The French Revolution – Deeply Explained

Rate this post

The French Revolution

The French Revolution is known as a landmark in the history of Europe and the world. It led to end of monarchy in France. A new system of governance was introduced.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen during the French Revolution announced the coming of a new era. The slogan of French Revolution liberty, freedom and equality became important ideas of new era.

FRENCH SOCIETY DURING THE LATE 18TH CENTURY

In 1774, Louis XVI of the Bourbon family became the king of France. He was 20 years old and married the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette. When he became the ruler, he found an empty treasury, because years of wars and an extravagant lifestyle had drained the financial resources of France. The cost of maintaining court at the immense palace of Versailles also added to the problem. To maintain court he took

more than 2 billion livres loan. Under, Louis XVI France helped the thirteen American colonies to gain their independence from their common enemy Britain. The war added more than a billion livres to a debt. Due to this situation, credit lenders of state began to charge 10% interest on loans. It became difficult for the French Government to meet its regular expenses such as maintaining army, the court, etc. Thus, the government was forced to increase taxes.

Structure and Social Status of French Society in 18th Century

In the 18th century, French society was divided into three estates
(1)The First Estate (clergy): Members of this estate had vast land and wealth. They were exempted from paying tax and enjoyed certain privileges birth.

(2) The Second Estate (nobility): Members of this estate also enjoyed privileges by birth and were exempted from paying taxes. They enjoyed feudal privileges such as extraction of feudal dues from peasants.

Livres Units of currency in France at that time, which was discontinued in 1794.
Feudal A social system that existed during the middle ages in Europe in this system, people were given land and protection by a nobleman and had to work and fight for him in return.

(3) The Third Estate :The rest of the population constituted the third estate (businesmen,merchants, lawyers, peasants, artisans, landless labour, servants, etc). Members of this estate had very few privileges and had to pay taxes. Peasants were important part of this estate who constituted about 90% population. Only a few of them owned land. 60% of land cultivated by peasants was owned by nobles and rich members of third estate. They served lords, in army and in construction work.

The Church took taxes called tithes from the peasants. All members of the third estate had to pay taxes to the state. This included taille, a direct tax and a number of indirect taxes imposed on articles of everyday consumption like salt or tobacco. This estate alone had burden of financing activities of state.

The Struggle to Survive

During 1715-1789, the population of France increased from 23 to 28 million. This led to a rapid increase in demand for food grains. But the production did not increased.

The price of bread rose rapidly. It was the staple diet of the majority. Most workers were employed as labourers in workshops, whose owners fixed their wages. Their wages did not keep pace with the rise in prices. So, the gap between the poor and the rich widened. It became worse when bad weather conditions reduced the harvest. This frequently created a subsistence crisis.

A Growing Middle Class Envisages an End to Privileges

In the past, peasants and workers had participated in revolts against increasing taxes and food scarcity. But they lacked the sources and programmes to carry out full scale measures that would bring about a change in the social and economic order. This was left to the groups of the third estate who had become prosperous and had access to education and new ideas.

Emergence of Middle Class

In the 18th century, a new social group emerged who were known as the middle class. They had become rich by expanding of overseas trade and manufacturing goods. In addition to merchants and manufacturers, there were lawyers and administrative officials, who were educated. They believed that no group of society should be privileged by birth.

Role of Philosophers on Emergence of Middle Class

Philosophers like John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Montesquien considered the middle class was sole responsible for revolution. They spread the ideas of freedom, equal laws and opportunities for all.

  • John Locke in his book Two Treatises of Government’ criticised the doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarch.
  • Rousseau carried the idea forward, proposing a form of government based on a social contract between people and their representatives.
  • Rousseau in his book, ‘The Social Contract’, argued against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered to legislate, as he asserted that only the people, who were sovereign, had that all-powerful right.
  • Montesquieu in his book ‘The Spirit of the Laws’, stressed the concept of separation of powers between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. His concept of separation of powers was a great instrument against the despotic autocratic rule of French emperor.

Impact of Ideas of Philosophers

The model of government given by Montesquieu was put into force in the USA after the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain. The American Constitution and its guarantee of individual rights was an important example for political thinkers in France. People discussed the ideas of philosophers generally in salons and coffee-houses and were spread among people through newspapers and books. These were frequently read aloud in groups for the benefit of those people who could not read or write. Soon the news spread that Louis XVI had planned to impose further taxes to meet the expenses of the state. This generated anger and protest against the system of privileges.

THE OUTBREAK OF THE REVOLUTION

In the Old Regime, the monarch had no power to increase the taxes of his own wish. He had to call the meeting of the Estates General to pass the proposal. The monarch alone had the power to decide about the meeting. The last time a meeting had been called was in 1614.

Assembly of the Estates General

Louis XVI called for an assembly of the Estates General on 5th May, 1789 to pass the proposal for new taxes. In Versailles, an attractive and impressive hall was prepared to host the delegates.

The first and second estates sent 300 representatives each, who were seated in rows facing each other on two sides. The 600 members of the third estate had to stand at the back. The third estate was represented by its more prosperous and educated members. Peasants, artisans and women were denied entry to the assembly but they sent their demands and grievances through representatives. These were listed in some 40000 letters.

Demand for Voting in Democratic Way

In earlier voting system of Estates General, each estate had one vote. This time also, Louis XVI wanted to continue the same system. But the members of third estate demanded that voting should be conducted by taking assembly as a whole.

They demand that each member should have one vote but this proposal was rejected by the king. This idea was supported by Rousseau in his book “The Social Contract. After the rejection of this proposal the members of third estate walked out of assembly in protest.

National Assembly of Third Estate

On 20th June, the representatives of the third estate assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in Versailles. They declared themselves a National Assembly. They also swore to draft a new Constitution for France that would limit the powers of the monarch.

The representatives of the third estate were led by Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyès. Mirabeau was born in a noble family, but discarded his feudal privileges Mirabeau brought out a journal and powerful speeches to the crowd to inspire them at Versailles. Abbé Sieyès was originally a priest. He wrote an influential pamphlet called ‘What is the Third Estate?

Revolt Starts at the Bastille

While the National Assembly was busy at Versailles drafting a Constitution, the rest of France was in disturbance as severe winter brought bad harvest. It led to the increase in price of bread. Bakers exploited the situation by hoarding the supplies. After spending hours in long queues at the bakery, crowds of angry women raid the shops. At the same time, the king ordered troops to move into Paris.

On 14th July, an agitated crowd destroyed the Bastille. The Bastille was hated by all French people as it symbolised the dominating power of the king. The fortress was demolished and its stone fragments were sold in the markets. In the countryside, rumours spread from village to village that the lords of the manor had hired bands of brigands who were on their way to destroy the ripe crops. Peasants were caught by fear and madness hearing the rumour. They attacked chateaux across many areas of France.

The peasants looted hoarded grain and burnt documents containing records of manorial dues. Consequently, a large number of nobles moved to neighbouring countries.

End of Special Privileges

Seeing the power of revolt, Louis XVI recognised the National Assembly. He accepted that his powers would be checked by a Constitution. On the night of 4th August, 1789, France passed the law for abolishing the feudal system of obligations and taxes. The members of clergy were also forced to give up their privileges. Tithes were abolished and lands owned by the Church were seized by authority. By this, the government acquired assets worth at least 2 billion livres.

France Becomes a Constitutional Monarchy

The National Assembly completed the draft of the Constitution in 1791. Its main objective was to limit the powers of the monarch. Now, the powers were separated and assigned to different institutions like the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. This change of powers made France a constitutional monarchy.

The Laws Made by the National Assembly

Under the new Constitution, the laws were to be made by the National Assembly. The assembly was indirectly elected i.e. active citizens voted for a group of electors, who in turn chose the assembly members.

The highlights of the changed system are:-

  • Men who were above 25 years of age and who paid taxes equal to at least 3 days of a labourer’s wage were given the status of active citizens, i.e. they had right to vote. The remaining men and all women were classed as passive citizens.
  • To qualify as an Elector and then as a Member of the assembly, a man had to belong to the highest bracket of taxpayers.
  • The Constitution began with a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
  • According to this declaration, the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion and equality before law were established as natural rights and it was the duty of the state to protect these.

FRANCE ABOLISHES MONARCHY AND BECOMES A REPUBLIC

The situation in France continued to be tensed in subsequent years. Even though Louis XVI had signed the Constitution, he entered into secret negotiations with the King of Prussia.

Rulers of France’s neighbouring countries were worried by the developments in France. They made plans to send troops to put down the events taking place since 1789. Before this could happen, the National Assembly declared war against Prussia and Austria in April 1792.

Thousands of volunteers joined army who saw war as a protest of the people against kings and aristocracies all over Europe. Among the patriotic songs sung by them was the Marseillaise composed by the poet Roget de L’Isle.

It later became the National Anthem of France. It was sung for the first time by volunteers from Marseilles as they marched into Paris. This way it got its name.

The Result of Revolutionary Wars

Economic difficulties and losses were the result of the revolutionary wars. While men were busy fighting at the front, women had to earn a living and look after their families.

A large segment of the population was convinced that the revolution had to be carried further, as the Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to the richer section.

Political clubs became popular, where people could discuss government policies and their own plans of action. The most successful of these clubs was that of the Jacobins, which got its name from the former convent of St Jacob in Paris.

The Jacobin Club

Members of the Jacobins club belonged mainly to the less prosperous sections of society. They included shopkeepers, artisans, cooks, shoe-makers, watch-makers, printers, servants and daily wage workers. Their leader was Maximilien Robespierre.

They dressed differently by wearing long striped trousers similar to those worn by dock workers. They wanted to show themselves apart from the fashionable sections of society, especially the nobles, who wore knee length breeches.

It was a way of declaring the end of the power holded by the wearers of knee breeches. They came to be known as “sans-culottes’ meaning ‘those without knee breeches’. Sans-culottes men wore a red cap that symbolised liberty.

The Convention

On 10th August, 1792, the Jacobins attacked the Palace of the Tuileries with large number of Parisians. They killed the king’s guards and held the king himself as hostage for several hours. Later, the assembly voted to imprison the royal family.

Elections were held and now all men above 21 years of age were allowed to vote. The newly elected assembly, called the Convention. It abolished monarchy on 21st September, 1792 and France was declared a ‘Republic’.

A republic was a form of government where the people elected the government, including the head of the government. There is no hereditary monarch. Louis XVI was sentenced to death by a court on the charge of treason. On 21st January, 1793, he was executed publicly at the Place de la Concorde. After some time, the Queen Marie Antoinette met with the same fate.

The Reign of Terror

The period from 1793 to 1794 is referred to as the ‘Reign of Terror in France, Robespierre followed a policy of severe control and punishment.

Many people were arrested and tried by a revolutionary tribunal (court). They included all those people who were considered enemies (including ex-nobles, clergy and members of political parties) of republic by Robespierre.

If the court found them guilty, they were guillotined. Robespierre’s government made laws placing a maximum ceiling on wages and prices. Meat and bread. were rationed. Peasants were forced to transport their grain to the cities and sell it at the prices fixed by the government. The use of expensive white flour was forbidden.

People were forced to eat the pain d’egalite (equality bread), a loaf made of whole wheat. Instead of Monsieur (Sir) and Madame (Madam), all French men and women were called as Citoyen and Citoyenne (Citizen).

Churches were shut down and their buildings were converted into barracks or offices. Robespierre became a virtual dictator of France. Due to his hard policies, his supporters left him in the end. He was finally convicted by a court and guillotined in July 1794.

A Directory Rules France

After the fall of the Jacobins, the wealthier middle classes seized power. A new Constitution was introduced which denied the vote to non-propertied society. It provided for two elected legislative councils. These councils appointed a Directory, an Executive made up of five members.

It was meant as a safeguard against the concentration of power in a one man executive. Often the Directors clashed with the legislative councils and were dismissed. This political instability paved the way for the rise of

Napoleon Bonaparte. The ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity remained inspiring ideals that motivated political movements for France and the rest of the Europe.

ROLE OF WOMEN IN REVOLUTION

Women played a very significant role in the French Revolution. It was their active participation which brought important changes in French society.

Most of the women belonging to the third estate worked for a living. Their occupations included dress makers, laundry workers, flower vendors, fruit and vegetable vendors etc. Sometimes they worked as maid servants in the houses of the rich. They were not trained for any job and were largely uneducated. Only the daughters of nobles and wealthier members of the third estate could study at a convent. Besides caring for their families, the French women had to cook, fetch water, stand in queues for bread, look after the children etc. Their wages were always lower than the men.

Women Club in France

Women in France were disappointed with the Constitution of 1791. It reduced them to passive citizens who had no political rights. They demanded political rights, viz., Right to Vote, to be elected to the assembly and to hold political office. To express their own views and demands, women started their own political clubs and newspapers. About sixty women’s clubs came up in different cities of France. Of them, The Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women was the most famous.

Laws Passed to Improve Women Lives

Women were active participants in revolutionary activities. In the early years, laws were passed to improve their lives. These changes were:-

  • They gained access to education with the introduction of state schools and a system of compulsory education for girls.
  • Women could no longer be forced into marriages by their fathers; they could marry at will.
  • Marriage was now a contract which could be registered under civil law.
  • Divorce was made legal. Both men and women could apply for it.
  • Women could train for jobs, become artists or run small business.

French Women Got Right to Vote

Women’s struggle for equal political rights was continued through the next two hundred years in many countries of the world. During the Reign of Terror, the government ordered for the closure of women’s clubs and banned their political activities. Many prominent women were arrested and executed. Women’s struggle for voting and equal political rights was carried on through an international suffrage movement during the late 19th and early 20th century. Finally in 1946, French women won the Right to Vote.

The Life of a Revolutionary Woman Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)

Olympe de Gouges was one of the most important of the politically active women in revolutionary France. She protested against the Constitution and the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. In 1791, she wrote a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen, which she addressed the Queen and the members of the National Assembly. She demanded that they should act upon it.

In 1793, Olympe de Gouges criticised the Jacobin government for forcibly closing down women’s clubs. She was tried by the National Convention, which charged her with treason. Soon after, she was executed.

THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY

The greatest social reform made by the Jacobin government was to abolish slavery in French colonies. The French colonies in the Caribbean like Martinique, Guadeloupe and San Domingo were important suppliers of tobacco, indigo, sugar, coffee etc.

The French needed workers for plantations in these areas, but the Europeans did not want to work in distant, unknown lands. Thus, a three way trade in slaves started between Europe, Africa and America in the 17th century. This was known as triangular slave trade.

French merchants sailed from the ports of Bordeaux or Nantes to the African coast, where they bought slaves from local chieftains. They were branded, shackled and packed tightly into ships for three-month long voyage. Throughout the 18th century, there was little criticism of slavery in France.

Abolition of Slavery in Colonies

After long debates, the National Convention passed a law in 1794. It declared slavery illegal and freed all slaves in France’s overseas colonies. After ten years, Napoleon reintroduced slavery to please the plantation owners who considered enslaving African blacks as their right. The slaves were known as African Negroes. Finally, slavery was abolished in the French colonies in 1848.

THE REVOLUTION AND EVERYDAY LIFE

After 1789, many changes took place in the lives of women, men and children in France. The revolutionary governments took it upon themselves to pass laws that would translate the ideals of liberty and equality into everyday practice.

One important law that came into effect after the storming of the Bastille in the summer of 1789 was the abolition of censorship. According to censorship, all written material and cultural activities could be performed or published only after they had been approved by the censors of the king.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

With the abolition of censorship and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, freedom of speech and expression became a natural right of man. This led to the growth of newspapers, pamphlets, books and printed pictures. They all discussed and described the events and changes taking place in France, Freedom of the press gave voice to opinions and counter opinions.

Plays, songs and festive processions attracted a large number of people. This was one way they could grasp and identify with ideas such as liberty or justice.

Conclusion

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte, a famous French General, crowned himself Emperor of France. He conquered neighbouring European countries and forced out dynasties. He saw himself as a moderniser of Europe. He introduced many laws such as the protection of private property and a uniform system of weights and measures provided by the decimal system. Many people saw Napoleon as a liberator who would bring freedom for the people. But soon his army came to be viewed everywhere as invader force. Finally, Napoleon was defeated at the Waterloo in 1815. Even after his defeat, ideas of Napoleon on liberty and modern laws continued in other parts of Europe. The ideas of liberty and democratic rights were the most important legacy of the French Revolution, which spread all over Europe. This led to abolition of feudal systems and freedom of colonised nations.

Tipu Sultan and Raja Rammohan Roy are some of the Indians who were inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution.

Leave a Comment