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 revolution.
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 periods
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 revolution 1792-1795
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 Republic.
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 period.
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 people.
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