History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Political Revolutions

Stages of the French Revolution Click here for Audio

Here's a summary of the whole damn thing.

revolt of the elite

The story begins with King Louis XVI going broke (why? take a look at Marie's dresses on the previous page). Seriously, France was in debt up to its armpits after helping the ungrateful Americans win their war of independence against Britian. And that debt was on top of the debt they had from losing the Seven Years' War, not to mention the loss of profits from the colonies and territories that were taken. Louis had a great idea: tax the elites. Parlement (the court, remember) blocked this measure. The elites, who were of course well read, then demanded a Constitution to secure their rights and control the king. They demanded that he call the Estates-General. So Louis counted on his fingers and decided to do just that, figuring that the First and Third Estate would vote to let him tax the Second Estate.
Fall of the Bastille: July 14, 1789

National Assembly

He counted wrong. First he had to call for elections, since of course no one was left alive who had been in the Estates-General in 1614. France was in dire straights: crop failure, high taxes, inflation, unemployment. The new members met in May 1789, and were immediately deadlocked over the issue of how to vote: by order? (the old way) or by head count? (which would benefit the Third Estate). Finally, the Third Estate combined with liberal members of the First and Second Estates and left, creating a new government called the National Assembly that vowed to write a Constitution for France. On July 14, mobs in Paris, fearing a rumor that the king's troups were coming to kill them, stormed the Bastille (a combined prison/armory) and armed themselves. In August the Assembly issued:
bookWorkbook document: Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

Constitution and war

Under the new Constitution of 1791, the newly-named Constituent Assembly took action. Church land was confiscated to avoid bankruptcy. The Catholic Clergy were made civil and were paid by the state. The government administration was reformed into efficient departments. A constitutional monarchy was established, and the king seemed to cooperate. Clearly, the French Revolution was over, and therefore could be argued about. British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke fired the first volley:

bookWorkbook document: Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Edmund Burke speaks out against the French Revolution from Lisa M Lane on Vimeo.

Revolutionary Thomas Paine (also a participant in America) defied Burke's interpretation, claiming that the natural rights of man were more important than tradition. The argument is basic to understanding what happened next.

The king tried to escape France and make contact with supporters from other absolutist governments. Aristocrats, clergy and devout Catholics rallied around him. The surrounding European nations, afraid that the revolution would spread, armed themselves. Prussia and Russia were already crushing similar revolts. The new French government saw an opportunity to promote the revolutionary values of freedom, equality, fraternity. France declared war on Austria in 1792, and would be continually at war with somebody until 1815.

The Terror

Annual elections during time of strife and war and hope meant that the government of France became increasingly radical. The nobility were outlawed, and so was persecution of Protestants and Jews. Slavery was made illegal, and divorce was made legal. Representatives of workers began to dominate the assembly, and they renamed themselves the Convention.

The Convention imprisoned and tried the king, executing him and Marie Antoinette in 1793. By this time, the countries at war with France included Spain, England, Holland, Austria and Prussia.Thus there was a clear connection between traitors and counter-revolutionaries. The Convention appointed the Commitee for Public Safety, headed by Maximilian Robespierre, to hunt down counter-revolutionaries.

Robespierre, and by now most of the government, were turning away from a liberal revolution toward a radical one. Instead of freedom as the ideal, the focus was on equality. Thus aristocrats were hunted down not only as traitors to the revolution, but as traitors to an equal and just society. Only by renouncing ones status could one save his/her own life, and even then it might now work. Eventually, over 50,000 people went to the guillotine. Many of these were original revolutionaries from 1789, who had wanted a liberal middle-class government.

bookWorkbook document: Maximilien Robespierre: Speech on Virtue (1793)

Thermidorian reaction

By 1794, this middle class gained enough momentum to reassert itself and rewind the goals back to liberalism. In July 1794 (a month renamed Thermidor to get away from the Catholic calendar) Robespierre was overthrown (he'd end up guillotined, if you like your justice western-style). The propertied classes reasserted their control, but were unable to provide an efficient government under their 5-man Directory and two-house assembly. Ultimately, the corruption of the Directory paved the way for one man who could save the Revolution (that is, the 1789 Revolution): Napoleon Bonaparte.

NapoleonNapoleon in his study

You either love him or you hate him. Some say he was the saviour of the Revolution. Some say he was a dictator, a monarch no better than Louis XVI. He was both. Basing his power on the re-emergence of the middle class, and mutually beneficial relations with the French Church, he maintained control and conducted France through years of war. He made two big mistakes: arresting the pope (which alienated Catholics) and invading Russia (he lost half his army there to the winter).

Napoleon's great legacy to the Revolution was the establishment of the Civil Code of 1804 (also called the Napoleonic Code). This set of laws instituted the basic revolutionary goal of equality under the law. Based on Roman law, the Code was both liberal and humanitarian. (Take a look at the Code itself.)

After the Napoleonic wars, it was impossible for the autocratic governments of Europe to ignore the cries of the people for freedom. Even as they turned the clock back at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, monarchs had to acknowledge liberal ideas. Many were forced to accept reforms or lose their power. In 1830, France would again explode in revolution. By 1848, other nations would follow.

4. Factors in the French Revolution ->