The French Revolution and Its Impact Through 1815
Discussion Question: What three events were, based on what you have read, the most important causes of the French Revolution? What was the single most important result?

Major Points:
  1. The French Revolution occurred in three stages: a moderate period, a radical period, and a period of conservative reaction that led directly to Napoleon’s coup.
  2. The French Revolution generated a new, worldwide interest in the concept of the "nation" as a political and social entity defined not by geography or the sovereign powers of a king, but by the sum of the people who lived within it. This created a new interest in politics, and in the definition of culture.
  3. The French Revolution was a critical event in world history because it successfully challenged the political order Europeans had devised over centuries, and made common people primary actors on the social and political stage.
  4. The Rise of Napoleon brought rationalism to the organization of human society, and popularized both liberal ideas, and nationalism.

In 1778, a drought, followed by an unusually cold winter, caused the price of food in France to reach its highest point in 80 years. The severe impact of this on the common people of France was made heavier by increasing taxes levied on commoners (from the peasants to the upper-middle merchant class) by the government of King Louis XVI. Taxes were on the increase because of the financial difficulties of the French government itself, which owed 50% of its annual revenues simply as interest on the massive loans it had taken, spent another 25% of annual revenues on the maintenance of the royal palace at Versailles, had just finished a hugely expensive coronation for the king, had lost the 7-years’ war,and needed to maintain a standing army for defense and control of insurrections within France. This, of course, was aside from the routine expenditures in infrastructural and administrative areas that make up the bulk of a government’s daily activities. Needless to say, both crown and people were in financial straights.
It quickly became clear to the king and his advisors that the common French people had reached a point of "tax saturation." That is, they simply could not provide more government revenue. At the same time, with rising food prices, commoners began to clamor for some sort of relief from prices and taxes. Thus the king agreed in 1789 to hold a meeting of the Estates General – a medieval assembly elected to advise the king on policy. The Estates General consisted of three major groups: the First Estate of the Clergy, the Second Estate of French nobility, and the Third Estate of commoners. Each group elected representatives on a regional level to go to Versailles to advise the king. It is clear from the election process of the Third Estate that, while there was no revolutionary intent, the commoners desired to use this process to improve their political position. They sent their representatives to Versailles with Cahiers, or notebooks, full of recommendations for reforming government. (See the Cahier of the Third Estate of Carcassonne)
As soon as the Estates General got down to business, it became clear that the primary issue on the minds of most delegates was the political reform of the French state – not simply the right of the king to new taxes. While it is unclear why, on June 2, 1789, the Third Estate representatives were locked out of their meeting hall, where they had been demanding that votes be taken by head, rather than by chamber. Upset at this apparent denial of their right to take part in the process, they marched to a nearby indoor tennis court, and there resolved as a body to remain in session until they had written a constitution for France (see the Tennis Court Oath). They invited the first and second estates to join them. Some of the clergy did. This group then renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly, and arrogated to itself the duty of creating a constitution which limited the powers of the king, and allowed for greater participation in the political process.
The members of the National Constituent Assembly were primarily commoners. However, since over 80% of French lived outside of cities in 1789, it is safe to say that most were from rural areas – not laborers, but land- and business owners. Since most were also literate, suggesting they had some education, we can assume that the representatives of the commoners at Versailles were overwhelmingly middle class or wealthy people. They were not anti-royalist, and they held private property and the right to accumulate wealth as nearly sacred. They were simply the biggest taxpayers in France, and were looking for a say in how their taxes were used, and how much could be collected from them. They wanted to participate, not over throw, the government. Their actions, however, precipitated the total collapse of the Old Regime in France in a political sense, and that led to social re-thinking and re-construction as well.
The assembly’s work went slowly. They were constantly bickering about what measures to include in the new constitution. By July of 1789, this bickering came to a head. The king, in an attempt to reassure the nobility that he had matters under control, ordered a detachment of troops to march toward Versailles. The goal was apparently to intimidate the National Constituent Assembly into breaking its Tennis Court Oath and going home. It nearly worked. However, on July 14, 1789, riots broke out in Paris as laborers, urban shopkeepers, and others, tired of living in starvation conditions, broke into armories and stole weapons, and converged on the Bastille, a prison in the center of the city. There, they massacred the guards and prison governor. This riot spurred other commoners to riot across the country, and motivated the National Constituent Assembly to act. Within only a few days, nobles rose in the assembly to renounce priveleges, rents, and other feudal dues during passage of a resolution known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen on August 4, 1789. In this Declaration, all French males were declared to be socially equal, with equal opportunity to follow any occupation, and to own land. Women were largely left out of this declaration, and subsequently, of most of the reforms through the Napoleonic period.
However, while women were left out of the laws being written, they were playing a major role in the activities of the revolution itself. On October 5, 1789, after the king had delayed ratification of the Declaration, 6000 women of Paris marched to Versailles and forced him both to sign the Declaration and to accompany them back to Paris with his family the next day, to be installed in the Tuileries palace in the center of town, where he and the National Constituent Assembly could be easily watched. Women clearly played a large role in the revolution, but were seen as extensions of their husbands, and so never written into the law as citizens. Nevertheless, divorce became easier for women, and ownership of property, as well as the right to appear in court, were granted by the men.
Perhaps the National Constituent Assembly’s greatest error was its adoption of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy which essentially nationalized the Catholic Church in France, and required priests and bishops not only to accept their pay and direction from the state, but to swear an oath of allegiance to France. More than half of the clergy refused to swear the oath of loyalty, and devout Catholics throughout the country were horrified by the document – and many lost their interest in the revolution at that point.
By September, 1791, the National Constituent Assembly had finished the new constitution, and in it, the French King became a limited monarch – with little more than the power to temporarily veto bills of the legislature – but not to stop them for good. In effect, the king of France now had less power than the American President. The constitution also required that the National Constituent Assembly dissolve itself, and that elections be held for a new Legislative Assembly, in which National Constituent Assembly members could not sit.
Tension in the urban areas of France – primarily Paris, where bread and other essentials were prohibitively expensive, was, by 1791, putting pressure on the assemblies and the king to provide price caps, and other economically equalizing measures that the originally moderate National Constituent Assembly had declined to create. This pressure caused the new Legislative Assembly to be relatively evenly split between conservatives, moderates, and radical reformers, whose seating arrangements give us our political terms of "left" for radical, "right" for conservative, and "center" for moderate.
During this period, the king was convinced both by his wife, Marie Antoinette, and by his strong opposition to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy to flee France for Austria, where he could join other European royals in an alliance to invade France and reverse the revolution. This is clear evidence that the rulers of the rest of Europe saw the events in France as threatening their own sovereignty. In any case, the king was caught trying to escape, and was taken back to Paris, where he was eventually tried for treason, and executed in January, 1793. During this time, the Girondists, moderate supporters of the king, were spuriously linked to the king’s supposed treason, and some 30 or more also lost their heads.
Thus 1792/93 saw France a constitutional monarchy without a monarch, and a Legislative Assembly overwhelmingly radical due to the absence of its moderate members. The Jacobins – the radical left – thus had the field to themselves, and began their project of writing a new constitution to make France a Republic.
At this same time, the monarchies in Austria, Prussia, and England were building an alliance with the expressed goal of invading France and restoring the French king to his former Absolute status. The 1793 execution of the king did not slow their drive toward this goal. France was thus under combined attack from outside, facing royalist and Catholic opposition within its borders, and now had a government that represented primarily the urban working class – the so-called sans culottes of Paris, whose radical agenda of social and economic egalitarianism was rapidly adopted.
The Jacobin program included, finally, price caps on bread, and land redistribution. The franchise was extended to all males, landed or not. Production quotas were set for each farm, and farmers were only allowed to keep surplus beyond their quota for private consumption, putting them in the same dire straights as those in the city when it came to buying food. The state declared that all flour had to be used to make bread – The Bread of Liberty, it was called – and submission of all members of society to the General Will (Rousseau’s term) was required.
Needless to say, this program was unpopular among land owners, farmers, Catholics, and former supporters of the Royal Family. It is, in fact, fair to say that this government was really representative of the sans culottes, the Paris mob, only. It was, therefore, an unpopular government. The key problem it faced was how, as an unpopular government, to raise a large army with a solid officer corps to fight the invaders, and to put down internal rebellion. The answer was the levee en masse – enlistment of all the society’s resources, from men to children to the dust in basements – for the purpose of fighting the war. They solved the recruitment problem by creating a Committee for Public Safety – a group of 12 leaders who acted as an autocratic central government, but planned to give up control after the war was finished. This committee called for all French people to join in the war effort, not in support of the government, but in support of "France" and the "Revolution." In making this call, the Committee for Public Safety effectively defined France by the people who were "French" – enlisting nationalism in the cause of defense, and suggesting that if the war was lost, foreign powers would reverse the revolution and the rights of the French people would be taken away. This was effective, and shortly, France was able to create an 800,000 man army – the largest on the field in Europe, with a professional officer corps of men who rose to command based not on birth, but on skill and dedication. This, combined with the weaponry developed before 1789, made the French nearly invincible on the field of battle. With nationalism, and a professional officer corps, the French actually expanded the borders of France – driving the invaders back.
The Reign of Terror.