The French Revolution

(1789-1799)

An Overview

In 1789, France had the second largest population in Europe with just over 27 million people (second only to the Russian Empire).  It also had the wealthiest population.  Despite these impressive facts, the country was on the brink of disaster. 

Louis XVI took over the French throne in 1774, after the death of his grandfather, King Louis XV (son of Louis XIV).  He was not well suited for the duties of kingship, as he was not a strong or authoritative person.  Although he was well-intentioned, he lacked the personality and intelligence to control his kingdom, which eventually led to the Revolution.

King Louis XVI

He had many likable qualities: he was honest, easy-going, devoutly religious, and unlike his other male relatives, he was devoted to his wife and three children.  

On the other hand, he was a shy person who found it hard to make friends. He did his best to avoid people, preferring to stay in his workshop where he made and repaired locks.  He was an avid hunter and hunted everyday, despite the weather.  King Louis was clumsy and awkward.  Unknowingly, he was often the laughing stock of his own court.

In an absolute monarchy in which a King's personality counts for almost everything, Louis was a disaster.  He was bored by politics and government.  He was very indecisive and was incapable of compromise.

Like those who came before him, Louis believed that he ruled by the will of God.  He ruled amidst the splendor of Versailles, completely unaware of the new ideas that were sweeping across the country and oblivious to the fears and needs of his subjects.

When Louis was only 16 years old (!) he married Marie Antoinette of Austria in order to ensure the political alliance between France and Austria. 

Marie Antoinette

Marie has been described as pretty, frivolous, selfish, and wildly extravagant. Her life as Queen was an endless series of social events.  She spent huge amounts of money on gambling debts (those of her friends and her own) and jewelry.  She loved diamond earrings and necklaces.  Marie became caught up in a scandal  in 1785 in which she was accused of  taking an expensive diamond necklace without paying for it.  The "Affair of the Necklace", as it became known, ruined Marie's reputation with the people of France.  It didn't seem to bother her, even though the public referred to her only as that "Austrian Woman", instead of the Queen of France.

After Marie became a mother, she left some of her social pursuits behind to concentrate more on the governing of France. This move proved to be disastrous.  She became known for her pro-Austrian policies.  Her interests in government were always selfish, never motivated by what was best for the people of France. 

*Some of the information above was taken from The French Revolution, Marilyn Chase, Milliken Publishing Co., St. Louis, Missouri, 1973.

 

Causes of the 

 French Revolution

1. French philosophers and intellectuals (Voltaire, Rousseau, etc.) knew that a change in government was needed.  

They were against absolute monarchs and the notion the the King ruled by 'divine right'.  They spread the word around France that society needed to change.  They looked at England's government, where the Parliament was powerful. They also looked at the results of the American Revolution, where the people took control of their own affairs and government because they believed "the right to government came from the people".

2.  France was almost bankrupt.

-Kings and Queens had spent lavishly on themselves and their courts; Versailles was extremely expensive to maintain; money had been spent on wars, both at home and abroad; even though 95% of the population paid taxes, the amount was not enough to run the country because it came from the Third Estate.  The First and Second Estates were virtually exempt from paying taxes, even though for the most part, they were very wealthy.

3.  The system of government was unjust.

The First Estate (Clergy), the Second Estate (Nobles), and the Third Estate (Commoners) each had one vote as the advisory body in government, known as the Estates General. The First and Second estates always overruled the Third, and carried out the wishes of the King.  This was especially unfair since the Third Estate was made up of more than 95% of the population.

It is important to note that the membership of the Third Estate had changed considerably by 1789.  During the Middle Ages, the Third Estate consisted of mostly peasants.  However, by the late 18th Century, the Third Estate now included peasant farmers as well as professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, business people, bankers, shippers, and traders.

 A major change was necessary if the people of France were to move towards a state in which all members of society were able to survive and prosper.

The Revolution begins

In 1789, Louis found himself in desperate need of money to keep the country going. Against the wishes of his advisors, he called a meeting of the Estates General.  This marked the first time a monarch had done so since 1614.  The estates gathered at Versailles on May 5, 1789.  The Commoners' representatives outnumbered those of both the First and Second Estates.  The Third Estate felt optimistic about bringing about change until Louis insisted that each estate only had one vote each.  

Feeling cheated by the King, the Third Estate refused to meet with the other two, suspecting a conspiracy.  On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate declared itself a National Assembly, representing all citizens, and invited delegates from the other two estates to join them.  Two days later, the Clergy voted to join them.  This move began the destruction of the three-class social system in France.

The King's response was harsh.  On June 20th, he closed and locked the doors of the room in the palace where the Third Estate was to meet.  This brought the King and the Third Estate into direct confrontation.

The Tennis Court Oath

Not to be outdone by the King, the members of the National Assembly met together at an indoor tennis court, where members of the nobility normally played.  There the members took an oath-known as the Tennis Court Oath- not to disunite or disband until they had drafted a constitution, restructuring the the government of France. This was a direct challenge to the existence of Absolutism in France.

 

The Storming of Bastille

On July 14, 1789, some of the citizens of Paris began to march towards the prison-fortress of Bastille, where the government held a store of arms and ammunition. It did not take long for the group to turn into an angry mob, hungry for change. To Parisians, the Bastille was a symbol of all that was wrong in the country  Its high walls dominated the city, and many unfortunate (and innocent) citizens  had been flung into its dark dungeons.  A huge crowd gathered outside, determined to get rid of the hated symbol and seize the weapons that were housed inside.  One of the Bastilles defenders, a nervous solider, fired a musket into the crowd, enraging the citizens who surged forward, smashing down the gates, and killing the prison's governor.

Citizens storming the Bastille prison.

 

The Declaration of the Rights of Man 

With the Revolution gaining momentum, The National Assembly wrote a declaration for the people, setting forth the laws and principles of the new state.  This historic document, issued on August 26, 1789, was called the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

It echoed the sentiments of the Enlightenment philosophers, the English Bill of Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration included basic rights that we take for granted today, such as the following:

 

"Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. 

As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty. 

 The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law."

 

Stay Tuned....

Still to come...France's No-Carb diet, the precision of the guillotine, and King Louis gets trapped in Paris.