The French Revolution
The French Revolution began with the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and continued till Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power. This event is regarded as a landmark by most historians as tremendous changes took place in France and these changes had a significant effect on the other countries in Europe.
The English revolutions of 1672 and 1688 were political and religious, while the American Revolution of 1776 was mainly political. However, the French Revolution of 1789 was political, social, religious and economic as it swept away the existing political institutions and aimed at establishing a more egalitarian society, and responsible government than what was in existence earlier.
France attained the height of glory under Louis XIV who ruled for 12 years. However, his highly expensive wars and lavish style of living weakened France, economically as well as politically.
His successor Louis XV considered state business to be a bore and engaged himself in pursuing worldly pleasures. He was indifferent to the fact that the treasury was empty after the wars.
He adopted a policy of repression by strict press censorship, arbitrary imprisonment of those seeking reform, banning and burning literature criticizing the government, thus endangering personal liberty in France.
Though his successor Louis XVI was intelligent and meant to do well, he was badly influenced by flattering courtiers and his ill - advised Queen Marie Antoinette who lacked consideration for the people.
French society was divided into three social classes or Estates. The First Estatewas the nobility, the second was the clergy and the third was everyone else. Only people in the third estate paid taxes. Educated people, by now familiar with the ideas of the enlightenment, knew how unfair the system was.
Their discontent increased in 1788, when a bad harvest pushed up prices, leaving many people facing starvation. After years of extravagant kings and costly wars, the government had little money to deal with the crisis. This explains why the Third Estate led the Revolution.
The three great intellectual giants of the age were Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, who revolutionized the thinking of the members of the Third Estate with their new ideas and revolutionary solutions.
(a) Charles Montesquieu (1689 - 1775), a lawyer and student of constitutional government summed up his ideas in his book L’ Esprit Des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws). Here he puts forward the theory of the separation of powers. According to this theory, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary should be separate and independent of each other. If not, there would be dictatorship and tyranny. Through his writings, Montesquieu exposed grand monarchy in France, in its true colours and deeply influenced the minds of the people.
(b) Francis Aronet Voltaire (1694 - 1778) was an internationally famous writer and critic, much sought after by Louis XV of France, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia. Through his poems, biographies, histories, essays and dramas he attacked traditions and beliefs as well as existing institutions like the church and the state.
(c) The spirit behind the French Revolution was Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778), one of the greatest philosophers of the age. His famous work Social Contract influenced the people greatly.
He stated that originally there was a contract between the king and the people, to the effect that the king would promote and protect the interests and welfare of the people and in return, the people would offer sovereignty and loyalty to the king. This contract had been broken by the French king. Hence the people had to revolt and overthrow the autocratic government.
Influence of the English and the American Revolutions
The Bloodless or Glorious Revolution had a deep influence onthe French philosophers. It inspired them to active political and economic reforms. The American Revolution had a greater influence on them. They felt that if the Americans could revolt and overthrow the government of England, they should also revolt and overthrow the corrupt and autocratic government of Louis XVI.
Course of the Revolution
In 1789, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General, an assembly of the three estates at Versailles, to save France from bankruptcy.
It was called after an interval of 150 years. In the past, each Estate sat separately.
However, this time the Third Estate demanded that all the three Estates should sit together as a "National Assembly", but the first two estates rejected this demand.
The Royal Session on June 23, 1789 was attended by all the three estates. The king passed an order that the three estates should sit separately and vote by order. The rebels calling themselves the National Assembly, refused to leave Versailles until the king listened to their demands.
Finally, the king was forced to yield and on June 27, 1789 permitted the clergy and the nobility to sit with the Third Estate as a "National Assembly" and to vote "by head".
When the National Assembly began its work, the royal soldiers moved towards Paris and Versailles, causing the hunger stricken people of Paris to revolt against authority. During the revolt that lasted three days, shops were looted, the houses of the nobles and the clergy were burnt along with the feudal title deeds.
The royal palace was invaded by the mob, which killed several soldiers and servants of the palace. The king was forced to move to Versailles with his family.
The National Assembly made a Declaration of the Rights of Man. These included liberty, equality and the right to resist oppression.
Louis XVI and his family were arrested and held until 1793. Finally, the king was put on trial and executed. This was the start of the Reign of Terror, led by Maximilien Robespierre, in which thousands of people were put to death.
After the execution of King Louis XVI, the first coalition consisting of England, Holland, Spain, Sardinia, Austria and Prussia was formed against the France. However, it was completely smashed by the French armies under their military leader Carnot.
The National Convention entrusted all executive authority to the "Committee of Public Safety", consisting of 12 members led by Robespierre. It let loose a ‘reign of terror’ in France, from 1793 to 1794.
During this period, about 2,500 people were guillotined in Paris and about 10,000 people in other parts of France. The `reign of terror’ came to an end with the revolt of the Parisian mob against Robespierre who was guillotined on March 13, 1794.
After the ‘reign of terror,’ a committee of nine members was appointed by the National Convention to draft a new constitution. After ruling France from 1792 to 1795, the Convention was dissolved and the new constitution promulgated.
It provided for a bicameral legislature, entrusted with legislative work. The executive authority was vested in the hands of a Directory of five, chosen by the legislature.
The Directory appointed Napoleon Bonaparte, to deal with the invading armies. When the domestic affairs of France deteriorated and the government was almost paralyzed, the legislature was dissolved by a coup d’etat
and Napoleon Bonaparte became the supreme master of France.
Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the greatest conquerors and finest generals that France and even the world has ever known. He began his career as an artillery officer and in 1793 he defeated the British fleet in Toulon. Thereafter he was promoted from commander of artillery to Brigadier - General. In October 1795, he was in command of the Paris troops who were defending the National Convention against the mob.
In 1796, Bonaparte led the French army in Italy, against Austria and Sardinia. He defeated Sardinia and