The French Revolution
- In 1789, in the wake of early morning, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. Rumours spread that the King would open fire upon the citizens.
- People started gathering and they started breaking a number of government buildings in search of arms.
- The commander of the Bastille was killed in the armed fight and the prisoners were released.
- People hated the Bastille as it stood for the despotic power of the king. People protested against the high price of bread. A new chain of events began which led to the execution of the King in France.
French Society During the Late Eighteenth CenturyComposition of French Society
1st Estate: Clergy
2nd Estate: Nobility
3rd Estate: Big businessmen, merchants, court officials, peasants, artisans, landless laborers, servants, etc.
- Some within the Third Estate were rich and some were poor.
- The burden of financing activities of the state through taxes was borne by the Third Estate alone.
The Struggle to Survive
The population of France grew and so did the demand for grain. The gap between the rich and poor widened. This led to subsistence crises. The struggle of people for survival
A Growing Middle Class Envisages an End to Privileges
This estate was educated and believed that no group in society should be privileged by birth. These ideas were put forward by philosophers such as Locke English philosopher and Rousseau French philosopher. The American constitution and its guarantee of individual rights were an important example of the political theories of France. These ideas were discussed intensively in salons and coffee houses and spread among people through books and newspapers. These were even read aloud.
The Outbreak of the Revolution
The French Revolution went through various stages. When Louis XVI became king of France in 1774, he inherited a treasury which was empty. There was growing discontent within the society of the Old Regime.
- 1789 - Convocation of Estates General. The Third Estate Forms National Assembly, the Bastille is stormed, peasant revolts in the countryside.
- 1791 - A constitution is framed to limit the powers of the king and to guarantee basic right to all human beings.
- 1792-93 -France becomes a republic. Jacobin Republic overthrown, a Directory rules France.
- 1793-94 - Reign of terror.
- 1795 -A new Convention appointed a five-man Directorate to run the state from 26 October, 1795.
- 1799 - The Revolution ends with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Timeline: The French Revolution
- 1770's-1780's - Economic decline; French Government in deep debt.
- 1788-1789 - Bad harvest, high prices, food riots.
- 1789, May 5 - Estates-General convened, demands reforms.
- 1789, July 14 - National Assembly formed, Bastille stormed on July 14, French Revolution starts.
- 1789, August 4 - Night of August 4 ends the rights of the aristocracy.
- 1789, August 26 - Declaration of the Rights of Man.
- 1790 - Civil Constitution of the Clergy nationalizes the Church.
- 1792 - Constitution of 1791 converts absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy with limited powers.
- 1792 - Austria and Prussia attacked revolutionary France.
- 1793 - Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed.
- 1792-1794 - The Reign of Terror starts. Austria, Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia and Spain are at war with France. — Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety repels back foreign invaders. Executes many “enemies of the people” in France itself.
- 1794 - Robespierre is executed, France is governed by a Directory (a committee of five men).
- 1799 - Napoleon Bonaparte becomes the leader.
- 1815 - Napoleon was defeated in the battle of waterloo.
Did Women have a Revolution?From the very beginning, women were active participants in the events which brought about so many changes in French society. Most women of the third estate had to work for a living. Their wages were lower than those of men. In order to discuss and voice their interests, women started their own political clubs and newspapers.
Women showing their role in the revolutionOne of their main demands was that women must enjoy the same political rights as men. Some laws were introduced to improve the position of women. Their struggle still continues in several parts of the world. It was finally in 1946 that women in France won the right to vote.
The Abolition of Slavery
There was a triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In the 18th century, there was little criticism of slavery in France. No laws were passed against it. It was in 1794 that the convention freed all slaves. But 10 years later slavery was reintroduced by Napoleon. It was finally in 1848 that slavery was abolished in the French colonies.
The Revolution and Everyday LifeThe years following 1789 in France saw many changes in the lives of men, women and children. The revolutionary governments took it upon themselves to pass laws that would translate the ideals of liberty and equality into everyday practice.
One important law that came into effect was the abolition of censorship. The ideas of liberty and democratic rights were the most important legacy of the French Revolution. These spread from France to the rest of Europe during the 19th century.
In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France. He set out to conquer neighbouring European countries, dispossessing dynasties and creating kingdoms where he placed members of his family. He saw his role as a modernizer of Europe. He was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.
Glossary and Important Information
- Nation - People who share a language, culture, customs and history, a group united into a large political, economic and social unit that recognises no law or authority above its own, i.e., it is sovereign in nature.
- Nationalism - A feeling of intense loyalty and devotion to one’s country.
- Revolution: The term means a recognized momentous change in any situation. A revolution can result in the sudden overthrow of an established government or system by force and bloodshed, e.g. The French Revolution. It can also be a great change that comes slowly and peacefully, e.g., Industrial Revolution.
- First Estate - French society was divided into classes called Estates. The First Estate consisted of the Clergy which held a vast land, wealth and was exempt from taxation.
- Second Estate - It consisted of the aristocracy and controlled all the top positions in the government, parliament and in the army and navy. They were also exempt from taxation and led an extravagant life.
- Third Estate - This comprised everyone who was neither nobility nor clergy and constituted 98% of the population. Town dwellers, the wealthy upper middle class (merchants, bankers, doctors, lawyers), lower middle class, craftsmen, shopkeepers and peasants comprised the Third Estate.
This class lacked political power, social position and was heavily taxed though there were many differences in their wealth and style of living.
- The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen - In 1789, the French National Assembly adopted a set of basic principles called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Proposed by Lafayette and based on the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu and Jefferson, this document stated that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and that the “source of power resides in the people”. It guaranteed all Frenchmen the basic rights of liberty, security, equal justice, fair taxes, speech, religion and thought.
- Physiocrats - The French economists were called physiocrats. They believed that taxes should be imposed only with the consent of those on whom they are levied. Their beliefs undermined the feudal rights and privileges of the upper classes.
- Livre - Unit of currency used in France till 1794.
- Clergy - Group of persons invested with special functions in the Church.
- Tithe - A tax levied by the Church equal to one-tenth of the agricultural produce.
- Taille - Tax paid directly to the state.
- Chateau - Castle belonging to a king or nobleman.
- Manor - An estate consisting of the Lord’s lands and his mansion.
- Sceptre - Symbol of royal power.
- Negroes - A term used for the indigenous people of Africa, South of the Sahara. A derogatory term not now commonly used.
- 1774 - Louis XVI becomes King of France. Faces empty treasury and growing discontent within society of the Old Regime.
- 1789 - Third Estate forms National Assembly. The Bastille is stormed.
- 1791 - A constitution is framed to limit the powers of the king and to guarantee the basic rights to all the human beings.
- 1792-93 - France becomes a republic. The king is executed. Over throw of the Jacobin Republic, a Directory Rules France.
- 1804 - Napoleon becomes emperor of France.
- 1815 - Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.
- 1848 - Slavery was abolished in all French colonies.
- 1946 - French women got the right to vote.
- Maximilian Robespierre: Leader of the Jacobin club whose policies led to the Reign of Terror. In 1794, he was convicted and sent to the guillotine.
- Napoleon Bonaparte: The military dictator of France who conquered many European countries. He was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.
- Olympe de Gouges: One of the most important politically active women revolutionary France. In 1791, she wrote a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen. Critical of the Jacobin government, she was charged with treason and executed.
Fig: Olympe de Gouges
- Louis XVI: The King of France when the revolution occurred was a man of average intelligence who disliked any kind of brain work. He staunchly believed in the Divine Right of Kings and was completely unaware of the new ideas that were sweeping across his country and oblivious to the needs and fears of his subjects. He was obsessed with his beautiful wife and wasted money on festivities. He drove France into useless wars bringing the country to the verge of bankruptcy.
- Montesquieu: A French thinker and author of the book ‘Spirit of Laws’. He believed that executive, legislative and judicial powers should not be concentrated in one person as it led to tyrannical rule. He stressed on the principle of separation of powers and individual liberty.
- Jean Jacques Rousseau: His writings played a significant role in bringing about the French Revolution and encouraged people to fight for their rights. He believed that government should be based on the consent of the governed. His most famous work ‘The Social Contract’ talks of a contract between the ruler and ruled where by the former would guarantee the freedom and happiness of his subjects.