HS-102 Readings

The French Revolution



1. Ideas of the enlightenment and the ease of distributing the written word.

2. Development of a middle class which lacked political power

3. A large gap in wealth between rich and poor.

4. An irresponsible aristocracy; a legacy of the reign of Louis XIV

5. Depression in the 1789,  shortages of  food, soaring food prices, unemployment in Paris, and
 over-population in Paris

6. Financial crisis at the top, due to the refusal of a privileged aristocracy to shoulder a
share of the financial burden


 Moderate phase: 1789-1792

The King, faced with bankruptcy, tried to raise revenues from the aristocracy by calling the Estates General into session.  It last met in 1614 when it was organized into 3 estates:
   1. Nobility        Each estate had one vote.
   2. Clergy
   3. 3rd estate

Impasse developed over voting. The 3rd Estate, now larger, reflecting changes which had occurred in France since 1614, insisted each delegate should have one vote.

France was in a depression. Soaring food prices brought great privation and hardship.

Paris was a hotbed of unrest; beggars, desperately poor people, unemployed in a city with a high degree of literacy. Numerous pamphlets, many with inflammatory messages critical of the monarchy, fanned the discontent.

The King, surrounded by aristocratic advisors, called out an 18,000 man army. This inflamed tempers and fears in the city.

When the 3rd estate were barred from the assembly hall, they met in a nearby tennis court and swore the tennis court oath, pledging to remain together.

Popular uprising occurred when a mob broke into the Bastille on July 14, 1789. The commander of the garrison and the mayor of Paris were seized and beheaded, their heads held on pikes as the mob marched through the streets.

The rebellious leadership of the 3rd estate organized to defend the city, while constituting themselves as the National Assembly.

Under pressure from leaders in the city, who argued that the presence of the army outside Paris was a source of panic and hysteria among Parisians, the King disbanded the army.

The leaders of the National Assembly, supported by popular protest in the streets of Paris, had successfully defied the government of the old regime. France became a Constitutional Monarchy

While the National Assembly wrote a Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, popular discontent led to a march on Versailles by unemployed workers, mostly women in the garment trade. They compelled the King and his family to move to the Tuileries, the royal estate, in Paris. The newly-formed national guard, led by the Marquis de Lafayette protected the royal family as they were conducted to Paris.

Popular sentiment, voiced in the cry: Liberty, equality, fraternity expressed a joy in the collapse of the old order and happy anticipation of a new era.

The inability of the National Assembly to address the economic problem caused them to lose control to more radical elements. The King, seeking to escape from France, was caught and brought back a prisoner.

Fear of foreign invasion provoked hysteria, and the concern about traitors. Aristocrats, especially, were suspect.

Meanwhile, rumors of the collapse of the monarchy had reached the countryside, where peasants began to rise up against the landlords and dispose of the last vestiges of feudal dues and obligations. They began to claim the land as their own. The revolution on the land spread throughout France and was beyond the control of the revolutionary leadership in Paris.

New and more radical leadership in Paris replaced the Assembly and formed the National

Radical phase: 1792-1795

As a popular army was raised to defend France against invasion, People's Courts held summary trials of thousands of suspected traitors. The Terror had begun.

The National Convention, intimidated by the Paris mob, tried and executed the King, while a patriotic army marched off to the tune of the Marsaeillaise, France's new national anthem.

The revolution had stirred a new sense of nationalism which would greatly strengthen France in opposing the aristocratic governments of the rest of Europe.

But the Convention could not control the course of events any more than the Assembly had. Rival factions vied for support of the popular movement in the streets, each accusing the other of treason and dragged the vanquished opposition to the guillotine. The revolution was destroying its own leaders.

Counter-revolutionary phase: 1795-1815

Demand for order and stability, led to the overthrow of Robespierre, the last and most famous of the radicals, and assumption of power by a new, more conservative leadership. A new Constitution was written providing for restricted suffrage which benefited the well-to-do. A Directory, an executive committee, attempted to rule.

Beset by threats from the aristocratic groups on the one hand, and by radicals supported by street demonstrations on the other, the Directory called on the army to defend them against overthrow.

Napoleon was a brilliant young officer from Corsica, who had opportunities to rise quickly in rank as the revolution decimated the officer corps of the French army. He was in command of the Paris garrison when the Directory sought help. He cleared the demonstrators from the streets with cannon.

Napoleon's military fame was advanced by successful campaigns in Italy which established his reputation and gave him independence of movement in the political maneuverings to come.

He led an army in a daring invasion of Egypt. After defeating an opposing army, he showed his political skill by gaining the support of the local Muslim government. But a British naval blockade cut his army off from France.

Napoleon evaded the British blockade and returned to France in time for the political crisis of 1800 when he was again called upon to rescue the Directory. This time he was appointed one of two consuls. (chief executive officer). He exploited this and his position as commander of French armies to manuever himself into power.

Napoleon acted vigorously to isolate opposition while he identified himself with the revolution. He called upon all Frenchmen, regardless of class background and previous political activities to support him. He was successful in rallying, the new patriotism of Frenchmen to his support, while he united the country after a decade of civil strife.

He presided over the completion of a new Code Napoleon, a new code of laws, which had been produced by a committee of the legislature, to replace an outmoded accumulation of regulations developed under the old regime. He reached an accomodation with the Roman Catholic Church known as the Concordat. While the Church was given control over religious affairs, Napoleon's government was the undisputed master in secular concerns.

Napoleon ruled over a France, which was more powerful than it had ever been because the revolution had unleashed the energies of the people in loyalty to France, and he had identified himself with the revolution. But, Napoleon was a military man, looking for military solutions to the problems he had with foreign powers. Failing to negotiate peace with England, France's primary foreign adversary, he launched Europe into a decade of war.

Napoleon's military genius and French national enthusiasm led to a series of military victories over Austria and Prussia.  By 1808, he ruled over most of continental Europe.
After his defeat of the Austrians and the Prussians, he created the Confederation of the Rhine, which brought a permanent end to the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire had consisted of more than 300 independent states. The Confederation of the Rhine was a consolidation into 37 independent states. Napoleon had unwittingly taken a step toward the unification of Germany.

The British, who were victorious on the high seas and safe on the other side of the Channel, remained as the most dangerous of belligerents opposed to France. They imposed a blockade upon all of Napoleonic Europe. This was countered by Napoleon's Continental System which sought to prevent trade between England and the continent. The two measures combined to disrupt commercial interests and retard economic growth.

Rebellion in Spain, supported by an English army, created festering problems for Napoleon.

Russian refusal to fully cooperate with the Continental System provoked Napoleon into an invasion of Russia. The Grand Army (600,000 men), which he organized for the invasion, seemed indomitable and was never defeated in battle. But even the occupation of Moscow did not induce the Russians to accept surrender. Napoleon was forced to abandon a city in flames and retreat in order to re-supply his soldiers. The retreat, in the midst of the Russian winter, destroyed his army.

Uprisings against Napoleon in Austria and Prussia threw Napoleon back to a defense of French borders. He finally faced military defeat at the hands of the coalition armies. A return from exile on the island of Elba was only a brief interlude, followed by Napoleon's final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and his permanent exile to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

With Napoleon exiled, the victorious powers restored the Bourbon dynasty to rule in France.  France had become a Constitutional Monarchy, since the king now shared power with the assembly, and middle class participation in government was assured. The last vestiges of feudalism were swept away. The French peasants now owned the land they worked. These were permanent changes wrought by the revolution. On the other hand, this was not the popular government which had been envisioned during the radical phase of the revolution. The vote was limited to a wealthy minority. It was not possible in the Europe of the early nineteenth century for anything resembling a democratic system to endure. However much the process of modernization had gone forward, it was not enough to establish or sustain a modern system.

Napoleon's role in the revolution is controversial because he successfully identified himself with the revolutionary cause at the time of his seizure of power. His actions reveal, however, that he was a counter-revolutionary figure. He had himself crowned as emperor. He arranged a marriage to a princess of Austria in order to have a son who could succeed him. He appointed his brothers to kingships over parts of the empire he had conquered. He created a royal order and rewarded his most able and loyal generals by appointment to hereditary positions. This was a man committed to the principle of inheritance as the basis for the legitimacy of power.