King Louis XVI was an absolute monarch that ruled by the divine right theory, the right t to rule from god. He got to choose all civil officials and military officers, created and enforced laws. Had the power to declare war and make peace. He taxed everything and spent people’s money on what he saw fit, controlled the thoughts expressed by a strict censorship of speech and press. He had the power to imprison anyone without trial for an indefinite period. During his rule he lived in his magnificent palace at Versailles, completely oblivious to the rising tide of popular discontent.
While Louis XVI was hidden in his palace peasants became unemployed and starved. They tended to wonder out of boredom and anger. There started to be mass vandalism and looting. The National Assembly, renamed Third estate, got together and discussed what to do. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was created. Louis XVI didn’t want to accept these reforms. Nobles didn’t accept it either because they enjoyed their status. When a mob of woman peasants went to Versailles in search of food the royal family was taken hostage. They remained prisoners for a few years.
The National Assembly had achieved their victory over the king. After dealing with the Nobles the National Assembly turned its attention to the clergy. The church was placed under state control. The Pope’s power was gone. In 1790 the clergy was forced to accept that Priests and Bishops now became salaried state officers. The Pope and peasants became annoyed. By the end of 1791 the National Assembly was busy making a new government. A Limited monarchy was used to replace the absolute monarchy. Law makers were voted into office by eligible men only.
The National Assembly also mad the government more efficient, limited the church and turned France into an 83 departments instead of ancient provinces. This constitution seemed to have completed the French Revolution. Many Foreigners thought that France had pulled a successful enlightenment based revolution like the Americas. Meanwhile Marie Antoinette and many others had urged Louis XVI to escape from their humiliating situation. In June of 1791 Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the royal children disguised themselves and fled towards the border.
Someone in a town along the way saw Louis’s face on a piece of currency and blew their cover. Soldiers escorted the royal family back to Paris. To many, Louis’s fleeing showed that he was a traitor to the revolution. Events taking place in France started debates all over Europe. Supporters of the Enlightenment like the changes the National Assembly made. They saw this reform as a dawn of a new age for justice and equality. European rulers and Nobles denounced the French Revolution. They increased border patrol to stop the spread of French travelers.
Fueling the fears of having these travelers spread throughout Europe were horrible stories told by the emigres, Nobles, clergy and others who fled France and its revolutionary forces. They told of the changes in their privileges, religion, property, and their lives. Even the rulers who were “enlightened” turned against France. In 1791, the King of Prussia and the emperor of Austria – Marie Antoinette’s brother – issued the Declaration of Pilnitz. This document says that the two monarchs threatened to intervene to protect the French monarchy.
This document may have been a bluff but revolutionaries in France took the threat seriously and prepared for war. The war was about to enter the Radical phase. In October of 1791 the newly elected Legislative Assembly took office. With crises at home and abroad it survived less than a year. Currency dropped in value, causing prices to rise rapidly. With rising prices came scared people which led to hoarding and food shortage. These threats and economic issues made people look to other leaders. The Sans-Culottes started to push early on. They were working class men and women who demanded a Republic.
The Jacobins came next, a revolutionary political club of lawyers and intellectuals. This group was one of the major factions in the National Assembly. They supported the Sans-Culottes ideas and used the Newspapers to spread the word. The Radicals soon gained power in legislature and gained total control over France. They declared war on countries threatening France starting with Austria, then Prussia, Britain and everyone else. 1792 begins a long period of violence in France. Soon the monarchy is abolished and the tension in France was mounting. Loss after loss occurred on the battlefield.
The Jacobins were the main Radical group in control. They planned on eliminating all traces of the old order by seizing landholders and abolished all noble titles. The Radicals started holding trials. Louis XVI was found guilty of being a traitor and was executed in 1792. Marie Antoinette followed soon after. The right to vote, suffrage, was to be given to all male citizens, not just property owners. By 1793 the rest of Europe started warring France. This sent the government into chaos. To deal with the constant threats the convention created the Committee of Public Safety.
They created a mass tax so people can contribute to the war effort, and were in charge of trials and executions. This new committee sparks fresh hope into the French. New Armies were created and began to achieve military successes throughout France. They overwhelmed the Netherlands, beat Prussia and Austria, invaded Italy and crushed the peasants in France. Monarchs throughout Europe began to get frightened again. Maximillion Robespierre rose to power with the Jacobins. He believed that France could achieve better things only if the rules were strictly enforced.
Robespierre promoted religious toleration and abolished slavery. His views led to the time period known as the “Reign of Terror”. Courts made quick decisions and quicker executions on political enemies and criminals. The guillotine made these executions quick and efficient. Eventually things got so bad that they started executing founding members of the committee. The committee was getting overly paranoid. Eventually Robespierre went too far. He was arrested by the remaining members of the committee and was executed in 1794. The death of Robespierre ended the Reign of Terror and the Radicals phase all in one quiet act.
Executions diminished greatly after his death and the Radicals started to fall from power after his death. The Revolution entered its third stage, the directory. Moderates began to rise again after the extremists failed. They set up a two house legislature by elected male landowners. This stage was run by the middle class of France. Peace was made with Prussia and Spain but Britain and Austria continued to war with them. Those armies began to scare the French people. Emigres started running to France during this phase. Royalist feelings began to re-emerge. Peasants were starving and rioting.
Politicians saw another period of chaos potentially returning. They turned to a military leader to help calm things down. They turned to Napoleon Bonaparte to back up the directory. France no longer functioned as it did before the revolution. People started wearing practical clothing and simple haircuts of the Sans-Culottes. Titles were not being used and the church was still under state control. Ten years of war made the French proud of whom they were and nationalism spread. Marseilles, a port city, became a starting point for French armies and people began hoping for a victory.
Troops began singing a new song that soon became the French national anthem. Revolutionaries pushed for social reform and religious toleration. State schools were set up to replace religious ones and they organized systems to help the poor, old soldiers and war widows. Slavery was abolished in the French Caribbean Colonies. Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power quickly. He defeated the British forces at the port of Toulon, had several dazzling wins against Austria and captured most of northern Italy and forced the Hapsburg emperor to male peace. Hoping to ruin British trade with India, Napoleon led on expedition to Egypt in 1798.
This was a disaster, but he managed to hide stories about the horrible losses from his admirers in France. He did this by establishing a network of spies and censoring the press. He returns home to France, without his troops. Napoleon holds a plebiscite, popular vote that elects him to absolute power in France. By 1799 he has become the most popular person in France. In 1801 Napoleon took control of the economy, directed prices, supply and demand. He allowed Emigres to return to France, and peasants to keep the land they acquired from the church.
Napoleon aided the middle class the most. He created jobs based on talent. He also made tons of laws known as the Napoleonic code. These laws included equality of citizens before the law, religious toleration, and the abolishment of feudalism. These laws embodied the ideas of the Enlightenment. Napoleon fought numerous battles and lost only a few. He managed to force Austria to surrender and cede land to the French. Prussia and Russia try to move against Napoleon in 1806. Napoleon countered this move in 1807. During a blizzard these three armies went all out.
The French suffered the most casualties. Reinforcements came just in time for him to trap a good portion of the Russian army. In the aftermath France occupied Prussia until they paid 140 million dollars and gave up land. Napoleon created Poland. He tried to invade Britain and Admiral Horatio Nelson smashed the French fleet. Because of this defeat Napoleon came up with the continental system which included closing European ports to English goods. Britain proceeded to blockade all of the major port cities in Europe. The plan backfires and Britain just trades with America, India and Asia.
Europe starts to suffer from lack of goods. France took over Spain and Napoleon set his brother on the throne. Most Spaniards stayed loyal to the deposed Spanish king. Austria went to war with France and they were defeated and forced to sign a harsh peace treaty. Napoleon invaded Russia but the Russians couldn’t face the French army head to head. They retreated all the way to Moscow. Britain, Austria, and Prussia formed an alliance with Russia and forced Napoleon to abdicate. He returns in 1815 and finally loses at the Battle of Waterloo. The
Congress of Vienna, all heads of state, meet and try to redraw Europe to what it was before the French Revolution. Although the French Revolution changed a lot of things in French culture and the cultures of the surrounding countries it helped question our rights as people. Peasants suffered through being ignored and not having rights and starving while nobles and clergy had the right to vote and had enough food to feed their large families. This revolution helped those who couldn’t otherwise help themselves rise and stand for what they thought was right. Maybe it was right maybe it wasn’t, but that’s history.