The French Revolution

Once the Third Estate split from the Estates General and declared itself the National Assembly in June 1789, the king tried to fight back, and it was the Parisian poor and the provincial peasants that saved this middle-class/enlightened aristocrats led revolution from doom.  But the revolutionary government quickly got into many difficulties.  To solve its financial difficulty, it confiscated church lands and nationalized the church, making clergy swear allegiance to the revolutionary government and abandon allegiance to the pope.  They even came up with a new calendar to mark the beginning of a new culture. To deal with the foreign countries Austria and Prussia that wanted to help Louis XVI get back to power, the government mobilized a large army, largely made up of voluntary patriotic Frenchmen. French retreat in the battlefield brought the more radical elements into government, backed again by the poor.  This radical leadership executed the king as a private citizen, along with thousands of aristocrats and others labeled as "enemies of the people."  The coalition government of enlightened clergy/nobles/bourgeoisie/poor/peasants was falling apart.  It finally led to a counter-revolution in 1794 when a more conventional parliamentary government came into being, only to be replaced by the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799.  Despite that Napoleon eventually coronated himself as the emperor, he spread the revolutionary spirit everywhere he went in Europe, which would have a profound influence on Europe long after he was gone.

1. The King's Fatal Decision and public reaction.

  • Louis tried to re-assert his authority - with an army near Versailles - 18,000 troops. 
  • The King abandoned the bourgeoisie, which monarchs had supported for a century and now supported the nobility.
  • Two Uprisings of the Masses saved the National Assembly: storming the Bastille and March to Versailles.  King was then moved to Paris under public surveillance, Oct., 1789.

Revolt of the Peasants - revolts from Spring 1789

In July - Massive revolts throughout France that also helped to spread the revolution.  They complemented the Parisian poor's political acts to consolidate the National Assembly.

What the peasants did:

  • Destruction of lots of medieval documents
  • Forced the National Assembly to abolish "feudal" dues, rights and tithes
    -August 4th 1789
    -there was a sort of carnival of self-sacrifice amongst the nobility + the rich bourgeoisie

After this the Peasantry had a very quiet and almost conservative role - it had what it wanted - LAND.

2. The National Assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man - August 27th 1789

The National Assembly's declaration reflected the goals the revolutionaries tried to achieve.  These goals included many Enlightenment ideas.

-equality before the law
-due process (art 7)
-natural rights - liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression (art 2)
-sovereignty resides in the Nation (art 3)
-law is an expression of the General Will (art.6)
-freedom of religion (art 10) [Jews as well, for 1st time)
-free speech (art 11)
-separation of powers (art 16)

3. The Constitution of 1791

The National Constituent Assembly constitution fell far short of establishing a democratic entity.

Members of National Assembly not eligible for election.

This constitution became un-operational after June 20 1791 when Louis XVI tried to flee, but was stopped at Varennes and brought back June 24 a virtual prisoner.  There was no strong executive provided for apart from the King's ministers.

4. War (April 1792-) and radicalization at home

A. The French Deputies (in Assembly) declare war on Austria - 20th Apr 1792.

  • There was pressure from democratic exiles from other countries.
  • Radicals thought a successful War would bring them support.
  • Louis XVI supported the war - he hoped a loss would restore his position - as did many monarchist members of the Leg Assembly.

The French armies were soon retreating - this caused radicalization at Home.

B. The rise of radical Jacobins in the National Assembly

National danger and the king's possible collusion with the foreign troops led the more radical, anti-monarchist groups to rise to the top of the leadership.  These were called the Jacobins - a sort of elitist political club that wanted a republic.  One group of Jacobins - known as Girondists assumed leadership.  

The forces behind the Jacobin leadership were the Parisian poor, called the Sans-Culottes.  They included 
Paris artisans, shopkeepers, wage earners and factory workers.
  Their name comes from the fact they wore long trousers not the knee breeches (culottes) favored by the middle and professional classes. They wanted immediate relief from hunger, resented all social inequality, and were suspicious of representative government. They also opposed the unregulated economy so beloved of all the m/c revolutionaries, including the Jacobins.

They compelled the Legislative Assembly to agree to call a new assembly to write new democratic constitution - this body was to be called the Convention.

C. The Rule of the Convention - 1792-95 and further radicalization of government

This was elected by universal male suffrage - but only 7 1/2% of electorate voted. (not best atmosphere for a free election)

It first met September 21 1792 and declares France a Republic as its first act

The Girondists were still major voice but gradually lost control over next few months to another group of Jacobins known as The Mountain (because they sat high in Convention Hall) - They were prepared to work with the Sans-Cullottes. Maximilien Robespierre one of leaders.

D. Condemnation and Execution of the King

This was necessary consequence of August 10th, and the King's treachery over the war - The Mountain had found Louis XVI's correspondence to Austria.
The condemnation of King also put Girondists in a bind - if they supported it they lost moderate support, if they opposed it they lost patriot support. Robespierre saw this.
The King was tried as Citizen Capet - [should have been Bourbon.]
No one thought Louis was innocent.
King executed 21 Jan 1793

E. The Committee of Public Safety 6th April 1793

Set up to supervise the Convention.

F. The Reign of Terror or the Republic of Virtue

Revolts around France - esp. Vendee, Brittany and Normandy

July 13 1793 Marat, a radical killed by Charlotte Corday - made revolutionaries feel threatened.

Height of Terror from Fall 1793 to July 1794

Marie-Antoinette + Royal Family, then aristocrats, then Girondists, then 1794 moves to provinces and includes peasants and sans-cullottes, then in Spring 1794 even includes republicans like Danton

The CPS also opposing even more extreme groups from among sans-cullotes 

June 10 - Law of 22 Prairal
(last month of new calendar) conviction without evidence was now allowed

Large increase in numbers killed in last month of Terror.
Terror fiercest in those areas of rebellion + Paris
circa. 25,000-40,000 killed/300,000 arrested

Robespierre justified his terror with Rousseau's idea that a republic, made up of the general will of the people, cannot err, and any one who is against the republic is an enemy of the people and should be crushed.  

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty's despotism against tyranny.

5. The Thermidorean Reaction (1794) and the Directory (1795-99)

The Reign of Terror was not popular in the long run -It was genuinely terrifying - it got out of hand and malicious accusations were made.

Also politicians feared for their own heads when Robespierre made a threatening speech on July 26th. -also should note that Robespierre's fascination with the new religion did not endear him to many in the Convention.

Robespierre - Condemned to the Guillotine in the Convention - 9th of Thermidor (July 27th 1794) -executed July 28th 1794

The Directory, a new government established (1795-99), was a 5 man executive body - aim was to avoid dictatorship and excessive democracy.

This was a four-year period of lack of strong government and a series of coup d'etats. The leaders were not strongly ideological, but did not want to turn the clock back.

The new people in control were again rich bourgeois liberals - chief aim was to perpetuate their own rule.

6. Napoleon Bonaparte(1769-1821)

Under the Directory the military expansion begun under the convention continued - with help of CPS's war economy - great new generals had been brought to the fore - inc. 8 of Napoleons future marshals - as old officer class went into exile.

-March 1795 - Peace concluded with Prussia and Spain but war continued with GB and Austria. So Directory was dependent on the military for stability at home and success abroad.

One of most successful Generals was Napoleon.
-First Triumph in defending Toulon in 1793
He appealed to many who were disgusted with the Directory.

Coup of 18 Brumaire - Napoleon Named First Consul 1799

Napoleon's Rule in France (1799-1814): 

The Consulate (1799-1804)

Napoleon maintained order in the state by his policies.
Liberal Policies - He worked out important compromises between competing groups
-a. He employed people from all political groups.
-b. The gains of the peasants were confirmed
-c. He granted an amnesty to nobles
-d. Decreed improved education.
-e. He signed the Concordat of 1801 with Pope Pius VII - gave Catholics freedom of worship. Church paid by state.

Although Napoleon became an emperor in 1804, he spread the values of the French revolution throughout Europe.  His values were well represented in the Napoleonic Code, which became France's civil code in 1804 and was the basis of modern French legal codes.

Napoleonic Code

CIVIL CODE 1804 = Napoleonic Code
-Granted the Middle class equality
-Safeguarded property rights
-Abolished all Privileges of birth
-Made state officials be chosen by merit
-Gave men control over their wives
-Labor unions forbidden


The Napoleonic code set the tone of all later French life

legally egalitarian, socially bourgeois, and administratively bureaucratic.