During the 18th century, Europe was under the dominion of diverse dynastic monarchs who possessed absolute authority. They, alongside the nobility and clergy, held inheritable privileges. In France, the clergy and nobles were exempt from taxes, a contrast to the common populace. It was within this landscape that the French Revolution emerged, advocating for principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
France in the Eighteenth Century:
Before the French Revolution, France operated under the ancien regime, translating to the “old order.” This system categorized individuals into estates, with all rights and status originating from three divisions: clergy, nobility, and the Third Estate encompassing everyone else. Louis XVI, from the Bourbon dynasty, ruled France alongside his wife, Mary Antoinette, a princess of Austria. The king held absolute authority and indulged in a luxurious lifestyle while the government disproportionately taxed the poor compared to the wealthy.
On July 14, 1789, the Parisian populace, suffering from food scarcity due to poor harvests, discontent with their living conditions, and frustration with their monarch and governance, stormed the Bastille fortress, previously a prison. This event, the storming of the Bastille, marked the onset of a new era in global history, symbolizing a profound shift. Multiple factors contributed to the eruption of this revolutionary upheaval.
Conditions of Peasantry:
The majority of French society was comprised of peasants who functioned as serfs. Their obligations included working specific days each week for their lords without receiving any compensation. Marriage and land transactions required the lord’s approval, restricting their autonomy. Feudal dues were imposed, including fees for utilizing communal ovens and tolls on livestock. Approximately eighty percent of a peasant’s earnings went to various tax collectors. Carlyle vividly depicted that one-third of them subsisted solely on third-rate potatoes for one-third of the year.
In French society, there were three primary divisions known as estates: the Clergy, representing the priestly class; the Nobility, comprising the landed gentry and aristocracy; and the unprivileged commoners. The Clergy and Nobility held special privileges exempting them from several taxes imposed by the monarchy. Conversely, the third estate, comprising commoners, bore the weight of taxation as the other two estates were excused owing to these privileges. Significant taxes included the tithe, collected exclusively by the church from the laity, the Taille paid by peasants, the Gabelle salt tax, and a tax on tobacco. Peasants, unable to contest feudal regulations alone, sought external support and leadership. Simultaneously, the burgeoning bourgeoisie, aiming to align their political influence with their economic standing, sought a voice in governance. Consequently, the bourgeoisie took the helm, playing a pivotal role in instigating the French Revolution.
France engaged in ongoing conflict with the neighboring British Empire, incurring substantial financial strain. Vast sums were depleted in the Seven Years’ War against Britain and Prussia, and later during the American War. Despite their significant aid to American colonists, France stretched beyond its means, burdened by hefty loan interests. To address debts, the government augmented taxes for the populace, while the reluctance of the nobles and higher clergy to relinquish tax exemptions hindered state salvation. Complications deepened due to the royal court’s extravagance and the inefficiency of Louis XVI.
Role of Intellectuals:
Before the 1789 revolution, a profound ideological shift occurred. Public intellectuals, known as philosophes, fueled by the Enlightenment’s pursuit of applying reason across all knowledge domains, significantly primed the landscape for the French Revolution. Voltaire and Rousseau’s works acted as catalysts for this movement. Montesquieu, in “The Spirit of Laws,” advocated for the separation of powers—legislative, executive, and judiciary—denouncing the concentration of authority in a single entity. Voltaire, through “The Age of Louis XIV,” staunchly opposed French religious superstitions and critiqued the monarchs’ administration. Rousseau, in “The Social Contract,” proposed a relationship between rulers and subjects bound by a contract: just governance would garner respect, while unjust rule, violating this agreement, warranted punishment. English philosopher John Locke, in “Two Treatises of Government,” opposed divine right and absolute monarchy, sentiments echoed in the works of Diderot and the Encyclopaedists.
Beginning of the French Revolution:
The commencement of the French Revolution marked its origins during the convocation of the Estates-General in May 1789. This assembly was prompted by the severe financial predicaments confronted by the government. At the Palace of Versailles, the initial two estates, comprising the clergy and nobility, dispatched 300 representatives each, while the 600 delegates of the third estate, primarily consisting of merchants and intellectuals, were relegated to stand behind them. A pivotal issue addressed at the Estates-General was the voting methodology. Traditionally, each estate held one vote, a system favored by Louis XVI to persist. Conversely, the third estate advocated for a shift toward individual voting rights, advocating for one vote per member.
Tennis Court Oath:
Upon the rejection of the third estate’s request, its representatives united to establish the National Assembly on June 17, 1789. Subsequently, they departed from the Estates-General and congregated at a tennis court on June 20, 1789, where they pledged the ‘tennis court oath.’ This oath symbolized their commitment to curtail the authority of the monarchy and inaugurate a fresh constitution. Notably, this movement was guided by the nobleman Mirabeau and the clergyman Abbé Sieyès, who led the charge in this protest.
The Storming of the Bastille:
During the formation of the national assembly by the third estate representatives, the common folk faced hardship due to soaring prices of vital goods, aggravated by affluent merchants hoarding grains. In response, impassioned women surged into the market areas. Witnessing the unrest, the king deployed the army onto Parisian streets. Incensed by this action, the populace stormed the Bastille, the prominent city prison, demolishing it and freeing the inmates on July 14, 1789.
After Bastille’s fall, the National Assembly gained confidence to eliminate feudalism within the nation. Startled by these events, the king acquiesced to the establishment of a national assembly. Requests were made to the Church to relinquish its privileges and abandon the tithe. In 1791, the National Assembly formulated a constitution that restrained the king’s authority, proposing the establishment of three distinct branches: executive, legislative, and judiciary. Assembly members were indirectly chosen by a select group of electors, who, in turn, were voted in by male citizens above 25 years old paying taxes. Consequently, the majority of citizens were denied voting rights.
The Constitution was crafted by the National Constituent Assembly. Adopted on August 26, 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen effectively placed the monarchy under the rule of law while delineating individual and collective rights. It staunchly upheld that accusations, arrests, or imprisonment could only occur under lawful circumstances (clause 7) and emphasized that taxation required unanimous consent (clause 14). Thomas Jefferson’s influence was evident in clause 1, asserting that ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.’
Women played a pivotal role during the French Revolution. Hailing from the less affluent regions of Paris, women marched on Versailles with the support of 20,000 armed men. They breached the palace, compelling the king to return with them to Paris, where he remained under public scrutiny. Numerous women were actively engaged in politics, among them Olympe de Gouges, dissatisfied with the exclusion of women in the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In response, she penned the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen, advocating staunchly for women’s equality.
War against Austria and Prussia:
While the king outwardly supported the transition to a constitutional monarchy, covertly, he sought assistance from Austria and Prussia. France’s neighboring kingdoms closely monitored the unfolding events with apprehension, fearing that the empowerment of the common populace might spell the demise of monarchial reign. Consequently, they dispatched their troops to France to quell the revolution. Simultaneously, the National Assembly initiated a war against Austria and Prussia. In response, citizens from various regions of France rallied together to combat the invading foreign forces. A contingent from Marseilles marched to Paris, chanting the patriotic anthem, the Marseillaise, in a show of solidarity.
Formation of Clubs:
Following the establishment of the National Assembly, the plight of the common people persisted. Many perceived the assembly as a domain exclusively for the wealthy, as it barred commoners from participating in voting processes. In Paris, authority lay in the hands of the National Guard, comprised mainly of the middle class and led by Lafayette, known for his role as a French adviser during the American War of Independence. Initially, a sense of freedom and celebration enveloped the joint commemoration of the Bastille’s fall, uniting the king, former aristocrats, the middle class, and the Parisian masses. However, this unity was short-lived. Discontent brewed, leading to the formation of political clubs, such as the popular Jacobin Club in Paris. Comprising individuals from the lower echelons of society—small-scale traders, artisans, servants, and laborers—the club was led by Maximilian Robespierre. Most Jacobin members sported long-striped trousers in contrast to the knee-breeches favored by the nobility, dubbing themselves ‘the people without knee breeches’ (sans-culottes). Another influential figure, lawyer Danton, held sway over the Cordelier Club.
Girondins and Jacobins:
Lafayette held sway over the political landscape of the constitutional monarchy for a span of two years. In June 1791, the king’s endeavor to escape Paris and unite with counter-revolutionary forces amassed at the border was foiled by the local militia. However, a convergence of food scarcities, escalating prices, and unemployment pushed artisans, traders, and laborers to the brink of despair. Despite attempts at repression, a burgeoning groundswell of popular discontent continued to rise. Infighting amongst the moderate factions governing the administration became pronounced. Within the Jacobin Club, a faction known as the Girondins or Brissotins (named after one of their leaders, Brissot) held less radical views than figures like Robespierre and Danton. While differences in perspective existed within their ranks, all except Robespierre believed that engaging in a war against foreign powers would be beneficial. Robespierre, conversely, contended that such a war would pave the way for counter-revolution. Despite his opposition, the Girondins, in agreement with the king, formed a government and declared war on Austria and Prussia in April 1792.
The Girondins’ strategy ended in calamity. Fueled by fury, the Jacobin Club members launched an assault on the Tuileries Palace, Louis XVI’s official abode, pillaging it and slaying the guards. They seized the king, holding him captive. The Convention, a newly formed assembly, decreed the king’s imprisonment and organized fresh elections to choose a leader for the nation. This pivotal vote granted suffrage to all citizens aged 21 and above, irrespective of wealth or social standing.
Following the overthrow of the monarchy, suspicions arose among the populace regarding political prisoners in custody allegedly aligning with counter-revolutionary forces. This led to a frenzied mob storming the prisons and summarily executing those suspected of being royalists. It all began on September 2, 1792, at Abbaye prison in Paris, extending over the subsequent four days to other city prisons. Approximately 1,200 prisoners fell victim to what became known as the September Massacres. These brutal events were highlighted internationally as evidence of the revolution’s atrocities. The Girondins pointed fingers at their more radical adversaries, particularly Marat, Danton, and Robespierre, attributing blame for the carnage.
Work of the National Convention:
On the 20th of September 1792, the revolutionary army successfully halted the invading forces at Valmy. The very next day, the newly established Convention abolished the monarchy, marking France’s transformation into a republic. King Louis XVI faced the People’s Tribunal and met his fate on the guillotine on January 21st, 1793, accused of seeking foreign aid against his own people. Shortly thereafter, Marie Antoinette also met a similar fate.
During this period, hunger pervaded both urban centers and the countryside, leading Parisians to demand price controls, ensure grain supplies, and take action against hoarders and speculators. However, instead of addressing these legitimate concerns, the Convention opted to use the army against the agitated masses. Consequently, the army suffered defeats as its commander defected to the enemy. Disenchanted peasants in the Vendee region joined a monarchist uprising. Eventually, a coalition of moderates and royalists took control of Lyons on May 29th, 1793, a city known for its thriving silk industry and the settlement of wealthy merchants from Germany and Italy.
Rule of Jacobins:
Robespierre, determined to safeguard the progress achieved in the preceding four years, initiated a dictatorial rule. Under the Jacobins’ authority, Girondin leaders met the guillotine, while even figures like Danton faced execution. This era, spanning 1793 to 1794, witnessed sweeping reforms. The Convention, dominated by the Jacobins, notably abolished slavery across all French territories on February 4, 1794. Robespierre enforced wage caps, rationed essential foods like bread and meat, and controlled prices for agricultural goods. Formalities shifted, replacing “Sir” and “Madam” with “male citizen” and “female citizen.” Churches underwent conversion into military barracks, reflecting a profound transformation. However, discontent brewed among Robespierre’s own party members due to the government’s radicalization and its effects on society. Eventually, this internal dissent led to Robespierre’s conviction and subsequent execution in 1794.
After overthrowing Robespierre, the Allies found their time in power brief. Opponents of the revolution seized control of Paris, assaulting those defending its ideals. April and May of 1795 witnessed two uprisings swiftly quashed by the loyalist forces aligned with the emerging Thermidorians. Emigres returned, predicting the imminent restoration of the monarchy. Come October 1795, royalists initiated their own uprising in Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte, a once Jacobin-linked rising officer, led the army to their aid, prompting the Thermidorians to consolidate power within a Directory of five men to avert violence. Within four years, Napoleon maneuvered to ascendancy, culminating in a coup in 1799 that effectively granted him dictatorial authority. By 1804, Napoleon compelled the Pope to crown him as France’s Emperor. While the French revolutionaries faced defeat, their legacy endured, significantly shaping the modern world.
Impact of the French Revolution:
The impact of the French Revolution resonated far beyond France, reverberating throughout Europe and igniting inspiration among anti-colonial thinkers globally in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its influence wasn’t confined to ousting Louis XVI; it significantly lessened societal disparities by curtailing birth-based privileges and dismantling the feudal system. This transformation ushered in a republican government with electoral rights, while the abolition of slavery and the diminishing dominance of the Church underscored the revolution’s far-reaching reforms. Freedom of faith and religious tolerance became integral, secured by the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizens, which highlighted individual and collective rights. The establishment of distinct governmental branches—legislative, executive, and judiciary—fostered checks and balances, dispersing power away from centralized authority. Across Europe, the French Revolution kindled aspirations among people, inspiring a quest to terminate despotic rule and foster a more egalitarian society.