Chapter 1: The French Revolution

1.1 French Society before the Revolution


1774, King Louis XVI ascended the throne of France at the age of 20. He was married to Marie Antoinette and led an extravagant life.

He decided to support the American War of Independence and hence increased France’s debt to over 3 billion Livres.

The 18th century French society was divided into three estates. The first estate consisted of the clergy. The second estate comprised the nobility while the third estate, which formed about 97% of the population, consisted of the merchants, officials, peasants, artisans and servants.

The clergy and nobility did not have to pay any taxes. It was only the third estate that paid taxes. A part of third class called the middle class was part of the third estate. This group consisted of educated people such as teachers, lawyers, artisans and merchants.  They started to question the privileges being enjoyed by the nobility.

In the midst these thoughts, the increase in the price of bread added to the existing taxes, resulting in riots. King Louis decided to convene the Estates General and put forth his proposal.

1.2 Outbreak of the Revolution


The financial condition in France was in a pitiable state. Louis had almost bankrupted France with a 3 million livre debt. In order to increase the taxes to offset this permission was needed from all three estates.

The Estates General was convened on 5th May 1789 at Versailles comprising representatives from all three estates.

The members of the third estate gathered on 20th June, 1789 in Versailles and declared themselves as the National Assembly and decided to draft a constitution that would limit the powers of the King.

Their key leaders were Mirabeau and Abbe Sieyes. On August 4th 1789 Louis recognized the National Assembly and agreed to abide by their framework. The National Assembly abolished the feudal system of taxes, tithes and the special privileges enjoyed by the clergy and nobles by birth

1.3 France Becomes a Constitutional Monarchy


So the recognition of the National Assembly by King Louis and him agreeing to their demands was a victory for the entire Third Estate.

In 1791, the National Assembly completed the draft of the constitution. As per the new constitution, France became a constitutional monarchy with the King, or the Executive, having to share power with the legislature and the Judiciary.

Only men who were older than 25 years and who paid taxes were allowed to vote. The constitution commenced with the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

It stated that the right to life, to freedom of speech, to freedom of opinion and to equality before the law were intrinsic to all human beings.

Visual symbols were used to share the message to the uneducated and illiterate people:

  • The broken chains stood for freedom
  • The blue white and red symbolized the national colours of France
  • The Red Phrygian cap was a sign of freedom and was worn by slaves when they became free
  • The all seeing eye stood for knowledge
  • The self-devouring snake indicated eternity
  • The bundle of rods of fasces indicated strength in unity
  • The winged woman stood for the law
  • The sceptre was a symbol of royal power
  • The tablet also known as the law tablet signified equality

All women and children, and men who did not fall into the category of active citizens, were termed passive citizens, and were denied the right to vote.

The preamble to the constitution of 1791 consisted of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. These rights included the rights to life, the freedom of speech, the freedom of opinion and equality before the law.

1.4 France Becomes a Republic


The National Assembly succeeded in making France into a constitutional monarchy. King Louis XVI deprived of all his powers conspired to dissolve the National Assembly with the King of Prussia, Frederick William II.

The most successful political club was Jacobins, headed by Maximilian Robespierre. Jacobins were also called sansculottes which meant ‘those without knee breeches’. They wore long striped trousers similar to dock workers and wore a red Phrygian cap that symbolized liberty.

On August 10, 1792 people stormed the palace of the Tuileries where King Louis and his family were hostage. On September 21, 1792 a new assembly called the Convention was formed and France was declared a Republic.

The national committee put King Louis on trial and found him guilty. On January 21, 1793, King Louis was beheaded while Queen Marie Antoinette was guillotined on October 16th of the same year.

1.5 The Reign of Terror


King Louis was executed on 21st January 1793 at the Palace de la Concorde followed by the execution of the queen. The year following the formation of the French republic is referred to as the reign of terror. Maximilian Robespierre suspended the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Robespierre started executing people he suspected of counter-terrorist activities.

Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern Chemistry, famous for discovering Oxygen and Hydrogen was executed.

Many rules were enforced on social and economic front. Camille Desmoulins, a revolutionary journalist opposed the Reign of Terror but was eventually executed.

In July 1794, Robespierre was charged with treason and sentenced to death. With the death of Robespierre ended the reign of terror.

1.6 Did Women have a Revolution?


Women came into the forefront on October 5, 1789, when they marched to Versailles and brought King Louis the sixteenth back to Paris.

The Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women was formed in 1793 to voice its opinion and grievances against the constitution of 1791 which denied them the right to vote.

The eminent writer and political activist, Olympe de Gouges opposed the constitution and the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen of 1791. She later drafted the Declaration of Rights for Women and Citizen.

Olympe de Gouges was charged with treason and was guillotined on November 2, 1793.

The revolution carried out by the women of France triggered the international suffrage movement, for the next two centuries. As a result of this movement, in 1946, the women of France won the right to exercise their franchise and equal wages.

1.7 The Abolition of Slavery


Before the French Revolution in 1789, France had three colonies of the Caribbean – Martinique, Guadeloupe and San Domingo under its control. These places were major suppliers of sugar, coffee, indigo and tobacco.

The triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and America began in the 17th century.

Merchants sailed from the French ports to the African coast where they bought Negroes, who are natives of Africa, from the local chieftains.

Port cities like Bordeaux and Nantes were flourishing economically because of the slave trade.

The National Convention voted to abolish slavery in all the French colonies on February 4, 1794.

Slavery was reintroduced in the French colonies by Napoleon Bonaparte. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848 by the French Second Republic.

1.8 Revolution and Everyday Life


After 1789 there was a significant difference in the lives of the French people, in the way they dressed, the language they spoke and the books they read.

After the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, censorship was abolished.

The government put into practice the ideologies of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen contained in the Preamble of the Constitution of 1791 asserted that every citizen had the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Written material such as newspapers, books, pamphlets and pictures were spread throughout France.

Printed pictures and paintings were circulated, and pamphlets and books were read aloud for the illiterate. Plays, songs and processions made it easy for the common people to grasp the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and justice.

Freedom of the press in the Declaration of 1791 supported the right to oppose views of events. This paved way for political clubs to convince the others of their position through the medium of print.

1.9 Napoleon Bonaparte


Born in1769 in the Island of Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte studied in a military school in Paris.

In 1799 he led a coup known as 18 Brumaire and became the First Council. Subsequently, by 1804 he was made Emperor of France.

He codified the French law under the name the Napoleonic Code of Law, which gave rights to protect private property and initiated the uniform system of weights and measures. He centralised the government and reinstated Roman Catholicism as the state religion.

He was defeated by Nelson, the commander of the British army, in the Battle of the Nile and at the Battle of Trafalgar. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was Napoleon’s final defeat by the Duke of Wellington.

He was imprisoned in the island of St. Helena where he eventually died in 1821. The ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity formed the touchstone of the French Revolution.