Today, I want to discuss the origins and the outbreak of the French Revolution. The Revolution officially began, as many of you know, on July 14, 1789, with the storming of the royal prison, the Bastille. But this moment also had deep roots in the France’s history and the history of the eighteenth century. I have already discussed two origins of the revolution, the literary movement known as the Enlightenment and, more directly, the American Revolution. The young republic in the British colonies became the rage in France, as Americans such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were practically worshiped in French social life for their combination of enlightenment and simplicity. The French mania for the American Revolution was justified in so far France had financed it. French money and other forms of support made possible the American victory over the British army. But this is where we reach a key problem for the French. They were already in debt from two previous wars they had fought against Britain and her allies, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1711) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Then to the already crushing burden of debt from previous wars was added this new American debt. By the 1780s half of all French state income went to financing the public debt.
France’s mounting war debts exacerbated a long-standing domestic problem: the French tax system was notoriously rotten and inefficient. Many of the wealthy paid almost no taxes, and most of the tax burden was put on French peasants. The problem for the French state was that the peasants only had so much money, and raising additional funds from them was impossible. That left only the wealthy, who were comprised of nobles and an emerging group of wealthy business people. (There was no real deal difference between these groups, as money married nobility, and many nobles were also entrepreneurs.) Many of the wealthy were willing to pay taxes, but only in exchange for more direct representation in the government. We have already talked about the French Estates-General, a corporate institution in which people were represented by order. The nobility had one vote, the clergy had, one, and the third-estate--basically everyone else--had one. The clergy and nobility could usually be relied upon to vote together, so there was little chance that the popular interest would be represented. Nonetheless, this system also limited the estates-general’s power vis-à-vis the king, which meant that the king was unlikely to support political changes.
Here we need to keep two things in mind. First, in spite of the Estates-General’s basic conservatism, French Kings did not like to call the body into session. (It had met once in the seventeenth- and once in the sixteenth centuries.) Second, the traditional interests of France’s orders were changing. The nobility, which had once lived off the peasants, were beginning to engage in commerce, and some among them were becoming very wealthy through it. And the third estate, which had included only a small group of wealthy merchants, was becoming more economically powerful as the eighteenth century progressed. The newly wealthy then cemented an alliance with the old elite. Given France’s constitution, this created an unstable situation, since large numbers of Frenchman had no experience in the politics of public bargaining and horse-trading, etc. Moreover, older social arrangements that many French men had used to understand their politics no longer applied. In this unsure situation the King stumbled with his mounting debt burden, and in order to get new funds he called the Estates-General into session on May 1, 1789. France and the rest of Europe would never be the same.
The calling of the Estates General had far-reaching social and political implications. By law every district in France was entitled to draw up a list of complaints—called cahiers de doléances—that were to be aired in the next meeting. The problem is that most of these lists never quite made it to the top, as the interests of the noble and clerical orders took center stage. The average Frenchman, however, actually believed that these cahiers would be respected. When they were not, the sense of frustration among the populace grew, and the local bodies that had been convened to draw up the lists remained in session, focusing this anger. So now France’s political system was on the verge of complete illegitimacy. Not only did the political elite have sufficient reason to be unhappy with the King, but a large section of the population did so as well.
For his part, the king believed the meeting of the Estates-General was simply about increasing tax revenue. He was surprised to note, however, that the Third Estate had different ideas. The people’s representatives wanted far-reaching reforms of the entire political structure; a tax increase was the least of their concerns. The King and his advisers were caught flat-footed by this rising tide of expectations. They had no real reform program to offer the discontented, and they only suggested a mild political reform in which the Third Estate received two votes in the Estates-General. This augured only political stalemate, as the Third Estate could not out vote the first two estates. The upshot is that on June 17, 1789, the Third Estate withdrew from the Estates-General and called itself the National Assembly. This is the beginning of the revolution’s first phase, which runs from 1789 to 1791. The clergy and the nobility soon joined the National Assembly. A struggle ensued between the king and the new assembly that resulted in the complete overthrow of the government, which included the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. On August 4, 1789, the new assembly abolished the old feudal order, eliminating feudal dues, legal privileges, etc. Three weeks later, the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. From this point forward the French were no longer subjects of the king, but citizens equal before the law.
This was an incredibly optimistic time for France and for much of Europe, too. Everything seemed new and possible. The old system of weights and measures in France was abolished and the uniform metric system that is used throughout the world today was put in its place. Local languages and dialects were discouraged, as French became the language of instruction in all French schools. Careers were now officially open to talent. The young English poet William Wordsworth traveled to France in 1790 to witness the revolution and fell in love with the energy that seemed to have been released. In 1805, looking back on the revolutionary period, he wrote “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” Powerful forces were, however, already getting out of control during the early years. France had suffered two disastrous harvests in row, in 1787 and 1788. By 1789, the price of basic food items such as bread had increased seven-fold. Whatever the political elite may have been saying about the need for freedom, the people were most opposed to expensive bread and high taxes. For its part, the National Assembly tried to solve the debt problem by nationalizing all church property. Unfortunately for the National Assembly, this did not solve the debt problem, but threw much of rural France into a civil war. As was the case in Austria, the peasants were very conservative, when it came to religion.
Back in Paris the problems only grew worse. The National Assembly did not want complete power; it only wished to share power with the King. This was evidenced by the so-called Constitution of 1791, a moderate document that constrained the King’s powers by making him a constitutional monarch. The King, however, refused to sanction any of the National Assembly’s changes and tried to flee France on the night of June 20-21, 1791, in the so-called Flight to Varennes, during which the King and his entourage were caught at the border by an alert guard and brought back to Paris. Before continuing, we need to consider why the King tried to flee the country. Ever since July, 1789 large numbers of aristocrats and clergy had fled France for safety in Germany. These émigrés, as they were called, were loyal to the old regime and set up little French colonies in German cities on the Rhine where they planned a counter-revolution. One of the largest was in the German city of Koblenz. As you may imagine, the King wanted to join to join his loyal supporters, so that he could return to Paris in triumph. Many of the French, naturally, hated these people and were threatened by them.
The King’s flight radicalized the French and marked the beginning of a new warlike phase in the Revolution. After his return to Paris, the King took an oath to the constitution, but no one believed him: the King had become intolerable. This dynamic of a reluctant king and suspicious revolutionaries then pushed France toward war.
The massive size of the resulting wars stemmed from a unique combination of increasing international and domestic tensions. Initially, most foreign powers were indifferent to events in France. France had been the strongest and most aggressive nation on the Continent, and if it was embroiled in some civil war, that was fine with everybody; at least it would keep French armies from doing any more mischief. But then the National Assembly proclaimed a revolutionary principle: all peoples had the right to national self-determination. As you will recall from the first lecture, there were very few republics in the world at this time, and the articulation of such a universal principle threatened a great many powers. Domestically, the political pressure was also increasing. France continued to suffer terrible harvests. The harvests of 1787 and 1788 were so bad that widespread hunger broke out. Then the harvest of 1791 proved inadequate as well. During the winter 1791-92 bread prices skyrocketed, and public disturbances were the result. Thus, by the end of 1791 an alliance appeared within France that precipitated war. On the on hand, radical revolutionaries who wanted to export the revolution, joined with Louis XVI, who hoped to regain his powers by either military victory or total defeat. (Louis hoped that foreign militaries might return him to full power.) On the other hand, the internal crisis encouraged the French to see their problems in terms of foreign conspiracies and meddling. On April 20, 1792, France declared war on Austria. Prussia joined the war three months later, and the combined armies of the two powers advanced toward Paris.
Now all Hell broke loose. The French armies were woefully inadequate. The army’s officers deserted in the face of battle, and there were too few soldiers to fight. Predictably, everybody began to blame everybody else for the terrible military situation, and the result was a further radicalization of French politics. The nation became the foundation of all political rhetoric, which meant that policy disagreements were automatically described as treason. In the summer of 1792, calls went out from Paris to all the regions of France to send troops to defend the revolution. There was even talk of the need to depose the king. Volunteer National Guard troops began to arrive in Paris from all over. One of the last regiments to arrive came from Marseille. These troops arrived singing a song of liberty that had recently become popular there; the song caught on among the populace, and they began to call it the Marseillaise. Today, the Marseillaise is France’s national anthem, and with each rendition the people sing of how the blood of their enemies will water French fields--a living remnant of the violence and fear that permeated France at this time.
By August 1792 Paris was full of armed and angry men and women. Two things happened as a result. First, on August 10, 1792, a crowd of armed citizens advanced on the royal residence, and imprisoned the King and his family. The revolutionaries declared that the crown was vacant and called for a new constitution and for the king to go on trial. At this point, Paris effectively took over the revolution, and in this hothouse local radicals began demanding the blood of traitors. The crowd advanced on France’s prisons, which were full of nobles and clergy who had opposed the revolution and killed all of them. These killings were named the September Massacres, and approximately 1,000 people were publicly executed in defense of the revolution. By September 6, central authority slowly began to assert control, and by September 20, a measure of order returned to France. Two factors were responsible for this. First, a new assembly was elected, called the National Convention. This was a more radical body, and was much more in tune with the contemporary political sentiment. Second, French forces were finally victorious, defeating Prussian troops at Valmy. The Austrians and Prussians withdrew from Belgium in a dispute over Poland, and now there was nothing to stop the export of the French Revolution.
At this point, the revolution became progressively more radical. As before, we must keep our eye on the relationship between domestic and international tensions. Domestically, a massive fight ensued for control of the French state. Two groups within the national Convention were at the fore, the Jacobins and the Girondins. Both groups were avowed revolutionaries, but each had a different vision for France. The Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre, were politically radical, calling for direct representation of the people. The Girondins, led by Georges Danton, supported indirect representation and wanted the convention to represent more regions than just Paris. Slowly, the Jacobin vision for France won out. Although the Girondins tried to prevent it, the King was executed for treason on January 21, 1793. The Queen, Marie-Antoinette, was executed nine months later. While this was going on, French armies won repeated military victories against France’s enemies. French armies advanced as far east as Austria and as far north as the Netherlands. Everywhere they went French armies declared the end of the Old Regime and set up revolutionary governments.
French expansionism inaugurated a new, larger war. The French invasion of the Netherlands brought Britain into the war, since the Brits could not allow the French to control Dutch ports. This is the start of the first great coalition, as Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Spain, and parts of Italy joined to fight France. By the summer of 1793, France seemed to be losing the war again, as Austrian and Prussian troops advanced toward Paris. The war’s progress increased the internal pressure in France and radicalized French politics even more than before. By the summer of 1793 the Jacobins had defeated the Girondins in the National Convention. Thus, on September 5, 1793 an orgy of purges began that historians now call the Reign of Terror, a ten-month period of political vindictiveness and routine bloodshed.
The Reign of Terror was a product of complicated circumstances. The National Convention did not run the daily business of government; that was left to a group called the Committee of Public Safety. This committee was full of the assembly’s most radical elements, including Maximilien Robespierre. With foreign armies threatening French lands, many inside the government sought scapegoats. The need to find scapegoats then crossed with the desire to eliminate political enemies. The results were predictable, with show trials and public executions becoming the stuff of daily politics. Each time the Committee confronted political opposition, it increased the terror against its opponents. Between June 10 and July 28, 1794—the height of the terror—1100 people were executed in Paris alone. After this particularly bloody period, popular calls for killing subsided, and the National Convention assumed more control over the Committee of Public Safety. In addition, French armies began what would become a series of victories against the first coalition, which made the violence less imperative. On July 27, 1794 Robespierre was overthrown in the National Assembly. The Reign of Terror was punctuated on July 28, with the guillotining of Robespierre, along with 107 of his closest followers. This conservative shift in the revolution is called the Thermidorian Revolution, since it occurred during the month of Thermidor, as the French then reckoned it with their revolutionary calendar. All told, 16,500 people were executed during the Reign of Terror. Probably 40,000 more people died in prison, due to wretched conditions. In addition, probably 500,000 went to prison for perceived political crimes.
When the Thermidorians took over, they immediately tried to eliminate the social and political structures that had led to the terror. The Committee of Public Safety no longer had permanent members. Its membership was now rotating. In addition, they outlawed the political clubs, especially the Jacobins, which had been a source of strength for radicalism. Robespierre’s execution did not, however, end France’s domestic problems. Continued economic privation led to more uprisings and then, most importantly, military intervention. On April 1, 1795 Parisian workers rose up against the government and French troops had to quell the unrest. On October 5, 1795, royalists rose up in a rebellion that was put down by a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte. In the midst of this unrest the Convention drew up another constitution, the third since 1789. This was a conservative document that set up a central authority known as the Directory. It had five members called “directors.” The Directory would persist until Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup of 1799.
The Thermidorians brought less killing, but they did not end the revolution. The war against foreign powers continued. The first coalition that I have already mentioned broke up in defeat by early 1795, as the Prussians dropped out of the war. Smashing victories against the Austrians followed in 1796, under the direction of with Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon followed up his successes with a disastrous invasion of Egypt, which was an attempt to export the French Revolution to the Ottoman Empire. He managed, however, to keep the news of his defeat quiet. While Napoleon made his way back to France, France’s enemies began to win more victories, especially along the Rhine and in the Netherlands. At this point, it looked as if France would descend into another Reign of Terror. In order to forestall defeat and avoid another terror, France’s directors looked for a strongman. The strongman found them first. On November 9, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte held a coup d’état and became France’s First Consul. The French Republic was not quite gone, but its days were numbered. We’ll talk about its ultimate demise next time.