History Week 8. The French Revolution

Note: Unless you have a LOT of time, I would not recommend reading this long essay.

The French Revolution

This essay gives a brief history of the French Revolution which occurred between the years 1789-1799. I also include the revolution’s causes and effects.

By the 1780s, France had faced a lot of problems, which had subsequently exhausted the nation. Some of the problems are as follows. Only twenty six years before 1789, France had fought in the Seven Years War and had lost almost all of her provinces in North America to their arch enemy, Britain. In 1775, the American Revolutionary War started, when the people in the thirteen colonies rebelled against Britain, their mother country. King Louis XVI of France saw the American rebellion as an opportunity to hit back at the British, so he started to support the rebel colonists. In 1783, the American revolution ended in the colonies’ Independence and an overall victory for the American-French coalition. But France’s support for the colonists had landed the country in debt, as the war effort had cost millions of francs. 

But it was not just debt that France had to face. During the 1780s continuous bad harvests struck the country so hard that people began to starve. Also, the way that society was organised in Europe at the time, especially in France, contributed greatly to the start of the French Revolution. Up till the revolution, France still had remnants of the feudal system in her social order. This meant that the distance between the upper and lower classes was huge, creating resentment. France had  three social classes, called estates. The first estate was the clergy of the Catholic Church, the second estate was comprised of the nobility and the third estate was made up of the rest of the people (97% of France’s population), who were considered commoners. This social structure was quite rigid and if someone were born into a third estate family, there was almost no way for them to attain a higher place in society.

Following the advice of his advisors about the desperate financial state of the country, King Louis convened an assembly known as the Estates-General at his home in the palace of Versailles, about 50 miles away from Paris, in 1789. The Estates-General was a meeting that the King of France could call in an emergency and had alrady been used a few times before by France’s monarchs. In this meeting, representatives from the three estates would come together and discuss pressing issues. The Estates-General of 1789 was called to settle France’s financial issues. But there was a problem. The representatives of the third estate outnumbered those of the clergy and nobles put together. This meant that the third estate could push for less tax, as they had the majority. To answer this problem, Louis locked the third estate representatives out of the meeting room, with only the two upper estate representatives inside. Outraged at this injustice, the third estate representatives held their own meeting called the National Assembly, in an indoor tennis court. The gathered representatives swore an oath, saying that they would not leave the court until a new constitution had been agreed on. 

From the National assembly, everything started to spiral out of control. The king, fearing that the Assembly would enforce their constitution, sent the first and second estate representatives into the Assembly. Meanwhile, the public in Paris heard about the Assembly and soon people were talking about the country’s troubles and the problems of the current government. The gossip quickly turned to rioting, and the commoners, (also known as the partisans) famously stormed the Bastille, a government prison, on July 14th, 1789. This is officially recognised as the start of the French Revolution.

Violence quickly spread beyond Paris and throughout the country. Many peasants rebelled against their masters, turning on them. Many of the nobility were killed, with the peasantry taking their possessions and homes. During this time, the third estate kept calling for equality, so that they could be considered equals to the two upper estates. At first the two upper estates refused to submit to these changes, but with the violence increasing, they had no choice but to give in. On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly passed a number of reforms that abolished certain feudal rules and they also started to tax the upper estates.

The National Assembly then created a bill of rights, to satisfy the growing demands of the people. This was called the Declaration of the rights of man bill. This bill gave freedom of speech, press and religion and also declared that citizens could not be falsely arrested. The declaration still forms part of the current French constitution. The Declaration was passed and approved by the National Assembly on August 26 1789. King Louis XVI signed the document, but he was under pressure to do so.

Seeing their King’s uncertainty and lack of strong will, the already starving Parisians demanded that the king move to Paris, so that he could be closer to the people, but also so that they could watch his moves. In October 1789, the Royal family was forced to move, when an angry crowd of women and soldiers surrounded the palace of Versailles. This would later become known as the famous ‘March of the Market women’

Following the relocation of the King, the National Assembly decided to go ahead and form a republic, overturning the old monarchial system. The new constitution that was written up, limited the power of the king, establishing a legislature, which would be elected by the people. It also declared that everyone had the right to vote. To pay off the country’s debt, the new government confiscated the Catholic Church’s lands, effectively reducing the power of the first estate. Henceforth, in 1791, the writing and forming of this new government began. 

Meanwhile, King Louis XVI, was not happy with the sudden turn of events surrounding the new government. In June 1791, Louis decided that it was time he and his family flee France, and go to Austria, where the Queen’s brother was emperor. However, as they tried to escape, they were caught and immediately sent back to Paris. The instability in France soon leaked out to other countries, where other monarchs started to fear that the French Revolution would spread to their countries. This immediately caused them to start making war plans against the French republic. 

Knowing what the other countries where up to, the still developing republic, decided to make the first move and declare war. In 1792, France attacked Austria, fearing that the Austrians would reinstate the complete monarchy. Austria was soon joined by other countries who together converged to destroy the new republic. Meanwhile, France itself was still in turmoil, as both the war and the newly-formed republic greatly excited the citizens. The republic also decided to completely do away with the monarchy, subsequently strengthening the power of the republic.

In late 1792, King Louis was put on trial for his actions and treason against his country. He was executed on January 3rd, 1793. This caused for celebration throughout France, as the French believed that now, the revolution could go forward. Meanwhile, debates in the National Assembly where tearing the young government apart. The war effort and general state of the country was shocking, with poverty and starvation everywhere. One of the leading parties in the republic, the Jacobins, saw this moment of instability in the government and so they attempted to exploit it to their use. Their scheme worked, and led by a man called Maximilien Robespierre, took complete control of the government. The Jacobins were a radical group, who sought to crush all remaining royalist sympathisers. Their method for removing resistance came in the form of ‘Madame Guillotine’. This was a humane execution tool with a sharp blade that chopped the victim’s head off. This tool was used in the Reign of Terror. 

The Reign of Terror was a time of blood and violence, when some streets in Paris were covered in blood.  Whole families were sent to the guillotine, as the common people sought revenge on the ‘traitorous’ higher classes. But not just nobles were executed. Anyone who was thought a traitor to the republic could die. This wave of mass execution was a clear sign of the horrible extremes that the Republic was taking. Led by Robespierre, the Terror lasted from 1789 to 1794. 

The Terror finally ended when Robespierre himself was found guilty of treason and was executed in 1794. The death of Robespierre triggered the fall of the Jacobins, as their control crumbled. This also calmed down the fervour of many of the revolutionaries, as France suddenly grew calmer after the Terror. This ‘calming down’ is known as the Thermidorian Reaction.

After the Thermidorian Reaction, there was a brief period known as The Directory. But this lasted only for 5 years, so a young French general called Napoleon Bonaparte, decided to take the matters of the country into his own hands. In 1799, Napoleon led a coup d’état and successfully became ruler of France . He soon named himself Emperor and was readily accepted by the people.

By this time, most of the violence in France had died down and although all was not normal, internal fighting and resistance to the revolution started to cease. When Napoleon came to power, he focused on the wars which France was waging against it’s neighbouring countries. Although the wars would go on for a few more years, the crowning of Napoleon officially ended the ‘Revolution’ in France. 

The French Revolution was a terrible time and shows the abandonment of Christian standards. This is also known among Christians as the ‘restraint’ of the Holy Spirit. In countries where Christians live, the Holy Spirit restrains people from going wild. Sure, bad things still happen in those countries, but the French Revolution was an example of complete removal of this ‘restraint’. Many Biblical historians think that this happened because years before, in 1643, the christians in France were driven out and persecuted.  

To conclude, we have talked on the main causes of the revolution, going through several issues that France had and how that led to one of the most famous revolutions that has ever happened. 

This revolution shaped a lot of culture, and although the monarchy was restored to France in 1814, the effect the revolution has had on France is enormous and has also had its effects on the continent. 

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