The Course of the French Revolution

The Course of the French Revolution:

Though historians recognize a French revolutionary period that ended in 1799 or 1815, it can not be said that the revolutionary struggle or movement ended at all. Once underway, the revolution became a search for a political order that would reconcile the conflicting needs of the individual, the nation, and the state. In fact, the agitation it began never died but blended into the political and ideological conflicts of later times. As a movement, the French Revolution continued well into the 19th century. As such it passed through four phases:

The First Phase (1789-92) was identified with a constitutional monarchy and the second (1792-94) with militant democratic republicanism. The third stage (1794-99) witnessed an effort to recreate moderate republicanism.

The first phase of the Revolution (1789-92): The opening years of the French Revolution (1789-92) can be regarded as a period of rapid social and institutional change during which the whole structure of the ancient regime was dismantled. This was, however, also the moderate phase, as leaders of the national and constituent assemblies endeavored to control the radicals and to create a balanced constitution.

The speed with which the changes occurred during the year 1789 was the result of a pendulum reaction between the king’s government and the people of Paris. Louis XVI attempted to win back some of the ground he had lost to the recently formed National Assembly by dismissing his most progressive minister, Necker, and reconstituting his government. This provoked demonstrations and riots which culminated, on 14 June, in the fall of the Bastille- an event that symbolized the bankruptcy of royal authority- the king, nevertheless, tried to maintain his powers by rejecting some of the reforming legislation of the National Assembly. The result was the march of the women and the forcible removal of the king from Versailles, the seat of royal power since the 1680s, to Paris. Popular participation spread to other areas; as R. R. Palmer states, “plain people took part in continuing revolutionary activity at the bottom, while the constituent Assembly and its successors governed at the top”.

Rural unrest and the threat of peasant revolt put considerable pressure on Versailles and Paris to introduce legislation to alter the social structure. Hence the Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism, ended personal obligations and the tethe, formulated the declaration of the rights of man, and, in November, put up most of the church lands for sale. The reverse flow meanwhile, brought the influence of Paris to the rest of France, resulting in the dismissal of intendants, the suspension of parlements, and the removal of other institutions of the ancient regime.

The 1791 constitution reflected the desire for political balance and social harmony. One of its principles was decentralization, which allowed the newly formed departments considerable autonomy. Another was the separation, at the center, of the legislature from the executive.

The 1791 constitution opened up, in the words of J. Roberts, a “Pandora’s Box” from which emerged unforeseen conflicts and complications. Between 1791 and 1792 all prospects of consensus disappeared and France split between Right and Left.

The second stage of the Revolution 1792-94: During its second stage the revolution became more violent and doctrinaire. As the revolution accelerated, the representatives of the previous stages were cut down as moderates.

The catalyst for this change was the war. Most sections of the assembly were enthusiastic about the prospect of taking on France’s neighbors, the Feuillants assumed that a national struggle could only strengthen the authority of the king, while the Girondin reasoned that a people’s war would destroy the monarchy altogether. Events proved the Girondins were correct as the war “revolutionized the revolution”. As a result of war, a republic was proclaimed on September 25, 1792, and Louis XVI was executed the following January.

By 1793 the Girondins had accomplished their basic aim of a people’s war and a people’s republic. In effect, the Gerondins now came to regard themselves as conservatives and they bitterly opposed the attempts of the left, or Montagnards, to increase the momentum of the revolution. Above all, the Girondins were appalled by the prospects of on Montagnard dictatorship, directed by the tightly-knit Jacobin clubs of Paris. Unfortunately, they lacked the strength to resist the Montagnard or apply a brake to the revolution. Further, they lacked popular support.

The Montagnard now had the field to themselves and introduced the phase of the revolution referred to as the “Terror” (1793-94). This was undoubtedly the most complex period and it threw up a series of contradictions. There was also an ideological paradox. The Jacobin leaders, especially Marat and Robespierre, explicitly upheld liberty as a key doctrine of the revolution. But it was the type of liberty that existed only collectively and not in an individual sense. According to Robespierre, the will of the people as a whole was the “natural bulwark of liberty”. Individual, therefore could find their freedom only the conforming to the ‘general interests”. Robespierre was clearly influenced by the famous argument in Rousseau’s Social Contract that dissedents were enslaving themselves and that it may be necessary to compel a man to be free.

The principle that freedom could be achieved through compulsion was applied during the course of 1794 by the committees and the revolutionary tribunal. The result was terror, a revolutionary device that was justified by the Jacobins provided that the motives were ‘pure’. Robespierre for example argued that virtue without terror was impotent, and Marat urged that “liberty must be established by violence”. This violence, previously the spontaneous demonstration of mob frustration, was now institutionalized and became the monopoly of the government; hence the guillotine of the tribunal replaced the butchers’ knives of the Sans-culottes. Terror, however, came to feed upon itself and was used by the Robespierrist to eliminate rival Jacobin factions. The traditional view is that the terror perverted the aims of the revolution and allowed Robespierre to set up a particular odious dictatorship. To use the analogy of several historians, the French Revolution was a fever, the crisis of which was the terror, before the patient or France, could recover, Robespierre had to be cast off. Two French historians have adopted a more positive view of Robespierre. Lefebure called him “the resolute and faithful representative of the revolutionary mentality, while Mathiez considered him the incarnation of revolutionary France in its most notable most generous, and most sincere aspects”.

It is also possible to depict the terror as a period of constructive achievement. The measures taken by the convention to mobilize the nation and to control the supply of food did more than anything else to turn the tide of war and therefore to save the Revolution from destruction by foreign armies. Some of the reforms of the constituent assembly were reversed; the best example was the end of decentralization, which had brought two years of administrative chaos. Other however were confirmed and extended; these included the Declarations of the Rights of man, the civil constitution of the clergy, and the sale of church lands. It is often pointed out however that the convention achieved little outside the context of the war or beyond the modification of previous reforms. Of its main innovations, the attempt to introduce the worship of the supreme being was a total failure and the revolutionary calendar lasted less than twenty years. The only long-lasting non-military reform that originated specifically in the convention was the metric system of weights and measures.

The Third Period of the Revolution (1794-98): has been extensively reinterpreted. The traditional picture was that the revolution reached a climax with the overthrow of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor 1794 and that a sharp turn to the right followed, preparing the way for Bonaparte’s takeover in 1799. Historians used to dismiss the period 1795-98 as being outside the scope of the revolution thus placing it in limbo between two periods that were considered more important and certainly more interesting. Recent works, however, have restored the Thermidorians and the directory fully to the context of the revolution.

Thermidor may have been inspired by the left but it was the right who ultimately benefited. A large number of moderates resurfaced in the convention after the overthrow of Robespierre the institution of “Terror” which had held them and the convention itself in subjection.

After the execution of Robespierre and the closing of the Jacobin club, the republics returned to the fundamentally liberal principles of the Declaration of Rights, despite attempts by the Paris mob to restore revolutionary rule. The constitution, providing for a bicameral government on limited franchise and an executive “Directory” of five elected leaders, was voted on August 22, 1795, but before it became effective there was one more Parisian insurrection crushed by Barras and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Directors won great military and diplomatic successes for France in their first two years of power. From 1797-99 they tended to fallout among themselves, the French countryside lapsed into anarchy, there were serious royalist revolts in the outlying provinces, and in the summer of 1799, a series of military defeats undid the work of earlier years. The Directory added nothing to the achievement of the revolution. It showed the need to consolidate and clarify, that opportunity was given to France by Bonaparte’s coup d’etat of Brumaire, in 1799.

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?
Importance of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799