Before the French Revolution, France was ruled and governed by the king, his Grand Council of ministers, and 13 courts called parliaments. King Louis XVI ruled by “divine right,” believing that he had been put on the throne by the grace of God. France then was one of the most powerful and wealthiest countries, and had a strong army, and even stronger cultural influence. (Plain, 5) Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were shielded from the daily lives of the ordinary people in France.
When Louis XVI inherited the throne in 1774, he also inherited many problems left behind by the previous king, King Louis XV. The country had been involved in the Seven Years War, also known as the French and Indian War, and was left with many debts of the war.
France was divided into three groups, or estates with their own status and role to play in the country. The First Estate involved religious people in the country. The Second Estate involved all the nobles.
These two estates had many privileges, and were the wealthiest group, but were only a small piece of the entire population. The Third Estate was everyone else in the country: the peasants, poor city dwellers, and the “middle class”. The Third Estate was the largest group, and had little to no power, even though it was the largest group. (Connolly, 8) In order to pay off national debts, Louis XVI increased taxes in the Third Estate, which impacted many of their lives. Because of the taxes, industry started to lag, and there were bread shortages in many places. People of the Third Estate relied on bread as their primary source of food, and when the bread ran out or the price increased, many people went hungry and riots broke out. (Plain, 19) Louis XVI shocked many people when he declared war against the British, even though they were already in massive debt because of the Seven Year’s War. King Louis XVI wanted to increase trade with America, and wanted revenge against the British for beating them in the Seven Year’s war. After the American Revolution, many Parisians were fascinated by Benjamin Franklin, the American Ambassador to France. Franklin told of the new American Republic, where representatives obeyed the will of the people. Talk about similar change spread through France.
Louis XVI tried to make reforms by ending the corvée in many provinces, and outlawed the use of torture to gain information. He also granted more rights to Protestants and Jews living in France, and allowed more freedom of press. However, it was becoming harder and harder to govern with a stubborn parliament. In order to pay off debts, Louis tried to impose a tax on all landowners, not just the Third Estate. The parliament of Paris claimed that only a special assembly could approve a tax, an assembly that hasn’t been called in over 170 years, the Estates-General. (French Revolution², 2) The Estates-General was an assembly where representatives of the three Estates could discuss what to do. Through May and into June 1789, the representatives argued about how many votes each Estate should have. The First and Second Estates bent the rules to their advantage, saying that each Estate should have only one vote, ensuring that they would win any conflict two to one. The Third Estate wanted a system of majority votes, since it would give it the most say. On Jun 17, the Third Estate broke away and declared itself the National Assembly, which was a direct offence to the people in power, including King Louis XVI. (Connolly,12)
The National Assembly created a new law that gave only it the power to decide on taxes. Louis XVI banned the National Assembly from its meeting hall upon hearing this. However, on June 20, 1789, the National Assembly responded by moving to the Versailles tennis court across the street and swore the “Tennis Court Oath.” The representatives swore that they would not break apart until they had drafted a constitution for the people of France, guaranteeing rights to the French people. Many lower-ranking clergy and a number of nobles broke away from the First and Second Estates to join the National Assembly. Louis feared the combined strength of this group, and could see that people were rising up against him. (Connolly, 14) In order to show the French his power, Louis hired foreign soldiers to go to Versailles and Paris, and fired the popular minister Jacques Necker. However, with the public and numbers from the other two Estates on its side, the Third Estate stood strong. The king, not wanting an outright revolt, ordered the representatives from the First and Second Estates to join the National Assembly to show that he accepted the change in mood, which then changed its name to the National Constituent Assembly.
The French people wanted complete victory for the representatives of the Third Estate. They were mad that the king brought foreign soldiers in to France and fired Jacques Necker. On July 12, 1789, full scale rioting began, with symbols of the king’s power the main targets. Crowds of people gathered at the Hôtel Invalides, the place where the army stored their guns, and demanded arms to fight with. They rioters were able to get about thirty-thousand muskets and several cannons. However, they obtained very little gunpowder and few bullets. Upon hearing that the gunpowder and ammunition have been moved to the fortified prison, the Bastille, for safekeeping, thousands of people went to swarm the Bastille. The Bastille was originally built as a fortress, with walls five feet thick, but was now used as a political prison, but held very few prisoners. The crowd attacked shortly after noon on July 14, and Bernard de Launey, the man in command at the Bastille, agreed to surrender to the crowd if he was not harmed. But, the crowds took Launey prisoner, and soon after cut off his head and mounted it on a pike. (Corzine, 44-46) When Louis XVI was informed of the fall of the Bastille, he exclaimed, “But, this is a revolt!” The official who informed him told him, “No, Sire. It is a revolution.” (Plain, 29)
In August, the National Assembly wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, influenced by America’s Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen called for political power to be shared by every individual, for the right of religious freedom, and the rule of law. (Plain, 30) On October 5, 1789, thousands of women gathered at the city hall in Paris demanding bread. They disarmed guards and collected weapons and set out to Versailles to see the king. Along the way, a number of men and women joined them armed with scythes, heavy sticks, pikes, pitchforks, and knives. After the king was led back to Paris, he was literally held under house-arrest as a hostage. Louis XVI was convinced by his advisors and the queen to flee Paris and the entire royal family fled under the cover of the night. Many deputies feared that, with the king gone, foreign armies could invade France. The family’s flight was thwarted when they were recognized, and were led back to Paris as a prisoner in disgrace, and to many, a traitor. (Corzine, 63-65)
By August 30, 1792, France was in a state of terror. The stronghold of Verdun was under siege by the Duke of Brunswick’s armies, which would give the enemy an open road to Paris if it fell. On September 2, news reached Paris that Verdun had fallen. On that September afternoon, terrible massacres occurred. Priests were dragged from their coaches and killed. Mobs stormed the Carmes prison and killed the priests imprisoned there. They were brought to a mock trial, and then executed. The killings lasted for five days, and over fourteen hundred people were killed. Nearly all the prisons in Paris were attacked and the prisoners murdered. (Corsine, 79-81)
By 1792, members of the Jacobin club had taken control. The Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia, but were easily defeated. As the enemy armies marched towards Paris, the people panicked. On August 10, about twenty thousand French revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries palace, forcing the royal family to flee. By then, many of the Revolution’s former leaders had left the country. In September, the French army defeated the Prussians. The National Assembly then voted and renamed itself the National Convention, which adopted the slogan Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The Convention then immediately abolished monarchy, and, on January 15, 1793, the Convention found the king guilty of “conspiring against liberty.” The king was escorted to the guillotine on January 20, 1793, and was quickly executed, becoming a symbol of the Revolution. (Connolly, 32)
Following the death of Louis XVI, France was waging war with nearly every European power, including England, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, and Prussia. There was also a small civil war in France, with the Royalists and the pro-Church people against the Revolutionaries. To help France through the war, the National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety, led by Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobin Club of Paris. Robespierre stressed the need for a center of opinion and was enemies with many members of the Convention. The Committee of Public Safety tried to de-Christianize France, and created a completely new calendar. The Committee of Public Safety soon led the country into what is now known as the Reign of Terror. During the Reign of Terror, possible enemies of the Revolution were executed. Over sixteen thousand people from all classes were sent to the guillotine, and flags now had the phrase Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death! But, in July 1794, Robespierre was sentenced to the guillotine, and his followers followed swiftly. (Plain, 35-38)
The National Committee created a constitution that gave power to a five-member Directory, and two legislative bodies. The Directory had serious problems it had to face, such as supplying France with food and goods. Much of France’s population was starving. A little-known officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, supported the Directory and was able to help France in times of need. Several politicians overthrew the Directory on November 9, 1799, and created a new constitution which supposedly gave power to the Consulate, but actually gave all the real power to the First Consulate, which Napoleon Bonaparte was elected into. (Connolly, 44-45)
Napoleon Bonaparte established the Bank of France, strengthened the school system, made government jobs, and established a code of justice known as the Napoleonic code. France also conquered many European countries, and by 1806, France controlled much of Western Europe. Napoleon soon became more and more powerful. He changed the constitution in order to give himself even more power, and declared himself Emperor of France soon after. The French believed that their lives were better under Napoleon, even though this was not the ideas of the Revolution.
The French Revolution and the American Revolution were similar and different in many ways. The American’s wanted to break away from Great Britain, while France just wanted to get rid of the monarchy. During periods in the French Revolution, over seventeen thousand people were sent to the guillotine to be beheaded. During the war, America had France and Spain on its side and was against only Great Britain. France, however, was on its own, and had to fight against five countries. The French sent the king and queen of France to the Guillotine, but the Americans did not harm physically harm the royal family in any way. After the war, America had two forms of government. One was the Articles of Confederation, which gave too much power to the states, and another one was the Constitution of the United States. The French had four forms of government. The first was the National Assembly, the second was the Committee of Public Safety, the third was the Directory, and the fourth was the Consulate. For the French, their lives were better after the Revolution and once Napoleon was the First Consulate. The French Revolution was truly a revolution.
The French Revolution was a real revolution because there are political changes, social changes, and economical changes. After the war, the French have overthrown the monarchy, and replaced it with the Directory. However, the Directory then fails, and is replaced with the Consulate. The people’s lives improved after the Revolution. The school system was better, and there were more jobs for people who could qualify. Napoleon established the Bank of France and improved the economy. Napoleon had improved the areas of education, justice, and business after the war, making the French Revolution a real revolution.
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