French Revolution (1789)

French Revolution:

A revolution may occur in any country but the seeds of revolution are buried in the condition and temperament of the public. Material circumstances conducive to discontent prepare a congenial background for a revolution and intellectual awareness stimulates the public to redeem themselves from the miserable conditions. Under the strokes of critical circumstances, whenever a government finds it difficult to run the administration along the stereotyped ways and fails to seek a new path by means of reform schemes and the discontented class becomes aware of its strength- a revolution becomes inevitable in the country. The French Revolution of the 18th century is not an exception to these factors. The French Revolution is not merely an event of history; it is a living legend. It was a unique battle that was fought many times, for example, in 1830, 1848, and 1870. Since then, this struggle has been repeated during the national crisis. Perhaps no other topic has been described so exhaustively in history as the French Revolution. Neither so much sympathy nor so much resentment has ever been expressed for any other event of the world. Kant, Hegel, and Wordsworth expressed their happiness over the French Revolution but Edmund Burke ventilated his indignation over it. Among the revolutions of the modern age, the French Revolution is most remarkable in the sense that it left an immense influence on history. All important events which occurred in Europe in the 19th century were influenced in one way or the other by the French Revolution.

The French Revolution created such a condition that the old political system crumbled. The period from 1789 to 1815 has been summed up in four words- revolution, war, tyranny, and empire. Revolution smeared with violence and savagery ended in wars. After that, there cropped up the tyrannies of a soldier-Napoleon. The martial despotism generated Napoleon’s Caesarean ambitions which culminated in the establishment of a vast empire. It has been maintained for a long time that the modern structure of European nations was shaped by listening to the message of revolutionary battles, gaining remarkable experience under Napoleon’s strict discipline, and waging a tough war to get rid of his tyranny. Actually, this is a romantic interpretation and it is hardly tenable. Now most historians question the inevitability of the events. They are very much conscious of puzzling topics and make unremitting efforts to seek a solution for the mystical phenomenon of historical change. In this way, they appraise the startling phenomenon of the 19th century in a narrow way. French Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, and its wars cannot be neglected but these factors appeared in fluctuating importance. Merely those factors did not constitute the formative influences that affected Europe in the 19th century for the series of events was inevitable.

Generally, the beginning of the French Revolution is considered in 1789. A few scholars fixed the date of the Revolution as May 5, 1789, because the Conference of the Estates General was convened on this date. On the contrary, some historians have fixed the date of the Revolution as July 14, 1789, when the Bastille Fort was conquered. However, it has been concluded from the research carried out in the last few years that we cannot fix a specific date of the revolution because several events of the revolution had their origin in the past and could not be alienated from the past altogether. It would be wrong to think that the French Revolution occurred all of a sudden or for no reason. It was not like a comet that shot up suddenly in the sky and disappeared. In point of fact, various events that occurred between 1787 and 1799 as a result of many causes accounted for the beginning and extension of the revolution. The causes of the revolution existed in the same system (ancient regime) as the system that existed prior to the revolution. From the study of the ancient system, it will be clear how France reached the edge of revolution.

Immediate Causes of the French Revolution:

The improvident policy of then King Louis XVI, made the Revolution inevitable. Had he acted wisely, the Revolution could have been avoided. Becuase of his timid behavior and fickle nature, Louis XVI could easily be persuaded by others. He lacked the knack of tackling the complex situations of administration. Antoinette’s influence over Louis who lacked self-confidence proved to be fatal. She became the butt of public reproach due to her conduct and undue interference in administration. Appointments, transfers, promotions, and terminations of officers in the state were carried out according to her desires. The French public held her in contempt.

Another immediate cause of the French Revolution was the miserable economic condition of the nation. Arnestla Browse wrote two books on the economic condition of France in the 18th century. The writer has ascribed the causes of the Revolution to those financial policies and economic crises that had pitched the proletariat into misery. It cannot be denied that effective measures were not taken to improve the economic condition. Actually, the efforts to resolve the economic crisis were made superficially. It was not an easy task to seek a solution to the problem under those discriminating circumstances in which a major part of the public was exempted from paying taxes. Besides that, the vacuum of political force brought all efforts to a deadlock. The sharp weapon of political will is needed to implement the blueprint of an effective scheme. In his book “The Price of Revolution”, D. W. Brogan has expressed his opinion that France underwent the same political void in 1789, as gripped Russia in 1917, Italy in 1922, and Germany in 1932 AD.

The economic condition of France began to decline from the period of Louis XIV and it went from bad to worse when Louis XVI ascended the throne. There was no control over the expenses incurred by the King and his courtiers. During the period of Louis XVI, the economic crisis thickened when France took part in the War of American Independence. Debt was piling up on France day by day. The heap of debt became so thick in 1788 that the state had to pay more interest than its income. France was gradually sinking into bankruptcy but the ruler did not care for it. Under great compulsion, Louis paid attention to the acute economic crisis only when the state treasury had become empty and the situation had gone out of control. Louis initiated many projects in order to improve the financial condition of the country but he left the projects incomplete, which fomented the rage of the public. Louis changed finance ministers in succession. Turgot, Necker, and Calonne were made Finance ministers successively. Turgot (1774-76) was an able economist. He was well acquainted with the French economy. He tried to implement an intrepid policy of economic improvement by way of making efficient use of land, adopting the policy of laissez-faire, setting a standard of administration, and eliminating social disparities. He revoked several restrictions on the trade of foodstuff. He abolished the powerful ‘guilds’ of various industries. He removed the system of forced labor for the construction of roads (Corvee) and imposed a simple tax. Under the system of Corvee, peasants were forced to do the road construction work without payment and they held this forced, unpaid labor in contempt. Turgot chalked out a four-point programme- (a) no loan (b) no new taxes (c) no bankruptcy (d) curtailment in the state expenses.

If his programme had been implemented the economic condition of France would have improved without doubt but it did not so happen. The economic condition began to improve even when the program was partly implemented. The privileged class turned against Turgot when he moved the proposals for the curtailment of state expenses, reduction of rights enjoyed by the nobility and priests, and exaction of taxes from them, revoking the salt tax and granting monetary aid to peasants. The privileged class approached Queen Antoinette to force Louis XVI to dismiss Turgot from the post of finance minister. Turgot’s dismissal proved detrimental to France.

A rich banker Necker (1776-81) was made Finance Minister a few months after Turgot’s resignation. As he hailed from a family of bankers he was a quiet expert in financial matters. He stressed the need to maintain accuracy in accounting. Consequently, the financial crisis improved a little. Except for the point of not borrowing, he accepted Turgot’s other proposals. Necker earned great credit when the English met with defeat in the War of American Independence but for that, France got buried under the heap of debt. Because of the burden of massive debt, the economic condition of France went from bad to worse. Under great compulsion, Necker adopted Turgot’s revolutionary project. He put emphasis upon levying taxes on the nobility and minimizing the state expenses. It fetched him great opposition. Queen Antoinette reviled him as a miser. Consequently, under pressure from the Queen, the King dismissed Necker in 1781. During his ministerial tenure, Necker did a creditable job. Before relinquishing office, he prepared a detailed report on the economic condition of France and submitted it to the king. He also got his economic report printed and distributed among the public.

The report contained some incorrect information, but even then it made the French public aware of the economic condition of the country. For the first time, people came to know of the state income from taxation and the amount the king spent to meet his own expenses. His report carried the details of pension and various allowances paid to the courtiers who did not render any service to the state. Necker’s report became very famous. After Necker’s dismissal, first Flurry and then Calonne (1783-1787 AD) became Finance Ministers successively. Calonne did not want to displease the royal family, so he incurred debt in order to recoup the loss sustained by the state. He had to accede to the increase in the rate of interest on the debt. But after some time, the sources of debt got exhausted. In August 1786, the royal treasury turned empty. Therefore, he coaxed the king into summoning a council of influential persons in order to seek a solution to the economic crisis. This special council consisted of priests, feudal lords, magistrates, and others. It was selected by the King himself. So it had no representation of the common people. It had 145 members. In the meeting, Calonne moved a proposal that all sections of the society should be taxed to improve the economic condition of the country. But the illustrious members of the council demanded Calonne’s dismissal. Hence, Calonne was dismissed. Queen’s favorite Brienne was made the Finance Minister after Calonne in 1787. He strove hard to improve the economic condition. He brought the king to impose a uniform land tax on all sections of the society as well as a new ‘Stamp Tax’. The council of illustrious members rejected Brienne’s proposals. The King dissolved the council and sent Brienne’s proposals to the Parlement of Paris for registration. The Parlement refused to register the new taxes and declared that none other than the Estates General was empowered to impose new taxes. So, the Parlement demanded the King to convene the session of Estates General. The French public welcomed this declaration of the Parlement but the King declared the Parlement illegal and ordered the arrest of its members. The public supported the Parlement. Soldiers too refused point-blank to arrest the members of the Parlement. From Paris and other places rose a great demand for convening the session of Estates General. It filled the King and his ministers with great fear. The King had to call the session of Estates General under duress. The session of Estates General was fixed on May 7, 1789. Necker was made Finance Minister again and invested with comprehensive powers.

The Estates General was an old representative council of France whose session had not been held for the last 175 years. Anyway, Louis made up his mind to call the session of Estates General but at that time there was no person who knew about the structure, organization, working system, and election process of that institution. The whole gamut of procedure relevant to the Estates General became known after great efforts as well as investigation.

The election for the Estates General was held in 1788. The Estates General had three categories of members: the feudal lords were in the first category, priests in the second, and the third category comprised the representatives of the Proletariat. The first remarkable thing about that election was that the King doubled the number of the third category. The other characteristic of the election was that the voters presented to their representatives chaiers which contained their complaints, difficulties, and suggestions. The number of chaiers was more than fifty thousand. The chaiers expressed public difficulties; their complaints against the government and their suggestions for improvement. The Chaiers unfolded the following demands of the voters: establishment of constitutional rule, sanction of public liberty, equality of all before the law, and uniform taxation.

From a close study of all the factors explained above it is clearly evident that there was an unusual conjunction of various causes in the making of the French Revolution. After all, it may be asserted that the French Revolution erupted from two significant causes:

  • First, the French Government had become bankrupt economically and politically.
  • Secondly, the current of new thoughts, diffusion of literary trends, the phenomena of social dissatisfaction, and political complaints were paving the way for the revolution. Roughly speaking, the pressure of bankruptcy coming from above and the pressure of public dissatisfaction coming from below made the French Revolution inevitable.

In a nutshell, we may conclude that a great revolution erupted only in France because of certain pinching factors like an enlightened middle class, a disgusting feudal setup, an irresistible greed among the feudal lords for catching political power, a perpetual influence of the philosophers, want of competent rulers, a strong desire in farmers for improvement in their wretched condition, great importance of Paris, decisive participation in the Independence War of USA and great discontent among soldiers.

Nature of the French Revolution:

The French Revolution was a public revolution started by the aristocrats and put to an end by a military dictator. The aristocrats wanted to establish their sovereignty by eliminating the tyranny of Louis XVI. The session of the Estates General typified the success of the aristocrats’ revolution. If the aristocrats had been slightly more liberal and tried to strike a compromise with the alert middle class, their success might have been permanent. But there is no room for ‘if’ in history. The nobility sided with the King and tried to oppress the middle class. This pushed the French Revolution into the second phase.

In its second phase, the French Revolution was headed by the middle class. The secret of the success of the middle class against the aristocracy lay in the fact that whenever the condition of the former became critical and irksome, the common people of Paris interfered in political matters on behalf of the middle class as economic crises perturbed them. The common masses backed up the middle class wholeheartedly in order to work up a complete revolution in the real sense, but the common people were constrained to remain simply spectators. Incompetent leadership of the middle class thrust the Revolution into its third phase.

The violent middle class became dominant in the third phase. The reign of terror and violence started then. However, the French public and a majority of the liberal middle class were not prepared to bear with terror. Therefore, the reins of the Revolution came again into the hands of the liberal middle class because of the “Thermidorian Reaction” (July 1794).

The formation of the Directory and the rise of Napoleon deviated France from the republic too far in 1792. Napoleon spread the Revolution which began in France all over Europe. Even then, he proved to be both a friend and an enemy of the Revolution. The obsequies of the French Revolution started with the establishment of Napoelon’s absolute autocracy. Unfortunately, the absolute autocracy eliminated by the Revolution revived in France, but France and Europe had relished the flavor of the fruits of the Revolution- equality, liberty, and fraternity.

It may be concluded that the nature of the French Revolution remained like a river that started from the peak of a high mountain and crossing several hillocks flowed sometimes rapidly, sometimes gently. Like the path of a river, the course and outcome of a revolution are never fixed.

Significance of the French Revolution:

(1) The French Revolution is much significant event in world history. Except for the Reformation and the religious wars, not any single incident influenced Europe so much so as the French Revolution.

(2) The French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution heralded a new age in world history. French Revolution became a turning point in history in that sense- it uprooted the ‘ancien regime’ and strengthened the position of the middle class.

(3) The French Revolution initiated a new political culture in France based on the core values of the nation, citizen representatives, and democratic rules. The ideals like Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity propagated by the French Revolution have become the cornerstone of the modern-day welfare states and constitutions.

(4) The French Revolution promoted the cause of human rights. On 26th August there was the declaration of the rights of “Men and Citizen”. So it became a character for freedom not simply in the context of France but in the context of the whole world.

(5) It promoted the liberation of women as well. Women were given a lot of facilities like education, to live a civilized life, etc. Although immediately they were not given political power, it definitely put the demand for the empowerment of women on the main agenda.

(6) The French Revolution promoted some important ideologies like Republicanism, Democratisation, Nationalism, and Socialism. It was due to this fact that the French Revolution became the harbinger of the modern age.

(7) The French Revolution resulted in the growth of nationalism in the European countries. The Napoleonic wars aroused the feelings of nationalism in the countries which were conquered by him. The people of many countries viewed Napoleon as instrumental in promoting the ideals of the Revolution and replacing absolute monarchy. Hence he was welcomed in various countries that he conquered. However, the despotic rule of Napoleon soon demystified the people, and as a reaction against the despotic rule they united. This again helped in giving momentum to feelings of nationalism. Thus paradoxically nationalism arose because of the result of the Napoleonic wars and the reaction against them.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Triumph of Jacobinism
Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship
Importance of the French Revolution
The Origin of the French Revolution
The Course of the French Revolution
Why Revolution in France?
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
Short Note on Napoleon Bonaparte
Decline of the Napoleonic Empire
Spread of Revolutionary Principles
Popular Movement
Metternich and the Vienna Peace Settlement
The Phase of Constitutional Monarchy (1789-92)
The Phase of Radical Republicanism (1792-94)
The Phase of Liberal Republicanism (1794-99)