World History 2 104 - 7.3.2 The French Revolution

Inspired by the success of their North American counterparts, critics of absolute monarchical power and entrenched aristocratic privilege in France began agitating for change. They found themselves in the midst of a significant economic crisis brought on by a combination of the king’s extravagant spending and (ironically) France’s support of the American Revolutionary War.

Like the battle for independence in the North American colonies, the revolutionary movement in France reflected a complex web of causes and consequences. After a series of poor harvests and the near-bankruptcy of the French Crown left many peasants and urban poor on the brink of starvation in the 1770s, resentment of the regime’s inability to provide relief led to extensive unrest and rioting. The Crown’s subsequent attempt to institute a land tax on aristocrats, who had previously been exempt from such assessments, resulted in broad resistance from social elites reluctant to surrender their traditional privileges. Meanwhile, the growing middle class, resentful of its exclusion from political power, agitated for change inspired by the Enlightenment rhetoric of rights and liberties. Demands for the reform of an antiquated system of government and social hierarchy reached a point of no return in the mid-1780s.

Whereas the American Revolutionary War resulted in the birth of an independent new nation, the French Revolution radically restructured long-standing political systems and reshaped the balance of power in Europe. Although the revolt’s radical rejection of authoritarian rule, which enforced obedience to government authority and limited individual freedom, ultimately faltered, the social and political reforms it inspired heavily influenced the character of modern nations.

At the core of revolutionary fervor in France was the traditional division of French society into three estates—clergy, aristocracy, and commoners—that reinforced the wealth and political power of the aristocracy and the church. In this system, which had emerged in the Middle Ages, the First Estate consisted of the Catholic clergy, who made up less than 1 percent of the population but held roughly 10 percent of French lands. Virtually exempt from taxes, the church derived substantial wealth from tithes (taxes of one-tenth of annual income) and fees imposed on the general population. The nobility, who were the Second Estate, represented roughly 3–4 percent of the population but held upward of 30 percent of the country’s lands. They also dominated the most prestigious administrative, military, and judicial positions in the royal bureaucracy by virtue of their aristocratic status and were exempt from taxes as well. The burden of paying taxes fell largely on the shoulders of the Third Estate, the remaining 95 percent of the French population consisting of peasants, the urban poor, the wealthy bourgeoisie or urban middle class who made a living largely through commerce and the professions, and everyone else who did not fall within the other two estates (Figure 7.12).

This cartoon shows three people. A priest, wearing purple robes, and a member of the nobility wearing a uniform and carrying a sword, ride on the back of a worker. The worker bends over and leans on a hoe to support the weight of the two men on his back. Small animals are on the ground.
Figure 7.12 This cartoon of 1789 depicts the social inequalities and tensions that pervaded French society on the eve of the French Revolution. The First and Second Estates, a small minority of the population, controlled the majority of land and wealth, while the labor and tax burden fell on the Third Estate. The caption reads, “We must hope this game will be over soon.” (credit: “Les Trois Ordres” by Gallica Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Although persistent wealth inequality became a significant sore point for the French masses, particularly in the midst of a national economic crisis, exclusion from political power was another issue leading up to the revolution. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on public opinion, natural rights, and freedom from tyranny also resonated with many educated commoners and aristocrats, who believed that political and economic reforms were desperately needed in France. However, the Estates General, a general assembly made up of representatives of the nobles, clergy, and commoners that was France’s closest approximation to a constitutional body, had not been convened by a French monarch since 1614. Equally problematic was the voting structure of this body, which gave each estate one vote. Since the clergy and nobility generally shared common interests, their votes typically defeated any initiatives the Third Estate might propose.

In 1789, in an act of desperation, King Louis XVI summoned the Estates General to propose a radical reform of the economy and the creation of new taxes. But the Third Estate refused to participate until the king reformed the voting system. After a period of stalemate, the Third Estate gained the support of many members of the clergy and met separately as a National Assembly. This act of political rebellion reinforced the sovereignty of the people, to which the king responded by amassing military forces with the goal of subduing the people by force. His plan backfired, however, when a series of popular uprisings in Paris and throughout the country resulted in the commoners’ seizure of sites associated with royal authority, such as the Bastille, a fortress in Paris, land redistribution, and refusal to pay taxes.

In a position of strength, the National Assembly then issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which upheld natural rights such as liberty and property, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but also mandated the adoption of representative government, equality before the law, and freedom of expression. As a means of reducing monarchical power and enforcing the mandates of the Declaration, the National Assembly created a new constitution in 1791 and charged a newly formed Legislative Assembly with governing France as a constitutional monarchy and developing legislative reform.

Despite its progressive reforms, the Declaration faced opposition from critics such as French playwright Olympe de Gouges for failing to address women’s rights. In 1791, Gouges published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, which emphasized women’s equality with men and asserted that women should experience the same rights of citizenship as their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, France’s economic situation continued to worsen, and a group of women struggling to feed their families organized a crowd of thousands to confront the king and demand action. Also instrumental in building revolutionary momentum against the king and the nation’s profound wealth inequality were the sans-culottes, radicals from the lower and working classes who could not afford the culottes, or fashionable short pants, that were worn by the aristocracy and indicated one did not have to perform manual labor for a living (sans is French for “without”). After the angry mob captured the royal family, the king lost all remaining popular support when he and his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette, attempted to escape.

The newly formed Legislative Assembly suspended the king and created a representative body known as the National Convention, which convicted Louis of treason. The National Convention was composed of a number of different groups of revolutionaries with conflicting opinions regarding what the government of France and French society should be like. A variety of political clubs and organizations expressed a range of ideas about the goals of the revolution and the best course of action to achieve them. Founded in 1789, the Jacobins quickly became the most influential of these clubs. The Jacobins sought to end the reign of King Louis XVI and establish a republic to replace the French monarchy. However, disagreements between their radical and moderate factions made consensus difficult to achieve. Whereas the Girondins, a moderate faction of the Jacobins, some of whom hailed from the Gironde region of southwestern France, opposed executing the king, the radical Jacobin faction the Mountain, so named because its members sat on the highest benches of the National Convention, supported sentencing him to death. After the Convention held a trial for the king, the Mountain ultimately prevailed, and the king was executed in January 1793.

After declaring those who opposed the king’s execution enemies of the revolution, in 1793 the Mountain and their supporters initiated a period of violent repression known as the Reign of Terror. Maximilien de Robespierre, a lawyer who championed the principles of equality, led the provisional government of France, known as the Committee of Public Safety, from 1793 to 1794. Under the battle cry liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood), this radical phase of the revolution achieved many progressive reforms, including controlling the price of grain, legalizing divorce, and abolishing slavery. Despite such achievements, however, it was also inherently contradictory, since tens of thousands of people were arbitrarily imprisoned or executed as a means of silencing dissent.

Disagreements between the Committee of Public Safety and the Convention over religious and economic policies hastened the end of the Reign of Terror as support for Robespierre’s repressive policies dwindled. By 1794, members of the opposition had removed Robespierre from power, and the Terror finally came to an end in July 1794 when its leaders, including Robespierre, were executed on the guillotine. The Convention then dismantled the executive powers of the Committee of Public Safety and sought to restore political stability by creating a constitution in 1795 that established a new executive council of five men known as the Directory. Despite the new government’s efforts to prevent rebellions and dissent, it faced a variety of challenges from radical Jacobins who wanted to restore the Terror’s revolutionary fervor and from conservative factions that sought to restore the monarchy. Growing conflict between moderates and radicals, sharpened by a period of famine and economic difficulty, ultimately led the Directory to invite Napoléon Bonaparte, a charismatic and ruthless general in the French army, to help them develop a more authoritative government in 1799 and quiet the voices of opposition.

Link to Learning

A pervasive symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine was designed to mechanize executions and render beheading more humane and efficient while ensuring that all people sentenced to death experienced the same quick and relatively painless execution regardless of social class. Illustrations of a guillotine from the Museum of the French Revolution and an execution by guillotine are presented.

Following the Terror’s failure, the revolution took a more conservative turn, and the idealism of the French Revolution came to an end. The modern democratic tradition emerging in France then transformed into popular authoritarianism when Napoléon seized control. Although he safeguarded some revolutionary gains, Napoléon also reinstated slavery in France’s colonies and declared himself emperor in 1804. At the height of his power, he ruled over a massive empire.

Following a series of failed military campaigns stemming from his desire to dominate Europe, however, including a disastrous attempted invasion of Russia, Napoléon abdicated his throne in 1814. He then returned and led France again until his defeat by the British and Prussians at Waterloo (Belgium) in 1815. After this loss, Napoléon was ultimately banished from France and forced to spend the rest of his days in exile.

The French Revolution now appeared to come full circle with the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814–1815. However, Louis XVIII, the restored French king, could not rule as an absolute monarch and had to recognize his subjects’ new constitutional rights to participate in government and regulate the king’s power. Notwithstanding Napoléon’s brief autocratic reign, the French Revolution successfully dismantled the nobility’s and clergy’s disproportionate share of power and defeated the strongest absolute monarchy in Europe.

The French revolutionaries failed to fully establish the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity that had long inspired the movement. They sought to replace royal and aristocratic privilege with sweeping reforms rooted in ideals of natural rights and protection from tyrannical government. Yet in practice, and regardless of the instrumental roles they played in the revolution, women in France did not receive many of the rights extended to their male counterparts. In fact, France was the last of the major Western powers to extend voting rights to women, in 1944.

Perhaps even more paradoxical was the contradiction between Enlightenment ideals of liberty that fueled the revolution on one hand and France’s ongoing colonialism, exploitation of slave labor, and discrimination against free people of color on the other. Except for a brief period during the Reign of Terror, France continued to uphold the institution of slavery in its colonies. In particular, in the colony of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, few if any rights were extended to enslaved or free people of color in the wake of the French Revolution. Ultimately, then, the legacy of revolution in France was mixed.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax