The French Revolution

Like most revolutions, the underlying principles of the French Revolution lie in liberalism, an ideology supporting liberty and freedom for more people. With this in mind, it's hard to understand why the revolution turned into the bloodthirsty Reign of Terror before reverting back to the Directory and Napoleon.

Fleur de Lis
The Fleur de Lis was the flag of the French Bourbons up until 1789.
From http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/fr_rest.html

Among the examples for the French to follow were the American Revolutionary War. Despite the similarity between the the Haitians and French after their revolutions, the French attempted to keep Haiti as a colony. In addition, the French Revolution culminated in the rise of Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars.

Causes of the French Revolution:

Factors leading up to the French Revolution include extreme social inequality (upper class was extremely rich compared to the lower classes, with no taxes on the upper class), the Enlightenment's new ideas, general economic mismanagement, huge national debt, political mismanagement, and environmental factors causing agricultural failure. Let's go into depth on these factors:

Economic Mismanagement:

Louis XVI
King Louis XVI of France:
Failed King
Louis XVI became the King of France when the country was very close to bankruptcy. One of the big causes of this financial crisis was French participation in the Seven Years' War, the American Revolutionary War, along with costly colonial expeditions in India that also failed.

On August 24, 1776, Louis appointed Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, the Baron of Laune (quite a mouthful, let's call him Turgot) to be the Controller-General of Finance. Turgot was an economical liberal, almost exactly what France needed at the time, though he was radical in his measures (for that time). A famous quote by Turgot was his policy outline: "No bankruptcy, no increase of taxation, no borrowing." Turgot wished to implement what we in modern days would call a massive lay-off.

French Finance Minister Turgot
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot,
French Finance Minister:
Failed Reformer

This was because he believed that to avert bankruptcy, France would have to go into something modern people might call austerity. Anything in the government that might cost money would go to Turgot to veto or approve. Sinecures (jobs that pay like other jobs, but you don't really do anything in it) were a massive waste of money, and he eliminated lots of them. He tried to eliminate the abuse of power of those who controlled the treasury. Meanwhile, even with this large financial crisis, the king still gave large sums of money and great treasures to people living in his court - Turgot personally asked for the king to stop this.

In addition, another large problem was the Farm-General tax system (Ferme Générale). Here, tax collectors would collect taxes for the king and keep any extras. For example, the king says all the Farm-Generals would pay him $50. If the amount of money the area that is being taxed gives $100, the Farm-General gives $50 to the king - and keeps the rest. Still, Turgot knew he would never be allowed to completely fix/remove the Farm-General system, so he just reformed large parts of it.

Turgot was able to prepare a regular budget (something unheard about for a long time). He was extremely successful for his two year reign from 1774 to 1776. He considerably reduced the deficit and raised the national credit so much that he got a loan with some Dutch bankers at 4%. Still, the deficit was still huge, so he couldn't take away indirect taxation with a single tax on land. He took away many minor duties on foreign goods, and believed that French participation in the American Revolution would ruin the French economy.

Turgot wanted to stop the speculation of grain prices and make grain freely traded. When he proposed this edict, the King's Council (Conseil du Roi) stronger opposed it. When bread riots came around (some consider these to be the forerunners of the French Revolution), he suppressed them, supported by Louis XVI.

Marie Antoinette
Queen Marie Antoinette,
Austrian wife of Louis XVI:
Failed Reactionary
Finally, he presented his Six Edicts to the King's Council. He wanted to abolish the Corvée, or unpaid labor by lower classes like peasants. He also wanted to get rid of guild privileges, to allow for more economic fluidity. He initially wanted to tax both the nobility and the clergy, but one of his friends, Maurepas, convinced him to not tax the clergy. By this time, he had alienated almost everybody. He could have succeeded if the king continued to believe in him, but even the king noticed - nobody liked Turgot.

The person (or group) that caused the fall of Turgot is relatively unknown. Some say that it was the queen (who hated Turgot). Some say it was Maurepas. No matter who, almost everybody wanted him gone. He wanted to finish the reform before he left, but on May 12, 1776, he was ordered to send in his resignation.

Jacques Necker
Jacques Necker,
Failed Reformer, then
failed Revolutionary
The next person Louis XVI got was Jacques Necker, a French statesman born in Geneva, Switzerland. This time, the elite's problem with him was that he was Protestant, so instead of being Finance Minister, he became Controller-General. He became popular for trying to divide some taxes more equally, abolishing unfair institutions, and establishing places to loan money securely. Because Necker was the controller during the American Revolution, the high debts from it were blamed (unfairly) on him.

Once again, because of his reforms, he had many opponents, including (surprise, surprise!) Queen Marie Antoinette, who convinced Louis to refuse to do many important things. He wouldn't reform taxation for more money. By 1781, he published a book called Report to the King, where he summarizes government expenditure, expense, and income, giving rise to public interest in the financial state of the nation. Like Turgot before him, Necker realized that the problem was tax exemptions for the nobility and clergy. He proposed restricting the power of the parlements (with three equally sized groups for clergy, nobility, and lower classes) so that the first two 'estates', or groups, consisting of nobles and clerics could not block his reforms. The King's ministers did not like this at all. Necker wanted to improve his situation, but would not be allowed to be Finance Minister or a special adviser. At this point, he was dismissed in 1783.

Charles Alexandre de Calonne,
Finance Minister:
Failed reformer
The King now appointed Charles Alexandre of Calonne (another big name, let's call him Calonne) became the Controller. In the beginning, he spent a lot of money. Soon, he noticed the big debt and tried to reverse his previous habits. He argued for five main points:

1) Government spending must be cut.

2) Free Trade must be revived.
3) Church property must be sold.
4) Salt and tobacco taxes should be equal.
5) There must be a universal land value tax.

After the Parlement of Paris opposed him, Calonne personally chose members to make up an Assembly of Notables in 1787, so he could make taxes apply equally to all lands. After they said no, despite the king's support, Calonne was angered and published his reports. Louis XVI dismissed him on April 8, 1787 to be exiled to Lorraine. He left for Britain soon after.

In 1788, Jacques Necker was called back to become the new Controller.

With almost every possible resource exhausted or driven off by the elite, the King called for a meeting of the Estates-General in May, 1789. This was the first time it was summoned since 1614, and the beginning of the French Revolution.

The Enlightenment:

Although the root causes of the French Revolution were economic, everything that followed the French Revolution was the result of Enlightenment principles. The Enlightenment argued for political liberalism, meaning more democracy.

In addition, the Enlightenment argued that the rule of the King and Church were not sacred. It argued traditions were not as important as reasoning, unlike what the elite professed.

Environmental Factors:

In the time leading up to the French Revolution, there were many bad harvests. Speculation of grain (as mentioned above, it was opposed under Finance Minister Turgot) had led to extremely high prices. This, more than anything, caused the actual revolt. Finances and enlightenment are nothing compared to an empty stomach for the average 18th century peasant (and for most people).

The Beginning of the French Revolution

The beginning of the French Revolution is surprisingly normal. The elections for the Estates-General was held across France in May of 1789. There was strong turnout, giving the Estates-General 303 clergy, 291 nobles, and 610 members of the third estate. Note: The amount of representatives in each estate do not represent their actual demographic percentage!

The First Estate, the clergy, represented about 100,000 people. The Second Estate, the nobles, represented about 400,000 people. The Third Estate, the common people, represented about 9,500,000 people - around 9.5 million people. The Books of Grievances were written to list problems.

The Estates-General finally convened on May 5, 1789 in Versailles. Necker, the former Finance-Minister, gave a three hour long opening speech about economic statistics. People in the Third Estate said that they believed all the deputies should review individual deputy credentials, instead of each estate affirming a deputy. Necker disagreed, saying that each estate would review credentials, and the King would be the arbitrator (person to settle disputes).

Disagreeing with this decision, the Third Estate broke off and formed the Commons (Communes). It verified its own powers, inviting the other estates to join, but refusing to wait for their joining. They completed self verifying by June 17. They declared themselves the National Assembly and invited other estates.

Tennis Court Oath
Doesn't look like a Tennis Court anymore...
To stop them from meeting, Louis closed the meeting room, claiming that the royal carpenters needed to fix it up for a royal speech in two days. The outside weather was abysmal at this time, so they entered a nearby tennis court and swore the Tennis Court Oath on June 20, 1789: they would not separate until a new constitution had been written. Most of the clergy and 47 nobles joined the assembly. Meanwhile, the King gave in, but foreign mercenaries began grouping together outside Paris...

Marie Antoinette, the King's younger brother, the reactionary Count of Artois, and many other reactionary members of Louis' cabinet wanted Louis to dismiss Necker. After Necker published an inaccurate account of governmental finances, Louis fired him and restructured the finance ministry on June 11, 1789.

The next day, when Parisians heard about it, they believed it was aimed at the Assembly. They began rebelling against the King. Meanwhile, the Assembly began a non-stop session so that the King could not close the meeting place down while they were outside. By July 14, the mob set out for the Bastille, containing large amounts of weapons and ammunition, widely perceived as a symbol of royal power. After several hours, Governor Marquis Bernard de Launay ordered a ceasefire. He was beaten, stabbed and decapitated; his head was placed on a pike and paraded about the city. The seven inmates inside the Bastille were freed.

After returning to Paris' city hall, the mob accused the mayor, Jacques of Flesselles, of treachery. They butchered and killed him. Shocked (more likely scared), the king quickly backed down. The President of the Assembly became the Parisian mayor. Necker came back, but quickly lost popularity by demanding general amnesty.

Civil authority disintegrated around France, causing random acts of violence and theft. Members of the nobility, fearing for their safety, fled to other countries, funding counter-revolutionary causes and urging foreign monarchs to offer military support for a counter-revolution. Many commoners formed militias to defend against foreign invasions. Other attacked the chateaux of the nobility.

On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly 'abolished feudalism' (though peasant revolts had already taken it away) in the August Decrees, taking away all special privileges. The old judicial system was abolished in September 1790 after being suspended since November 1789. Finally, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was introduced on August 26, 1789 by General Lafayette, who had worked with Thomas Jefferson. The assembly gave Necker complete financial independence.

On October 5, 1789, crowds of women assembled in Paris, first marching to the city hall, demanding solutions for the harsh economic situations like bread shortages. They wanted an end to royal block on the National Assembly. They believed the King should move to Paris as a sign of good faith. Almost 7,000 women marched on Versailles, bringing cannons and other weapons. Twenty thousands National Guardsmen under Lafayette tried to keep order, and some were killed. On October 6, the King moved to Paris under the 'protection' of the National Guard.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly entered a conflict against the clergy, demanding that they work for the government instead of the Pope. A new Republican calendar with a 10-day week was established (but not continued). Factions in the Assembly separated by seating. Eventually, clubs were formed in Paris, including the Jacobin Club for political debate.

The King and his family attempted to flee with General Bouillé to Montmédy, but were found at Varennes and captured, brought back to Paris. Louis XVI became a figurehead. Jacques Pierre Brissot wrote a petition, arguing that Louis XVI was deposed after fleeing. Many people gathered to sign it. Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins spoke loudly in favor of this idea. The National Guard confronted the crowd, though, and lost public support by killing more than 13 people. Danton fled to England. Desmoulins and Marat went into hiding.

Frederick Wilhelm II
King Frederick Wihelm II of
Prussia: Reactionary
Leopold II of Austria
Archduke Leopold II of
Austria, King of Bohemia,
King of Hungary,
Holy Roman Emperor:
Duke of Artois
Duke of Artois, King
Louis XVI's little 'bro':
Foreign threats, like Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia, and the Count of Artois issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which proclaimed the cause of Louis XVI as their own, demanded his absolute liberty and hinted at an invasion of France on his behalf if the revolutionary authorities refused its conditions. The French people militarized even further now. Finally, after the completion of the Constitution, the National Assembly adjourned (broke off) on September 30, 1791.

Radicalization of the French Revolution

The new factions included 165 (Feuillants) constitutional monarchists, 330 (Girondists) liberal republicans and (Jacobins) radical revolutionaries, and 250 unaffiliated deputies.

The Legislative Assembly was not able to consolidate the gains of the initial Revolution. There are six reasons:
  1. The King did not accept limitations on his power and tried to reverse it.
  2. They tried to sell off the Catholic Church's lands, closing its monasteries and charitable operations, which was deeply unpopular among the peasants and religious.
  3. Increased issuance of more paper money caused rampant inflation, hurting the urban poor who spent all their money on bread.
  4. The peasants wanted the heavy system of taxes and dues to stop.
  5. The urban working class (called the sans-culottes) hated how the property owners and professionals, like lawyers and doctors, got everything resulting from the Revolution.
  6. Wars by reactionary foreigners threatened the Revolution, which in turn increased extremism.
On August 10, 1792, militias massacred the King's Swiss Guards. The royals ended up as prisoners, with a third of the Legislative Assembly gathered to suspend the monarchy; almost everyone present was a Jacobin, or a radical revolutionary.

The Assembly's response was feeble, but a counterattack accused the instigators of being terrorists. In the conflict between moderate Girondists and radical Montagnards. Chaos dominated. Eventually, the elected National Convention met on September 20, 1792.

On September 21, 1792, the monarchy was abolished. September 22 was declared the beginning of Year One in the French Revolutionary Calendar (which also wouldn't survive).

The King, many of the Feuillants, and the Girondins specifically wanted to wage war. The King and Feuillants expected war would increase his personal popularity; he also foresaw an opportunity to exploit any defeat: either result would make him stronger. The Girondins wanted to spread the revolution.

France declared war on Austria on April 20, 1792. A few weeks later, Prussia joined the Austrians. The Revolutionary Wars had begun.

Revolutionary Wars:

It is important to note that the Revolutionary Wars were not the same thing as the Napoleonic Wars, although both include France against most of Europe.

The Prussian invaders were forced to withdraw after the Battle of Valmy on September 20, 1792. The Revolutionary Army defeated the Austrians, Dutch, and British at Fleurus in June 1794. There was a series of victories in Belgium and the Rhineland in the fall of 1792. Soon after the Battle of Jemappes on November 6, France took over most of the Austrian Netherlands, the Dutch Republic and Britain joined the war to keep the Southern Netherlands away from France.

In the Brunswick Manifesto, the German armies threatened retaliation if the French were to resist advance or the reinstatement of the monarchy. The Iron Chest (L'armoire de fer) was a hiding place at the Louis apartments of Louis XVI where some secret documents were kept. The scandal discredited the King because he had set up a parallel cabinet. These two combined caused suspicion of Louis.

Guillotine Execution
A guillotine: These things slam their blades down your
neck, which severs your head from your body.
Apparently, you retain consciousness for 5-6 seconds.
On January 17, 1793, Louis was condemned to death: 361 voted for execution, 288 voted against, and another 72 voted to execute after a delay. On January 21, he died on the guillotine, and many monarchies like Spain and other European states declared war on France. French forces began to face defeat and were driven out of new territories, along with rebellions in Western and Southern France.

Prices rose because of the failing war, and the poor radical labourers rioted. The Jacobins (radicals) seized power in a parliamentary coup. The Committee of Public Safety rose to power, setting food prices and executing offenders. At least 16,594 people died by guillotine. Almost 40,000 accused prisoners may have died without a trial. This is now known as the Reign of Terror.
Vendée, located in Western France

Meanwhile, the peasants of Vendée, angered at the suppression of Roman Catholicism, rose up against the revolutionary government in 1793. The revolt and its suppression are believed to have taken between 117,000 and 250,000 lives.

By August 17, the Convention authorized general conscription (levée en masse), forcing all citizens to serve as soldiers or suppliers in the war. On September 9, the Sans-Culottes became a paramilitary force (like Hitler's SA/Brownshirts, Mussolini's Blackshirts, (Chiang Kai Shek) Jiang Jieshi's Blue Shirts, or Mao Zedong's Red Guards). In other words, they became a 'military force' that was not associated with the official national government's military. Revolutionary armies were created, and farmers were forced to give grain when the government demanded it.
Maximilien Robespierre,
President of the Committee
of Public Safety:
Failed mass murderer

The Law of Suspects was passed on September 17, allowing the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre, to charge 'counter-revolutionaries' with 'crimes against liberty'. On September 29, price limits were in place for household goods, grain, and bread by establishing the Law of the Maximum. In addition to Robespierre's ideas of Deism, Jacques Hébert and Chaumette's atheist movement attempted to dechristianize France.

Jacques Hébert: Failled
mass murderer
Eventually, soldiers began to rise in the ranks to replace the (dead) aristocratic officers of the past. By the end of 1793, the army began to see success, crushing revolts easily by now. Hébert and Danton were both executed. Robespierre tried supporting a new state religion, encouraging the Convention to acknowledge the existence of the "Supreme Being".

Finally, on July 27, 1794, the Thermidorian Reaction led to the arrest of Robespierre and other leading Jacobins. Being made of mostly Girondists who had survived, they took revenge by persecuting all Jacobins in the White Terror. The new government was known as the Directory, made of five leaders.

The Great Napoleon Bonaparte, future French Emperor!
The Directory denounced the Reign of Terror, but it also engaged in large (illegal) repressions, as well as massacres in Vendee. The economy continued in its bad state. Financial reforms started by the Directory only took effect after it fell. The Directory distrusted democracy, and when the elections of 1798 and 1799 supported the opposition, the opposition was imprisoned or exiled by the Army. Eventually, Napoleon and the Army deposed the Directory on November 9, 1799 and set up what was basically a personal dictatorship under Napoleon.

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