The French Revolution was an inevitable uprising in France. Between 1789 and 1799 the common people revolted against the government and their ruling power, eventually resulting in France becoming a republic. Such a drastic change was at the expense of years of oppressive ruling styles enforced by the monarchy. The French Revolution was driven by a need for change within the french society, after years of the ruling power ignoring the prominent need for reformation.
Prior to 1789 French society was structured according to feudalism in a system referred to as the Estates system. This structure forced people into specific classes which determined their rights and status. It was virtually impossible for someone to move classes, and if they did it could take generations to do so. At the pinnacle of this absolute monarch system was Louis XVI. His rule was believed to be an extension of God, resulting in his word overruling all others. His commands were never to be questioned or refused or the retributions could be fatal.
The Estate system was made up of three distinct orders. The First Estate was made up of the Roman Catholic clergy, who were seen as the only path to understanding God and the afterlife, with about 100,000 members. This group was made up of monks, nuns, parish priests, and bishops and came with numerous benefits such as the collection of tithes. Tithes were the collection of one-tenths of each person’s income that was then sent to support the church. The First Estate also was exempt from paying land taxes, resulting in them being even wealthier than the rest of the population. The connection of the state and church created a religious monopoly within society because there was no other permitted religion. This stronghold on social order was maintained by the lack of funds that made it to the bottom tiers within this Estate. Its members were also unfairly protected by only being able to be tried by an ecclesiastical court, by other members of the church, rather than standard civil court members.
The Second Estate within French society was made up of nobles, similar to the feudal pyramid, these members were in the top percentiles of the social order. They filled many of the powerful positions within the army, church and government. Out of the 24,700,000 people that made up France’s population, only 400,000 made up the Second Estate while owning more than 20% of the available land. Similar to the First Estate, the Second Estate also had many unfair advantages in comparison to the lower classes such as tax exemptions and permission to collect dues from the peasant class.These circumstances were drastically different from those applied to the Third Estate, which was made up of merchants, lawyers, poor laborers, and ordinary peasants, made up 98% of the population. It was solely a matter of time before the numerically larger Estate rose up against the monarchy.
In 1789, King Louis XVI found himself in a state of financial distress. At the time France had been heavily involved in the American Revolution while King Louis XVI and his predecessor had continued to spend their money extravagantly. Along with two previous decades of poor harvests, droughts, cattle diseases, and steadily accumulating bread prices France was on the brink of bankruptcy. To attempt at saving the country from an economic downfall, King Louis XVI’s controller general, Charles Alexandre de Colonne, proposed a financial reform package that would eliminate the Elite class’ taxation exemptions with a universal land tax. To obtain support for such changes and attempt to stall a growing aristocratic revolt King Louis XVI summoned a meeting with the Estates-General, a meeting representing the clergy, nobility, and middle class for the first time since 1614. It was intended to take place on May 5, 1614 while, in the meantime, delegates were to compile a list of grievances and complaints pertaining to each Estate. The Third Estate began to bring up the demand for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto, the higher Estate’s ability to outvote the other 98% of the population made up of Third estate. This demand was faced with great resistance from the nobles.
By the time the Estates General gathered, the matter had already become a highly public debate, leading to hostile eruptions between the three Estates. Due to the lack of progress being made, the Third Estate and some members of the lower clergy congregated on their own in Versailles, France and formally adopted the name the National Assembly. Hear, what is known as the Tennis Court Oath occurred. Due to them being locked out of their typical meeting hall by the government, as well as receiving threats to stop their deliberations, they met on an abandoned tennis court where they vowed, not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon firm foundations. Out of the entire congregation, Only one broke this vow. They also brought the cahiers, their list of grievances, which attributed all their problems to the arbitrary power of the king and demanded a constitution that would end the king’s ability to abuse such absolutism. They also requested the end of censorship, the reorganization of finances that would prevent abuse from the government, and equality in taxation. These reforms were supposed to be made through the goodwill of the king. At first, King Louis XVI ordered the three Estates to follow the original plan and meet in their separate chambers. The privileged classes obeyes, while the Third Estate refused to comply. This demonstration of immense commitment proved to be a force King Louis XVI could not overthrow. In response to the King Henri ?‰vrard, one of the nobles that had been elected deputy of the Third Estate, stated, Go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people, and that we can be removed only with the force of bayonets. Only four days after the meeting, King Louis XVI ordered the nobility and higher clergymen to join the truly representative National Assembly. On July 9, they joined to take on the name of Constituent Assembly.
Despite the previous events, the king was secretly forming a strong resistance to the Third Estate. He ordered troops to concentrate around Versailles, and on July 11, 1789 a complete crisis broke out. The only popular minister, Necker, was dismissed and along with the nearby accumulation of troops there was great unrest among the people. In protest, spontaneous speakers rose up in front of the crowds at the Palais-Royal, one of the royal palaces. One of these speakers was a young writer, Camille Desmoulins, who urged the people to take up arms in their defense of freedom. This only urged the already tense crowd, the mob of people broke out, looting any place where they might find weapons. All while Bernard- Rene de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, had been meeting with some of the revolutionary delegates. He promised not to raise arms against them, but many misunderstood what was happening and believed that their delegates had been taken as prisoners. Rioters stormed the Bastille Fortress, a large military fortress and prison where they had been meeting, climbing over its walls to lower a drawbridge to let others inside its courtyard. Once they began to lower a second drawbridge, Launay broke his promise and opened fire on the rioters. He was lacking the needed provisions and eventually surrendered, being taken prisoner by the crowd. As he was being marched to city hall he was torn from his guard and murdered by the bloodthirsty crowd. Furthermore they continued to cut off his head and parade through the city with it. This day, July 14, 1789 marked the violent roots of the French Revolution.
This wave of revolutionary demand spread, along with great hysteria to the countryside, this is what was known as the Great Fear ( la Grande Peur). Due to years of exploitations, peasants looted and burned the homes of landlords, tax collectors, and the seigniorial (feudal lords) elite. This led the National Constituent Assembly to abolish feudalism on August 4, 1789. They signed the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, which was later called the death certificate of the old order. It echoed the political and philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment, stating the Assembly’s dedication to replace the ancien regime with a system grounded in equal opportunity, freedom of speech, popular sovereignty, and a representative government. Drafting the formal version of this constitution proved difficult for the National Constituent Assembly, considering the harsh economic times and obligation to address the people, the Roman Catholic Church, and the French Government. The final draft, adopted on september 3, 1791, echoed their modern voices but still established a constitutional monarchy, lent King Louis XVI the royal veto power, and ability to appoint ministers. This did not appeal to rising radical figures such as Maximilien de Robespierre, an activist and government official at the time, leading to their demand for King Louis XVI’s trial in regards to his previous attempt to flee the country. This lead to yet another political crisis, causing a group of rebels led by the extremist group Jacobins, considerably the most ruthless political group created in response to the French Revolution, who attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested King Louis XVI on August 10, 1792.
Within the following month, a wave of violence lead to the massacre of hundreds of accused counterrevolutionaries, anyone against the revolution. The Legislative Assembly was also abolished, with the National Convention taking its place. They Advocated the abolishment of the monarchy and the emplacement of the French republic. On January 21, 1793, the French republic sent King Louis XVI to the guillotine, and his wife Marie- Antoinette shortly after, for high treason. The Jacobins continued to seize control of the National Convention from another, more moderate group, the Girondins. The implemented a series of their radical ideals such as the eradication of Christianity. They also provoked the bloody Reign of Terror, a ten year period during which thousands of suspected enemies of the revolution were condemned to death by guillotine. Many of these deaths were carried out by the orders of Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins. Eventually he faced his own execution on July 28, 1794, after implicating the Law of Prairial, which would allow a person to be tried and executed without a defense or witnesses. His death marked the beginning of the Thermidorian Reaction, a period during which the French people revolted against the excessiveness of the Reign of Terror.
On August 22, 1795 the National Convention, now mostly made up of the remaining Girondins, who ratified a new constitution that created France’s first bicameral, being made up of two branches, legislature. It was decided that executive power would be placed in the hands of a five-member Directory appointed by parliament. Although many protested against this form of government, they were silenced by the rising general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Eventually, after the Directory coming to rely almost entirely on the military to retain authority, a frustrated Bonaparte eradicated the Directory and appointed himself France’s first consul on November 9, 1799. This marked the end of the French revolution, and the beginning of the Napoleonic era in which France would rise to dominate much of continental Europe.
The French Revolution is an example of what might happen if the elite classes are given sole power. This revolution marks the birth of equality and freedom from monarchical power, something that is still valued in French society today. The French Revolution created a base for its people, built upon human rights.
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