Rodney Hilton

The French Revolution


Pre Revolutionary History

Causes of the French Revolution

National Assembly

The Revolution Leads to War – and Napoleon

Significance of the Period of 1789 – 1815


Pre Revolution History

France was an absolute monarchy. Louis XIV (1643 – 1715) was the envy of all other rulers in Europe . During his reign he had centralised the government and had encouraged trade and manufacture. His undoing was the long list of over ambitious wars that he had participated in. His successors Louis XV (1715 – 74) and Louis XVI (1774 – 93) also participated in lengthy and costly conflicts. France had suffered defeat in the Seven Years War against Britain (1756 – 63). Her army in Europe was crushed by the Prussians. The involvement in the American Revolution was for revenge against Britain after the Seven Years War. A fatal weakness in the French absolute monarchy system, was its inability to produce strong monarchs. Louise XVI was not strong.

On the eve of revolution all sections of French society had reason to be unhappy:

The nobles wanted power that was taken from them by the monarchy
The bourgeoisie resented the privileges of the nobles
The Bourgeoisie and the Peasants criticised the tax system


Causes of the French Revolution

  1. The Background or Long Standing Causes
  1. Negative Features of the Ancien Regime
  2. An Absolute Monarchy can falter if the monarch is weak

Ancien Regime refers to the old order in France ; the social and governmental system that lasted until the Revolution. The Government order in France was an Absolute Monarchy. Due to the increasingly large powers of a monarch over society including: National System of Justice, Influenced the Catholic Church, The Right to decree Taxation and Leader of the military forces, the monarch has to be a string and stable person. Louis XVI was neither strong nor stable.

The population was divided into three states, two privileged

The population was divided into three estates. The Third Estate was made up of the bourgeoisie, wage earners and the peasantry. They were the majority of the population. The Third Estate was also known as the estate of the commoners. The Second Estate was for the nobility. They numbered 400 000 with most of them being of minor rank. The First Estate comprised the clergy. The Upper Clergy were very wealthy and powerful and therefore they related to the First Estate. The Lower Clergy related more to the Lower Estates. The First Estate numbered around 100 000.

The first two states enjoyed privileges over the Third Estate. Although they were the richest, they were exempt from taxes. They were also the only members in society who could hold positions of importance such as Officers in the army. This caused great discontent within the Third Estate.

Economic Inefficiencies of Feudal Survivals (tolls, guilds)

There was great need for taxation reform in France before the Revolution. The inefficiency of only taxing the lower estate showed in the Government’s budgets. The Government was experiencing large debts and eventually went Bankrupt. This was made worse by the Nobles non-cooperation when it came to Taxation. The nobles were determined not to give up their tax concessions. This proved to be a great problem for Louis and his advisers. The peasants and bourgeoisie were also unhappy due to the large taxes that they had to pay.

Financial Difficulties grew under Louis XIV and Louis XV

Due to over ambitious wars and extravagant spending on courts, Louis XIV and Louis XV had been successful in helping to bankrupt France . Their extravagant spending on courts could be seen by the beauty and sheer size of Versailles . The cost of the wars was great in two ways. The French had suffered big defeats and therefore had lost men and supplies. They also had failed to gain any territory; in fact they often lost it. The worst war was the Seven Years War as this economically drained France and saw France lose most of her colonies to Britain .

The peasants had many grievances

The peasants had many grievances. One of the main grievances was the seigniorial system. This system allowed for greater income disparity in France and a real separation of classes. This often left peasants almost isolated compared to the rest of society. All peasants within France felt this at the time. The peasants were burdened with huge amounts of taxation that were nearly impossible for them to pay. This led to a rather discontented peasantry within France .

  1. New Forces grow within Ancien Regime, and conflict within it

Growth of Trade and Industry and of town life in general

This new growth lead to problems within the Ancien regime. Business expansion saw prices steadily rising. This did not help the privileged classes whose incomes were fixed. The Bourgeoisie largely profited from this rise and they became wealthier and more powerful. The Bourgeoisie made up the largest proportion of society in France compared to the rest of Europe . This saw them gaining more attention and power. Town life increases highlighted this fact as more and more bourgeoisie profited from good business expansion. This also made the Bourgeoisie despise the current tax system as it meant using money to pay tax that they could be using to expand. They favoured a uniform tax system.

Growth of new critical ideas – especially amongst the Bourgeoisie

Growth of new ideas amongst the Bourgeoisie reflected their high education levels. It also was prompted by the new ‘Age of Enlightenment’ that was taking place in France . Revolutionary thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, the Encyclopedists combined with economic theorists combined with new theories. They presented an idea of a liberal society that flourished with free commerce. This appealed especially to the businessman in the ranks of the Bourgeoisie. The thinkers also challenged the absolute right to rule and presented ideas of equal rights and the abolition of the class system. All of this appealed to Bourgeoisie grievances.

2. The Intermediate Causes (Four Primary causes)

  1. The Disorder in the Finances
  2. The public (state) debt was large, with a heavy annual interest

The French Monarchy was successful in running deficit budget after deficit budget. This was aided by large costs brought on from previous spending by Louis XV and Louis XIV. This did not stop Louis XVI from adding to the troubles. Instead of implementing tax reform Louis was insistent on not annoying the nobility. Therefore he had to borrow the differences in expenditure and revenue. These saws a constant loan cycle develop. When Turgot tried to stop this he was overthrown by Marie Antoinette’s hatred of him and the nobility’s wish to see him fired. This saw the more complacent Necker.

The aristocrats were exempt from taxes

When Turgot tried to change this Necker promptly replaced him. This shows the power that the nobility actually held over the King regarding tax concessions. A more powerful and strong King may have chose to crush the nobility or to force taxes upon them. Louis did not. Instead France went without tax reform.

Necker’s reckless loan policy worsened the situation

Necker the French financial adviser was sacred of the Nobility. This saw him refuse to recommend tax reform. This is understandable after the demise of Turgot. Necker’s fatal mistake had been in introducing a loans scheme that saw the public debt rise each year. This put the financial situation of the monarchy in a very precarious position.

This was all worsened by

  1. French Aid to the Americans (1776 – 83)

Expense of sending troops and supplies to aid Washington ’s army

The expense of sending troops and supplies to America was huge. This is even worse considering France ’s already poor financial position. The main reason for sending support to the Americans was to extract revenge against the British after the humiliating Seven Years War. During the last year of support (1783) the government’s financial difficulties reached a state of emergency and still Necker and Louis XVI did not introduce tax reform.

American Revolutionary Ideas

The cost of support to America was not just associated with money. Already in France a new school of thought was developing amongst the Bourgeoisie. This was further aided by the transmission of Revolutionary thoughts from America back into France . Many French Troops (mainly the Bourgeoisie) came back encouraged by the revolution to introduce a revolution in France . These ideas included that:

It is right to take up arms against tyranny
There should be no taxation without representation
All men should have liberal freedoms
A Republic is superior to a monarchy.

Obviously these new ideas provided much conflict with the ideas prevalent in the Ancien Regime.

  1. The ‘Disposition of Mind’
  2. Meaning: ideas, political theories, climate of opinion, etc.

Ideas expounded by Voltaire and Rousseau held the Bourgeoisie captive. They captured the attention of the Bourgeoisie by promising free commerce and more liberal freedom. Thinkers also challenged the dogmas of absolutism. Reason they believed was a higher force than the monarch’s claim to divine right. The brotherhood of men, equal rights and responsibilities should replace privileges. Men should develop through opportunity and education and not because of birth. This all encouraged critical thinking among the Lower classes especially the Bourgeoisie. They became critical of absolutism, the class system, privileges and the lack of liberal rights.

Discontent was becoming more General and Vocal.

Discontent was no longer confined to one section of society. This new Disposition of Mind had encouraged various sections of society to become more vocal and critical of the system. People were now willing to speak up about their grievances and their was more pamphlets published in this time.

Longstanding Critical Ideas were sharpened by those from America

Longstanding criticism f the monarchy was only reinforced by the revolutionary ideas imported from America (see above). These ideas gave the thinkers an actual system other than Britain that they could refer to in their writings.

The Aristocrats were denouncing the monarchy’s absolutism

The Nobility were long discouraged by their loss of rights. They worked back into surrounding the monarchy with themselves in positions of power. The special concern of the nobles was to see that the King did not introduce tax reform. They wanted more political power to make sure events like this did not happen. While they denounced the monarchy’s absolutism they wanted to set up their own form of it.

The Bourgeoisie also attacked it; they also attacked privileges of the Nobility

For centuries the Bourgeoisie had accepted a position of social inferiority to the nobility. Due to the increasing monopoly that the nobility were holding on privileges and the Bourgeoisie’s own improving conditions this caused many Bourgeoisie to despise the aristocracy. They also despised the absolutism of the monarchy. They had been the most influenced by the Disposition of mind.

The peasants were attracted to the ideas of the Bourgeoisie

The ideas attracted the peasants for two man reasons. Firstly they related to peasant grievances and secondly the Bourgeoisie was really the only class that the peasants associated with. The peasants saw the idea of tax reform and equality as the way to the abolition of the seigneurial system, which was their main grievance.

  1. The Character of King Louis XVI

He preferred personal interests to court interests.

It was well known that Louis was more concerned with his own personal interests than in the interests of the State and Court. Often this bored him and he left his work up to his advisers and ministers. Or even worse he would make hasty decisions that would cause even worse consequences in France .

He was influenced and often embarrasses by his pleasure loving wife

Marie Antoinette held great power over Louis. Often she stood in the way of his proposed reforms by talking him out of it. It was well known that she had talked him into firing Turgot, who may have been able to prevent the revolution through his economic reforms. She was also hated by a lot of the population due to her foreign birth. This did not help her later when she was executed. Her pleasure loving also talked Louis into spending extravagant amounts on the court and her.

He was incapable of strong decisive action

Louis XVI should have been capable of overcoming his problems with the Aristocracy. His powerful position should have allowed him to force tax reform onto the nobility. He also should never have allowed himself to call the Estates-General. Instead he should have introduced mild reforms to gains the support of the public again. Then he could do, as he wanted. If he had of been a stronger person he also would not have been as easily influenced by the nobility, his advisers or his wife.

  1. The Immediate Causes

1788 a trying year for all

Due to financial problems and the conflict between classes the Year 1788 proved to be a trying year for all. All classes were discontent at the Ancien regime and wanted change. Louis XVI did not take advantage of this situation to introduce reforms and gain the support of the people.

Under pressure Louis agrees to summon the Estates General

A few reforms would have prevented Louis from summoning the Estates General. Instead this encouraged further criticism of the Ancien regime and provided stronger force against absolutism in France . This was the beginning of the end for Louis.

Bitter conflict over the form it should take (elections and voting)

Bitter conflict between the classes over the form it should take provided further problems. The Third estate wanted a vote by head count. They also wanted to double their numbers so that they would have a majority. Louis agreed to double their representation but not their voting counts.

Revolutionary boldness; Third Estate called itself the National Assembly

On the 17th of June the Third Estate decided to break the deadlock in the voting issue. They decided to declare themselves the representative body of France (the National Assembly) and to disregard the Kings opinion. Louis was alarmed at this and decided to close down their assembly hall. This did not deter them in fact it led them to the infamous ‘Tennis Court Oath’. Here they swore to not stop until they had given France a constitution. Popular support for the National Assembly rose and a small group of liberal nobles joined as well. So did members of the clergy, although mainly the Lower clergy.

Therefore Absolutism ended and Constitutional Monarchy began

Due to overwhelming support for the new National Assembly Louis was forced to recognise it. He therefore issued a decree that stated that it was now the parliament of France . All of the Estates General members joined. This is where the doubling of the Third Estates representation came in important. They now held the majority in France ’s new constitutional monarchy. In this new Constitutional monarchy the Bourgeoisie was the most powerful section.

The National Assembly (1789 – 91)

A Paris crowd stormed the Bastille ( July 14th, 1789 ).

This proved to be a significant event in the revolution. The Bastille had long been regarded as a symbol of political oppression. Here people were sent when they had opposed the Ancien Regime. The Bastille was initially approached for the gunpowder it held. In confusion however shots were fired and the huge crown stormed the Bastille. This demonstrated that the capital was in the Revolutionaries hands and the Kings regiments were withdrawn. The Paris Commune was established and the National Assembly continued to meet with the realisation that they needed to meet the needs of the masses. The Law of the Lamppost was used during this period. Profiteers, aristocrats, government officials and army officers were all hung from lampposts.


Peasants then stormed the 40 000 bastilles (monasteries, chateaux)

The storming of the bastilles was carried out by the peasants it signified the first use of violence to achieve Revolutionary aims by the peasants. It also signified the start of the Le Grande Peur. The Le Grande Peur was a period in which the popular masses rose up and attacked the Aristocracy and privileged few. This resulted in many of the Aristocrats becoming emigres. The Peasants gained from this loot and sometimes the land of the fleeing Aristocrats.

The flight of the emigres

The flight of the emigres followed these events. Most of the emigres went to the sympathetic countries such as Austria , Russia and Britain . They hoped to gain support from Russian and Austrian troops and German Princes. The Austrian Emperor and Prussian King threatened war if Louis XVI was harmed.

The National Guard

On July 13th 1789 there had been formed the Paris Commune (Municipal council) and the National Guard. The National Guard was comprised of 200 men from the six different sections of Paris . They were under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette. The units of the National Guard were responsible to the municipal councils. These new councils were strongly bourgeoisie and were interested in protecting property from crowd violence. This gave the bourgeoisie a revolutionary force to use as a militia and police organisation. It was designed to settle the rioting of the popular masses. Lafayette tried to protect the constitution from both the King and the mob. The first time the National Guard saw action was on the 14th of July 1791 when the Guard fired on a crown in the Champs de Mars and 50 were killed.

The Abolition of Feudalism

On the Night of the 4th of August the National Assembly met and the abolition of feudalism was brought about. Tears accompanied this as many of the members of the National Assembly gave up their privileges and looked towards equality. All exemptions from taxation, all feudal dues and tithes, tolls and pensions were abolished.

As Mason in his book ‘Revolution’ noted: "Here the revolution had achieved a vast change. The overthrow of feudalism legitimised by the nervous deputies of Versailles , dampened down the fires of the peasant revolution in the countryside. Now Paris took and held control of the pace of the Revolution. The peasantry was basically satisfied. Paris still hungered for satisfaction’.

The Declaration of the Rights of Men

On the 26th of August 1789 the National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Men. The purpose of this document was to produce equality within France and to abolish the class system that was prevalent in France . This meant that a man could achieve high status despite his parentage. According to the Declaration all citizens had the right to decide what taxes should be levied and how public revenue should be spent. Other fundamental human rights included freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious liberty and freedom from unlawful arrest or imprisonment. This also included the abolition of the Lettres de Cachet. Therefore the Declaration was essentially a democratic document. It proclaimed the sovereignty of the people.

The March to Versailles

On the 5th of October 1789 a group of 7000 starving men and women marched on the court at Versailles . They were going to ask the King for some bread. They camped outside the palace. That night some women broke into the palace and attempted to murder Marie Antoinette. She escaped and ran to the Kings room. The invaders stopped here, as the King was still considered sacred. Lafayette prevented any bloodshed by assuring that the King returned to Paris with the mob. Here Louis became a virtual prisoner in the Palace of Tuileries .

The Development of Local Government and Departments

The National Assembly reformed the local government system. France was divided into 83 departments. Each of these had the same laws, customs, weights and measures. Internal Tariffs were also abolished in France . This greatly improved the economy of France . It also presented the country with more equality and abolished the certain privileged areas of France . The main problems were that the Government failed to have a clear connection to the Local Governments and also the Local governments hardly had any revenue thus leading to bankruptcies.

The System of Justice

The System of Justice was also reformed under the National Assembly. This allowed for open public trials and the abolition of the hated Lettres de Cachet. This allowed for the trails of all people in the same court. Before the assembly they had been conducted in different courts depending on class. Imaginary crimes such as heresy and magic were abolished. There was a court of final appeal for civil and criminal cases and a high court for cases of treason.

Freedom of the Press

The press was now free to criticize etc. The freedom of the press was absolute and this led to it becoming a form of propaganda. It was instrumental in the rise of principal figures such as Robespierre and Danton.

Military Forces

Early in 1789 revolutionary committees of sailors and soldiers were formed. This often caused conflict with the regular army and navy. In February 1790 the forces were made responsible to the National Assembly. This effectively took from Louis any chance of using the military to regain his position of influence.

Assembly’s policy on the Church

Firstly Church property was confiscated (1789) and it was to be sold at auction. The clergy were to be paid by the state. Assignants were issued in order to buy the land. Unfortunately too many assignants were issued and this led to the later problem of inflation. The wages of the clergy were to be paid by the Assembly. This led to wages being doubled (again another inflationary pressure). Then came one of the National Assembly’s biggest mistakes. This was the Development of the Civil Constitution of the clergy. They forced the Clergy to take an oath to them (the state) instead of just Rome . They were also to be elected. This succeeded in alienating the Clergy (especially the Lower clergy) from the Revolution. It also outraged Louis.

Louis flight to Varennes

On the night of the 2oth of June 1791 the King and his family attempted to escape to the friendly borders of Austria . This was encouraged by Marie Antoinette and was aided by her friend Count Axel de Fersen. They were however caught and returned to Paris . The King before leaving had left behind a declaration that complained of his lack of powers. He also condemned the work of the Revolution. Paris received him in silence when he returned. The Republican movement gathered great strength after this event. On the 16th of July the Government passed a decree re – instating the King despite protests.

The Constitution 1791

The new constitution established 6 main points

      1. Hereditary Constitutional Monarchy
      2. A parliament consisting of a single elected chamber (the Legislative Assembly).
      3. There was to be a separate executive (with no power to make laws)
      4. All judges were to be elected
      5. ‘Suspensive’ veto for the King
      6. The franchise was to be given to all that paid taxes equivalent to 3 days wages or more.

Self-Denying Ordinance refers to the decision that the current members of the National Assembly could not become members of the Legislative Assembly. The constitution was not popular to many in France die to the limited franchise. This meant that virtually only the propertied classes qualified for this.

The Good and the Bad

Good Points of the National Assembly include


The issue of the Declaration of Rights
It abolished the evils of the old Regime
It established a limited monarchy
It set up 83 departments
It curbed the power and the wealth of the Church

Bad Points of the National Assembly include


The Constitution did not extend Universal Suffrage
The lower clergy were alienated
Finance had been bungled and led to a rise in inflation
The mobs had not been kept in check
Slavery was still allowed in the colonies
It failed to allow the experienced members of the National Assembly into the Legislative Assembly


The Revolution Leads to War – and Napoleon

Why France became involved in War

  1. Attitudes of opponents of the Revolution
  2. European Monarchs hated and feared the revolution. The interrelations of the Royal families of Europe made sure they remained pretty close. Therefore they supported each other in their respective Royal families. When France presented the idea of abolishing absolutism and ultimately the monarchy the European monarchs became fearful that this would spread to their countries. Both Emperor Leopold II (Austrian Emperor and brother to Marie Antoinette) and Frederick William II ( King of Prussia ) issued the Declaration of Pillnitz which vouched to restore the old order within France . They promised to launch a counter-revolution greatly influenced by the French emigres.

The counter – revolutionaries were still numerous inside of France . This made sure that the work was cut out for the Legislative Assembly in trying to defend attacks from this group. The revolution also increasingly faced more opposition from the Church. The National Assembly was to blame for this due to the introduction of the Civil Constitution of the clergy.

  1. Attitude of the Revolutionaries
  2. The Girondin Advocates for war increasingly put pressure on the Legislative Assembly to declare war on Austria and Prussia . The Girondins and Jacobins were the radicals in the Assembly. They did not hold a majority at the Assembly’s formation. This lead to the Legislative Assembly presenting Austria and Prussia with a set of demands. When these were refused the Girondins gained even more support in their calls for war.

The war was seen as a way to spread the revolutionary cause to all parts of Europe . This missionary zeal to spread the doctrine of liberty, equality and fraternity made sure the French had great enthusiasm. It was also seen as a chance to untie all of the French people under one banner. Many of the members of the Legislative Assembly believed that France would unite under one banner to defend itself.

  1. The Declaration of War

On April 20th 1792 , the French Legislative Assembly charged Austria with plotting aggression and declared war, starting the first ‘War of the Peoples’ in the modern world. This was followed by a French invasion of the Austrian Netherlands and two months later the King of Prussia joined Austria in the struggle against France .

The invasion of France and The Convention

The French Forces were quickly overcome by the Austrian Forces in Belgium and were driven back into France . The Duke of Brunswick that issued a manifesto saying that Paris would be burnt to the ground if the Royal family were hurt. This infuriated the people as it gave the impression that they had collaborated with the invading Armies. This turned the balance in Paris towards the radicals. This saw the replacement of the bourgeoisie dominated Paris Commune and saw it replaced with a radical dominated Commune. This lead to the invasion of the Tuileries by Georges Danton and his supporters.

On the 10th of August a crowd of 10 000 invaded the Tuileries and killed the Swiss Guard. Louis XVI escaped and asked for the protection of the Legislative Assembly. They suspended him as monarch and locked him and his family in a prison known as the tower. This went against the Constitution and it saw the end of the Legislative Assembly. The Assembly had remained a futile body and it had failed to achieve any of its aims to keep order.

This saw the establishment of a new government called the National Convention. This new convention was to be elected by universal suffrage. Danton’s organizing men and labourers supplied the army with men and weapons. This enabled Dumouriez to defeat Brunswick at Valmy ( September 20th 1792 ). It was on the 21st of September that the Republic was proclaimed. This was also the start of the Revolutionary calendar. (Note with the proclamation of the Republic the government was switched from the Legislative assembly to the National Convention).

The Convention and it’s Committee of Public Safety

In the first week of September there was a call to arms by Danton to the Parisian mobs. They marched off to defend France . All those suspected of being against the revolution and being held in prison were also massacred. The massacres were initiated by the comite’ de surveillance of the Paris Commune under the leadership of Dr. Paul Marat. Marat joined Robespierre and Danton in a triumvirate dedicated to the establishment of a proletarian republic.

The National Convention meet on the very day that the French had defeated the enemy forces at Valmy. The main aims of this new National Convention can be narrowed down to four.


Defeating the enemies of France
Giving the country a Republican Constitution
Stabilizing the finances
Restoring law and order

The National Convention then voted to execute Louis XVI as a show of contempt to the monarchy. This outraged the monarchs of Europe as they set about forming a coalition against France . Meanwhile the Jacobins had succeeded in eliminating their main opposition, the Girondins in the Convention. This came about after the general Dumouriez, a Girondin, defected to Austria . The Jacobins labelled all Girondins as traitors and the National Guard arrested them. The Jacobins then formed the Committee of Public Safety, a cabinet that dominated the convention. In this committee there was Robespierre, Danton, Marat and Carnot.

The Committee of Public Safety and Total War Effort

The Committee of Public Safety had nine members. They were established with the power to do anything to save the Republic from internal and external perils. They were later enlarged to a committee of 12 members and they exercised control over every aspect of French Life.

The main external pressures came from the new coalition formed by the European Monarchs. This included Austria , Prussia , Great Britain , Spain , Russia , Sardinia , Tuscany , the Netherlands Republic and the states of the Holy Roman Empire . Lazare Carnot, an organizational genius, organized the conscripted armies of France . They drove back this threat of the enemy. Any General who lost a battle was executed, as it was thought they were a traitor to the Republic. Within France the Committee dispatched the army to crush the royalist uprisings and instituted the Reign of Terror.

The Reign of Terror

With the committee of Public Safety a revolutionary tribunal was also set up. The Revolutionary tribunal was to try counter revolutionaries. Then the Committee developed a new policy that involved the use of the guillotine across France . Many were killed, most from the aristocracy classes or those that were of wealth. The Committee was in favour of imposed equality by direct democracy, punishment and violence. The guillotine was the scythe of equality, the people’s axe.

There was the introduction of the ‘Law of Suspects’. This Law allowed of the arrest of those that were believed to have opposed the revolution. The Law of the Maximum was also introduced which allowed for the setting of price ceilings. The Jacobin dominated Committee loosely followed the needs of the Sans-Culottes. This allowed for greater popularity. They were well known as defending the poor.

When Danton believed that the external and internal threats had been dealt with he called for an end to the terror. Robespierre had him and his closest followers executed. This shocked many of the moderates within the convention as they thought if Danton was not safe who would be. They labeled Robespierre a terrorist and he was executed on July 28th 1794 .

Overthrow of the Jacobins…. The Thermidorian Reaction

With the passing of military danger, the desire appeared for a relaxation of these emergency measures. The Jacobins were outvoted in the Convention and Robespierre accused and executed. The Jacobins were then outlawed, and the "Terror" officially ended. The Committee of Public Safety had been successful in making some epoch reforms. These included establishing the metric system of weights and measures, abolishing Negro slavery and establishing culture centres such as libraries and art galleries that were open to the masses. The Convention then abolished the Committee of Public Safety after the fall of Robespierre and also the Revolutionary Tribunals.

The Directory (1795 – 1799)

The Convention then formed the Constitution of Year III (Year III of the Revolutionary Calendar). This included


A Directory, or executive, of five directors, who were to hold the chief executive office in turn
A Parliament consisting of two Houses

·  ·  ·  a) The Council of Five Hundred

      1. The Council of Elders


A limited franchise (like the one in 1791).

This signified a return tot he protection and support of the Bourgeoisie. It was a move away from the masses and the peasants. This also brought an end to the experiment of democratic government in France . On the announcement of this constitution there were mass uprisings. These were stopped by Napoleon. Napoleon was becoming more and more popular with the Convention for his crushing of these attempted coup d’etat.

Another problem had arisen though as the Second Coalition was formed. This included Britain , Russia , Turkey , Austria and Naples . Napoleon meanwhile was furthering his popularity with the success of his Italian Campaign and his Egyptian Campaign.

Napoleon Seizes Power

The period of 1795 to 1799 was marked with attempted coups and rebellions. However the Directory was able to continue in Government as it had the backing of the military. If this backing were to ever be removed the Directory would cease to exist. A final coup was organized by Napoleon Bonaparte. On returning to France in 1799 he joined with three of the Directors in a conspiracy to take control. His three Director collaborators resigned and the remaining two were arrested. When the council of elders did not welcome him with opening arms he secured the government buildings with his army. A partial council of his friends were formed and voted Bonaparte and two others as temporary consuls. This was the start of the Consulate Government.

The Consulate (1800 – 1803)

The first task of Napoleon was to rid the threat if the Second Coalition. For this he marched his own armies against them. Fighting his second Italian Campaign he inflicted a defeat on Austria at Marengo in 1800. General Moreau defeated the Austrians at Hohenlinden. Russia hastily withdrew form the coalition and the Austrian emperor agreed to peace. Then the Peace of Amiens was achieved with Britain in 1802. This got rid of the external threats for the time being.

Napoleon than worked on reorganizing France and closing the Revolution. These included:


Local governments were made more efficient and became highly centralized.
The ‘Code of Napoleon’ was instituted
The Concordant was signed with the Vatican
France reverted back to the Christian Calendar
Education was placed under a central control

These changes made sure some of the good points of the Revolution were carried on. These included the abolition of the feudal system and the old class order. It also kept and guaranteed the land settlements of the Revolution and gained for Napoleon the support of the peasantry and the clergy.

The costs of all these reforms affected all Frenchmen. Personal Liberty disappeared; the press was censored; the schools and Church taught loyalty to Napoleon; the secrets police imprisoned or murdered Napoleon’s enemies. Napoleon claimed Frenchman only wanted glory, aggressive Nationalism and demagogic leadership. ‘I sealed the gulf of anarchy and unraveled chaos. I purified the Revolution and strengthened the monarchy’.

The French Empire (1804 – 1815)

Napoleon started enlarging ports and docks and the British took this as an offence and disregarded the Peace of Amiens. In 1805 Britain formed the third coalition containing Britain , Russia , Prussia and Austria . Napoleon defeated the Austrians at Ulm on the 15th of October 1805 and he entered Vienna . The British naval commander Lord Nelson destroyed his fleets in the ports of Spain and France . This ruined any chance of Napoleon invading Britain .

By winning the battles at Austerlitz (2December 1805), Jena , Averstadt and Friedland (June 1807), Napoleon defeated the Austrian, Prussian and Russian Armies. Austria accepted the Peace of Pressburg and Russia the Treaty of Tilsit. In 1807 Russian and France became Allies. Napoleon improved his infrastructure to make campaigns more efficient.

The continental Blockade was issued after the Berlin Decree that stated no British ships could trade with Europe . This was followed by a counter blockade. This greatly affected France more and this was abandoned in 1813. By 1810 the French Empire had reached its biggest position.

Napoleon then failed in his campaign s in Portugal and Spain . Austria encouraged by Spanish success rose in revolt in 1809. They were crushed in and in the Treaty Napoleon demanded the hand of the Austrian emperor Marie - Louise. IN 1811 Napoleon suffered a humiliating defeat in Russia . Prussia also rose in revolt and was crushed. However Austria and Russia joined forces and defeated Napoleon at Leipzig . On April 14th 1814 Napoleon abdicated and was banished to the Island of Elba . Ten months later he returned but was defeated by British Prussian forces on the 18th of June at Waterloo .

The Importance of Napoleon

·  ·  The Good


His early victories saved France
He established law and order in France
He established national unity under a string centralized government
He made permanent some of the gains of the Revolution. For example legal equality, land settlement and the departments for the local government
Organized France into a string unified state eg. Concordat, Code of Napoleon, Bank of France
European Countries were affected by abolishing class privileges and spreading nationalism.

The Bad


His wars continually drained France
They cause a great loss of life and destruction
His continental system dislocated trade and industry
Private interests and rights became subordinate to the Emperor

Note: Napoleon thought that the only way he could be respected was to continually bring back glory through his military campaigns.

Significance of the Period 1789 – 1815

The following is a list of those things that occurred due to or during the Revolution which had a considerable impact on French Society or the World.

Immediate Effect on France of Napoleon’s Defeat at Waterloo

With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo , there was a return of the Bourbons to the throne with Louis XVIII. All of Napoleons conquests were lost by France and divided among those countries of the coalition that defeated France . Economically the wars had crushed France and left industry and commerce in ruins. This ruined France ’s opportunity to rival Britain ’s industrial power.

Politically the coalition who had defeated France demanded a return to the old rulers and structure within France . This saw the middle classes fight bitterly to hold their basic legal and political rights. It was not until 1870 that France would again become a Republic.

The place of the Revolution in the Long Anti-Feudal Process

The French Revolution summed up the whole Anti –Feudal process in Europe by swiftly putting an end to all the feudal privileges, laws and institutions in France . With Napoleons conquest the Anti-Feudalism Process was spread further through Europe . This was made Napoleons conquests easier as the peasants of the countries were happy to see the end of Feudalism. After Napoleons defeat however most of Europe restored some of the feudal taxes and this undid the work of Napoleon and the Revolution.

Economic Gains of the Bourgeoisie and the Peasants

The Bourgeoisie economically benefited the most from the Revolution. Firstly they secured the abolition of tax injustices within the Ancien Regime. Tax Privileges were abolished, so were corrupt taxing methods, local and provincial tolls, taxes on legal and market transactions, indirect taxes on goods and the harsh system of tax supervision which hampered the growth of industry and commerce. The Revolution also established a uniform standard of weights and measures. This was the metric system. The Government also helped establish protective tariffs for French industries.

The Revolution continued the process of Emancipating the Serfs and creating peasant proprietors. France emerged as having the richest peasants in Europe . Their land gains gave them wealth and power. Therefore the peasants became conservatives in French Politics.

To the workers and non-land owners the Revolution did not really benefit them. They were still not allowed to vote or form trade unions. Their working conditions still could not be negotiated. This may explain why there was later a Revolution against the Bourgeoisie.

Liberty ’ – Liberal Advances but not yet Democracy

In its first victory the Revolution had put an end to absolutism in France . Instead of the ‘divine right of the Kings’ there was the ‘will of the people’. This was understood to mean limiting the powers of Government through a constitution and secondly electing an assembly and parliaments. Free speech, freedom of the press and freedom to form political parties were seen as basic human rights even though they did not really exist after Napoleon established a dictatorship. Universal Suffrage was started and then abandoned quickly. Political Liberties won by the revolution led to a constitutional parliament but not a democracy. The Revolution had provided one democratic election (National Assembly, and not for women) and this would be remembered throughout French History.

‘Equality’ – Civic Equality but not Income Equality

The Revolution brought an end to privileges and the class system. Everybody came under the same law and taxation. Promotion became open to talent and citizens were equal before the law. Neither the new set of Nobles nor the returned set in 1815 could extract the same privileges present in the Ancien Regime’s nobility.

Effects in Europe

The Revolution was successful in spreading new political ideas such as Nationalism through a previous unpolitical Europe . Napoleon’s armies quickened the change brought on by the revolution. They gave Europe a glimpse of greater efficiency of modernised institutions and law. Napoleon was however no liberal, he did not destroy absolutism but he created a more efficient form of it. At the very least the countries of Europe learnt to equip their countries with more centralized bureaucracies and a Secret Police Force. The forces of liberalism were planted in Europe however and they would continue to make demands on absolutism in Europe .

The Revolution as a source of New Ideas and Doctrines

The actions and ideas of the French Revolution have been keenly studied by political theorists. They have arrived at three different conclusions about which type of government should have resulted:

Democratic parliamentary government is the best solution and it leads to endless reforms
That another revolution is necessary to gain the social justice that the Bourgeoisie denied to the lower classes. This idea was to be embraced by socialist and later communists.
That good government can be expected only from a leader Genius like Napoleon. - 17.3.2002