October 27, 1998
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Prior to the French Revolution, France was an absolute
monarchy. The people of France were divided by law into three estates;
the first estate was the Clergy, the second was the Nobility, and
the third was the vast majority of the French people; commoners,
middle-class, peasants, and city workers. The clergy and Nobility
represented less than 7% of the population, but owned a very important
share of France’s wealth and were exempt of most taxes.
Another important factor was that at this time,
the ideas of the philosophers of the Enlightenment Age were spreading
among the middle-class.
Before Louis the XVI’s reign, France was a
wealthy country and the majority of its inhabitants were not suffering
from excessive economic hardships.
Unfortunately, during the reign of Louis XVI, economic
recession, and poor harvest began to drastically impoverish mostly
the French commoners.
A very important element is that the King and his government were
not able to raises enough taxes among the nobility and the clergy
to balance the budget. There was a huge deficit and a huge debt.
Many talented finance ministers such as :Turgot, Calonne,Brienne,
Necker tried to raise taxes among the Aristocracy, They met absolute
opposition from the Aristocracy and the Clergy and ultimately were
dismissed by the King.
Three main factors contributed to this huge debt;
The debt left by the previous King Louis the XV.
The money, arms, naval and military support provided to the American
The resistance of the nobility to pay taxes
In August 1788 the government of the King was bankrupt.
Now we have all the elements for a major upheaval:
Huge inequalities between two segments of the society; new ideas
about justice and government and bankruptcy of the government.
The first period of the French revolution from
1789 to 1792 can be described as the relatively non violent period.
The deaths, mostly assassinated aristocrats were counted only in
dozens of people not in the ten of thousands as we will see in later
In the following years the commoners, known as
the third estate, tried to push more and more reforms towards democracy.
They gathered themselves into an assembly where they were joined
by some of the Nobility and some of the clergy to form a Parliament,
trying to draft a Constitution, in which the King would see his
powers significantly diminished.
Little happened, and in reaction, on July 14, 1789,
a Paris crowd stormed the Bastille (a fortified prison). Riots soon
spread into the countryside.
On the night of August 4, 1789, the Assembly had
abolished most of the monarchy and nobility privileges in all domains,
including taxes, . Before the end of August, the now, National Assembly,
adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
In 1791, the Assembly went further, adding more
reforms towards Democracy, working on an extensive body of work.
France was given its first Constitution: a limited monarchy.
Few people were satisfied with this new constitutional
Monarchy. The crowds were still angry. The King, Louis XVI and his
family fled towards the border, but he was arrested and brought
back to the Capitol.
Many surrounding European nations, which were monarchies,
threatened war on France. France took the first step and declared
war on Austria, who was allied to Prussia. All over France people
rallied to defend the revolution and chanted the slogan, "Liberty,
Equality, Fraternity." On the morning of August 10, 1792, radical
revolutionaries, taking into account the disenchantment of the angry
Parisians, set up a new administration, - "The Commune."
We are entering now the bloodiest years of the French
This administration was very radical, they arrested
the King and his family, a new national convention was elected,
the war was raging not far from Paris. This National Convention,
in September, 1792, voted to abolish the monarchy and made France
A coalition of European nations, all of them monarchies
( the coalition will be composed at the time of Prussia, Austria,)
attacked France successfully but were defeated in the end by the
French army, at the same time troubles and riots were threatening
the stability of France
Damaging evidence of letters, written by Louis XVI,
asking for help from the foreign monarchies at war with France,
sealed the King’s fate, the National convention tried and
convicted Louis XVI of treason and sentenced him to death. He was
executed on January 21, 1793.
News of Louis XVI’s execution sent shock
waves through the kingdoms of Europe. In March, 1793, Great Britain,
the Dutch Netherlands, Prussia, Spain and Austria were at war against
France. In France, the economy was in shambles. The future of a
democratic French Republic was very gloomy. To overcome these problems,
the National Convention took drastic action. It set aside the constitution
that had been approved in 1793 and created a tyranny with the Committee
of Public Safety.
The reign of terror had begun, it was during this
time that between 20,000 and 40,000 men, women, and children were
condemned to the guillotine. The terror struck at all levels of
society but fell heavily onto the Aristocracy.
The Committee set a national draft and brought
large French forces against France’s enemies, who were defeated.
The reign of terror ended July, 1794. In 1795, the National convention
wrote another, more conservative constitution, in reaction of the
excess of terror.
The third Period from 1795 to 1799 was a transitional
Tired of the excess and violence of the previous
years, the center called the
" Marais" established a less drastic government. The French
armies were constantly fighting and winning all over Europe and
propelled to the top of the Army a young General Napoleon Bonaparte.
What can we learn from the French Revolution that
could be of some interest for us today?
First of all, that abusive power is never an issue
to be neglected.
Not listening to a majority of the people in a country
leads sooner or later to a Revolution.
King Louis the XVI and his nobility abused power,
in the sense that they held too much power and never listened to
at least two third of the French people. That lead to a bloody revolution
and their own deaths.
During the Revolution, the real dictatorship of
the committee of Public Safety and its abusive power during the
reign of terror led to an unprecedented bloodshed between French
That is why nowadays, there are many ways to listen
to the unhappiness of the citizen.
Citizens have in the United States of America many ways to express
their disapproval, such as voting, freedom of speech, freedom of
the press, all the attributes of Democracy