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Fiscal crises and years of feudal repression were among factors leading to a revolution in France (1789–1799) marked by the storming of the Bastille, the guillotining of Louis XVI, and the Reign of Terror. Although the revolution abolished legal privilege based on birth and guaranteed freedom of religion, its legacy is ambiguous; gains must be seen in the context of the suffering produced by denunciations, purges, executions, and war.
The troubles that led to the French Revolution began with the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), a worldwide struggle in which France lost its colonial holdings in North America and India to Great Britain and suffered defeat on the European continent at the hands of Britain’s powerful German ally, the kingdom of Prussia. The expenses of war had required King Louis XV (1710–1774) to levy new taxes on his population; and since the nobles were among the richest subjects in the kingdom, he refused to exempt them, despite their historical claims to such fiscal privileges. Paradoxically, this treatment contributed to the education of the king’s subjects in egalitarianism. By treating them as equals, the king taught them to think of themselves as equals. Initially the nobility sought only to preserve its own privileges, yet when they saw that the monarchy was inflexible on matters of taxation, they demanded a say in government, thus echoing the Anglo-American principle of “no taxation without representation.” In the process they whittled away at absolutism, or the king’s right to rule without checks or balances, and prepared the realm for republican government.
Toward a Constitutional Monarchy
In addition to the political arguments raised by fiscal crisis of the Seven Years’ War, defeat at the hands of the British provoked a desire for revenge, both at the royal court and in the metaphorical court of public opinion. The American Revolution of 1776 provided the awaited opportunity, and General Washington’s victory at Yorktown (1781), which would have been impossible without French support on land and at sea, inflicted a wound on France’s great rival. Yet this victory was as expensive as the defeat in the prior war had been, and though Jacques Necker, the finance minister of Louis XVI (1754–1793), had made it appear as though the state’s coffers were well stocked, under his successor, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, it became clear that the kingdom was approaching bankruptcy. Calonne presided over the Assembly of Notables, a hand-picked body of nobles, clergymen, and a few wealthy commoners who were expected to approve his plan for a more participatory government in exchange for the privileged classes’ greater shouldering of the tax burden. This plan, which involved elected assemblies for some provinces, was a tacit abdication of absolutism. Still, the Assembly of Notables did not consider itself qualified to approve the revolutionary measures, and instead demanded that the king convene a more venerable and representative body for this purpose: the Estates General. After widespread unrest during the summer of 1788, the king called a meeting of that esteemed group for May 1789 at the royal capital of Versailles.
The Estates General consisted of provincial delegates from the three traditional estates, or classes: the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility), and the Third Estate (the commoners). Yet it had not met since 1614, after which the increasingly powerful absolute monarchs had succeeded in suppressing this historical check on royal authority. Consequently it was unclear how the three estates would meet, deliberate, and vote. Most nobles favored the procedure of 1614, according to which the estates met separately and voted by order. Yet many members of the Third Estate perceived this as a form of disenfranchisement, since the privileged nobles and clergy would often vote together against the Third Estate. To remedy this injustice some commoners called for voting by head (together as one body) and a “doubling of the Third,” in other words, doubling its representation, measures which would have provided parity between the Third Estate and the other delegates. A more radical proposal came from the Abbe Sieyes, a priest who nevertheless sympathized with the Third Estate and who urged its members to break from the Estates General and declare themselves a national assembly. Sieyes argued that the Third Estate comprised over 99 percent of France’s population and was engaged in its most useful work. The privileged classes, by contrast, were small and parasitical. Therefore the Third Estate should make the laws by which the nation would be governed. Although most delegates were initially reluctant to adopt such a radical stance, the intransigence of the nobility and the refusal of the king to break the deadlock made the Third Estate increasingly sympathetic to his position.
The Constituent Assembly and the First Constitution
On 17 June a group of deputies from the Third Estate followed Sieyes’s advice and declared themselves the National Assembly, the sole body authorized to make the nation’s laws. They invited members of the other estates to join them, but only as citizens representing the nation, not as delegates speaking on behalf of their castes. Strictly speaking, this was the truly revolutionary act of the French Revolution, since there was no legal precedent for acting in such a manner. (The subsequent storming of the Bastille prison fortress by Parisian crowds on 14 July 1789 showed the force of popular anger, which posed a threat both for the Third Estate deputies and the defenders of the old order, but it was not in itself a revolutionary act.) On 20 June the revolutionary assembly found the doors of its meeting hall locked and proceeded to the most convenient space available, an indoor tennis court. There the delegates took their famous oath not to disband until they had written a constitution for France. After some hesitation, the king accepted this act of defiance, but ordered the deputies of the other two estates to join the National Assembly, thus creating a more conservative body than would have emerged from the initial revolutionary assembly alone.
Indeed, the National Assembly, otherwise known as the Constituent Assembly, created a highly undemocratic constitution, which was completed in September 1791. By establishing stringent property qualifications for voting rights and still higher qualifications for eligibility for public office, the deputies ensured that ordinary people would have little say in the laws that governed them. Only one-sixth of men over the age of twenty-five were eligible to vote. Women, servants, itinerant workers, and slaves (until their emancipation in February 1794) were excluded from political participation. The contradiction between the discriminatory measures of the lawmakers and their egalitarian rhetoric—especially the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, passed in October 1789—fueled popular unrest. Consequently, alongside the juridical revolution of the legislature, a popular revolution raged in the streets of Paris and other cities, as well as in the countryside.
Despite the limits the Constituent Assembly attempted to place on the Revolution, and despite the prominent role of the king in what was essentially a constitutional monarchy, Louis XVI was averse to the Revolution. He was particularly offended by its nationalization of church property, an expedient designed to back a new paper currency, and its reorganization of the clergy into civil servants required to take an oath to the nation. He therefore plotted to escape with his family to the Austrian Netherlands (today Belgium), where royalist forces would protect him until such time as the Revolution could be suppressed. He was captured by the revolutionary national guard near the border and returned to Paris on 20 June 1791. His attempted flight further discredited the idea of constitutional monarchy and emboldened radicals determined to transform their country into a republic.
Warfare Abroad and the Convention at Home
The delicate monarchical system survived little more than a year after the king’s abortive flight. The Constituent Assembly disbanded following the fulfillment of its oath to write a constitution for the nation, and in October 1791 a Legislative Assembly was elected. While this legislature considered questions of domestic importance, it became increasingly preoccupied with international matters. A party of radical “patriots” sought war against Austria and Prussia, countries that were harboring royalist emigres and issuing hostile statements regarding revolutionary developments in France. The patriots found unlikely allies in conservative royalists within the court who encouraged the march to war for very different reasons. The latter expected an Austro-Prussian victory over the French army, many of whose officers had emigrated at the outset of the Revolution. Thus in April 1792 the king asked an eager Legislative Assembly to declare war on Austria, with other European belligerents joining the fray in the succeeding months.
War transformed the Revolution profoundly. Not only did the revolutionaries use the threat of foreign troops to whip citizens into a patriotic frenzy; the mobilization of troops created a volatile situation in which armed men might turn their weapons against real or perceived domestic threats. As volunteers from the provinces came to Paris to prepare for assignment to the front, they encountered the most radical elements of the urban revolution. They heard the speeches and read the newspapers of the sansculottes, those “without breeches” (i.e., without the stylish pretensions of the rich), and before taking on Austrian troops they prepared to fight the aristocrats in their midst. Convinced that neither the king nor the assembly would bring liberty and equality, the most radical revolutionaries, now fortified with weapons, mounted an insurrection on 10 August 1792.
After a bloody battle between insurgents and the king’s personal guard, the insurgents emerged victorious. The royal family found itself under arrest, and the Legislative Assembly, now fearful of the forces it had summoned into motion, abolished the undemocratic Constitution of 1791 and called for the election of a new legislature known as the Convention. Although women were still excluded from the vote, and indeed would not obtain it in France until 1946, the elections of 1792 were the first application of the principle of “one man, one vote” in modern world history.
A Republic Is Born
Unfortunately, this dramatic movement in the direction of democracy did not solve the country’s political problems. During the month and a half between the fall of the monarchy and the first meeting of the Convention, France was governed loosely by the outgoing Legislative Assembly and a self-proclaimed municipal government known as the Commune. In the first week of September, in anticipation of an Austrian march on Paris and an impending massacre of revolutionaries by brigands lurking in the city’s prisons, self-appointed judges presided over the judicial murder of over a thousand prisoners, many of them priests whose only crime had been refusal to take the obligatory oath to the nation. When the feared invasion by foreign armies failed to materialize and Paris calmed down, the newly elected Convention, which declared France a republic early on 22 September, was nevertheless preoccupied with the troubling question of the king’s fate. After divisive debates during the fall and winter of 1792–1793, on 21 January 1793, Louis XVI went to the guillotine, a decapitating instrument widely hailed as humane because prior to the Revolution beheading had been a privilege reserved for the high-born; more painful executions had been the lot of the common folk.
For many observers in France and around the world, this act of regicide took the Revolution beyond the pale. For devout Catholics in the Vendee region in western France, the killing of the monarch, whom God had chosen to rule over the kingdom, was not merely unjust; it was sacrilege. Partly as a result of this outrage, the revolutionary government found itself involved in a protracted civil war in the Vendee, one that would kill at least on hundred thousand people. Civil war elsewhere in France, particularly in the south, resulted from conflict between centralizing Jacobins, who wished to see Paris take the lead in governing the country, and decentralizing “federalists,” who sought greater autonomy for the provinces. Both sides supported the republic and opposed monarchy, but they fought each other as bitterly as revolutionaries fought royalists.
The Reign of Terror
War, both foreign and domestic, provided justification for the revolutionaries’ most repressive laws. On the strength of the belief that traitors were endemic, the Convention passed a series of laws depriving suspects in political cases of due process and leading to thousands of judicial murders known as the Reign of Terror. Yet this tyrannical development was not simply a top-down policy. It had its roots in popular fears and resentments. In September 1793, during one of a series of insurrections that characterized the Revolution, armed crowds demanded the punishment of “traitors,” who were believed to be profiting from the war and hoarding grain while the people went hungry. The Convention responded with the proclamation, “Terror is the order of the day.” Institutionally the Terror was centered in the Committee of Public Safety, a group of twelve men who technically reported to the Convention but who for ten months dominated it. Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), the most infamous member of this committee, went to the guillotine himself when his enemies, anticipating their own execution, denounced him before the Convention and succeeded in having him prosecuted for treason. Shortly after Robespierre’s death on 28 July 1794, the legal apparatus of the Terror was dismantled. At least fourteen thousand people had fallen victim to it during less than a year.
The following year the Convention passed a new constitution, known as the Constitution of the Year III. (The revolutionaries had established a new calendar beginning with the declaration of the Republic in September 1792.) This constitution abolished universal male suffrage and restored property qualifications for political rights. It also dispersed power so widely between a five-man executive branch (the Directory) and a bicameral legislature, neither of which was responsible to the other, that deadlock was the inevitable result. The only way to effect significant political change under the Directory regime (1795–99) was to mount coups d’etat. Thus civilians made alliances with generals, who were increasingly powerful as France reversed early losses in the war with European rivals and began to conquer significant portions of Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries. Napoleon Bonaparte, who overthrew the Directory in the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799) and ruled as First Consul (and later as emperor) of a new, autocratic regime, was only the last and most successful in a series of military men who participated in such anticonstitutional adventures.
A Continuing Legacy
The French Revolution left an ambiguous legacy. It permanently abolished legal privilege based on birth and guaranteed freedom of religion. (France was the first European country to recognize the civic equality of Jews and Gentiles.) Other gains were more tenuous. With the exception of the election of the Convention, revolutionary France failed to provide real democracy, as either property qualifications or the atmosphere of political terror prevented the voice of the people from being heard. Napoleon reversed the 1794 abolition of slavery in 1803, and permanent abolition passed only during the revolution of 1848. Democracy, moreover, was limited to men, though the principle of equality inherent in revolutionary thinking became a central feature of the female suffrage movement and French feminism more generally. And the advantages of the Revolution must be seen in the context of the pain and suffering produced by denunciations, purges, executions, and war. Whether the gains of the Revolution might have come to pass less violently, in other words, whether the Revolution was necessary, has been and is still much debated. Whatever one’s position, the Revolution undoubtedly cast a long shadow over the subsequent two centuries, not only in France but around the world. Subscribers to revolutionary doctrines as well as conservatives, whose ideology was born of a determination to prevent revolution, would not be who they are if it were not for the French Revolution.
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- Blanning, T. C. W. (1997). The French Revolution: Class war or culture clash? New York: St. Martin’s Press.
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