and finally his life.
The causes of the revolution ran deep. Years of religious persecution, arrest and imprisonment without trial, arbitrary taxation and near starvation had driven the deprived masses to take this extreme step. Their stomachs and pockets were empty but their minds were fed by the thoughts and ideals propagated by the French philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau. Also, contributing greatly to their morale was the recent example of the American revolution.
Ironically, the Revolution found its most conspicuous victims among those who had themselves created it. Even after the execution of the royal family the Revolution progressed into a still more bloody phase of a counter-revolution remembered in history as 'The Reign of Terror'. Thousands of heads rolled at the guillotine before the madness ended and a new system of government called the Directory, was set up.
The Revolution saw the rise of a young dynamic soldier, Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to become the general of the French army at the age of twenty-six. Napoleon overthrew the Directory in 1799. The French Revolution was finally over. Napoleon set up a government called the Consulate. As the First Consul, Napoleon was a dictator, that is, a leader with absolute powers.
A mere 10 years after the Revolution, France had exchanged one ruler for another. Nonetheless, Napoleon kept many of the changes made during the revolution.
In 1642 and 1688 revolutions that took place in England were political and religious; The revolution of 1776 in America was chiefly political; but the French Revolution of 1789 was political, social, religious, and economic. It introduced democratic ideals to France but did not make the nation a democracy. However, it ended the supreme rule by French kings and strengthened the middle class. After the revolution began, no European kings, nobles, or other privileged groups could ever again take their powers for granted or ignore the ideals of liberty and equality.
1. Background of Unrest
The French Revolution was a deep-rooted revolt by many classes of people against the whole order of society. It stemmed from longstanding grievances.
1. Financial crisis: The country was impoverished. The nation had gone into deep debt to finance fighting in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the Revolutionary War in America (1775-1783).
Note: The Seven Years War was a battle fought between the European powers for control at sea and in their colonies. The British navy defeated the French at the battle of Quiberon Bay, and the Prussians fought battles against the French and the Russians. The British and the French also fought in America for control of the colonies.
Louis XVI helped America in their revolution not because he loved democratic rule, but because he hated England. This was the last straw for the French treasury, and France sank completely into bankruptcy.
The lavish lifestyle of the French monarchs had further left the state coffers almost empty.
When Turgot, the finance minister in the court of Louis XVI suggested economic reforms the nobles and clergy opposed these reforms as they were likely to affect their pockets and privileges. Turgot was dismissed and the state financial position worsened.
There was no alternative for the king but to summon the French Assembly to secure money grants through taxation.
2. Social disparity: In the 1700s, the people of France were divided into three groups called estates-the nobles, the clergy, and the third estate.
1. The Nobles were land owners and spent most of their time enjoying themselves at court, and were exempted from paying taxes.
2. The Clergy shared many of the privileges of the nobles.
3. The Third Estate was made up of the bourgeoisie (businessmen, and professionals like lawyers and journalists), peasants and serfs.
The bourgeoisie now became as wealthy as nobles and resented their lack of social privileges that depended on ownership of land. The peasants lived in poverty and misery, paying heavy taxes to the Crown, to the Church, and to their local lords.
Influence of Philosophers and Writers : The French thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment (as the 18th century is known) urged the masses through their writings to fight the oppressive rule of the French Kings.
Among the most influential writers were Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot.
Absolute Monarchy: Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715, believed that he ruled with the blessings of God and was called the 'Sun King'. He constructed a system that came to be known as absolute monarchy.
1. He sought to weaken the power of the nobles (people with titles like prince, duke or count) of France. He taxed them heavily and set up special law courts to hear complaints against them.
As a result the nobles did not have money to oppose the king.
2. He increased the number of nobles by selling titles to people who could afford to buy them. These new nobles favour the king because he had given them titles.
3. He centralized the government of France and gathered all the government's power in one person and one place-the king and his court.
Thus, nobody could question his decisions; he could make and unmake laws, wage war, and levy taxes without consulting anyone.
The only theoretical curb on the King's power was the Estates General, a law making body made up of members of the three estates. It was the rough equivalent of the English Parliament, but this group had not met since 1614 and the king ruled alone.
Louis XIV also moved his palace to Versailles, about 20 km away from Paris where he was entertained by his nobles. This meant that he had little contact with the people he ruled.
a. Charles Montesquieu (1689 - 1775): A nobleman by birth, he became a lawyer and a judge. In his book, "The Spirit of Laws", he criticised autocracy and praised the British Constitution as it combined all the virtues of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He also advocated that the various branches of government i.e., the legislature, the executive and the judiciary should be independent and separated for when all these were combined in the hands of a single ruler, it resulted in tyranny.
b. Francis Aronet Voltaire (1694-1778): He belonged to the middle class. He is noted for his wit and sarcasm through which he exposed the tyranny and the inefficiency of the nobility and the clergy.
c. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712- 1778) : Rousseau is regarded as the architect of the French Revolution. In his famous book, "The Social Contract", he proved that the government was the result of a social contract between the people on the one hand and the ruler on the other. So if the ruler did not fulfill the contract, the people had the right to withdraw their loyalty to him and bring down the tyranny of the ruler by revolting.
Rousseau had put forward revolutionary ideas in the relationship between the state and citizens. Only the right opportunity was needed to start a revolt.
4. Diderot and the Encyclopaedists: Diderot was the editor-in-chief of the famous Encyclopaedia, running into volumes.
Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and others came to be known as the Encyclopaedists who criticized unjust taxation, cruel laws, religious intolerance, slave trade and other injustices. The radical thinking of the Encyclopaedists prepared the people for the revolution intellectually.
4. The English and American Revolutions: The French people were greatly influenced by the two revolutions in England and America. Both these revolutions gave the French people ideas of freedom, of fraternity and awoke in them a spirit of hostility towards autocracy and aristocracy.
The Course of the French Revolution
On 5th May 1789, the French King, after a lapse of 175 years, called the Estates General at Versailles to save France from bankruptcy. At this meeting it was decided to change the laws so that:
1. The nobles and rich men should no longer be favoured and exempted from taxes.
2. The poor had equal rights with the rich in appealing to the law in cases of arrest and disputes.
It was traditional that each Estate's representatives met separately and their decision counted as one joint vote. Under those conditions, the first two Estates jointly always out-voted the Third Estate. However now the leaders of the Third Estate insisted that the three Estates sit as a single body representing France as a whole, each delegate having an individual vote.
The king and the first two Estates did not agree. Ultimately one of the leaders of the Third Estate boldly proposed that the Third Estate would constitute itself as a National Assembly.
Oath of the Tennis Court: The king continued humiliating the members of the Third Estate. On20 June 1789, the members of the Third Estate met at a nearby place, formerly a Tennis Court, and took an oath - the Oath of the Tennis Court - not to separate until a constitution for France had been drawn up.
Though the king agreed to these changes he did not really mean to carry them out. He secretly tried to gather an army to restore his power and to crush the people again. At this stage, the people of Paris broke out into riots.
Fall of the Bastille: On14 July 1789, the people seized arms from a military barracks, and marched on the Bastille the grim, hated prison, where it was believed, many innocent people were imprisoned. After a few hours the governor was induced to surrender, and the crowd, frantic with excitement, poured in. They massacred the guards and set free the prisoners. Then they razed the building to the ground.
The violence in Paris stirred the National Assembly to action. On 27 August 1789,they issued the Declaration of Rights of Man. This document made all male citizens equal.
But the French Revolution did not stop here. In October 1789 the Paris mob broke loose again. Stirred up by hunger, a host of women marched to Versailles and marched back to Paris with the king, the queen and their son - "the baker, the baker's wife and the baker's little boy" - in the hope that the government would make an all-out effort to provide at least bread for the people.
The Assembly later drafted a constitution, or plan of government, which made France a limited monarchy. According to this, the king and the Assembly would work together to govern France.
By September 1791, the National Assembly believed that the revolution was over. It disbanded at the end of the month to make way for the newly electedLegislative Assembly.
On 1st October 1791, the new Assembly made up of representatives of the middle class met for the first time. It soon faced many problems. The government's stability depended on co-operation between the king and the legislature. But Louis XVI remained opposed to the revolution.
Rise of the Jacobins: The new Legislative was weak and divided. Some members of the assembly wanted even greater changes in the government of France. These leaders met in clubs and were calledJacobins. They were led by such ruthless and blood thirsty men asJean Paul Marat (a journalist),Jacques Danton (a lawyer), and Maximilien Robespierre (a lawyer).By the end of 1791 power was slipping from the hands of the moderates into the hands of these extreme revolutionaries, the Jacobins. Their opponents were known as the Gironde. In April 1792, the new government faced a foreign threat. It went to war with Austria and Prussia. These nations wished to restore the king and the nobles to their positions. It may be noted that the Emperor of Austria was the brother of Marie Antoinette. As a result, the angry revolutionaries demanded that the king be dethroned.
The Fall of the Bastille: The Fall of the Bastille on 14th July 1789, is a great event in history:
1. It was a signal for the popular uprisings all over the country.
2. It meant the end of monarchy and the old social order in France.
3. It marked the beginning of the French Revolution. The Paris riots quickly spread to the provinces. The machinery of government broke down completely.
The people of France today celebrate Bastille Day just as Indians celebrate 15th of August and the Americans 4th of July.
The people of France today celebrate Bastille Day just as Indians celebrate 15th of August and the Americans 4th of July.
Comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791): Mirabeau was a French Statesman, orator, and revolutionary leader.
In 1789 he was elected to represent the Estates-General. He tried to work alongside the king for he believed that France needed both the king and the assembly.
In 1790 he was elected president of the Jacobin club.
In 1791 he became president of the National Assembly, a position where his influence might have done much good, but he died within three months, with the prophetic words, "I carry with me the ruin of the monarchy."
The kings' removal led to a new stage in the revolution. A new National Conventionreplaced the Legislative Assembly. It opened on21st September 1792 and declared France a republic. The republic's official slogan was"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."
The Jaicobins soon dominated the new government. Louis XVI was placed on trial for betraying the country and the Convention found him guilty of treason.
The Jacobins pressed for the king's execution and on21st January 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded by the guillotine.
The Reign of Terror: The Convention set up a Committee of Public Safety and declared a policy of terror against rebels and leaders of the Girondins. Courts handed down 18,000 death sentences in what was called theReign of Terror. Victims of this period included Marie Antoinette, the widow of Louis XVI.
Soon the Jacobin leaders began to quarrel. Danton wanted to halt the massacre while Robespierre wanted it to continue. The result was that Danton went to the guillotine, but Robespierre followed him there a few months later.
Then at last the fever subsided. The downfall of Robespierre showed that the people were finally tired of the bloodshed.
End of the Revolution: The Reign of Terror ended with Robespierre's death. The Conservatives gained control of the Convention and drove the Jacobins from power. The Convention, which had adopted a democratic constitution in 1793, replaced the document with a new one in1795. The government formed under this constitution was called the Directory. This government remained in power for four years, when it was overthrown in 1799 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Impact of Revolutions
1. The bloodless Revolution of England greatly impressed the French thinkers and the people and they too wished to achieve political freedom along similar lines.
2. The French soldiers returning from the American battle fields, cherished the ideas of liberty and they hoped that a similar movement would bring liberty to the French people and provide a remedy for their grievances.
3. The French people realized that if they were as united and determined as the colonies there was no reason why they should fall to gain freedom from tyranny.
The Effects of the French Revolution: The French Revolution is one of the most important events in modern history. It signifies a great victory for the idea of democracy, though it did not bring about complete rule by the masses immediately.
It set up a new standard of Liberty - a liberty which was political, social and religious.
1. It brought an end to the tyrannical rule of the rich over the poor.
2. Absolute monarchy and privileged nobility disappeared entirely from the French scene. Uniform laws were laid down for the rich and poor alike, and everybody was taxed justly.
3. It spread the spirit of nationalism and democracy. The democratic slogan of the French Revolution of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" echoed in every individual heart.
4. The great estates on which the poor people worked were sold cheaply to the middle and lower class people.
5. Trade improved greatly and people could now select their own occupation irrespective of their family or position.
The kings of Prussia and Austria sent armies to invade France in order to punish the French people for killing their king. But the French defended their new Republic bravely and later, together with their new armies, drove the Austrians out of Belgium and Holland, and attacked Italy which was under the Austrian regime.
Outside France, the example of the revolution was a reminder to the rest of Europe, an encouragement to the oppressed and a warning to the oppressors. It became a test-bed for social and political ideas from which future revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries could draw practical lessons.
The French Revolution: Important Events
1789 : The Revolution sparked off when an angry Paris mob stormed the Bastille prison on 14 July.
1789: 27 August, Declaration of the Rights of Man.
1790: Louis XVI accepts new democratic constitution.
1791: Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinnette try to escape from France, but are stopped and brought back to Paris.
1792: National Convention abolishes monarchy.
1793: Execution of Louis XVI by guillotine in January; Marie Antionette follows in October.
1793-94 : Robespierre's Reign of Terror
1794: Danton guillotined in April.
1794: Robespierre arrested and guillotined in July; End of Reign of Terror.
1795: Formation of Directoire
The bloody head of Robespierre was stuck to a pole, where it provided a model for the waxwork (above) by the Parisian sculptress Madame Tussaud, who took it to London in 1802.
"We need boldness, boldness and still more boldness, and then France will be saved." Danton, at a rally
"Freedom consists of being able to do anything which does not harm others." Declaration of the Rights of Man
"If they do not have bread, let them eat cake!" -Marie Antoinette's remark which showed her ignorance of the plight of the common man
"I die innocent, and I forgive. I pardon my enemies and pray that my blood will be of service to France, that it will appease God's anger." -Louis XVI, moments before his head fell at the guillotine