French Revolution.



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French Revolution.


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French Revolution.

French Revolution.


French Revolution, major transformation of the society and political system of France, lasting from 1789 to 1799. During the course of the Revolution, France was
temporarily transformed from an absolute monarchy, where the king monopolized power, to a republic of theoretically free and equal citizens. The effects of the French
Revolution were widespread, both inside and outside of France, and the Revolution ranks as one of the most important events in the history of Europe.
During the ten years of the Revolution, France first transformed and then dismantled the Old Regime, the political and social system that existed in France before 1789,
and replaced it with a series of different governments. Although none of these governments lasted more than four years, the many initiatives they enacted permanently
altered France's political system. These initiatives included the drafting of several bills of rights and constitutions, the establishment of legal equality among all citizens,
experiments with representative democracy, the incorporation of the church into the state, and the reconstruction of state administration and the law code.
Many of these changes were adopted elsewhere in Europe as well. Change was a matter of choice in some places, but in others it was imposed by the French army
during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1797) and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). To later generations of Europeans and non-Europeans who sought to
overturn their political and social systems, the French Revolution provided the most influential model of popular insurrection until the Russian Revolutions of 1917.



From the beginning of the 20th century until the 1970s, the French Revolution was most commonly described as the result of the growing economic and social
importance of the bourgeoisie, or middle class. The bourgeoisie, it was believed, overthrew the Old Regime because that regime had given power and privilege to other
classes--the nobility and the clergy--who prevented the bourgeoisie from advancing socially and politically. Recently this interpretation has been replaced by one that
relies less on social and economic factors and more on political ones. Economic recession in the 1770s may have frustrated some bourgeois in their rise to power and
wealth, and rising bread prices just before the Revolution certainly increased discontent among workers and peasants. Yet it is now commonly believed that the
revolutionary process started with a crisis in the French state.
By 1789 many French people had become critical of the monarchy, even though it had been largely successful in militarily defending France and in quelling domestic
religious and political violence. They resented the rising and unequal taxes, the persecution of religious minorities, and government interference in their private lives.
These resentments, coupled with an inefficient government and an antiquated legal system, made the government seem increasingly illegitimate to the French people.
The royal court at Versailles, which had been developed to impress the French people and Europe generally, came to symbolize the waste and corruption of the entire
Old Regime.


Parlements and Philosophes

During the 18th century, criticism of the French monarchy also came from people who worked for the Old Regime. Some of the king's own ministers criticized past
practices and proposed reforms, but a more influential source of dissent was the parlements, 13 regional royal courts led by the Parlement of Paris. The parlements
were empowered to register royal decrees, and all decrees had to be registered by the parlements before becoming law. In this capacity, the parlements frequently
protested royal initiatives that they believed to threaten the traditional rights and liberties of the people. In widely distributed publications, they held up the image of a
historically free France and denounced the absolute rule of the crown that in their view threatened traditional liberties by imposing religious orthodoxy and new taxes.
These protests blended with those of others, most notably an influential group of professional intellectuals called the philosophes. Like those who supported the
parlements, the philosophes did not advocate violent revolution. Yet, they claimed to speak on behalf of the public, arguing that people had certain natural rights and
that governments existed to guarantee these rights. In a stream of pamphlets and treatises--many of them printed and circulated illegally--they ridiculed the Old
Regime's inefficiencies and its abuses of power.
During this time, the parlementaires and the philosophes together crafted a vocabulary that would be used later to define and debate political issues during the
Revolution. They redefined such terms as despotism, or the oppression of a people by an arbitrary ruler; liberty and rights; and the nation.


Fiscal Crisis

The discontent of the French people might not have brought about a political revolution if there had not been a fiscal crisis in the late 1780s. Like so much else in the
Old Regime, the monarchy's financial system was inefficient and antiquated. France had neither a national bank nor a centralized national treasury. The nobility and
clergy--many of them very wealthy--paid substantially less in taxes than other groups, notably the much poorer peasantry. Similarly, the amount of tax charged varied
widely from one region to another.
Furthermore, the monarchy almost always spent more each year than it collected in taxes; consequently, it was forced to borrow, which it did increasingly during the
18th century. Debt grew in part because France participated in a series of costly wars--the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years' War (17561763), and the American Revolution (1775-1783). Large existing debts and a history of renouncing earlier ones meant that the country was forced to borrow at higher
interest rates than some other countries, further adding to the already massive debt. By 1789 the state was forced to spend nearly half its yearly revenues paying the
interest it owed.


Attempts at Reform

Financial reform was attempted before 1789. Upon his accession to the throne in 1774, Louis XVI appointed the reform-minded Anne Robert Jacques Turgot as chief
finance minister. Between 1774 and 1776 Turgot sought to cut government expenses and to increase revenues. He removed government restrictions on the sale and
distribution of grain in order to increase grain sales and, in turn, government revenue. Jacques Necker, director of government finance between 1777 and 1781,
reformed the treasury system and published an analysis of the state of government finance in 1781 as a means to restore confidence in its soundness. But most of
these reforms were soon undone as the result of pressure from a variety of financial groups, and the government continued to borrow at high rates of interest through
the 1780s.
Charles Alexandre de Calonne was appointed minister of finance in 1783, and three years later he proposed a new general plan resembling Turgot's. He wanted to float
new loans to cover immediate expenses, revoke some tax exemptions, replace older taxes with a new universal land tax and a stamp tax, convene regional assemblies
to oversee the new taxes, and remove more restrictions from the grain trade.


Assembly of Notables and Estates-General

To pressure the parlements into accepting the plan, Calonne decided to gain prior approval of it from an Assembly of Notables--a group of hand-picked dignitaries he
thought would sympathize with his views. But Calonne had badly miscalculated. Meeting in January 1787, the assembly refused to believe that a financial crisis really
existed. They had been influenced by Necker's argument that state finances were sound and suspected that the monarchy was only trying to squeeze more money
from the people. They insisted on examining state accounts. Despite a public appeal for support, Calonne was fired and replaced by Loménie de Brienne in April 1787.
Brienne was also unable to win the support of the assembly, and in May 1787 it was dismissed. Over the summer and early fall, Brienne repeatedly tried to strike a
compromise with the Parlement of Paris. But the compromise fell through when the king prevented the Parlement from voting on proposed loans, an act that was seen
as yet more evidence of despotism. In May 1788 the government abolished all the parlements in a general restructuring of the judiciary.
Public response to the actions of the king was strong and even violent. People began to ignore royal edicts and assault royal officials, and pamphlets denouncing
despotism inundated the country. At the same time, people began to call for an immediate meeting of the Estates-General to deal with the crisis. The Estates-General
was a consultative assembly composed of representatives from the three French estates, or legally defined social classes: clergy, nobility, and commoners. It had last
been convened in 1614. Under increasing political pressure and faced with the total collapse of its finances in August 1788, the Old Regime began to unravel. Brienne
was dismissed, Necker reinstated, and the Estates-General was called to meet on May 1, 1789.



Almost immediately contention arose regarding voting procedures in the upcoming Estates-General. In its last meeting, voting had been organized by estate, with each
of the three estates meeting separately and each having one vote. In this way the privileged classes had combined to outvote the third estate, which constituted more
than 90 percent of the population. In registering the edict to convene the Estates-General, the Parlement of Paris, which had been reinstated by the monarchy on
September 23, 1788, ruled in favor of keeping this form of voting. The Parlement probably did this more to prevent the monarchy from potentially exploiting any new
voting system to its advantage than to preserve noble privilege. However, many observers read this decision as a betrayal of the third estate. As a result, a flood of
pamphlets appeared demanding a vote by head at the Estates-General--that is, a procedure whereby each deputy was to cast one vote in a single chamber composed
of all three estates. This method would give each estate a number of votes that more accurately represented its population and would make it more difficult for the first
two estates to routinely outvote the third. Now two battles were being waged at the same time: one to protect the nation's liberty against royal despotism, and the
other over how the nation would be represented in the Estates-General.
During the early months of 1789, the three estates prepared for the coming meeting by selecting deputies and drawing up cahiers des doléances (lists of grievances).
These lists reflected overwhelming agreement in favor of limiting the power of the king and his administrators and establishing a permanent legislative assembly. In an
effort to satisfy the third estate, the monarchy had agreed to double the number of their representatives but then took no firm stand on whether the voting would
proceed by estate or by head.
When the Estates-General assembled at Versailles in May 1789, the monarchy proposed no specific financial plan for debate and left the voting issue unsettled. As a
result, the estates spent their time engaged in debate of the voting procedure, and little was accomplished.


National Assembly

Five wasted weeks later, the third estate finally took the initiative by inviting the clergy and nobility to join them in a single-chambered legislature where the voting
would be by head. Some individual members of the other estates did so, and on June 17, 1789, they together proclaimed themselves to be the National Assembly (also
later called the Constituent Assembly).
When officials locked their regular meeting place to prepare it for a royal address, members of the National Assembly concluded their initiative was about to be crushed.
Regrouping at a nearby indoor tennis court on June 20, they swore not to disband until France had a constitution. This pledge became known as the Tennis Court Oath.


Storming of the Bastille

On June 23, 1789, Louis XVI belatedly proposed a major overhaul of the financial system, agreed to seek the consent of the deputies for all new loans and taxes, and
proposed other important reforms. But he spoiled the effect by refusing to recognize the transformation of the Estates-General into the National Assembly and by
insisting upon voting by estate--already a dying cause. Moreover, he inspired new fears by surrounding the meeting hall of the deputies with a large number of soldiers.
Faced with stiffening resistance by the third estate and increasing willingness of deputies from the clergy and nobility to join the third estate in the National Assembly,
the king suddenly changed course and agreed to a vote by head on June 27.
Despite much rejoicing, suspicions of the king's intentions ran high. Royal troops began to thicken near Paris, and on July 11 the still-popular Necker was dismissed. To
people at the time and to many later on, these developments were clear signs that the king sought to undo the events of the previous weeks.
Crowds began to roam Paris looking for arms to fight off a royal attack. On July 14 these crowds assaulted the Bastille, a large fortress on the eastern edge of the city.
They believed that it contained munitions and many prisoners of despotism, but in fact, the fortress housed only seven inmates at the time. The storming of the Bastille
marked a turning point--attempts at reform had become a full-scale revolution. Faced with this insurrection, the monarchy backed down. The troops were withdrawn,
and Necker was recalled.



In the year leading up to the storming of the Bastille, the economic problems of many common people had become steadily worse, largely because poor weather
conditions had ruined the harvest. As a result, the price of bread--the most important food of the poorer classes--increased. Tensions and violence grew in both the
cities and the countryside during the spring and summer of 1789. While hungry artisans revolted in urban areas, starved peasants scoured the provinces in search of
food and work. These vagrants were rumored to be armed agents of landlords hired to destroy crops and harass the common people. Many rural peasants were gripped
by a panic, known as the Great Fear. They attacked the residences of their landlords in hopes of protecting local grain supplies and reducing rents on their land.
Both afraid of and politically benefiting from this wave of popular violence, leaders of the revolutionary movement in Paris began to massively restructure the state. On
the night of August 4, 1789, one nobleman after another renounced his personal privileges. Before the night was over, the National Assembly declared an end to the
feudal system, the traditional system of rights and obligations that had reinforced inherited inequality under the Old Regime. The exact meaning of this resolution as it
applied to specific privileges, especially economic ones, took years to sort out. But it provided the legal foundation for gradually scaling back the feudal dues peasants
owed to landlords and for eliminating the last vestiges of serfdom, the system that legally bound the peasants to live and work on the landlords' estates.

At the end of August, the National Assembly promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Conceived as the prologue to a new constitution that
was not yet drafted, the declaration was a short, concise document ensuring such basic personal rights as those of property, free speech, and personal security. It left
unresolved the rights of women and the limits of individual rights in relation to the power of the newly emerging state. But by recognizing the source of sovereignty in
the people, it undermined the idea that the king ruled by divine right (see Divine Right of Kings).


Restructuring the State

As these developments unfolded, Louis XVI once again failed to act decisively. The queen, Marie-Antoinette, feared catastrophe if events continued on their current
course and advocated a hard line. But power was quickly slipping away from the king, as revolutionaries began to organize political clubs and an influential periodical
press. Having lost control of events, Louis was forced to yield to them. He gave in so reluctantly--for example, taking months to approve the August 4, 1789, decrees
and the Declaration of Rights--that hostilit...

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