THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.
The French Revolution was a period of violent political and social changes,
which saw the abolition of the absolute monarchy and the end of the 3 estates. This
violent movement took place because the enlightened monarchs were incapable of
introducing the ideas of the enlightenment thinkers so the reforms were violently
imposed by the people. All the enlighten ideas were slowly setting in the French
society and people no longer wanted an absolute monarch but wanted to have a say in
The French society was divided in 3 estates: The church, the nobility and the
third estate. However this system was unfair as the third estate was formed up by
everyone who did not belong to the church or the nobility. The differences between
the third estate and the first and second estates were huge.
The first and second estates, although they were the richest, they did not have
to pay any taxes. Moreover they held the most important positions in government
although the third estate formed up the 90% of the population. The third estate had to
pay lots of taxes and tolls to the nobles every time they used basic things such as the
mill or they crossed a river.
Moreover this period coincided with a famine due to the bad harvest between
1787-1789. So the peasant’s income was lower but the food prices were higher.
However the population had to stand how the king and his family lived a luxurious live.
Marie Antoinette was accused of being very naïf as he lived a very luxurious life and
did not understand the problems of the common people.
France was not in a very good economic situation as the king had spent lots of
money in supporting the rebels in the War of Independence. As a result, the state had
many debts. To pay all this debts Luis XVI asked for help to the church and the clergy
which formed up the first and second estate. However they refused to loss their
As a result the king had to call the Estates General to raise taxes in May 1789.
The Estates General hadn’t been called since 1614 so the Third Estate saw in the
Estates General the opportunity of that the king heard their demands. The Estates
general were also unfair; there were 300 representatives for the church, 300 for the
nobility and 600 for the third estate. However each estate had one vote so the third
estate always lost all the votes.
The third estate presented their complaints in the cahier de doleances. The
bourgeoisie was angry because they could not participate in government and the
petite bourgeoisie and the peasants were angry because of the high taxes, poor
harvests and wars.
During this meeting the third estate proposed a new voting system on which
each representative had one vote and like that gain some voting. The king did not want
to hear them and so closed the doors of the assembly so that they could not enter to
vote. As a result the representatives from the third estate declared themselves the
true representatives of the national and created a national assembly where they
demanded a constitution. They met in June 1789 in a tennis court where they swore
the tennis court oath of not leaving until the king heard their demands.
Finally the king gave pup and a constituent assembly was elected to write a
constitution in July 1789. While the constitution was being written people began to
revolt. The Bastille (a famous political prison in Paris) was stormed by the
revolutionaries that same month and the Great Fear against Feudal Lords in the
countryside started. Due to the protests the constituent assembly abolished feudal
right and approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It stated that
all men are born equal and that liberty consisted in that people are free to do anything
that does not harm other people.
Due to the changes the king tried to escape to Austria in June 1791 but he was
caught and in September of that same year the constitution was finally written. It
established a constitutional monarchy, popular sovereignty with limited male suffrage
and the separation of power. After this, the constituent assembly was dissolved and
the legislative assembly was created.
The legislative assembly was dominated by 2 political groups:
The Girondins: represented the interests of the bourgeoisie. They wanted
liberal economic policies and were moderated.
The Jacobins: represented the labourers and the sans-culottes (people who
could not afford the expensive culottes). They were more radical as they
wanted to try the king, expand suffrage and control prices to help poor people.
During this assembly a national guard was created and laicism was proclaimed as
the church and the state became separated. However in 1792 Austria threatened to
invade France if any harm was done to the king. France had to declare war to Austria
and the Royal family was imprisoned in September when the Republic was proclaimed
ending the constitutional monarchy (1789-1792).
During this period the national assembly was known as the Convention. In it
Robespierre who represented the Jacobins took control of the government in June
1793 and imposed a dictatorship known as the Terror. The Royal family was executed
in January 1793 and a coalition of European countries was formed against France.
Moreover pro-monarchy revolts started such as La Vendeé.
Robespierre created a new constitution in 1793 on which he created universal
suffrage. Even the sans-culottes could vote. Robespierre governed through the
Committee of Public Safety and thanks to this committee he could execute 42000
people in the guillotine as he executed his competitors. Moreover Robespierre
abolished catholic religion and the government created instead a new religion which
worshiped goddess reason who was represented by an actress. Also he changed the
names of the months. Finally a coup lead in Thermidor was done and Robespierre was
executed in the guillotine ending the Democratic Republic (1792-1794).
When Robespierre was executed, the moderates took control of the government
and created what is known as the Directory: a conservative government formed up by
5 members. However in 1799 revolutionaries wanted to regain control and France was
still at war with Europe. So Napoleon organized another coup and created a Consulate.
Napoleon ruled together with other 2 consuls and was supported by the middle
classes. He belonged to the low nobility and was a very good military (he learned his
career in 2 years). However in 1802 he was named Consul for life and in 1804 he
appointed himself as emperor of France.
He was quite liberal; he established a civil code (a set of laws which were equally
applied to all citizens), he introduced civil marriage, divorce for women and state
education. Moreover he introduced new subjects such as Science and physics. Also he
signed a treaty with the pope and he established once again catholic religion as he was
However he was mostly known as a great military. He expanded his Empire and
defeated all the countries that were allied against France except England as he was
defeated by Admiral Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar 1805. England was very powerful
at sea and escaped from all the attempts of Napoleon such as for example the English
Blockade that consisted in isolating England from the continent. Napoleon decided to
invade Portugal, England ally, by land as he could not defeat England in the sea.
One of his great victories was the conquest of Spain. At that time Spain was ruled
by Charles IV who always followed the counsel of Manuel Godoy, his valido. Spain and
France signed an alliance under his rule. Napoleon asked Spain permission so that
French troops could pass through Spain and invade Portugal. However the king was
cheated as when he was invited to Bayonne, Napoleon imprisoned him and invaded
Napoleon was defeated in 1814 in his campaign to invade Russia. The Russians
receded burning everything so that when Napoleon’s troops arrived everything was
destroyed. As a result the French troops were defeated by the lack of food and
because of the bad weather. Moreover Napoleon was also losing Spain as General
Wellington was reconquering it.
After this defeat Napoleon was imprisoned in the Island of Elba. However he
escaped and created a new army but he was finally defeated in the Battle of Waterloo
in 1815 by a coalition of countries led by the Duke of Wellington formed up by
England, Netherlands, Prussia and some German states. Napoleon was imprisoned in
the island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic where he finally died.
Napoleon appointed his family as monarchs everywhere he went. Also he
abolished the feudal system and wrote a constitution introducing revolutionary ideas
in all Europe. These constitutions looked for the separation of powers and popular
sovereignty. Moreover they established limited male suffrage and civil rights so Europe
began to be formed by Republics or constitutional monarchies. Economically Napoleon
guaranteed property rights, free trade and taxes that had to be paid also by the
nobility and the clergy.