The French Revolution

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The French Revolution

1789-1799

The French Revolution was a long time in coming. Before the revolution, France was made up of 3 classes of people: the clergy (First Estate), the nobility

(Second Estate), and the common folk (Third Estate). The two upper classes, the clergy and the nobles, could do whatever they wanted. They did not pay taxes, they lived good lives, and they always had food and shelter. The common folk had to pay taxes to help support the upper class lifestyle. Often the common folk were so poor that they had little or no food, poor living conditions, and were worked to the bone. They did not get to have fun like the upper class did.

The King and Queen were the highest of nobility in France. Their lavish lifestyle was viewed by the common folk as unnecessary. The rich King and Queen did not hide the way they lived, though it is believed that they did not truly know how poor the common folk really were until it was too late.

The Queen of France was Austrian-born Marie Antoinette. Raised to be a pampered noblewoman, Marie was disliked terribly by the French citizens. How could she spend so much money when people were starving? Unfortunately,

Marie realized the hardships the French common folk faced a little too late. Once she knew the extent of trouble in France, she cut back on her frivolous

(unimportant) spending and tried to give the poorest people food and assistance.

However, by this point the French people hated Marie so much she could not rectify the situation or turn the people's opinion of her around no matter what she did.

The King of France at the time of the French Revolution was her husband, Louis

XVI. While he tried to be a good king, he was looked at as a clumsier kind of man that was not really able to relate to the personal problems of the men and women of his country. It seemed that he was not interested in being King. He even asked at one point why he couldn't resign from his position as King.

The kingdom where the King and Queen lived was outside of Paris in Versailles.

As you can imagine, they were able to have everything they could ever want.

However, the rest of the country was not as lucky as the King and Queen. In fact, even the entire government of France was faced with huge financial problems which were going to cause them to go bankrupt. This is because there was no money. The main reason that the government was running out of money was that the way that the taxes were structured was done so in an unfair manner, leaving people unable to pay them without debt.

Additional problems came from the fact that France had given a considerable amount of money to aid the Americans in their revolution against England.

These problems all led France into insurmountable debt which would lead them to additional problems that would become far worse.

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The King was unable to find a solution to suit all people. The nobility, for example, wanted to have a higher amount of political influence but wanted the third class to have little or no say. Eventually, the King tried to fix the financial problems. He did this by removing tax exemptions from the nobility class. This would ensure that they too would have to pay taxes and the burden would not remain solely on the citizens of the Third Estate.

Unfortunately, this caused more problems because the nobility felt they should not have to pay taxes like the common man because they were not common.

They felt their royal blood should prevent them from having to pay taxes and living as normal people. Therefore, the nobles took control of the court system and blocked the King’s decision.

A Meeting of the Estates General

In 1788, a meeting of the Estates General had to be called because of these problems. Generally, when a meeting such as this would occur, any necessary vote would be taken with each estate having an equal say. This often gave the

First and Second Estates the majority. However, in this meeting, the Third

Estate demanded that the vote be counted by head (population), which would give them the majority. The King refused this immediately, but the Third Estate continued to demand this right. The King declared that the Third Estate was committing unlawful acts and would not recognize them in the meeting of the

Estates General.

The Third Estate was forced out of the meeting, so they met instead at an indoor tennis court in Versailles where they all agreed to stand together until France created a French constitution. Out of all the delegates for the Third Estate, only one chose to separate from the group that evening. An oath was created when they agreed to stand together and that oath was known as the Tennis Court

Oath.

The National Assembly

This new group that had formed was built by the will of the people. The King tried as hard as he could to make them disband, but they refused and the King would not use force on his own countrymen to make them do so. Rather than hurt his own people, he allowed the Third Estate to win and ordered the other classes to join this new National Assembly that had been created by the Third

Estate. Together, this new group worked to create the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This document was very important because it explained how all men were created equal. Previously, this was not something that any of the classes believed to be true.

When equality to all men was covered in this declaration it only truly covered free men. At that time, there were many slaves in France that would not be covered

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or protected under this document. The same was true for women. Women were not considered equal. In fact, they were very far from being equal to the likes of men. It was nothing like it is today.

Things were bad for the people of France especially in Paris. The cost of things like bread was very expensive and there were not enough supplies to go around the city. These problems were looked at as being caused by the King and

Queen. Soon after this happened, a mob formed because French troops were sent to march to the capital. The people believed that the King sent troops to harm the people.

The mob began looking for weapons which they found by breaking into hospitals.

After they had collected the weapons they needed ammunition. The mob and a smaller number of the French troops then stormed the Bastille (a former fortress that was now serving as a prison) where the weapons were. At this point the commander of the Bastille tried to surrender, but the mob would not let him and he was murdered as the mob stormed the gate. The day the Bastille was stormed (July 14, 1789) is still celebrated annually as France’s Independence

Day.

From June to August there were many riots which ravaged the countryside.

Nobles’ homes were burnt as were monasteries and other buildings. During this time what was known as the Great Fear, spread throughout the French land.

The Great Fear caused a meeting of the National Assembly on August 4 th

. New reforms were brought up including the idea of surrendering the privileges which came with class distinction. All tax breaks for the nobility and clergy were gone and everyone stood on an equal scale. This period was known as the August

Days.

During the night of October 4 th

, 1789 the women of Paris had had enough. Their families were starving and they marched to Versailles in the rain to see “the

Bak er.” The King spoke to the marching women and promised them all the bread in Versailles. This was the last time the King and his family saw Versailles.

He promised the people that had marched to Versailles that he would take his family to Paris and he never made it back home.

The financial problems that were seizing the country were handled by the

National Assembly. This was done by taking church lands and allowing the state full control over the church. Clergymen were forced to agree to the new constitution and they were arrested if they refused. This caused trouble for the new government because many of the Catholics refused to support the government as it was controlling the church.

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The Legislative Assembly

The new constitution was created in 1791, which was when the Tennis Court

Oath paid off. Many changes were brought on by this constitution. Once this constitution went into effect, France became a constitutional monarchy. All powers to make laws were given to the newly formed Legislative Assembly, which had the most power in the land. For instance, this Assembly had the power to raise taxes without consulting any other part of the government. They could also choose to go to war on their own.

Despite the government being a monarchy, the actual monarchy had little power.

The King was unable to veto or stop the Assembly from doing something. The closest he could come would be to suspend the plans of the Assembly, but not stop or override them forever.

In 1792 another angry mob attacked the Tuileries Palace where the royal family was being kept. The mob forced the King to put on the red cap of liberty which was a sign of the revolution. He disagreed with the constitutional punishing of clergymen to the mob’s dismay, but they did not cause any harm on this visit.

Nearly two months later, in August, the mob made a second visit and it became violent. The constitutional monarchy was destroyed and the royal family barely escaped fatal injuries.

The Legislative Assembly acted in 1790 to resolve the financial situation by seizing Church property and selling it. This raised much needed money but pitted the middle class against the peasants who had traditionally farmed the

Church lands. By late 1790, French exiles in Austria were trying to convince

Marie Antoinette's brother, Leopold II, to invade France and reverse the

Revolution. With Austrian troops massing in Germany, Louis XVI was persuaded by his wife to flee France and lead the invasion. However, the King and his family were recognized and arrested at Varennes. Under pressure from the

Assembly, Louis signed a declaration of war against Leopold. The war began with French defeats and an Austrian invasion.

The National Convention and the Reign of Terror

Constitutional elections in 1792 produced a new government, the National

Convention, which was dominated by a radical group known as the Jacobins and a man named Maximilien Robespierre. On September 21, they declared France to be a Republic and had Louis XVI arrested for treason. Louis was prosecuted by a distant cousin, Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who had joined the revolution and renamed himself Louis-

Philippe Egalité. The trial was a foregone conclusion, with Louis condemned to death by one vote. The British government had warned that if Louis were executed, it would mean war. King George III offered sanctuary to Louis, but the National Convention refused.

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In January, 1793, Louis XVI was escorted to the scaffold. After asserting his innocence and pardoning those who responsible for his death, his head was cut off. People ran forward to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood that dripped down from the scaffold. As a result of the execution, Great Britain and other European nations declared war on France.

While attempting to fight other nations, France was also involved in a civil war.

After the execution of the King, Robespierre believed that all other opposition to the Revolution must also be crushed. Therefore, anyone suspected of supporting the monarchy or who does not appear to be revolutionary enough, received the death penalty. From July 1793 to July 1794, approximately 40,000 people died during this Reign of Terror. It finally ended when the people grew tired and scared of Robespierre's actions and had him executed by the guillotine as well.

The Directory and the Rise of Napoleon

In new elections, Robespierre's National Convention was replaced by a new, more conservative government known as the Directory. The Directory had not been able to solve France's financial problems, stabilize the countryside, or end religious controversy. A young general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte decided that the time was ripe to seize power. He planned a

coup d'etat

– a sudden, bloodless takeover of the government.

The French people were tired of their problems, especially the wars, and were happy to let Napoleon take France in a new direction. He successfully overthrew the government with their help and was later declared emperor of the French.

From this point, our story is really the story of Napoleon Bonaparte……

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