French Revolution (1789-1815)

Updated: Oct 23, 2019


Louis XV inherit a rich nation from his father Louis XIV, the sun king. He lived a life in luxury as his country led in subjects like philosophy during the Enlightenment and people admired french clothes, art and cooking.

The structure of the Old Regime

In the eyes of the Old Regime the king had absolute power. The french people were divided up into three estates: clergy, nobility and commoners. The clergy and the nobility opposed every reform or opinion that threaten them, and they were the ones with the privileges even though the majority of the people belonged to the third estate.

Growing economic crisis

France was a rich country during the 1700s with a growing population from 18 million to 25 million between 1715-1789. The farmers supported the growing population and economic expansion by good harvests. But after the 1770s things worsen.

The harvests were not good anymore and the debts to the banks were no longer under control. The previous king, Louis XIV (the sun king,), had left his country in depth due to expensive wars, Louis XV payed to maintain France power, the support in the American revolution had doubled their debts and the also the country paid the court at Versailles to support them. The next king Louis XVI continued with the borrowing of money, but he realized that the country was in need of an economic reform. The only problem was that he would rather spend his time out hunting than handling economic problems.

The nobles did not want to pay taxes, they liked their luxury life and because they had the power in the parliament the king's try of new tax laws failed. He called the estates general to a meeting in the fall 1788, which had not happened since 1614, before the estates had met separately.

First step into a revolution

An uprising mob wanted to make sure that the royal family would provide them with bread and therefore marched from Paris to Versaille to force the king Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette and their son to follow them back to Paris. The third estate demanded that the estates should meet together and that, as contrast to previous times, all should vote as individuals instead of the estates having one vote each (then the first and second estate could outvote the third estates). The king rejected their plan but failed when the third estate took the first step into a revolution uniting all three estates in the National assembly, where the opinions were divided. Some wanted to set up a limited constitutional monarchy like the one in Great Britain while other wanted laws making all classes equal, but common for all was the dislike for the king and his absolute power.

Popular uprising

The storm of Bastille, 14th of July 1780, was a reaction based on people's fear against that the king might dissolve the National Assembly. All over the country the fear changed into disturbances, like the event that is called the “Great Fear” where peasants were fool that their crops were destroyed by bandits. The peasants reaction when they realised that they were fooled by rumors was to revolt against their landlords. They raided grain stores, destroyed tax records and swore to never be ruled under feudal dues. And the peasants were not the only ones revolting against the Old Regime, so did the people on Paris.

Forced into reforms

The revolts forced the National Assembly to act. They had to abolish most of the feudal customs, including taxation of nobles and serfdoms. Later the privileges of the Catholic church also was abolished.

The basis of the French government's democratic principles was adopted at the end of August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man. However there were trust issues between the people and the royal family. The people wanted to have them situated in Paris so they could watch over what they did, and to prevent violence the king agreed. As the king rode into Paris he had been forced to wear the the tricolor, the symbol of the revolutionaries, showing the gained power of the people.

In 1991 the first constitution of France was established making France a limited monarchy with a system of separate powers, which guaranteed equal rights and erased the old estates. But this constitutional did not please the people because they would have preferred a republic. It escalated so far that the royal family had to flee the country, in July 1791. They did not success though and was brought back to the capital (the king was recognized at the border).

The revolutionaries had split opinions, and divided up into Moderate and Radical revolutionaries. The Jacobins was the most radical group in the Radical revolutionaries led by Maximilien Robespierre. They did for example want a democracy where all male citizens had the right to vote. Today's point of view of sieng politicians as either to the “right” or to the “left” comes from that the Moderate revolutionaries sat on the right side of the meeting hall while the radical revolutionaries sat on the left side.

The revolution deepens

In 1792 Austria and France were at war, soon Prussia joined. The revolutionary ideas were not in advantage for France due to the fact that a democratic could in the middle of a fight want to vote for whether or not to attack. The slogan “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” was chanted by people all over France who joined the revolution. But the war did not go well for France, the people had a lack of food and war is expensive. Sympathetic troops helped France in the “second Revolution”. A new administration was set up, the Commune.

The National Convention

In the first act of the National Assembly they voted to abolish the monarchy and make France a republic. The Radical Jacobins thought the king to be tried for treason while the more moderate revolutionaries thought he should be imprisoned until the war ended. Letters was found showing Louis guilt in having plans on crushing the revolution. With a majority on one vote, Louis was sent to death on the guillotine and he was killed on 21th of January, 1793. “People I die innocent!”, was his last words.

Other monarchs around europe had now a reason to fear the spread of the French Revolution, they were chocked by Luis XVI being executed. French armies had success in fighting by 1793 when they captured the Austrian Netherlands and also threatened the Dutch Netherlands and Prussia. Later France was threatened by the five countries: Great Britain, the Dutch Netherlands, Spain, Prussia and Austria and therefore was sat under pressure. Taking the pressure to the next level, the population of France started to starve and lost more and more money due to the expensive wars. People thought that the revolution had gone to far and uprising against the revolutions occurred in the Vendée region of Western France, as well as in Marseille, Bordeaux and Lyon.

The reign of terror

Because of the many foreign threats, National convention made a move. The constitution of 1793 was put aside and a committee of public safety (with the leader Maximilien Robespierre during the reign of terror), which almost had a dictatorial power. This committee waged a campaign against all the enemies of France, which lasted from july 1793 to July 1794.

The committee also set limits for wages and prices in the market. They outlawed scarce white flour and the people were told to use whole wheat flour to make “equality bread”.

Robespierre aimed to create a “Republic of virtue”, where each individual is assured of their welfare as well as having pride in their country. Robespierre was honest and extremely violent against its enemies. Robespierre led agents across France and in this way they helped revolutionary committee’s uncover traitors. He made a law that if anyone would go against the revolution would be arrested/executed immediately. People would get arrested for their conducts, relations, remarks och writings and so many were executed without much evidence.

20,000 to 40,000 men, children and women were executed. Marie Antoinette was one of the many people that was executed to the guillotine. The country was at the same time dealing with foreign invasions and so France prepared itself for war. The french army became once again strong with soldiers not depended on any specific age. By 1794, the french army was victorious once again, but slowly even the supporters started questioning the revolution and the daily executions, which led to the National convention arresting and executing Robespierre by July 1794. This was the end of the reign of terror and everyone believed that the revolution had failed.

Impact of the revolution on daily life

France was no more a monarch (with the dead king), but more of a democrat between 1789 and 1794. In place of the privileged estates of the old regime, the revolution declared equality for all the people. Rapid changes appeared :

  • Old formal calls as “Monsieur” and “Madame” were replaced as “Citizen” and “Citizeness”.

  • National convention ended the feudal custom

  • National convention forbidden slavery in the french colonies, which confiscated the land of emigres

  • Fashion changed and simple dresses replaces all the heavy gowns of the old regime

  • Painters and playwrights made patriotic work that supported the revolution

  • Leaders of the revolution made the “Metric system” = A uniform system och weighs and measures

Free schools for all citizens was asked but never happened.

The Directory

The new constitution created a new government called the Directory which lasted from 1795-1799. The government included an elected legislature and an executive branch of 4 directors. Freedom decreased because of how only educated men with a certain amount of property could vote. The middle class and wealthy landowners controlled the government. This new system of governing did not work because the 5 executives did not work properly as well as the legislatures bargaining for political favors. Another consequence of the new government was how the poor workers were outraged when the government gave up control of the prices made during the reign of terror. Bread prices rose drasticly and so it lead to the poor rioting in the streets of Paris.

No matter the consequences and the economic crisis the Directory led the french army that strived for “liberty, equality and fraternity”. The military wouldn't have succeeded if it wouldn't have been for Napoleon Bonaparte winning over the admiration of the french people.

Napoleon Bonaparte

The son of a minor noble, Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769, on the island of Corsica. When napoleon was 10, his father made him leave his home in Corsica to a military school for 8 years. When napoleon came back from the military school, in the summer of 1794 people had turned violent from the reign of terror and executed all the leaders of the revolution. National convention tried to keep the country together and wrote a new constitution, reflecting on the conservative mood of the country but it did not help. The country would soon fall into Napoleon's hands. Napoleon rose quickly in the army because of the many officers who fled France.

  • 1793, he led the french troops that ousted the British from Toulon.

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