The French Revolution was a dramatic break with Europe's feudal past. As such it is the most important event
in modern European history. The rise of the bourgeoisie in France signaled the death knell for Ancien Regime, the
old aristocracy. Unlike Britain and the new United States, the economically important bourgeoisie was denied any
political role and support of the increasingly frivolous aristocracy imposed a great economic cost on France. Not
only was the bourgeoisie denied any real political role, but the lower classes lived in increasingly deprived
conditions, a situation intensified by the bankruptcy of the royal government. The increasing opposition to
France's virtually feudal government suddenly ignited during a 1789 riot that exploded into open revolt. The
Revolution was opposed by the other counties of Europe--all monarchies. A new Republic toppled the monarchy. A
series of sporadically violent and radical civilian administrations rued France. The height of violence was
reached in the "The Great Terror." King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette to the horror of Europe were
guillotined. The execution of the King and Queen made any accomodation with the Republic impossible. Foreign armies converged on Paris again, but were defeated by Republican forces under the new tri-color flag. Eventually a
remarkably capable and charismatic general seized control of the Revolutionary armies and the Republic merged into
the new French Empire. The disorders and violence in France were to engulf all Europe in war, first with the new
French Republic and then with Napoleon's Empire. The resulting wars and campaigns were the most significant in
Europe until World War I (1914-18). The French Revolution have profound political, social, and economic
influences. The dress of aristocracy came into question. Powdered wigs disappeared very quickly. Knee breeches
endured longer as they were also worn by the bourgeoisie. The working class had already begun wearing long
trousers. It was boys from well to do families that first began wearing long pants as part of a dress
costume--usually a skeleton suit. I'm not sure why boys were the first to adapt this style.
The rise of the bourgeoisie in France signaled the death knell for Ancien Regime, the old aristocracy. Unlike
Britain and the new United States, the economically important bourgeoisie was denied any political role. There was
no parliament as in Britain. Louis XIV had fashioned a centralized, absolutist state and is famous for his
statement, "I am the state." This absolutist state was continued by Louis XVI, but he had inherited a bankrupt
state because of war with Britain and support of the American Revolution. Support of the increasingly frivolous
aristocracy also imposed a great economic cost on France. Not only was the bourgeoisie denied any real political
role, but the lower classes lived in increasingly deprived conditions, a situation intensified by the bankruptcy
of the royal government.
The Enlightenment along with the Renaissance and Reformation was a key step in the formation of the Western
mind. Many of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers were French, but the Enlightenment was a movement which
over time affected all of Europe to varying degrees. America was also affected by the Enlightenment, but the
American experience was different, in part because of the Great Awakening. The Enlightenment is also termed the Age
of Reason. Authors define it differently and there were many different aspects, but the Enlightenment at it heart
was a basic turn in the Western mindset. The West for more than a millennium had been dominated by religion, often
described as faith. Even the Reformation had not changed this. In fact the Protestants were often more consumed
with faith and theological questions than the Roman church. With the Enlightenment, primacy was given to reason.
Intellectuals began to think that objective truth about life and the universe could be achieved through rational
thought. The advances achieved in physics, led by Sir Issac Newton in Britain, had a profound impact on European
intellectuals. Enlightenment writers began to think that the same kind of systematic thinking could be used to
understand and improve areas of human activity as well. A whole new system of aesthetics, ethics, government, and
logic was developed based on reason. The Enlightenment was an era of great optimism. Enlightenment thinks were
convinced that reason could dramatically improve society. They were not openly atheistic, but they were highly
critical of religion which they often equated with irrationality and superstition. The Enlightenment also attacked
political tyranny. The intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment led to the American and subsequent Latin American
revolutions as well as the French Revolution which had a much more pronounced impact on Europe. the Enlightenment
prepared the foundation for both classical liberalism and capitalism. There were comparable movements in music
(high baroque and classical) and art (neo-classical).
Louis succeeded to the throne on May 10, 1774 after his grandfather's, Louis XV, death. Louis died an
unpopular king. His grandson Louis XIV was still young and had great trepidation about reigning. At the time, he
was still immature, lacking in self-confidence, and because of a physical defect (later remedied by an operation)
frigid in his relations with his young wife. His wife was Marie Antoinette, a very young Austrian Arch-Duchess
(princess). The French Bourbons and Austrian Hapsburg were the two most prestigious royal houses in Europe. The
marriage represented a new alliance between these major European powers which had for years been fighting each
other. which Although well-disposed toward his subjects and interested in foreign policy, Louis had not
sufficient strength of character or power of decision to combat the court factions or give support to reforming
ministers. His poor education made him susceptible to the intrigues of scheming advisers. Louis did not have the
strength of character or foresight to pursue needed reforms when possible or to deal with the Revolution when it
occurred. His undoing of the judicial reforms of his grandfather cost him prestige, and his reign was marked by the
increasing strength of the aristocrats, who opposed most economic and administrative reforms.
Historians debate the causes of the revolution. Most agree as to the forces that led to the Revolution, but
disagree as to the relative importance. The years leading up to Revolution was an era pf political, economic, and
political turmoil. The finances of France were shattered by the ruinous Seven Years War in which France under Louis XV fought both Prussia and
Britain. As a result of the war France lost both India and Canada and was left with only a few Caribbean islands
as an overseas empire. France the once dominant European power is humbled. Partially as a result, the new king
Louis XVI decided to aid the American colonists against Britain. French support is critical for the success of the
American Revolution it also proves disastrous for the French monarchy. The loans and
cost of the war bankrupted the royal government. The French population grew substantially during the 18th century,
but French law and the economic system kept wealth and property essentially in the hands of the nobility. Some
authors stress the oppressive character of the royal government as a factor. Economic conditions seem to have been
even more important. Poverty grew and the bankruptcy of the monarchy aggravated the situation. Another factor
was the rising economic importance of the bourgeoisie and their desire for political power. Another important
factor was the Enlightenment which had raised dangerous new ideas about liberty and equality. The Enlightenment
called into question the underlying principle of the feudal system that still dominated Europe that hierarchy an
inherited social status was the natural state of affairs endorsed by God through the Church. Had the economy been
stronger and had the peasantry and urban poor not been experiencing such economic privations the debates of the
Enlightenment might have remained in the salons of Paris. The increasing poverty of the people led many to question the validity of the monarchy, especially an absolute monarchy. Many came to see the absolute monarchy as
absolutely responsible for the situation in France.
France experienced another poor harvest (1788). Bread prices began to rise. The poor in France essentially
lived on bread. The poor already living on the edge or pushed toward starvation. The Winter of 1788-89 was one of
the worst on record creating even more misery. Thus public discontent grew fed by rumors of the royal court
extravagance, especially the Queens excesses. Louis tinkered wwith fiscal reforms, but as the clergy and aristocracy did not pay taxes this meant higher taxes on the already burdened people. Food shortages occurred. Disorders occur in Paris and other cities. There are riots with mobs breaking into bakeries and other stores.
Louis appointed Necker finance minister. It is a popular choice as he has written on the need to reform. Even
Necker is unable to resolve the problem of the crushing deficit. Facing bankruptcy of the royal treasury, bankers
insist Louis summon the Estates General, a body that could approve new taxes. French kings had not convened the
Estates General for 175 years. Louis finally complied and summoned the Estates General. The Estates General met
at Versailles (May 5). They were was divided into three chambers representing respectively the aristocracy, the
clergy, and the commoners. The Third Estate were well-to-do commoners, people of property or position mainly, but
commoners all the same, and as such, people without significant political rights. But the time was ripe for change
and events moved swiftly. Many in the Third Estate resented the fact that they represented 97 percent of the
population, but were dominated by the other two estates. From the beginning the Third Estate calls for sweeping
reforms in French society and demand that the clergy and aristocracy begin paying taxes. They are join by
members of the junior clergy and some aristocrats. The First and Second Estates, however, block action.
Louis after 6 weeks of deadlock becomes concerned about the radical demands of the Third Estate and decided to
close the Estates General and send the deputies home. The Deputies arrive and find the doors locked. They refuse,
however, to close the session and go home. They retire to the Tennis Court and take an oath to not close the
session without a new constitution (June 17). The Third Estate declares itself a new National Assembly. Louis
hesitates to take action against them.
Rumors began to circulate in Paris that Louis was moving troops to suppress the National Assembly and bring
order to Paris. He reportedly was concentrating 30,000 troops around the city. The people of Paris to defend
themselves establish a Parisian city government--the Commune. They form a National Guard. They raid Paris armories for weapons, but lack gun powder. Paris is further incensed when Louis dismisses Necker. It is at this time Paris mobs began to descend on the Bastille where stores of gun powder are known to exist. The Bastille was a forbidding medieval fortress located at the center of Paris. It was seen as a symbol of royal despotism. The Bastille towered over the surrounding area. Parisians looked on the Bastille with foreboding. Terrible tortures were thought to take place within dark dugeons of the fortress. A mob attacks the Bastille and overwhelmed the small guard (July 14). The mob expected to free prisoners, but there were none. The governor of the Bastille was dragged through the streets and eventually killed. It is at this time that the red, white, and blue cockade appears which becomes the tri-color flag. Red and blue are the colors of Paris. White represents the Bourbons. The people of Paris proceed to demolish the Bastille by hand.
The National Assembly did not denounce the violence and bloodshed in Paris. The National Assembly adopted the
Declaration of the Rights of Man, one of the great documents of Western Civilization. The Declaration abolished
class distinctions and asserts sovereignty for the people. This was in essence a break with the Monarchy. The
monarchy in fact was not mentioned. Thus the National Assembly with the Declaration executed a coup, seizing
power from the King. France at this time becomes a constitutional monarchy. The National Assembly asserts a new
system of justice under responsible laws. They proceeded to take a series if ground breaking actions. The
Assembly established press freedom. They abolished feudal privileges (August 4).
With increased press freedom, a fiery newspaper editor Jean Paul Marat becomes influential in Paris,. Marat
was a former doctor. He failed at most attempts to earn a living. He descended into poverty and actually lived
for a time in the Paris sewer. There he contracts a serious skin disease and has to soak in medicinal baths. He
finds his calling in life, writing hate filled editorials. His paper The People's Friend becomes very
popular in Paris. It is essentially an outlet for Marat's venom. Parisian are prepared to believe any thing Marat
writes about the monarchy. He writes about plots against the Revolution with a paranoid zeal. And his
prescription for the threats to the Revolution is blood.
Marat continues to write inflammatory articles castigating the monarchy and accusing the King and Queen of
intrigues against the Revolution. One articles accuses the King and Queen of dancing on the tri-color at a
sumptuous court affair. The next day a mob led by the formidable Parisian fish women descend on Versailles (October 5). Louis fearful of the gathering mob signs the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The mob demands that the royal family accompany them back to Paris. He hesitates. Reacting furiously, the mob tear through the palace and almost kill the Queen. They do kill the palace guards and with the guards' heads on pikes escort the royal family pack to Paris. They are installed in Les Tuileries Palace. But in Paris they are essentially the prisoners of the Paris mob and the National Assembly.
The King When the Revolution broke out, allowed himself to be controlled by reactionary court factions into
defending the privileges of the nobles and clergy, and continued to believe that the Revolution would burn itself
out. Unfortunately for Louis, it only grew in strength. The Revolutionaries began to fear
the King and his family would attempt to escape Paris. Louis tried to leave the Tuileries for Saint-Cloud (Easter
1791). He wanted avail himself of a conjuring priest (1791). He was unable to do so.
The émigrés reached the conclusion that without the nobility dominated officer corps that the Revolution did not
have a creditable army. Representatives of the surrounding countries (Austria, Switzerland, Sardinia, and Spain)
met at Mantua (May 20, 1791). They secretly committed to invading France and restoring King Louis to power. king
Louis rejected the plan. Instead he supported General Bouillé, who condemned both the emigrees and the Assembly.
He promised the King refuge and support in his camp at Montmedy. The King with his family fled the Tuileries
(June 20, 1791). A carriage took them on the road to Châlons in an effort to reach Montmedy. When his absence was
noted, the Assembly acted decisively. They seized executive power and obtaining oaths from loyal troops. King
Louis refused to disguise himself and was recognized and arrested at Varennes l(June 21). He and the royal family
was escorted back to Paris under close guard. Pétion, Latour-Maubourg, and Barnave, representing the Assembly met the disheartened royal family and escort at Epernay. Barnave became a counselor and supporter of the royal family. Upon entering Paris, the crowd was generally silent. The Assembly provisionally suspended the King Louis as reining monarch. They placed him and Queen Marie Antoinette under guard. Despite attempts at compromise Louis was accused of treason and tried.
The monarchies of Europe rallied to the defense of the King and Queen. A combined Austrian-Prussian-army
accompanied by Royalist forces invaded France and moved toward Paris with the intention of freeing the King and
Queen an suppressing the Revolutionaries. The Austrians were especially concerned because Queen Marie Antoinette
was an Austrian princess. Revolutionary authorities cobbled together a force of regular army troops that had
declared loyalty to the Republic and revolutionary volunteers. To the surprise of most of Europe, the new French
army emerged victorious at Valmy (August 1792). The French artillery was especially effective. The French gained
another victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Jemappes in the Netherlands.
The defeat of the Austrian-Prussian armies strengthened the hands of King's enemies. The Revolutionary
government ordered the execution of King Louis and Marie-Antoinette (January 1793). King Louis XVI was guillotined on ?? and Queen Marie Antoinette followed him a few months later. The execution of the King and Queen made any accomodation with the Republic impossible. Other monarchs felt that the continued existence of the French Republic endangered their thrones, viewing it as a deadly contagion. The execution of the King in particular transformed the British and their powerful fleet into a foe committed to overturning the regicides.
Vendée is a coastal region south of Brittany bordered by the Loire River in west central France. A revolt
broke out there that was perhaps the most serious internal challenge to the Revolution. Conditions in the Vendée
were not as favorable to the Revolution as in Paris and many other regions of France. Class differences were not
as pronounced. The Vendée was a relatively isolated province. The nobility was highly residential and seems to
have maintained relatively good relations with the peasantry. There was also a strong devotion to the Catholic
Church. And problems began with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790). Agents informed the Convention of
the disturbing opposition to the Revolution in the Vendée (1791). The Marquis de la Rouerie organized a royalist
plot. The breaking point was the National Convention's decision to expand the army with a levy of 300,000 men
(February 1793). The Vendée erupted. One of the martial myths of the Revolution came out of the fighting in the
The French Revolution rather than the moderate American Revolution set the pattern for revolutionary movements.
The Revolution soon spun out of control. The Revolution abandoned its motto Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité and
great Declaration on the Rights of Man. Achievements like press freedom were suspended. Led by Robespierre, the
Revolution descended into terror--the Reign of Terror. As would prove to be the case in the great revolutions of
the 20th century, the Revolution after dispatching the nobility and other royalists turned on its own. Next came
the moderate girondists and soon anyone could be grist for the guillotine. Even revolutionaries like Danton went
to the guillotine. The Constitution of 1791 was to be the permanent constitution for a new France. Instead
France has had 11 different constitutions, two monarchies, two empires, and five republics. Much of this
instability can be traced to Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. The great tragedy is that future Revolutions
would make the blood letting of the Reign of Terror look inconsequential. The Terror ended only when Robespierre
made a serious error. He announced to the Assembly that he had the names of more traitors and would announce them
the following day. Had he not delayed the announcement he probably would have remained in control. But left a day
to react, none of the delegates could be sure that they were not on his list. As a result, when Robespierre
returned the next day, he and his colleagues were arrested before he could read his new list. The next day he and
his colleagues attempted suicide. Robespierre shot himself, shattering his jaw, but failed to kill himself. His
execution finally brought the terror to a conclusion.
New foreign armies invaded France and achieved some successes. The Republic declares a national levee en mass,
significantly expanding the army. The French commanders are able to first stop the foreign armies. The French
then over 2 years drive the Austrians what is now Belgium and then The United Provinces (Northern Holland).
Failing to achieve any success, many countries (Hanover, Prussia, Saxony, and Spain) withdrew from the coalition.
Only Austria and Britain by 1795, continued fighting against Revolutionary France. Austria, unlike Britain, had
no Channel separating them from the French. Austria now was fighting the French on the continent alone. The
conflict ebbed and flowed. Archduke Charles held the French generals Joubert and Moreau at bay in Germany.
Disaster befell the Austrian forces in Italy. A young general, skilled in the use of artillery, Napoleon
Bonaparte, forced the Austrians out of northern Italy in a brilliant campaign of devastating speed. Napoleon's Army of Italy in only a years gained control over the Po River Valley. He then moved north, joined with Joubert's
forces and moved on Vienna. The Austrian's were forced to ask for peace terms. The Austrian capitulation left
It is the wars and domestic violence, especially The Terror, which is most often associated with the French
Revolution. The Revolution was in fact an era of enormous social change, which is reflected in the changing
fashions of the day. One major development was the changing role of women in social life. Upper and middle class
women until the French Revolution were largely secluded at home. This was less true for poor women who were forced
to work, both inside and outside the home. It became common for women, at least in Western Europe, to join in
squares and promenades to socialize and show off their latest frocks and bonnets. Unmarried younger women would of
course be strictly supervised. Women also began to form joint benevolent societies for a variety of charitable purposes. Influential courtesans in France before the Revolution hosted salons where men and women could gather to discuss ideas, listen to music, and socialize. After the Revolution, such gatherings became much more common for both the upper and middle class.
The new American Republic was a minor actor in the late 18th century. The American reaction to the French
Revolution was of little consequence at the time, but it is interesting. The United States was at the time the
only Republic of any consequence All other important countries were monarchies. As France, albeit the monarchy,
played a critical role in the Revolution, it would seem that America would have been a strong ally of the
Revolution. And indeed there were partisans of France and the Revolution in America, especially at the beginning
of the Revolution. This was, however, surprisingly limited, especially given the intensity of anti-English feeling
in the country. President Washington wisely saw the need for America to stay out of European wars. Perhaps more
importantly, while anti-English feeling was rampant, America had largely retained English values and law. More
than anything it was the turn toward violence that frightened many Americans. This was especially rue in the South
which found the focus on equality especially dangerous. The XYZ Affair caused enormous resentment in America.
African slavery became well established in European colonies, including French colonies, during the 17th
century. African slavery was an important economic institution by the 18th century, especially important for the
Caribbean sugar islands which were a major element in Western European economies. France lost most of its empire
to the British, but retained important Caribbean islands. Liberty was a byword of the French Revolution as it had
been in the American Revolution. But like the Americans, the leaders of the French Revolution did not move toward
abolition. In America any step toward abolition during the Revolution or the framing of the Constitution would
have meant disunion as it would have been unacceptable to the southern colonies. In France it appears to reflect
the bourgeoise character of the Revolution and the economic importance of Caribbean slavery to the French economy.
While France did not move toward abolition, the Revolution did have substantial reverberations, both in the
Caribbean and in England which affected slavery.
A fascinating footnote of modern history is that perhaps the greatest French leader of all time, Napoleon
Bonaparte, as a boy did not speak French and grew up hating France. He was sent by his father, who has decided to
collaborate with the French invaders, to study in a French military school. Napoleon never really forgave his
father for collaborating with the French. It was in these schools, however, where he was dismissed as a foreign
nobody that Napoleon virtually slowly became French--although he was unaware of it at the time.
It is difficult to decide just when the wars of the French Republic become the Napoleonic Wars. We believe that
the victory over the Austrians is probably the best point. In the next major French campaign, Napoleon although
not yet Emperor has become the dominate force in France. The Napoleonic Wars extended over nearly 20 years and
included a number of distinct campaigns. The important campaign of the Napoleonic Wars are Egypt (1798-1801),
Second Coalition (1798-1801), Third Coalition (1805), Fourth Coalition (1806-07), Fifth Coalition (1809), the Peninsular War, (1808-14), Invasion of Russia (1812), Germany (1813), Invasion of France (1814), and the 100 days campaign (1815). British actions against American shipping resulted in a war with the fledgling United States, referred to as the War of 1812 in America.
I am not entirely sure what the modern French view is of the Revolution. Surely this depends in part on the
political philosophy of each individual. A French reader writes, "French schools teach that the Revolution brought
great social progress. Just what that progress was is a matter of conjecture. The constitution was built on the
precepts " Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ". These three words are today written everywhere. Hopefully other French
readers will tell us what they were taught in school. France of course has assisted American in its Revolutionary
War, despite the fact that the country was at the time a monarchy. There was great sympathy in America at first for the Revolution, but as it descended into violence and terror, America turned away in horror. Today Historians
still debate many aspects of the Revolution. The Revolution was of course Europe's first major break with monarchy and first attempt to govern a major country as a republic. The results send shivers through much of Europe for decades. Perhaps the most enduring question flowing from the Revolution was whether Napoleon was the end or continuation of the Revolution.
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