The French Revolution
The French Revolution was a significant war in French and Western (Western civilization) history. The American Revolution had ended six years before the French Revolution broke out, and for those six years peasants found hope of overthrowing monarchies and creating an equal society where rank would be attained by merit instead of the family one was born into. After all, some puny American colonists defeated the most powerful army on the planet, so why couldn’t the French peasants do the same? That was the main idea that sparked the French Revolution, a possibility of hope for the suppressed, mistreated, and ignored peasants of France.
This though was the reason for the French Revolution, not the cause. To find out the cause of the French Revolution, the monarchy should be observed. The French monarchy, along with many other European monarchies, had been governed by a philosophy called Divine Right or the Divine Right of Kings. Divine Right is basically the belief that a king or emperor was chosen by divine appointment, or God, and his actions were only accountable to God. This philosophy had been the standard in France for centuries, and unlike the middle ages where the king was accountable to his people and elected by them (in some cases), he became exempt and the peasantry couldn’t do a thing about it. Another problem was the social class system. In France, there were three social classes, or estates. The first estate was at the top, and was composed of the Catholic clergy. The second estate was the aristocracy, and the third estate was the other 97% of the population. The peasants already paid a heavy tax to the second estate, but they also had to pay a tithe to the first estate as well. These taxes made the peasantry barely able to scrape by and make ends meet. In 1789 the Estates-General meeting in Versailles was held between representatives of the three estates, who hadn’t been called together in over a century. Since the third estate had a huge amount of representatives, it would be fair to say that if the disagreements were settled by election, the third estate would dominate the country. However, King Louis XVI made sure this wouldn’t happen, and after many weeks, the third estate left and formed the National Assembly to represent the third estate. For a few years the National Assembly ran alongside the king in a new constitution, which Louis XVI signed but had no intention of supporting.
In addition to the new constitution, the Declaration of Rights of Man was written by Marquis de Lafayette, the young French general in the American army who was instrumental in gaining French support to the war. His friend Thomas Jefferson also helped to write the document as well. The Rights of Man is divided into seventeen articles, and the articles will be briefly introduced in this essay. The first article states that men are free in equal rights and social distinctions may only be based on the general good. The second gives citizens the rights of liberty, property security, and resistance to oppression. The third states that no foreign person or organization can exercise power over France and the fourth defines liberty as the freedom to do anything that doesn’t cause any harm. The fifth and sixth state law can only prohibit actions harmful to society and that any citizen can participate in its foundation. The seventh, eighth, and ninth state how one can be arrested, punishments for a crime must be strictly and obviously necessary, and all are held innocent until declared guilty. The tenth and eleventh allow for freedom of opinion, speech, religion, and writing, and opinions should not disturb the public community as in law. The twelfth states the armed forces are for the general protection of the nation and not for a power grab. The thirteenth states that all citizens must pay for the army at a reasonable tax in proportion to their income. The fourteenth deals with taxes, the fifteenth states that the society has the right to require every public agent to assist it. The sixteenth defines a constitution, and the seventeenth states that property can’t be taken away by unlawful means. This document serves as the preamble for the constitutions of the fourth and fifth French republics. Today France is run by the Fifth Republic, so the Rights of Man actually serve as a governing document in France today.
A key attribute of the French Revolution was the near-annihilation of the aristocracy. This began when the peasants heard rumors that the nobles were out to kill them, and in response, they killed many nobles themselves. In reality, those rumors were false, and the nobles had no intention of killing, or hiring robbers to kill, the peasants. This was called the ‘Great Fear’. During this time a radical, nationalistic left-wing party known as the Jacobins gained popularity throughout France. The Jacobins eventually took control of the new government in 1792. From this point on every noble was trying to escape from France, and whether Louis XVI would be caught remained uncertain. Louis XVI was trying to reach Austria, where his wife’s brother lived. In December of 1792 however, Louis XVI was caught, arrested, and the next month found guilty and executed by the infamous guillotine. Often time’s his wife’s executi9n was more widely remembered than his own, where Marie Antoinette’s last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it” after stepping on the executioner’s foot.When news of their executions reached the rest of Europe, outcry was ignited and almost every country in Europe was against the French Revolution. The last Jacobin leader, Maximilien Robespierre, was most remembered for organizing the ‘Reign of Terror’, a period in French history marked by the massive amounts of guillotine executions. Robespierre felt that all the French aristocrats should be executed and it was necessary, so the government had passed the law of suspects, a decree stating anyone suspected of being against the revolution, or treason, would be taken into custody. Suspects were often innocent and executed via the guillotine. Fifty to sixty were executed per day, men, women, and children alike. Many of the French actually cheered watching the guillotine executions and seeing enemies of the revolution put to justice. Around 17000 were executed by the guillotine before Robespierre himself was executed by members of the convention who felt Robespierre abused his power.
After Robespierre’s death by the guillotine, a new government was formed. That government was known as the Directory. The Directory was a five man group who ran France from 1794 to 1799. The Jacobin Party was suppressed and Napoleon Bonaparte was arrested for eleven days, accused of being a Jacobin supporter before he was freed when no conclusive evidence was found. Napoleon gained popularity soon afterwards when he put down an attempted monarchist coup. Napoleon may have been popular, but the Directory was not. The main reason on why the Directory wasn’t popular was because bills took a long time to pass, which was unlike the Jacobin government, which was popular and bills were passed quickly. When Napoleon returned from Egypt in 1799, he realized the people’s anger and frustration with the Directory, and was willing to overthrow the government in a coup de ’tat, or a military overthrow of the government. He did this by pressuring the Directory to resign, and with the army on his side, the Directory resigned and Napoleon became the first Emperor of France. Napoleon offered stability, and France was much more stable than the previous two governments, which is a critical reason why Napoleon’s regime was so popular, he brought back something that had been lost for years. This is why many other leaders in history were liked by their people, such as Adolf Hitler and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Although the French Revolution began based on the American Revolution, the two wars were very different. For one, the American Revolution was a colony rebelling against a mother nation, while the French Revolution was the people overthrowing the government of their nation and replacing it with a different one. Also, the Americans had a good idea of what their government ought to become, while the French just didn’t have a clue. Lastly, the American Revolution ended in a republic, while the French Revolution ended in the dictatorship of Napoleon.
The French Revolution was a significant war in French and Western history. If the French Revolution hadn’t happened, then Napoleon wouldn’t have had an empire, and the Louisiana Purchase may not have happened. Also, nationalism wouldn’t have risen to prominence, and that would cancel out the rise of fascism (nationalism gave rise to fascism), which would eliminate the Nazi regime and Mussolini’s dictatorship in Italy (there might not have even been a united Italy), which equals either no second world war or a different second world war. Eliminating, or even postponing the Louisiana Purchase changes history enough, but the rise of nationalism never happening wipes countries off the map, such as Belgium and Italy, two nuclear-armed European nations1 who are both part of N.A.T.O. and both use the Euro currency. These three events that depend on the French Revolution to occur are major events in Western history that had global consequences, so the French Revolution is very well significant if not vital to our timeline in history. The French Revolution was a transition from Monarchy and Aristocracy to Democracy and Nationalism.
1: N.A.T.O. shared nuclear armament