History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: Political Revolutions

Song played by French revolutionaries as Ça Ira, then by the British to taunt the French as Downfall of Paris in 1815 (Lyrics in French and English)

Lecture contents:

The Revolutionary Idea
Causes of the French Revolution
Stages of the French Revolution
Factors in the French Revolution
The Napoleonic Experience


Pity is treason.

--Robespierre, 1794


The revolutionary idea

I did not mean to imply, in my last lecture, that the American War for Independence was not important in European history or to Western Civilization. Indeed it was. Thomas JeffersonThe most important thing for history was this:

bookWorkbook document: Declaration of Independence (1776)

Jefferson's document set out for all eternity the practical application of Locke's political liberalism. It was the second step in a pattern of modernizing revolutions: from the Glorious Revolution -> American Revolution -> French Revolution -> Russian Revolution. It had created an idea of revolution based on freedom from oppression.


Causfleur de lises of the French Revolution

There are many causes of the French Revolution. I'm going to reduce them to two: one long-term and one short-term:


The rational thinking of the Enlightenment had led to a belief in rational governance of human beings. Locke had originated the idea of the right to rebel in the 1680s, then Jefferson had added the concept of inalienable rights in the 1770s. In France, Voltaire had been the major proponent of the crushing of superstitions and intolerance, and the need for rationalism. Rousseau had added his ingredient: the idea of the sovereignty of the people. Indeed, Rousseau's emphasis on the general will of the people, and his dedication to freedom and liberty for individuals, caused some to blame him for the French Revolution even though he was dead by then.

oppressive Ancién Regime

To begin with, the tax system in France was skewed. Peasants and urban workers (bakers, grave-diggers, road workers, lace makers, merchants, etc.) paid the taxes. The elites (both aristocrats and clergy) were exempt from taxes.

The political power was unbalanced. The Estates-General was a representative body made up of the three estates: (1) the clergy, (2) the nobility, and (3) everybody else. Each estate had one house to represent them, meaning that the First and Second estates simply outvoted the Third on any issue. But it didn't matter anyway, because the absolutist king decided. In fact, the Estates-General hadn't met since 1614, when Richelieu had arranged their dismissal. The only threat to the king's power was the Parlement, which was the high court of justice (don't confuse it with the British Parliament!). Only they could stop tax measures, and they were controlled by the nobility.

The elites were completely out of touch with the ordinary folk. Queen Marie Antoinette is a startling example.

Marie Antoinette paintings

Isn't she lovely? She apparently thought so too. Although she didn't say "Let them eat cake" about the peasants not having bread, and she has a new crop of defenders, she was also known to dress up as a milkmaid and go "play peasant" in her own private village at the palace.


Stages of the French Revolution

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.

guillotineThe 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.


Factors in the French Revolution


womenWomen contributed to all aspects of the revolution. They led the bread riots in Paris and the storming of the Bastille. They were among all the demonstrations and mob actions against the government of Louis XVI. Within the left wing of the Republic, some of them fought for the rights of women. They wrote speeches, signed petitions, and operated radical presses. Their quest for equality put them in the radical camp, rather than the liberal.

Between 1789 and 1793, women were influential in the course of the revolution, and helped pull it toward the radical left. One example was Olympe de Gouges:

* Textbook document: Olympe de Gouges' Declaration of the Rights of Women

De Gouges would be guillotined in 1793, because she opposed the death sentence of Louis XVI (she even offered to defend him in court, believing him to be no worse than any other king). She had also spoken out against the bloody policies of Jacobite Jean Paul Marat and Robespierre, who considered her a royalist counter-revolutionary.

Marat dead in his bathOther women also took an active role in revolution. Charlotte Corday, horrified at the excesses of Jacobites murdering without cause, killed leader Jean Paul Marat in his bath. This moment was marked by painter David, who seemed to always be in favor of whichever government hired him. (He sketched the Oath of the Tennis Court in 1789 but survived to paint Napoleon later on.)

1793 was not only the year of the deaths of de Gouges and Corday, but it also marks a shift away from the demands of women for equal rights. The Convention, in other ways the most politically radical of the French governments, tried to outlaw women in politics. They accused women of counter-revolutionary activities (such as the trumped-up charge against de Gouges), lack of education, moral weakness, and excitability (pretty funny coming from guys feeding the guillotine on a daily basis).

Debating women's rights as a public issue, the possibility emerged that they could become citizens and vote too much. Thus the Convention took on the task of defining women's rights for them, removing them from most public influence. Throughout the Directory and Napoleon's rule, most of the gains made by women during the Revolution were reversed. Under the Napoleonic Code, women had no political rights, and their legal status was dependent. They couldn't sign contracts, buy or sell property, and they were restricted in initiating divorce.


Two peasants repairing a plow
The participation of peasants began right after the storming of the Bastille, though resentment had already been brewing due to the rise in the price of bread. Beseiging towns and villages hoping for assistance, peasants were hopeful that the Estates-General would solve their problems. Assuming this, they took action in the countryside: poaching in the forests of the nobility, attacking food convoys, and refusing to pay taxes and tithes. With the formation of the National Assembly and the storming of the Bastille, they began burning manor houses and debt books. Others, fearing the king would send troops to kill them, went on rampages of rural violence.

This violence was instrumental in forcing the aristocrats to give up their privileges, as dictated by the National Assembly. Nobles renounced their exclusive hunting rights, tax exemptions, monopolies on high office, manorial courts, and debts of service. All well and good, but the Assembly had trouble controlling the peasants' demands. As liberal middle-class men, Assembly members held fast to policies regarding property rights, which peasants ignored. This would be a major problem all the way through the Revolution.


The Napoleonic ExperiencNapoleone (1799-1815)

Napoleon Bonaparte kept power by evoking the Revolution, the original principles of 1789. He restored the prestige of the Church and the power of the middle-class, but kept both under control.

Napolen was both conservative (in the way he enforced the stability of his own rule) and liberal (in his laws). He was a genius at military strategy. Creating a new nobility based on merit within the army, he defeated much of Europe and created an Empire. He then made two mistakes: arresting the pope (thus alienating Catholics) and attacking Russia (where he lost half his army in the Russian winter). Defeated at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, he gathered an army in exile to defeat England, Austria, Russia and Prussia. Defeated at Waterloo in 1815, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

His legacy was the spread of the French Revolution throughout Europe, and the establishment of its principles in law. The Civil Code, based on Roman law, instituted the liberal and humanitarian goals of the Revolution: equality before the law, freedom of religion, property rights, and the abolition of feudalism. In taking over Europe, Napoleon rallied the middle classes and common people to defeat their own absolutist regimes. Even after Napoleon's final defeat, as European monarchs regained their power, they had to keep in mind the Revolution and promise reforms to maintain power. Even as these nations fostered a hatred of revolutionary France, they had to create their own nationalism in order to counter it. That changed European politics forever.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.