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The French Revolution (1789) & Vienna Congress (1814/15) Essay

Causes of the French Revolution and the Development of the Revolution and the consequences of the Revolution.

  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Rise to power
  • Reforms – Domestic policies
  • Napoleonic wars

What is the French Revolution? It was a war against the absolute monarchy. The French Revolution was not one political movement planned and directed by a political party, unlike the October revolution. This revolution was a series of development that happened period that started from 1789 to 95, which led to the end of the feudal institution and the way that politics was organized for centuries. This revolution was based on specific ideas which directly challenged the ideas of the medieval period.

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Ancien Regime. Before the revolution, the organization of government and society in France is commonly known as the ancien regime, an old system. This was a feudal structure based on the medieval idea of hierarchical society, with the king at the top and his subjects in their place according to their duties and birth beneath.

Institutions of the Ancien Regime. The Monarchy. The king in France was the head of the state and ruled as an absolute monarch, which meant his power was unlimited. His decision was final, and had the right to imprison anyone. The legitimacy of his rule originated from the medieval idea of Divine Right, which the religious institution, the church, granted. It was believed that he was God’s representative, and his rights could not be questioned. In this social organization, the political class and the religious institution went hand in hand and enjoyed all the privileges.

Causes of the French Revolution: Long-term causes. Age Enlightenment. With the growth of the bourgeoisie and the professional class, far-reaching changes were taking place in the realm of ideas by the turn of the 18th century. As the economy was shifting from agriculture to trade and the industry or the capitalist mode of production, the traditional social setup of the feudal period came under sharp question from the bourgeoisie, the class involved in the generation of enormous wealth. They needed a different social and political structure to provide this class with much more political and social power.

Enlightenment. In this quest for an alternative political arrangement, the philosophers and thinkers of the 18th century began to question the idea of Divine rights and the authority of the religious establishment. This meant that they were questioning the very legitimacy of the absolute monarchy to rule. This movement that directly challenged the institutions of the ancien regime and emphasized the importance of human reason in guiding government and society is described as the Age of Enlightenment.

The 18th-century philosophers believed that man could control their destiny and that change was necessary to destroy the inequalities of the ancien regime. Moreover, they shared the conviction that the legitimacy of any form of government had to be justified through rational thought and not, as it had in the past, by resort to theology or tradition.

Voltaire. Voltaire believed, as did Locke, in the human ability to learn and the idea that reason should guide all state decisions. He shared with Hobbs, a shallow opinion of humans in their natural state and their ability in this natural state to govern themselves. This lack of faith in uneducated masses confirmed Voltaire as a vigorous opponent of indiscriminate democracy; It is in his emphasis on reason and freedom that his political legacy lay. He was a strong opponent of institutions such as the Church and monarchy. He believed that these institutions were anti-thesis of Enlightenment principles-progress, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, organized and rational policy.

Rousseau. He shared several ideas regarding the relationship of the individual to the state with Voltaire and John Locke. He believed that every human is born with certain inalienable rights. For Rousseau, society was based on a social contract among all citizens. Rousseau saw it as an agreement between the citizens themselves. This civil society was to be ruled by General Will. The General Will was the embodiment of the wishes of the people. The concept of 20th democracy by the system of majority voting originates from this idea of General Will. Rousseau’s works continued to inspire the revolutionaries throughout the Revolution. His words would echo in the speeches of revolutionaries of all parties.

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Social Changes. A growing middle class envisages an End to Privileges. The 18th century witnessed the emergence of a new social group called the middle class or the bourgeoisie, who earned their wealth through expanding overseas trade and manufacturing goods such as woollen and silk textiles that were either exported or bought by the more prosperous merchants of the society. In addition to merchants and manufacturers, the Third Estate included lawyers, doctors, administrative officials. All of these members were educated and believed that no group in society should be privileged by birth. Instead, a person’s social position must depend on his merit. Since this new social group was the product of a different type of economy, the social structure of the Old Regime was no longer compatible with changes in the economy and society.

Aspirations of bourgeoisie. These ideas envisaging a society based on freedom, equal laws and opportunities for all were articulated by the 18th-century philosophers. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu proposed a division of power within the government between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. This model of government was put into force in the USA after the 13 colonies declared independence from Britain. The American constitution and its guarantee of individual rights were an actual example for political thinkers in France.

Diffusion of ideas: the emergence of public space; salons. The ideas of these philosophers were discussed intensively in salons and coffee-houses and spread among people through books and newspapers. These were frequently read aloud in groups for the benefit of those who could not read and write. Salons played a significant role in creating public opinion in France. J�rgen Habermas’ argues in, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that the salons were of great historical importance. Theatres of conversation and exchange – such as the salons and the coffee-houses in England – played a critical role in the emergence of what Habermas termed the ‘public sphere,’ which emerged in ‘cultural-political contrast’ to court society.

Urban workers. Most workers were employed as laborers in workshops, and owners fixed their wages. But wages did not keep pace with the rise in prices. So the gap between the poor and the rich widened. Things became worst whenever drought or hail reduced the harvest. This led to a subsistence crisis, something that frequently occurred in France during the Old Regime.

Economic Condition. It was the financial crisis that triggered off the French Revolution, but ironically the French economy in the 18th century was growing, dynamic and prosperous. The economy was almost as big as that of Britain. The internal trade expanded while overseas wine and luxury goods flourished with colonial and European trading links. However, this wealth was not translated into the government’s income for various structural reasons; foremost was the taxation system and lack of advanced financial institutions like banks, insurance, etc. This problem was compounded by the government decisions and policies, such as participation in the American Revolutionary War.

Debt Crisis: Extravagance of foreign wars. During the 18th century, France fought a number of financially ruinous wars. The wars of the Spanish, Polish, and Austrian Succession had occupied the first half of the century, while the Seven Years War against Great Britain in the colonies had proved expansive and disastrous. Nevertheless, the French went on to participate in the War of American Independence opting to support the American colonists against Britain. It plunged France into an acute financial crisis.

Parlement. Calonne’s successor Brienne did nothing more than producing a slightly amended version of Calonne’s plan which was no more successful in winning support. The assembly was consequently dissolved in May. Brienne then took out a new loan at a very high rate of interest and attempted to force his proposals through by presenting them directly to the parlements. The Paris Parlement which spoke for the provincial parliaments remained hostile to the land tax reform. It decreed that it lacked the authority to sanction his change and refused to register necessary edicts.

As one last attempt to force the parlements to accept the proposal: he sent Paris Parlement into exile in August 1787. The royal action merely brought renewed demonstrations of support for the parliament and the king was forced to allow the members to return to the city. As news spread of parliament’s stand against unfettered absolutism, supportive crowds gathered in the capital. Its legitimacy slipping away, the crown resorted to using force against the demonstrators leading to more tension. As the tension escalated, so too did calls for the Estate General. The parliamentary rebellion spread to parlements through our country.

In May 1788, Paris parlements made it clear that Estate General was the only legal body to sanction any permanent taxation. By the summer of 1788, the treasury was almost empty, and the king had no option but to convene the Estate General. The Estate General was a political body to which the three estates sent their representatives. On 5th May 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estate General in the great hall at the king’s Palace of Versailles. There were 561 deputies for the first two estates and 578 deputies for the third estate. The third estate was represented by its more prosperous and educated members like lawyers, bankers and merchants, industrialists. Peasants, artisans and women were denied entry to the assembly. However, their grievances and demands were listed in some 40,000 letters that the representatives had brought with them.

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Voting in the Estate General in the past had been conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote. The voting procedure reflected the relative privileges of the order. This time too Louis XVI was determined to continue the same practice. But the members of the third state now demanded that voting now be conducted by the assembly as a whole, where each member would have one vote. They also demanded to increase the representation of delegates of the third estate. This was one of the democratic principles put forward by philosophers like Rousseau in his book The Social Contract. This demand which reflected the aspirations of the bourgeoisie was very radical in the context of the structure of the ancien regime.

The acceptance of this demand would have meant the end of privileges. The stage of confrontation between the forces of the ancien regime and the new social groups with different political and economic interests was set. The confrontation was now inevitable. Both the monarchy and the parliament were opposed to the demand of the Third Estate. Ironically Parlement which were at the forefront of resistance against the absolute monarchy and supported by the Third Estate, now found itself in the path of confrontation against the members of the Third Estate as it did not want to see the control passing from the Second Estate to the bourgeois leaders of the Third Estate. Parlement essentially represented the upper class and was very wary of the power of the Third Estate.

It, therefore, chose to support the traditional one vote per estate. Consequently, although the monarch agreed to increase the size of the Third Estate representation, he rejected the demand of voting by the head. The members of the Third Estate walked out of the assembly in protest. This marked the beginning of the French Revolution. The representatives of the Third Estate viewed themselves as the spokesmen for the whole French nation. (Not the subject of a monarch anymore). They declared themselves as National Assembly and swore not to disperse till they had drafted a constitution for the French that would limit the power of the monarch. This is known as the Tennis Court Oath, 20th June 1789. They declared that all taxes were invalidated unless approved by the National Assembly. In essence, the National Assembly declared itself the legitimate government of France.

They were led by Mirabeau and Abbe Sieyes in their revolt against the monarchy and nobility. Mirabeau was born in a noble family but was convinced of the need to do away with a society of feudal privileges. He brought out a journal and delivered powerful speeches to the crowds assembled at Versailles. Abbe Sieyes, originally a priest, wrote an influential pamphlet called ‘What is the Third Estate?’ King under a great deal of pressure from his wife, Marie Antoinette, and his brother to stand firm, declared that any resolutions made by the Third Estate were void and that Estates General should continue to meet in three separate assemblies. He then ordered the deputies to disperse to their different meeting places. The National Assembly refused to go.

The next day Third Estate was joined by 151clergy and 47 nobles. Meanwhile, popular demonstrations broke out in Paris and elsewhere in support of the National Assembly. There were rumors of plots to withhold grain, destroy the National Assembly and starve Paris into submission. In the face of growing disorder, the king backed down. The nobles and clergy joined the Third Estate and vote by hand. By this stage, few Third Estate deputies trusted the king. There were already a large number of troops stationed in and around Paris. He then suddenly called extra troops triggering rumor again that the king was planning to disperse the assembly by force.

By July 1789, the atmosphere in Paris was highly charged. The continuing rise in the price of bread which reached its highest price since 1715, on 14th July 1789, the lack of employment, and the presence of the army, in addition to the political events of May-June, ensured that workers of the capital were ready to take to the streets at the least provocation. There was a ready band of men and women keen to listen to and act on the words of the revolutionary speakers. The members of the crowd were known as the Sans-Culottes since they wore long trousers. They consisted of a mixture of craftsmen, shopkeepers, small traders, clerks, wage earners, journeymen and labourers along with some middle-class factory owners, wine merchants and professionals.

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However, whatever their status, they shared the same militant outlook and were determined to rid the country of privilege and force change on a king whom they increasingly distrusted. The spark which led to the first explosion of popular militancy was the announcement of Necker’s dismissal. Neckers was very popular with the crowd. The news of his dismissal, and the appearance of German cavalry troops to control the disorder in the streets of Paris, led to panic and a conviction that Louis XVI was about to dissolve the assembly. Encouraged by the popular orators such as Camille Desmoulins, on 12-13th July the poorer citizens of Paris began raiding gun shops and swords smiths in an attempt to provide themselves with weapons.

The order broke down as some of the French guards began to listen to the revolutionary speakers and other royal troops were forced from the street. The troops stood by and took no action in face of mounting disorder. There was an attack on the customs posts around the city where the hated duties were collected on foods stuff and other goods entering Paris. From this point onwards the revolution turned violent as the militancy of Sans-Culottes could not be controlled. They became the dynamic force behind the revolution while the leadership came from the intelligentsia and professionals. The growing militancy of the Sans-Culottes alarmed the wealthier citizens, mainly property owners who voted to set up a committee known as the commune, to run the city, as well as their ‘National Guard’ to defend it. Lafayette was appointed as the first commander of the ‘National Guard’.

On 14th July, the Parisian crowd seized muskets and cannons from a weapon store, but could not find enough gunpowder or cartridges to use them. Rumor quickly spread that there might be stores of gunpowder in the old fortress of Bastille. The crowd accompanied by some of the newly formed National Guard gathered at Bastille in search of ammunition. After a tense standoff, a full-scale assault took place in which the governor of Bastille Launay was captured, decapitated and his head paraded on a pole around the streets of Paris. The fall of Bastille was a significant milestone of the revolution. It was stormed for the ammunition and from this came the destruction of a symbol of the arbitrary power of the king. What is more, the royal troops had merely stood by some defecting to the crowds. There was now no denying that the king had lost control.

Until early 1789, the peasants had played little part in the events leading to the revolution. However, the catastrophic harvest of 1788, the escalating bread prices, and the lay-offs in the textile industry affected them. Food riots were not new and would probably have died out but for the events in Paris. The news of the storming of the Bastille encouraged the peasants to riot against taxes and feudal dues. In this situation of unrest and uncertainty, rumors spread from village to village that the lords of the manors had hired bands of brigands who were on their way to destroy the ripe crops. Caught in a frenzy of fear, peasants in several districts seized hoes and peach forks and attacked the chateaux. They looted the hoarded grains and burnt down documents containing records of manorial dues. Thus the peasant uprisings grew into what came to be known as the Great Fear, which spread through most of France between 20th July and 6th August.

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