Last updated: April 19, 2019
Topic: LawGovernment
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Alfred Cobban stats in his text, In Search for Humanity, that, “The consequences of the Revolution were so momentous for Europe at the time, and for the whole world subsequently, that it has cast a shadow over the whole of modern history. ” The French Revolution brought about significant changes in society and government of France. The revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, also had extending effects on the rest of Europe. It introduced democratic ideals to France but did not make the nation a democracy.

However, it did end the supreme rule by French kings and strengthened the middle class. It was motivated by the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity and led to the growth of political liberalism and nationalism in France. At the same time it also caused conflicts both within and between nations. The revolution began with a government financial crisis but quickly became a movement of reform and violent change. The revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general, took over the government. Various social, political, and economic conditions led to the French Revolution.

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These conditions included dissatisfaction among the lower and middle classes, interest in new ideas about government, and financial problems caused by the costs of wars. Legal divisions among social groups or the three estates had led to much discontent. Members of the clergy made up the first estate, nobles the second, and the rest of the people the third. The third estate was the largest and included the peasants as well as the working people of the cities and a large and prosperous middle class. This third estate resented the certain advantages of the first two.

The clergy and nobles were exempt for paying tax, as the peasants generated most of France’s tax revenue. The revolution was significant in the way it brought about new ideas about government challenged France’s absolute monarchy. Under this system, the king had ultimate authority. He governed under the divine right. However during the 1700s philosophers raised new ideas about freedom and government. Some of these thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, suggested that the right to govern came from the people. Denis Richards in Modern Europe 1789-1945, provides a good summing up of the monarchy and France: ‘France’s estiny rested in the hands of a King who was too weak-minded to be stable and a Queen who was too strong-minded to be sensible. ’ The financial crisis developed because France had gone deeply into debt to finance fighting in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and the American Revolution (1775-1783). By 1788, the government was almost bankrupt. The King Louis XVI unwillingly agreed to hold a meeting of the Estates-General to discuss either raising taxes or borrowing more money. The Estates-General opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles, near Paris. The third estate dominated the representative pool.

They wanted all estates to merge into one national assembly and each representative have one vote. They also wanted the Estates-General to write a constitution. Louis XVI and most delegates refused the demands of the third estate. In June 1789, the representatives of the third estate declared themselves the National Assembly of France. The King allowed this Assembly but at the same time began to gather troops to break up them. The people of France also took action, as they rushed to the Bastille on July 14, 1789, believing they would find arms and ammunition to defend themselves against the king’s army.

The uprisings in town and countryside saved the National Assembly from being disbanded by the king. In August 1789, the Assembly adopted the Decrees August 4 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The declaration was important and significant as it guaranteed the same basic rights to all citizens, including “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression” as well as a representative government. The Assembly later drafted a constitution that would make France a limited monarchy with a one-house legislature.

However, the right to vote was limited to citizens who paid a certain amount of taxes. By September 1791, the National Assembly believed that the revolution was over. It disbanded to make way for the newly elected Legislative Assembly. The new Assembly, made up of mainly middle class representatives, opened on October 1, 1791. It soon faced several challenges. Louis XVI remained opposed to the revolution. Public opinion became bitterly divided regarding the new government, religious policy and opposition to the revolution. The new government also faced a foreign threat.

In April 1972, it went to war against Austria and Prussia. The foreign armies defeated French forces in the early fighting and invaded France. The King and other opposition forces clearly wanted the foreign forces to win, in response, the revolutionaries demanded the King be dethroned. In August 1792, the people of Paris took custody of Louis XVI and his family and imprisoned them, ending the constitutional monarchy that existed. Meanwhile, the French military suffered more defeats and the Parisians also feared an uprising by the large number of people in the city’s prisons.

A massacre of 1000 prisoners in September 1792 turned many people in France and Europe against the revolution. The King’s removal had a considerable impact as it led to a new stage in the revolution. It went from being a middle class reform movement based on a constitutional monarchy, to being organised around principles of democracy. The national convention opened on September 21, 1792 under the slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. ” Louis XVI was put on trial for betraying the country, he was found guilty, sentenced to the death and was beheaded on January 21, 1793.

The revolution grew more violent and extreme as radical leaders came into prominence. Members of the convention became leaders of the Jacobin Club, a powerful Political Club. They created a citizens army to fight rebellion in France and a war against other European nations. The Jacobin government was dictatorial and democratic. It suspended civil rights and freedoms in the emergency. The Committee of Public Safety governed France during the most terrible part of the revolution. A policy of terror was declared on supporters of the King and anyone who disagreed with official policy.

Courts handed down 18,000 death sentences in what became known as the Reign of Terror. The Jacobins, however, had a significant and positive influence as democratic principles and benefits were extended beyond the middle class. The Convention authorised free primary education, public assistance for the poor, price control and taxes based on income. The abolishment of slavery in France’s colonies was also called for. Most of these reforms were not fully carried out because of later changes in the government. In time, the revolutionaries began to struggle for power among themselves.

Many people in France wanted an end to the Reign of Terror, the Jacobin dictatorship, and the democratic revolution. A. J. Grant and H. Temperley come to the conclusion, in the text, in Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries 1789-1950, that, “the more the course of the French Revolution is examined, the clearer does it become that the whole of its later phase was conditioned by the great war which broke out. ” The Reign of Terror ended when the tyrant leader Robespierre’s was executed in 1794. Conservatives seized power over the Convention and some democratic reforms were abolished in the Thermidorian Reaction.

The Convention replaced the democratic constitution in 1795, and was called the Directory. France was still a republic, but again only citizens who paid a certain amount of taxes could vote. Meanwhile, French troops were having victories on the battlefields, and pushed back the invaders into other parts of Europe. War, economic problems, and opposition from supporters of monarchy and former Jacobins soon troubled the Directory. In October 1799, political leaders turned to Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general who could supply the military support to overthrow the Directory.

Bonaparte seized control of the government on November 9, 1799, ending the revolution. The French Revolution brought France into opposition with much of Europe. These monarchs feared the spread of these democratic ideals. It inspired revolutionary movements throughout Europe in the 19th and 20th century. The revolution left the people in France in extreme agreement about the best form of government. The revolution resulted in the people being weary of political conflict. However, the revolution created long-lasting foundations for a unified state, a central government, and a free society dominated by the middle class and the landowners.