Analysis of the French Revolution


"Revolutions evolve in definite phases. At first they are 
moderate in scope, then they become radical to excess and finally they 
are brought to abrupt conclusions by the emergence of a strong man to 
restore order." Discuss this statement with specific references to the 
French Revolution. 

 The French Revolution brought about great changes in the society 
and government of France. The revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 
1799, also had far-reaching effects on the rest of Europe. "It 
introduced democratic ideals to France but did not make the nation a 
democracy. However, it ended supreme rule by French kings and 
strengthened the middle class." (Durant, 12) After the revolution 
began, no European kings, nobles, or other members of the aristocracy 
could take their powers for granted or ignore the ideals of liberty 
and equality.

 The revolution began with a government financial crisis but 
quickly became a movement of reform and violent change. In one of the 
early events, a crowd in Paris captured the Bastille, a royal fortress 
and hated symbol of oppression. A series of elected legislatures then 
took control of the government. King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie 
Antoinette, were executed. Thousands of others met the same fate in a 
period known as the Reign of Terror. The revolution ended when 
Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general, took over the government.

 At the beginning of the revolution, events seemed minor and 
proceeded in a logical fashion. One of the reasons the revolution
originated was the discontent among the lower and middle classes in 
France. By law, society was divided in to three groups called estates. 
The first estate was made of up clergy, nobles comprised the second 
and the rest of the citizens, the third estate.

 The third estate resented certain advantages of the first two 
estates. The clergy and nobles did not have to pay most taxes. The
third estate, especially the peasants, had to provide almost all the 
country's tax revenue. Many members of the middle class were also 
worried by their social status. They were among the most important 
people in French society but were not recognized as such because they 
belonged to the third estate.

 "Financial crisis developed because the nation had gone deeply 
into debt to finance the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the
Revolutionary War (1775-1783)." (Durant, 22) The Parliament of Paris 
insisted that King Louis XVI could borrow more money or raise taxes 
only by calling a meeting of the States-General. The States-General 
was made up of representatives of the three estates, and had last met 
in 1614. Unwillingly, the king called the meeting.

 The States-General opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles. The 
first two estates wanted each estate to take up matters and vote on 
them separately by estate. The third estate had has many 
representatives as the other two combined. It insisted that all the 
estates be merged into one national assembly and that each 
representative had one vote. The third estate also wanted the
States-General to write a constitution.

 The king and the first two estates refused the demands of the 
third estate. In June 1789, the representatives of the third estate
declared themselves the National Assembly of France. Louis the XVI 
them allowed the three estates to join together as the National 
Assembly. But he began to gather troops around Paris to break up the 
Assembly. Meanwhile, the masses of France also took action. On July 
14, 1789, a huge crowd of Parisians rushed to the Bastille. They
believed they would find arms and ammunition there for use in 
defending themselves against the king's army. The people captured the 
Bastille and began to tear it down. Massive peasant uprisings were 
also occurring in the countryside.

 The king's removal led to a new stage in the revolution. The 
first stage had been a liberal middle-class reform movement based
on a constitutional monarchy. The second stage was organized around 
principles of democracy. The National Convention opened on September 
21, 1792, and declared France a republic.

 "Louis XVI was placed on trial for betraying the country. The 
National Convention found him guilty of treason , and a slim majority 
voted for the death-penalty. The king was beheaded on the guillotine 
on January 21, 1793. The revolution gradually grew more radical-that 
is more open to extreme and violent change. Radical leaders came into 
prominence. In the Convention, they were known as the mountain because 
they sat on the high benches at the rear of the hall during meetings. 
Leaders of the Mountain were Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Jacques 
Danton, and Jean Paul Marat. The Mountain dominated a powerful
political club called the Jacobin Club.

 "Growing disputes between the Mountain and the Gironde led to a 
struggle for power, and the Mountain won. In June 1793, the Convention 
arrested the leading Girondists. In turn, the Girondists' supporters 
rebelled against the Convention. One of these supporters assassinated 
Marat in July 1793." (Woloch, 526) This was the most horrific period 
of the revolution. The Convention's leaders included Robespierre, 
Lazare Carnot, and Bertrand Barere. The Convention declared a policy 
of terror against rebels, supporters of the king, and anyone else who
publicly disagreed with official policy. "In time, hundreds of 
thousands of suspects filled the nation's jails. Courts handed down
about 18,000 death sentences in what was called the Reign of Terror. 
Paris became accustomed to the rattle of two-wheeled carts called 
tumbrels as they carried people to the guillotine." (Woloch, 526)

 In time, the radicals began to struggle for power among 
themselves. Robespierre succeeded in having Danton and other former
leaders executed. Many people in France wanted to end the Reign of 
Terror, the Jacobin dictatorship, and the democratic revolution. 
Robespierre's enemies in the Convention finally attacked him as a 
tyrant on July 29, 1794. He was executed the next day. The Reign of 
Terror ended with Robespierre's death.

 "The Convention, which had adopted a democratic constitution in 
1793, replaced that document with a new one in 1795. The government 
formed under this new constitution was called the Directory. France 
was still a republic, but once again only citizens who paid a certain 
amount of taxes could vote." (Woloch, 527)

 The Directory began meeting in October 1795. In October 1799, a 
number of political leaders plotted to overthrow the Directory. They 
needed military support and turned to Napoleon Bonaparte, a French 
general who had become a hero during a military campaign in Italy in 
1796 and 1797. Bonaparte seized control of the government on November 
9, 1799, ending the revolution. Napoleon would restore order to the 
French people with such great achievements as his Code Napoleon.

Works Cited

Durant, Will and Ariel. The Story of Civilization XI: The Age of 
Napoleon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Connelly, Owen. The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 14. Toronto: World 
Book Inc., 1989. "Napoleon I."

Woloch, Isser. The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 7. Toronto: World 
Book Inc., 1989. "French Revolution."

The Software Toolworks Multimedia Encyclopedia, Vers. 1.5. Computer 
Software. Grolier, 1992. PC, CD-ROM. "French Revolution"


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