An era of revolutions began with the American Revolution, justified ideologically by Locke’s social contract and natural rights philosophy. The Constitution of 1787, with its Bill of Rights, provided a strong central government with a separation of power between the three branches. Its effect in Europe was immense: Enlightenment ideals could become reality.
But there were other causes for the French Revolution aside from the ideas of the Enlightenment, such as the legal inequality of the three Estates of the clergy, the aristocracy, and commoners, who were the vast majority. In 1788, the government, facing financial collapse, summoned the Estates-General for the first time since 1614. Assembling at Versailles in May 1789, it deadlocked whether to vote as estates or by head. The Third Estate proclaimed itself the National Assembly, an illegal act which Louis XVI failed to repress, in part because of rural and urban uprisings, notably the capture of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14. In August, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen with its natural rights philosophy, and in O??ob??, the women of Paris walked to Versailles and forced the king to accompany them back to the city.
The constitution of 1791 subordinated the monarch to the Legislative Assembly. All were citizens, but only citizens who paid taxes had the vote. The lands of the Catholic Church were nationalized, and the church placed under civil control. The regime faced opposition from the church, some aristocrats, and conservatives in general, but also from those who demanded even more revolution, such as the Jacobins. Louis’s fellow European monarchs were also opposed, and the result was war in April 1792. In reaction to early military defeats, the revolution entered into a more radical stage, abetted by the Paris Commune of artisans and merchants. A republic was proclaimed and the ex-king, Louis XVI, was executed in January 1793.
To meet the domestic and foreign threats, the Committee of Public Safety was given dictatorial power. Under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, it raised an army motivated by national patriotism rather than dynastic loyalties. Revolutionary courts were created to ferret out those not sufficiently supportive of the revolution, and 50,000 were executed during “the Terror.” Price controls were placed upon food and other necessary items, and slavery was abolished. Notre Dame Cathedral was designated the Temple of Reason, and a new revolutionary calendar was adopted eliminating Sundays and church holidays. But in July 1794, the National Convention turned against Robespierre, who was quickly executed. A new government headed by a five-member Directory was established which satisfied neither the radicals nor the royalists, and in 1799, the Directory was overthrown and the Consulate established.
An outsider from Corsica, revolution and war gave Napoleon Bonaparte his opportunity. A controversial figure, he was more the enlightened despot than the democratic revolutionary. He made peace with the papacy on his terms, and his Civil Code guaranteed equality, though less so for women. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor. His armies conquered much of the continent, but his empire did not last. Great Britain remained undefeated, and French armies on the continent bred nationalistic reactions in many of the conquered areas. In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 troops, but ultimately the French were forced to retreat. National revolts, a reaction to French occupation armies, broke out, and Napoleon abdicated in 1814. He briefly returned to power but was defeated at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and sentenced to exile on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821. His shadow hung over Europe for decades.
At the end, order had triumphed over liberty, and the victors were the propertied classes. However, the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity inspired future generations, and the citizen nationalism created in France led to the development of modern nationalism elsewhere.
Reading 1: Pages 563-570
The American Revolution:
The War for Independence
Forming a New Nation
Impact of the Revolution on Europe
Background to the French Revolution:
Social Structure of the Old Regime
Other Problems Facing the French Monarchy
Reading 2: Pages 570-577
From Estates-General to National Assembly
Destruction of the Old Regime
Reading 3: Pages 577-586
The Radical Revolution
Reaction and the Directory
Reading 4: Pages 586-590
The Age of Napoleon:
The Rise of Napoleon
The Domestic Policies of Emperor Napoleon
Reading 5: Pages 590-593
The Age of Napoleon:
Napoleon’s Empire and the European Response
The Fall of Napoleon