Page 169 10 The French Revolution, 1789–1799 INTRODUCTION For many, the French Revolution came as a surprise. Although France had been declining gradually for several decades, it remained the most important continental European state. It was strong, populous, wealthy, and influential. However, it was beset with internal difficulties, the most serious one being a maldistribution of wealth and power. Large segments of the French population rejected the status quo, although few if any Frenchmen advocated revolution. Like most eighteenth-century countries, France was agrarian. Peasants comprised perhaps 80 percent of the population. Although French peasants were better off than their counterparts in other European countries, they chafed under a system that required them to pay the bulk of the taxes and that retained many of feudalism’s vestiges. Discontent among the French middle class, especially the merchants, matched that of the peasants. Resentful of regulations that hindered trade and commerce, France’s middle class desired a market-driven free economy. It also embraced other Enlightenment ideas such as equality under the law and reform of the tax system. In short, the middle class hoped to achieve social prestige and political influence equal to its growing wealth. Page 170 The execution of the French king Louis XVI on January 21, 1793, foreshadowed the onset of the French Revolution’s most radical phase, the Reign of Terror, which claimed thousands of lives. (Reproduced from the Collections of the Library of Congress) Page 171 The town dwellers—and there were not many of them except in Paris, which had a population of about 600,000—were restless as well. France’s artisans, small shopkeepers, and day laborers were in a state of economic decline. During the 1780s, rising unemployment and skyrocketing prices had only served to intensify their misery. The immediate cause of the Revolution was a fiscal crisis. France’s budget was badly out of balance, and the country faced bankruptcy as expenditures far exceeded revenues. Service on the national debt, which had soared as France bankrolled the American Revolution, ate up 50 percent of the state’s income. Furthermore, the tax burden was unevenly distributed; the nobility and the Roman Catholic Church were virtually exempt from taxation. The French monarchy determined to resolve the crisis by taxing the nobility. Not surprisingly, the nobility resisted. Many nobles flatly rejected the monarchy’s proposals; others, influenced by the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, would consent to taxation only if the king would share political power with them, an idea the monarchy rejected. The nobility relied upon the parlements, or traditional law courts, to thwart the monarch’s will. The nobles were unintentionally aided by the king himself. Louis XVI was a weak and stupid ruler who regularly jettisoned reforming ministers and failed to confront his insubordinate nobility. The stalemate between king and nobility was broken only when an increasingly desperate Louis XVI decided to call into session the Estates General, an ancient French assembly that had last met in 1614. Elections for the Estates General were held during the winter of 1788–1789, and when it assembled at Versailles it had a decidedly moderate character. In addition to representatives from the First Estate (the clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobility), there were representatives of the Third Estate (the rest of the French population). However, the representatives of the Third Estate were chiefly lawyers, and they sought reform, not revolution. Almost immediately, the Estates General deadlocked over the question of whether to vote by estate (thereby giving those in favor of the status quo a two to one majority) or to vote by head (thereby giving those in favor of reform a majority). As usual, the king vacillated. As the controversy deepened, the Third Estate first proclaimed itself the National Assembly, and then in the Tennis Court Oath declared that it would not disband until France had a constitution. This was a revolutionary act, and the king prepared to summon troops to disperse the Estates General. At this juncture, the common people weighed in. On July 14, 1789, Page 172 riotous Parisians seized the Bastille, an ancient prison fortress, and effectively wrested control of the city from royal authority. Similar disturbances, known as the Great Fear, swept the countryside. Peasants attacked the nobility’s châteaux, frequently destroying records that registered their obligations to the lord of the land. As the situation spun out of control and the king dithered, on August 4 the Estates General declared the end of feudalism in France. Three weeks later it issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which began with the stirring proclamation that ‘‘men are born free and equal in rights.’’ Faced with a growing crisis, the king finally roused himself. He quietly began to assemble loyal troops with the intention of disbanding the Estates General once and for all. However, once again the common people intervened. On October 4, a crowd consisting mainly of Parisian women marched to Versailles, rioted, and forced the royal household to accompany it back to Paris, where the king became its virtual prisoner. The Estates General, or rather National Assembly, also relocated from Versailles to Paris, where it gradually came under the capital’s influence. Nevertheless, from October 1789 until September 1791 the National Assembly steered a moderate course, reshaping France into a constitutional monarchy with guarantees of equality under the law. Although the king retained considerable power, the right to make laws passed to a legislative chamber elected on the basis of a limited suffrage. Civil rights were established, and new taxes on land and business income replaced the bewildering and unfair system that had frustrated so many Frenchmen. A laissez-faire approach to economics was adopted, which did not please the urban poor, and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy subordinated the powerful Roman Catholic Church to the state. Coming upon the confiscation of Church lands, the Civil Constitution outraged the papacy, which ordered French Catholics to oppose it, thereby dividing French society. The National Assembly completed its work in October 1791 and gave way to the Legislative Assembly, the newly elected French parliament. Expected to last indefinitely, the Legislative Assembly disappeared in less than a year as the level of discontent in France rose dramatically. France became polarized, and the middle or moderate center was eclipsed. Many Frenchmen, including the royal household, the nobility, the upper levels of the bureaucracy, the officer corps, and devout Roman Catholics, opposed the changes that had taken place. The king himself validated this opposition when he made a clumsy and unsuccessful at- Page 173 tempt to flee France in June 1791. This incident, known as the Flight to Varennes, ended with the king’s forced return to Paris. Louis XVI was now a discredited figure in the eyes of all but the most conservative Frenchmen. Confronting the conservatives, a growing radical movement worked to extend the Revolution. Motivated in part by personal ambition, the radicals congregated in political clubs, especially the Jacobin Clubs that became synonymous with the most radical phase of the French Revolution. The radicals also enlisted the Parisian crowd, first to gain power and then to tighten their grip on it. International considerations played a major role in changing the Revolution’s direction. A steady stream of French aristocrats fled the country and took up residence at foreign capitals throughout Europe. These émigrés denounced the Revolution and tried to enlist the support of their hosts. However, even though Europe’s royal courts loathed the Revolution, they shied away from any attempt to destroy it. But the French political extremes welcomed the prospect of war. The conservatives saw war as a win-win situation. If France lost, then the Revolution would be defeated; if France won, then the king and the aristocratic army could claim victory and more easily move against the Revolution themselves. The radicals believed that war would demonstrate the unreliability of the conservatives and the ineffectiveness of the moderates, thus preparing the way for the radicals to take over. Moreover, the Jacobins, led by the Girondist faction, had concluded that only the spread of the Revolution to other countries could make it safe within France. They saw war as a way to rouse the rest of Europe to revolution. Consequently, it was France that declared war on Austria in April 1792. The war went poorly for France; however, the fact that its opponents—Austria and its ally, Prussia—were actually rivals and deeply suspicious of each other saved France from utter disaster. Meanwhile, the Jacobins prepared to seize power. Throughout the summer of 1792 they worked to gain the trust of the Paris crowd, and in early August the mob erupted. It attacked the Tuileries, the royal residence, and forced the royal family to flee for their lives. Using the mob as its instrument of force, the Jacobins took over the capital and established a commune, or revolutionary municipal administration. The commune soon exercised supreme authority. It rejected the constitution, dismissed the Legislative Assembly, and called for elections to a National Convention to draw up a new and more radical constitution. At the same time, hysteria swept the capital, culminating in the September Massacres, when more than a thousand opponents of revolution were lynched. In this atmosphere, the Page 174 elections to the National Assembly returned a strong radical majority backed by the might of the Parisian mob. First meeting in September 1792, the National Convention declared France a republic. Shortly thereafter it tried Louis XVI for treason and executed the hapless monarch in January 1793. It also declared its intention to spread the Revolution beyond France, a step that alarmed the rest of Europe. In April 1793 the Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to carry out the duties of government. Consisting of twelve men working in secret, the Committee of Public Safety instituted what is commonly known as the Reign of Terror. Officially designed to combat the ‘‘counterrevolution’’ in France, the Reign of Terror really served to rid the Jacobins of any real or potential rivals. And when Jacobin unity shattered, it was used by one radical faction to eliminate other radical factions. The Reign of Terror also claimed a number of social misfits such as prostitutes, although most of its victims were simple peasants and workers. Getting under way in summer 1793, the Reign of Terror claimed about 40,000 victims by the time it was dismantled in July 1794. During this most radical phase of the Revolution, power passed to a handful of extreme revolutionaries, the most famous being Maximilien Robespierre, a provincial lawyer who was both incorruptible and a fanatic for ‘‘virtue.’’ Other important leaders included Jean- Paul Marat, a firebrand journalist, and George Danton, who organized the defense of the regime and was later executed by his fellow radicals. In addition to raining terror down on the French population, the Reign of Terror also transformed French society. Under the April 1793 Law of the Maximum, the revolutionaries imposed price controls, although paradoxically most of the leadership continued to uphold the doctrine of laissez-faire. A new calendar was introduced, with 1792 being designated as Year I and the names of the months changed to reflect the passing of the seasons. Of more lasting importance was the introduction of the metric system to replace the traditional (and chaotic) systems of weights and measures. Styles changed as well. Men abandoned the aristocrat’s knee breeches in favor of the common man’s trousers, and women dressed in styles reminiscent of republican Rome or democratic Athens. There was also a concerted attack on Christianity. The revolutionaries substituted ‘‘temples of reason’’ for churches, and Robespierre tried to bridge the gap between believer and nonbeliever by declaring that Frenchmen should worship a ‘‘Supreme Being.’’ Faced with an Austro-Prussian invading force now supported by Great Britain, Holland, Spain, and Portugal, the revolutionaries introduced the Page 175 levée en masse, or conscription. Many other civilians were put to work on projects designed to protect France from its external enemies. By the spring of 1794, the army of revolutionary France counted 800,000 men and represented a nation in arms. This army’s high morale and the divisions that plagued its opponents led to a series of French victories in summer 1794 that lifted the threat to the republic’s existence. Meanwhile, the Terror ground on, now condemning some of its most ardent supporters to the guillotine. This provoked a reaction, and on July 27, 1794, Robespierre, the living embodiment of the radical phase of the French Revolution, was executed. What followed is known in history as the Thermidorian Reaction, named after the month in the new calendar (Thermidor) when Robespierre was overthrown. Many of those who replaced Robespierre and his friends were former Jacobins who now yearned for stability and a more moderate course. They repealed many of the National Convention’s more radical measures and in 1795 introduced a new constitution for France. Through the imposition of property qualifications, this constitution guaranteed that those who sat in the legislature would be men of means and thus ‘‘responsible.’’ Any thought of reviving the monarchy was quashed, and executive power was turned over to a five-man board of directors, thereby giving rise to the term ‘‘Directory,’’ which describes this period in French history. However, the Directory proved transitory. Characterized by corruption, political paralysis, and a failure to end the war that had entangled France since 1792, the Directory fell victim to a coup d'état in November 1799 featuring the ambitious young military figure, Napoleon Bonaparte.
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