French Revolution

Revolutionary France 1789-1815

Beginning with the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789 to the defeat of Napoléon at Waterloo on the 18th June 1815 the French Revolution involved the beheading of a King, the restructuring of a society and a generation of war involving practically every power in Europe over an entire generation. Like a major earthquake with several aftershocks France’s Revolution tremored again in 1830 unseating the ruling dynasty, again in 1848 establishing the Second Republic, (which became the Second Empire in 1852) and in 1870 the Third Republic was formed (offering a crown to the Bourbon heir who refused it). The Third Republic crumbled with the French Army in 1940 and national hero Marshal Philippe Pétain’s French State (État Français) infamously known as Vichy France prevailed until 1944 when Charles De Gaulle’s victorious forces established the chaotic Fourth Republic in 1946. Charles De Gaulle accepted the Presidential ‘throne’ of a restructured Fifth Republic in 1958 and survived student demonstrations of 1968 to bequeath the stable France so much admired by visitors today.

France Pre 1789

By the time the 20 year old King Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774 with his 18 year old Austrian born Queen Marie Antoinette, France was in turmoil. The country had spent heavily to fund its involvement in the Seven Year’s War and had financed the American Revolution by borrowing without raising any new taxes. The dire economic situation was compounded by a bureaucracy that concealed the nation’s plight, refused raising taxes and failed to offer the masses real hope of a better future. In 1783 the Laki volcanic eruption in Iceland sent a sulphur dioxide cloud across Europe blanketing the north Atlantic in fog and ultimately causing crops to fail, particularly affecting wheat. While the rest of Europe had switched to potatoes as their main source of carbohydrates France had stuck to wheat so the resulting crop failings brought famine and inflation to an already troubled France. Hunger knocked on France’s door from 1783-85 and again in 1789-93. While the masses hungered the surreal pleasures of Versailles prevailed.

It was not cake the Third Estate hungered for. It was for an end to France’s divinely sanctioned Ancien Régime. The masses had become enflamed with radical ideas of The Enlightenment, their passions stirred by the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot and Turgot, spread by pamphlet and word of mouth to receptive listeners. The privilege of the Church, the Aristocracy and the absolute power of the Monarch had had its day.

In 1789 with the Administration teetering on the brink of insolvency the King agreed to the summoning of an Estates-General, for the first time since 1614 to consider tax reform. The three estates of the Realm were called in a last ditched attempt to rescue the nation from bankruptcy. The First Estate (the Clergy) and the Second Estate (the Aristocracy) largely supported the status quo, while the Third Estate (the masses) yearned for wide ranging political and social reform. The banks of the Revolutionary river burst when the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly on 17th June 1789 and on 20th June the King tried to dissolve the assembly. On the 9th July the National Assembly became the National Constituent Assembly and the King and France were being carried along in the swift moving current of Revolution that wouldn’t stop for a generation.

Storming of the Bastille

On the 11th July 1789 Jacques Necker, the reform minded finance minister was dismissed by the King and false rumours of a Royal Coup quickly spread. An impromptu Army formed to support the National Constituent Assembly and on the 14th of July they stormed the Bastille Castle to secure the cache of arms stored there and liberate the seven prisoners held within. Bastille Day immortalises and romanticised the French Revolution and has become France’s National Day.

The Church and Royal Family

10% of all French property was owned by the Catholic Church and they paid no taxes and enjoyed a privileged position in French society. In 1790 the National Constituent Assembly confiscated church land using it as collateral for a new currency the Assignat, which became worthless two years later from overprinting. The Assembly also forcibly ‘democratised’ the church, abolished religious orders and placed the Clergy on the state payroll, thereby eliminating their privileges. The Pope was furious and the King withheld his signature from the law.

The National Constituent Assembly concluded its task and the 1791 Constitution was proclaimed making France a Constitutional Monarchy. However the Royal Family had decided to join the flood of aristocratic and intellectual émigrés fearing for the future of France and headed for the German border. On the 20th June 1791 while dressed in servants clothing the Royal Family was recognised, arrested and returned to Paris, humiliated and disgraced. Other European monarchs demanded the release and restoration of the King and threatened war. France further liberalised, factionalised and sank deeper into economic malaise.

First Republic and National Convention

Austria and Prussia declared war on France in an attempt to nip the revolution in the bud but radicals took control of the government, declared a Republic the next day; on 21st September 1792 and began a purge of opponents leading to 1400 deaths. On 21st January 1793 Citizen Louis Capet (King Louis XVI) was guillotined in Paris’s Place de la Concorde and the Royal couple were reunited in death when Marie Antoinette lost her head on the 16th October.  The Royal executions inflamed European courts.

Between 1792-95 France was governed by the National Convention, a form of Revolutionary Council.  Although the council unleashed the Reign of Terror from 1793-94 in which 300,000 citizens were arrested with 17,000 officially executed (many more perishing in prison), the National Convention also saved France from civil war and foreign invasion. The First Republic’s National Convention examined and reformed all areas of society and religion, introducing the French Republican Calendar, introduced decimal currency and measurements and they thoroughly reformed education and public cultural institutions such as museums and galleries. They also abolished slavery in 1793 and extended it to their empire, 40 years before the British.