What led to the French Revolution? How did the French revolution impact France and the world? What was Napoleon’s role in the French Revolution? Read to know more.
The French Revolution was the watershed event in modern European history that brought about the enlightenment principles and democracy, creating a rational and egalitarian society. It started in 1789 and ended in 1799.
The French Revolution was a time of social and political upheaval in France and its colonies. The liberal and radical ideas overthrew the Monarchy and influenced the decline of absolute Monarchies in other parts of Europe.
This was the revolution that led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as well.
France in 1789:
France was the most populated nation in Europe during this time and had been growing in wealth and prestige since the time of King Louis XIV. But this economic growth wasn’t visible as the country was still very backward socially and politically.
The social divide was because it was still divided into feudal classes of people clergy, those who pray, nobles, those who fight, and the peasants, the working class. And political backwardness was because they were still ruled by an absolute monarch who believed in the divine right of kings.
But the French involvement in the American Revolution of 1776 was a costly affair and the extravagant lifestyle of King Louis XVI and the royal family was draining the coffers. The empty royal coffers, poor harvests, and rise in food prices had created feelings of unrest among the poor rural and urban populace. The matter was further worsened by the imposition of taxes that provided no relief. As a result rioting, looting and general strikes became the norm.
The major causes that led to the French Revolution:
- Social inequality was very prevalent in French society of 18th
- The clergy and the nobility formed the first two Estates and were the most privileged classes. They were exempted from payment of taxes to the State.
- The Third Estate consisting of peasants and workers formed the majority of the population. They were burdened with excessive taxes with no political and social rights. As a result, they were extremely discontent.
- The economic drain was falling heavy n the shoulders of the working class increasing the hostility:
- Louis XVI waged many wars making the State coffers were empty.
- The situation was made even more complex by France’s involvement in the American War of Independence and the faulty system of taxation.
- The extravagant lifestyle of the royals added to the financial burden.
- The unstable political situation: The situation was very unstable because the Bourbon king of France, Louis XVI was an extremely autocratic and weak-willed king who led a life of excessive luxury. This caused anger among the masses who were leading lives of extreme poverty and widespread hunger.
- The 18th century brought a conscious change in the French thinkers who refused the ‘Divine Rights Theory’:
- Philosophers like Rousseau rejected the paradigm of absolute monarchy and promulgated the doctrine of equality of man and sovereignty of people.
- They played a pivotal role in exposing the fault lines of the old political system- ‘the ancien regime’, thus adding to the popular discontent.
- The American Revolution also triggered the ideas of enlightenment and liberty among the intellectuals of the French society.
Timeline of the French Revolution:
1789: The meeting of the Estate Generals
- The Estates-General was an assembly that represented the French nobility clergy and the middle class. They were called by Louis XVI to discuss the new tax measures in May 1789.
- The third estate was already gathering support for their involvement in the decision-making body and voting rights during this time.
- The middle class was in favour of the political and judicial reforms while the nobles did not want to give up their privileges. The talks with the third estate also failed.
- The Tennis court oath: The third estate and their support formed the National Assembly and took an oath of office in June 1789 and vowed not to disperse until reforms have been initiated.
- Seeing no other option Louis XVI had to absorb the three assemblies into the new order.
1789-92: The revolution
- The national assembly continued in Versailles as the nation was gripped in fear and uncertainty which led to the insurgency.
- This resulted in the taking of Bastille fortress on July 14, 1789. This event marked the beginning of the French Revolution.
- The peasants revolted, attacked the houses of nobles and tax collectors, and the upper class was forced to flee for their lives. This period is called the period of Great Fear.
1789: The Declaration of Rights of the Man
- The National Assembly adopted the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on August 4, 1789. The charter was based on democratic principles, drawing from philosophical as well as political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Jena-Jacques Rosseau.
- The French constitution was adopted on September 3, 1791. It was moderate in its stance by limiting the powers of the king, but it was not enough for the more radical members of the assembly, Robespierre who wanted Louis XVI to stand trial.
1793-95: The Reign of Terror
- A group of insurgents attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested Louis XVI on August 10, 1792
- The following month many who were accused of being the ‘enemies of the revolution’ were massacred in Paris. The Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention which proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of France and the abolition of the Monarchy.
- King Louis XVI was condemned to death on January 21, 1793, and executed for treason. His wife, Marie Antoinette was also executed nine months later.
- The execution of the king marked the beginning of the most violent and turbulent phase of the French Revolution – the Reign of Terror.
- The National Convention was under the control of an extremist faction led by Robespierre. Under him, thousands were executed for suspected treason and counter-revolutionary activities.
- The Reign of Terror ended after Robespierre’s execution on July 28, 1794.
1795: The end of the French Revolution
- On August 22, 1795, the National Convention composed of moderates approved the creation of a new constitution that created France’s bicameral legislature.
- A Directory, a five-member group was formed by the parliament, and an army was groomed under General Napoleon Bonaparte.
- The Directory became corrupt and the army had more powers with them. A coup d’état was staged by Napoleon himself, toppling them from power.
- Napoleon appointed himself “first consul”. The French Revolution was over and the Napoleonic era was about the begin.
Role of women in the French Revolution:
Women in the Third Estate worked for a living and didn’t have access to education or training. Only daughters of the noblewomen and richer sections of society had access to any education. The wages for women were lower than those of men. Women were also mostly homemakers, hence they had to do all the housework, care for children.
But during the Revolution, women played an active role in revolutionary activities. They started their own clubs and newspapers. One of the most famous political clubs was the Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women and they were disappointed by the Constitution of 1791 which designated them, passive citizens. This Society demanded equal political rights as men. They wanted to vote and stand in elections for political office.
After the end of the revolution, the early revolutionary governments introduced many laws that improved the lives and status of women in society. Schools were created, and education was made compulsory for all girls. Marriage without consent was made illegal and divorce was made legal. Women were also allowed to be artisans and run small businesses.
Impact of the French Revolution:
The French revolution brought fundamental social, political, and economic changes in the history of France.
- End of the social divide: The French Revolution destroyed the social discriminative class system in France and declared equality for all. This led to the rise of the middle class who had acquired education to positions of responsibility.
- Declaration of rights of man: The constitutional assembly came out with the document of human rights which granted political liberty, like freedom of speech, press, association, worship, and ownership of property.
- Revolutionary ideas: The revolution gave birth to the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity. These ideas started in France and spread to other areas like Italy, Germany, etc. promoting equality, freedom and democracy, and good governance. France became the birthplace of democracy.
- End of Monarchy: The Bourbon monarch that had ruled France for over 400 years came to end by the French revolution. The monarchy rule was abolished in 1792 and replaced it with the Republican form of Government. Although the Bourbon monarch was restored by the great powers after the downfall of Napoleon, it could not survive beyond 1830 because the monarchs were already weakened by the changes caused by the French revolution.
- Political Parties: France became a multiparty state as a result of the revolution. The freedom of association led to the rise of political clubs such as the Jacobins, Cordeliers, etc that competed for power. These parties kept the government under check and balance by criticizing bad policies.
- Parliamentary Democracy: The French revolution led to the revival of the parliament which was abandoned for a period of over 175 years. The revolution gave France a functional parliament with representatives who are democratically elected.
- Constitution and Rule of Law: The French revolution introduced the rule of law. Before 1789, France had no constitution to safeguard people’s rights and freedom. The constitution clearly separated the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature.
- Land ownership: The revolution brought new reforms and changes to land ownership in France. Before the revolution, the land was dominated by the clergy and the nobles who exploited the peasants. The working class was given equal rights to possess the land.
- National Guard: There was the formation of the National Guard that replaced the royal guard of the Bourbon monarchy. National Guard was the revolutionary army whose role was to protect the achievements of the French revolution.
The revolution achieved the good through a path of negatives nevertheless. There were losses of lives and properties, the reign of terror saw violence, the economy further declined to make the poor even poorer. The relationship between the church and the state deteriorated as the radical new laws and nationalization of church properties became a sour page.
The revolution also led to poor relationships between France and other states. Revolutionary ideas of the french revolution were threats to other powers and monarchs in Europe, hence, Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and other countries allied against France in order to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas to their countries.
Also read: Bastille Day
Global impact of the French Revolution:
The French Revolution changed modern history forever and many nations took inspiration from the ideologies it gave birth to.
The suppressive monarchies were being challenged everywhere by the people.
The ideas of liberty and equality spread all around the world over the years through the French armies.
The French became the dominant force to be reckoned with as it radicalized the political and social system of the 18th century.
The French Revolution ended feudalism and made a path for future advances in individual freedoms, democratic principles, and equality of life.