(Originally posted on Friday, July 31, 2009)
by Gerald Boerner
“Vanity made the [French] Revolution; liberty was only a pretext.”
— Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
“We need the real, nation-wide terror which reinvigorates the country and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory”
— Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)
Over the past couple of weeks, we have been examining the French Revolution. We have looked at what triggered it, the stages through which it progressed, the major participants and groups, and the different legislative bodies associated with it. This revolution was a major civil war that saw the people of France stand up to their oppressors — the Monarchy, the Church and Clergy, and the Nobility.
Our task today is to try to sum up what results this Revolution produced and how they affected different groups (classes) in France at the beginning of the conflict. We will also look at the state of the country at the end of the conflict. Overall, it did make a difference, but in what ways? Let’s take a closer look…
What form of government existed before and after the Revolution?
The Revolution saw a transition from an absolute Monarchy to a Republic. This evolution was not simple and included a phase of radical democracy that led to the anarchy of the ‘Reign of Terror.’ But ultimately, a constitutional republic emerged from this bloodbath. This transition occurred within the ten year period from 1789 to 1799.
This change in régime necessitated a change in the Monarchy as well. The King, Louis XVI, started out as an Absolute Monarch. He was, as it were, ‘downgraded’ to a Constitutional Monarch during the initial phase of the Revolution; he agreed to this change to prevent anarchy, but did not really accept his change in status. He called upon his fellow Monarchs in Europe to ‘rescue’ his domain. When he and his family attempted to flee from Paris and France in 1792, he was identified, captured, and returned to Paris to be placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Eventually, he was removed from the monarchy and executed on the guillotine in January, 1793.
Probably the main causes of these changes centered about the state of the people at the end of the 1780’s. There was droughts throughout the countryside, the people were malnourished, and they were taxed beyond their ability to pay; the country was in financial crisis due to recent war expenses. Complicating these factors was the lavish lifestyle of the court’s extravagant lifestyle that ignored the plight of the people. The King was out-of-touch with the people because he lived in the opulent of the Palace of Versailles and was shielded from the people by those surrounding him. Also complicating the problem was the two liberal influences of the day: the liberal ideals of the American Revolution and the philosophies of the ‘Enlightenment’ Philosophers (Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu).
What happened to the rest of the population?
At the beginning of the Revolution, the populace of France was divided into three classes, or ‘Estates’. These were:
- The First Estate… The Clergy
- The Second Estate… The Nobility
- The Third Estate… The rest of the population, including the merchants and craftsmen and the farmers of the countryside
While the first two Estates held virtually all the power in France’s feudal economy, about 95% of the population fell into the ‘Third Estate’. Furthermore, the first two estates were exempt from taxation and owned most of the land. The ‘Third Estate’, therefore, felt the ‘brunt’ of the country’s taxes AND still had to pay the Church its ‘tithe’, or 10%. The people were ripe for change.
During the initial phases of the Revolution, the Church and Clergy were stripped of their special status. No longer were they exempt from taxes and the Clergy were brought under the governance of the state if they were to remain in France. In later phases, the ultra-radical ‘Hébertists’ sought to replace the Catholic Church entirely, replacing it with the ‘Worship of Reason’ during the ‘de-christianization’ movement. By the end of the Revolution, the Church had been reinstated, but without its earlier prerogatives.
Likewise, the Nobility, the major feudal overlords, was hated by virtually all elements of the Revolution. They were stripped of their tax exemption and other rights under the feudal contracts held with their tenants. Many of this Nobility class escaped, or attempted to escape, from France and became ‘émigrés’. Those that remained were in for harsh treatment by the people; a good many of them were executed on the guillotine during the ‘Reign of Terror’. After the formation of the Republic after the adoption of the Constitution of 1794, many returned, but did not regain their previous power or privileges.
The people of France were the ultimate winners from the Revolution. However, as stated by George Orwell, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" (Animal Farm, 1945). Initially, the Intellectuals were in charge of the Revolution, the ‘Girondists’, did away with the feudal system and gave the people, especially those in the countryside, hope for a better life. When that promise did not result in concrete improvements, the people, especially the poor of Paris, switched their support to the more radical ‘Montagnards’ under the leadership of Robespierre. As the people rose up in revolt, the ‘Reign of Terror’ brought many of these poor to the guillotine. Eventually, the people emerged with Rights and a voice during the Republic. They were represented in the new government by the ‘Council of Five-Hundred’.
So, in the end, the people did triumph over the Clerics and the Nobility classes. They had emerged from an extended famine that was causing starvation and malnutrition prior to 1789, but they were still poor, especially if they lived in the countryside or the different ‘Departements’ (Provinces).
What were the overall outcomes of this Revolution?
In the end, from 1795 to 1799, France operated as a Republic. The wars with the coalition of European armies under control of Austria continued. Like the American colonies, they were fighting for the new form of government they had established — a Republic. Since most other European states were still Monarchies, the French Revolution posed a threat to the internal security of these other European countries.
Many generals fought valiantly for their country, but one that emerged above the others was Napoleon. His victories coupled with continued dissatisfaction with the corruption within the governance of the Republic set the stage for the next upheaval in France, the creation of the French Empire with Napoleon as its head. But that is another story for another day.
This concludes this series. Check back for other series on themes like these will be addressed in the future…