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France – Change over Time Essay (French Revolution) Essay

*As the title indicates, this is a change/continuity AP essay written for World History class. Vaguely, the essay question was: Describe change and continuity in France from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s.*Like many other European nations in the 1700’s, France experienced a dramatic shift of sentiments against the monarchy, nobility, and Catholic Church as the people, fired by rousing new Enlightenment ideals, began to question authority and emphasize the need for equality, liberty, and democracy. The social and political changes in France were best characterized by three different periods – the weak monarchy of King Louis XVI and the subsequent period of confusion after his removal from power, the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte and his downfall, and the new order brought about by the Congress of Vienna; central to these changes were Enlightenment influence, nationalism, and France’s relations with other countries. However, despite the great social upheavals of this time period, gender roles remained more or less unchanged and although women had begun to rouse the idea of women’s rights, little changed in the way that society viewed women because men still held economic power.

France was the most advanced country of Europe in the 1700’s, home to many leading philosophers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu. Despite its prominence, it was experiencing domestic instability and civil unrest. The aloof King Louis XVI paid little attention to what was happening outside his opulent court and was unable to control the rebellions when they started cropping up. Goaded by Enlightenment ideas, the lower classes began to demand equality and liberty. When their demands were not met, they stormed the French prison Bastille on July 14, 1789 and the revolution was truly underway. The National Assembly became the dominant political power, taking away the feudal privileges of the First and Second Estates and establishing control over church lands. It created a limited constitutional monarchy, giving Legislative power to the Assembly. Wary of rebellions within their own borders, Austria and Prussia attempted to preserve absolute monarchy in Europe by quelling the French revolution.

The Legislative Assembly responded by setting aside the Constitution of 1791, deposing the king, and creating a new governing body. A consequent Reign of Terror ensued during which the Jacobins, and later on Robespierre, gained power and instituted a period of wide spread executions and radical policies. It was during this period that use of the guillotine became popular. Eventually, the Reign of Terror was overthrown and a moderate government under the Directory was installed. This period saw France change from an absolute monarchy to a period of radical rule then finally to a more moderate form of government. Throughout this, women played a key role in facilitating the spread of ideas by opening their salons to Enlightenment thinkers, creating an environment for new philosophies to form and proliferate. However, they had little direct power and were still seen as inferior to man, albeit new Enlightenment ideals of equality.

The Directory chose talented military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, to become general of the French army; he later moved on to become one of three counsels holding executive power. However, Napoleon’s coup d’etat would put all of France under his control and return France to an absolute monarchy. Napoleon’s reign achieved many Enlightenment ideals despite his Hobbes-like policies; he equalized taxation, repaired the corrupt government, struck a balance between state and church power, and created the Napoleonic Code. He managed to quell the Austrian threat although he did not succeed in Egypt. Napoleon turned away from the New World and sought, instead, to create French dominance in Europe, conquering many neighboring countries and establishing control over Spain and Portugal.

Unfortunately, his three mistakes – the Continental System, the Peninsular War, and the invasion of Russia – eventually caused his downfall. The Fourth Coalition, comprised of Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, and Austria, defeated Napoleon and exiled him to the island of Elba. Despite a brief attempt to regain control of France, called the Hundred Days, Napoleon would never again dominate France. During Napoleon’s reign, France saw the return of the absolute ruler. However, growing nationalism brought about Napoleon’s removal from power. This period is also marked by the continuity of woman’s role in France. Despite the tumultuous events of the time, women saw little change in their rights and status. Philosophers like Mary Wollstonecraft found little support for her ideas and France politics and society continued to be a male dominated arena.

After Napoleon’s removal from power, the Congress of Vienna, comprised of Prussia, Russia, Austria, Britain, and France, met to forge peace. Using conservative polices, the map of Europe was redrawn to ensure the balance of power and monarchs were restored, created peace in Europe until 1853. However, the French revolution had flamed a support for nationalism as more conquered nations demanded autonomy; the majority of the rebellions were unsuccessful. France had a final revolution had removed the monarchy for good and established a democratic republic.

France had finally made the transition from absolute monarchy to democracy. With this change came many social changes such as the end of serfdom in Western Europe and the decreased power of the nobility and the increased importance of wealth in determining power. Women continued to work for women’s rights, including suffrage, but were met with unenthusiastic responses. In fact, despite the radical political changes France had undergone, gender roles hardly changed at all, demonstrating the continuity of women’s status from the time of Louis XVI to after the Congress of Vienna.

On a global scale, the basic trends of the French Revolution were very similar to those of the American Revolution. Both were flamed by Enlightenment thinkers advocating equality and liberty and democracy over monarchy and Church control. Both would encourage other rebellions later on – the American Revolutionary ideas would spread to Latin America while French Revolution sentiments would bring about revolts in Germany, Hungary, and other parts of Europe. Woman’s rights also remained rather static in both areas of the world; it would be several more years before women’s rights were considered seriously. The main difference, however, lay in the fact that while the US simply separated itself from Britain authority, France underwent the whole transformation, from absolute monarchy to democracy, despite the periods of unrest in between.

The 1700’s was a period of great change in Europe, and France’s progression from absolute monarchy to democracy illustrates the movements of Enlightenment thinkers and the growth of nationalism and the new importance of domestic stability and a satisfied lower class. Three distinct time periods – Louis XVI’s rule and the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s reign, and Europe following the Congress of Vienna – illustrated this profound political change. Throughout the political change, however, was continuity in women’s rights and status. Gender roles remained largely the same. There were many parallels between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, depicting an international trend – the growing power of democratic governments.


All information from AP World History textbookWorld Civilizations: The Global Experience, Third Edition, AP* Edition

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