Prior to the revolution, France was one of the most powerful and advanced countries in Europe. France’s population was booming. It was the largest country in Europe with around 28 million. They also had the largest standing army, around 400,000 soldiers ready to go to war! France also had a large economy. The sheer size of the country made it one of the premier economic powers in Europe.
Despite all this, France in financial crisis. The past 50 years had seen conflicts like the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) and the American Revolution which put France into debt. Starting with King Louis XIV, the kings incurred great amounts of debt and passed it on to the new kings to deal with. By 1789, France was essentially bankrupt.
The king of France at this time was the absolute ruler, King Louis XVI, who was an introverted, shy and indecisive king. He was known for his lavish spending and borrowing money. He spends most of his time in his own little capital city, Versailles, just outside Paris. The queen, Marie Antoinette, had no clue when it came to politics and often gave her husband bad advice. She was also well known for her extravagance and opulence and was very much disliked by the people.
Kirsten Dunst played Marie Antoinette in the 2006 movie of the same title.
Another issue leading into the French Revolution were the inequalities in society. The existing social structure was similar to the feudal system in the Middle Ages. It basically was a divide between social classes and was a way of determining
Varied widely in what they contributed in terms of work and taxes First Estate Second Estate Third Estate•Roman Catholic clergy •Nobility •Largest group—97-98% of the population•Less than one percent •Less than 2 percent of of the population the population •Paid most of the taxes•Exempt from taxes •Paid few, if any taxes •Bourgeoisie—city- dwelling merchants,•Owned 10 percent of •Controlled much of the factory owners, and the land wealth professionals – Collected rents and •Held key positions •Sans culottes— fees – Government artisans and workers – Bishops and other – Military •Peasants—poor with clergy grew wealthy •Lived on country little hope, paid rents estates and fees
Each estate was unhappy with the other. (struggle for wealth and power) The 3rd Estate was obviously the worst off of the three. They thought that the taxes should not be placed solely upon the 3rd Estate. They felt the other estates should share the financial burden. There was also long standing resentments against the monarchy. King Louis XVI was a shy, indecisive king and Marie Antoinette was an unpopular, self indulgent queen.
Louis responds to the financial crisis by raising taxes to get France out of debt. This has a terrible domino effect. Prices on goods, services and rent were raised while wages stayed the same (inflation). People in the Third Estate suffered greatly from this inflation. It was determined that as much as 1/3 of France were now considered peasants (poor). This angers many people who are now starving, unable to afford a simple loaf of bread. Whispers of revolution start to abound.
The people were starving in the streets. Bread was so scarce and the price of a loaf was nearly a month’s wage for a peasant. When told of the crisis plaguing the people, Marie Antoinette supposedly replied, “Let them eat cake,” referring to the abundance they had at the palace…
Enlightened ideas would play a major role leading up to the revolution. There were inspiring writings of people like English political writer, John Locke who preached in favor the people’s rights such as freedom and equality. One French Enlightened writer named Baron de Montesquieu studied governments across Europe and read about ancient and medieval Europe, Chinese and Native American cultures He opposed absolute monarchy. Proposed that dividing the government into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial would provide a system of checks and balances and ensure not one group could ever have too much power.
Another Enlightened French writer also played an important part in the ideas of revolution. He went by the pen name, Voltaire. Voltaire used sarcasm to expose the abuses of daily life. Voltaire wrote against intolerance, corruption, injustice and criticized the laws and customs of France. He was especially critical of the monarchy and the Catholic church. He preached “reason and rationalism”. Voltaire defended freedom of speech, but that got him exiled and “My trade is to say what I think.” his books were banished or burned. -Voltaire
The English Revolution, The success of the struggle between king and American Revolution in parliament, led to a change overthrowing a king and in styles of government, a establishing a new style “limited constitutional of government, a monarchy”. “democracy”.
Closer to the revolution, France had a severe drought just before the winter harvest. To add to it, that winter was especially harsh. The people of France were left cold and hungry.
Things in France got so bad that they called for the Estates General. This was the first time this meeting had happened in over 150 years! (1614) Representatives of each estate met to discuss the financial crisis facing them.
The Third Estate, being the largest, had the most representatives. The Third Estate especially thought the burden of taxation should be addressed. They wanted to set up a constitutional government that limited the king’s power and would also abolish the tax exemptions for the clergy and nobility. However, the voting system was flawed. Each Estate only had one vote. The Third Estate argued that it should go to an individual (popular) vote, but King Louis XVI denied them.
In reaction, the Third Estate The constitution called their own assembly to officially proposes a draft a constitution. new government called The next day, the they were the National Assembly locked out their own (similar to parliament), meeting and were forced to which would include the meet on the tennis court King, and act in the next door. interests of the people. Despite this inconvenience, they swore that they would continue to meet until their constitution was drafted. This is known as the Tennis Court Oath.
People were afraid this proposition of a new order would anger the king and nobility and they would strike back at the Third Estate. Rumors started to swirl that King Louis was hiring foreign soldiers to attack them. There were also rumors of massacres taking place across the country. With no way to defend themselves, the people panicked. This is known as the “Great Fear”.
On July 14th, 1789, angry and afraid for their lives, thousands of peasants gathered and stormed the Bastille looking for weapons to protect themselves. The Bastille was a fortress/prison and also housed guns and ammunition. The peasants stormed the fortress, killed the guards, hacked up their bodies and paraded their heads around on sticks.
On July 14th, 1789, King Louis was out on a day long hunting trip. When he returned, he had heard the news. He asked a duke, “is it a revolt?” The duke replied, “no sire, it is revolution!”
Because the French were so inspired by the American Revolution, a key to the Bastille was presented to George Washington, the general of the Colonial Army and first American president. The key currently hangs in his home at Mt. Vernon.
Soon after the storming of the Bastille, the 3rd Estate’s National Assembly came up with a constitution. Wanting to mimic the U.S. Constitution, their constitution revoked the special privileges of the 1st and 2nd Estates. They called it, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen Revolutionary leaders use the slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” The constitution also stated that there would only be one common assembly (as opposed to three separate) and the king would have special “veto power”. Additionally, it stated many other things similar to the American Constitution such as freedom of speech and press. It also stated that women had equal rights… so long as they stayed out of politics.
Although they have drafted a new constitution and created the National Assembly to revise the current government, Louis denies to observe it. Louis kept himself in Versailles and refused to accept and recognize these laws, wishing to remain absolute monarch and protect his throne.
Meanwhile, there continued to be many major problems including debt and food shortages. Angered by Louis’ refusal of the new laws, thousands of women marched on Versailles with pitch forks and pikes. They also wanted Queen Marie Antoinette. They were especially angry that she could not relate to them and the condition of their starving children.
The mob of women gathered outside of Versailles (nearly 20,000 of them) and demanded King Louis return to Paris and comply with the new constitution. As the king and queen refused to come out, the angry mob stormed into the palace and tore it apart. They beat or killed the guards, many of whos heads were then raised upon pikes. Louis had no choice but to return to Paris.
Louis, worried about his future and attempts to escape France. He dresses like a servant and tries to flee into Austria (home of Marie Antoinette). Revolutionaries recognize and catch him near the border, just miles from freedom.
Although a new constitution has been written, the country remains split. Some people think the King should be put back into power while others think that even more change needs to happen. Other countries such as Austria and Prussia also threaten to attack if the king is not placed back into power.
Mobs start to break out in and Paris and members of the royal family are imprisoned and their guards are killed. Thousands of supporters of the king are killed as well.
Pressured by the mobs, the National Assembly deposes the king and then effectively, dissolves. A new, radical political group known as the Jacobins come to power in 1792 led by Maximilien Robespierre
Still feeling that a major change needed to be made, the Jacobins bring King Louis XVI to trial. King Louis is tried for treason and, in a close vote, is found guilty. He is sentenced to beheading by guillotine.
King Louis XVI thought that the old way of execution, the breaking wheel, was too inhumane. He commissioned Dr. Guillotine to come up with a new, more efficient way of capital punishment without the infliction of torture and pain. Talk about ironic…
At his execution, thousands of people gathered to see the king. He was marched up onto the stage where he delivered a short speech proclaiming his innocence. He then was placed in the guillotine and the blade dropped. According to accounts, Louis let out a blood curdling scream as the blade did not completely sever his neck. The blade was raised and dropped again. It was said that many people rushed the stage to be covered in Louis’ blood and to dip their handkerchiefs in it.
Just nine months following King Louis’ execution, Marie Antoinette is also tried for treason and found guilty. She meets the same fate as her husband and is beheaded by guillotine.
Following King Louis XVI’s execution, Robespierre assumes full control of France. In effect, he becomes a dictator. He must assure that all France becomes united by any means necessary. To do this, he starts execute people who are deemed “enemies of the state”. This is known as the “Reign of Terror”.
Under Robespierre, thousands of people will die. Of those executed; many are former allies of the king, but 85% of them are people from the 3rd Estate, the very people he was supposed to protect.
In July 1794, Robespierre is arrested and then executed. The Reign of Terror results in public opinion shifting away from radicals and another, more conservative group comes to power. The new, moderate leaders write a new constitution; but most importantly, they appoint the young and brave Napoleon Bonaparte as the general of the armies.