Background notes on the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte

Background notes on the French
Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte
From 1700 to the 1770s, France enjoyed much prosperity. Both the economy and the population boomed.
However, this was misleading, for Kings Louis XIV and Louis XV nearly managed to bankrupt the
government from borrowing too much money from banks to pay off war debts. The social system, known
as the Old Regime, had three unequal classes called Estates. The First Estate, made up of the powerful
clergy, represented one percent of the population. They lived well in extravagant homes and did not have to
pay taxes. The Second Estate was the nobility. They comprised two percent of the population and likewise
did not have to pay taxes. The Third Estate, the remaining ninety-seven percent of the population, were
made up of three subclasses: the bourgeois (the professionals and merchants), laborers, and peasants.
In 1774 when King Louis XVI came to the throne, the country was in serious need of economic reform. In
the 1780s banks refused to lend the king money. Furthermore, there were several years of poor harvests and
bread shortages. King Louis XVI’s financial advisers suggested he tax the First and Second Estates. In
order to implement his new taxation policies, the king called a meeting in 1789 of the Estates General,
something that had not been done since 1614. In the past, each Estate met separately and each would cast
one vote, allowing the Third Estate to be outvoted two-to-one. The Third Estate was aware that the first two
Estates would not vote to be taxed, which meant that the burden of saving the country economically would
continue to rest in the hands of the Third Estate. The members of the Third Estate did not want to meet
separately. Rather, they wanted to meet together with the representatives voting as individuals. King Louis
XVI was a weak king, and since he was afraid of the first two Estates, he ruled to follow the old method of
meeting. However, the Third Estate refused.
On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate broke from the Estates General and called itself the National Assembly.
In addition, they invited members of the first two Estates to join them in the reformation of France. Most
members of the first two Estates did not join the National Assembly, but a few did for the sake of equality.
The king was fearful of a revolution; in turn, the members of the National Assembly feared an attack.
Therefore, on July 14, 1789- -presently known worldwide as Bastille Day- - the revolutionaries stormed the
prison of Bastille, the French Revolution had officially begun. Chaos broke out over the land when fearful
peasants attacked the nobles and religious. At this point the National Assembly assumed the power of the
government, and they published the Declaration of Rights of Man, a document very similar to the Bill of
Rights of the United States.
The French Revolution was underway with the Slogan, “Liberty, equality, fraternity.” Nobles, known as
émigrés, fled all over Europe, and King Louis XVIII began to call in troops to Versailles to reinstate the
Old Regime. By 1791, the National Assembly had completed the Constitution instituting three branches of
government similar to the United States. The King reluctantly consented to the Constitution. In the
meantime, foreign troops began to invade France in order to defend the rights of the king. On August 10,
1792, the National Assembly suspended the monarchy and arrested the king and his family. The National
Assembly wanted a popular election of officials, and with this first election, the Assembly established a
republic. The National Convention replaced the National Assembly and in it were three main political
parties: the Girondists who were traditional and conservative, the Jacobins who were liberal and radical,
and a third party with no definite view (although eventually most sided with the Jacobins).
On January 21, 1793, the officials guillotined King Louis XVI, an act that was considered brutal and
condemned by many nations. Meanwhile, other countries were beginning to invade France. Therefore, the
country began to draft soldiers. The National Convention started a program to suppress all opposition. The
period from 1793 to July 1794 is known as the Reign of Terror. During this time officials, primarily
Jacobins, conducted quick trials and executions, some of which were for mere suspicion of opposition.
Radicals killed anyone considered disloyal to the cause. The leader of this time period was Maximilien
Robespierre. When Robespierre was killed in July 1794, the Reign of Terror died.
From 1795 to 1799 General Napoleon Bonaparte caught the public’s attention for his military genius.
People began to assume that if Napoleon was so successful in his military operations, then he could mend
France domestically. Because many were afraid that the Royalists would take over power positions, the
revolutionaries placed Napoleon in power. The period from 1799 to 1814 is known as the Napoleonic Era.
Napoleon agreed to maintain the present system of government, and he respected the work and ideals of the
revolution. In 1804 the people voted to declare France an empire and Napoleon as emperor. During the next
four years, “Little General” conquered most of Europe. Whatever country he conquered, he instilled in the
people a sense of nationalism, which eventually backfired on him because these conquered people did not
have pride in France.
Other countries slowly began to use Napoleon’s military successes against him. These countries studied his
methods and began to copy them. When Napoleon conquered Spain and Portugal, the British came to the
aid of these countries. Eventually, the British and Spanish took advantage of a weakened French army and
defeated the French. One of his greatest military disasters occurred in Russia. In 1812 Czar Alexander I of
Russia decided he would resume his trade with the British. Napoleon was insulted that his strong ally
would oppose the blockade, so he gathered troops from all countries in his empires and invaded Russia.
Using these troops caused a problem for Napoleon. These troops did not have the same sense of
nationalism that his former armies had because they were made up of conquered people. Therefore, they
lacked the necessary patriotic fire needed to invade a country like Russia. In addition, Napoleon did not
count on the Russian’s military intelligence. As he invaded Russia, the Russian army retreated inland and
burned the land and cities after them. This left the French surrounded by devastation with little food or
water. Yet, Napoleon moved forward and conquered Moscow. However, when the French invaded
Moscow, the Russians burned the city as well. As winter set in, soldiers began to die of starvation and
various illnesses. Eventually, Napoleon and the feeble French army retreated to France.
In 1814several European countries formed a new European Alliance, crushed Napoleon, and sent him to
the Isle of Elba. The Alliance captured France and restored the Bourbon monarchy by placing on the throne
King Louis XVIII, the brother of King Louis XVI, (King Louis XVII, the son of Louis XVI and Marie
Antoinette, would have been king, but he died during the Reign of Terror.)
Although Napoleon was banished to Elba, he had no intention of relinquishing his power. On March 1,
1815, Napoleon escaped from the Isle of Elba and returned to France. Twenty days later, Napoleon moved
his army into France, the Bourbons escaped to Brussels, and Napoleon’s Hundred Days in power began.
However, Prussia, Britain, and the Netherlands combined armies to fight Napoleon. On June 18, 1815,
these troops defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and sent him to Saint Helena, where he remained
until his death in 1821.
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