In tracing the course of the French Revolution, the patterns of the events as a whole seem to follow specific patterns that can be classified into three separate divisions chronologically. “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.”
The Revolution brought about great changes in the society and government of France. The revolution itself lasted from 1789 to 1799; it significantly affected the rest of the European front as well. The French Revolution promoted democratic ideals for France, however, did not make the nation a democracy.
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It ended supreme rule by French kings and strengthened the middle class. Following the birth of the revolution, 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.
During the first observable phase of the revolution, events seemed minor and proceeded in a logical fashion. One of the principal reasons the revolution was established was the discontent among the lower and middle classes in France. By law, society was divided into three groups called estates. The first estate consisted of the clergy, the second estate of the nobility, and the third estate was comprised of commoners.
The third estate, which made up 98 percent of the population of France, was highly underrepresented. In terms of the Estates-General, the separate Estates were to vote separately and by order; the third estate would almost always be outvoted by the first estate and the second estate which would get to vote first. Because of this, the third estate wanted its traditional number of representatives to be doubled so that it matched the other two orders put together. The third estate resented certain advantages of the first two estates.
The clergy and nobles did not have to pay any taxes imposed on the commoners. 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 about 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. King Louis consistently denied the third estate their representation; this eventually resulted in his own demise.
The ousting of the king served as a catalyst to the birth of a new phase in the revolution. The first phase 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.”
Gradually evolving into the second phase the revolution 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.
The Mountain consisted of 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.
This was the most horrific stage 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. The radical new (second) phase was now in full swing, many of the revolution’s original intentions were temporarily lost and chaotic turmoil broke out in France.
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.”
It wasn’t long before the radicals began to struggle for power amongst themselves. Robespierre strategically succeeded in having Danton and other former Mountain 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 convened to attack him as a tyrant on July 29, 1794. He was executed the next day. The Reign of Terror ended with Robespierre’s death.
Ultimately it was the sharp chronological evolution of the French Revolution that distinguishes the separate phases of the events that occurred. The first phase can be characterized as a push for democracy; the oppressed third estate was battling for equal representation and natural rights.
When the aristocracy was overtaken, even the new “revolutionary” leaders were overcome by the power that they had attained. The original principles of the first phase of the revolution were abruptly less important to those in power were lost in the shadow of the importance of a strong centralized government. The Reign of Terror without a doubt marked the departure of the first phase of the revolution into the radical second phase.
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