The heady, violent days of the French Revolution come to life in this brilliant documentary - the true story behind the downfall of the monarch portrayed in the Oscar® - winning film for Best Costume Design Marie Antoinette.
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* A feature-length look at the Revolution that transformed Europe.
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As their government helped England's rebellious Colonies win their freedom, its citizens looked to the same struggle for inspiration. Driven by idealism, catalyzed by a society in crisis, and defined by carnage, the French Revolution erupted a little more than a decade later.
This authoritative survey masterfully brings the world of 18th century France to life. The French Revolution shook the very foundations of monarchy, destroyed the last vestiges of feudalism, and planted the seeds of modern politics, diplomacy, and nationalism. Travel back to the days of the guillotine to meet the figures who made history, including Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI, Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, Georges Danton, and Charlotte Corday.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, by History.com
cataclysmic political and social upheaval, extending from 1789 to 1799, which resulted, among other things, in the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in France and in the establishment of the First Republic. It was generated by a vast complex of causes, the most important of which were the inability of the ruling classes of nobility, clergy, and bourgeoisie to come to grips with the problems of state, the indecisive nature of the monarch, extortionate taxation of the peasantry, impoverishment of the workers, the intellectual ferment of the Age of Enlightenment, and the example of the American Revolution. Recent scholarship tends to downplay the social class struggle and emphasize political, cultural, ideological, and personality factors in the advent and unfolding of the conflict. The Revolution itself produced an equally vast complex of consequences. This article deals for the most part with highlights of the revolutionary period in France. For an account of many of the important events that preceded and followed the Revolution, see FRANCE.
Historical Reasons for the Revolution.
For more than a century before the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, the French government had undergone periodic economic crises, resulting from the long wars waged during the reign of Louis XIV, royal mismanagement of national affairs under Louis XV, the losses incurred in the French and Indian War (1756–63), and increased indebtedness arising from loans to the American colonies during the American Revolution (1775–83). The advocates of fiscal, social, and governmental reform became increasingly vocal during the reign of Louis XVI. In August 1774, Louis appointed a liberal comptroller general, the economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, baron de L’Aulne, who instituted a policy of strict economy in government expenditures. Within two years, however, most of the reforms had been withdrawn and his dismissal forced by reactionary members of the nobility and clergy, supported by Queen Marie Antoinette. Turgot’s successor, the financier and statesman Jacques Necker, similarly accomplished little before his downfall in 1781, also because of opposition from the reactionaries. Nevertheless, he won popular acclaim by publishing an accounting of the royal finances, which revealed the heavy cost of privileges and favoritism. During the next few years the financial crisis steadily worsened. Popular demand for convocation of the Estates-General (an assembly made up of representatives of the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners), which had been in adjournment since 1614, finally compelled Louis XVI in 1788 to authorize national elections. During the ensuing campaign, censorship was suspended, and a flood of pamphlets expressing ideas derived from the Enlightenment circulated throughout France. Necker, who was reinstated as comptroller general by Louis in 1788, supported the king in his decision that the third estate (commoners) would have as many representatives in the Estates-General as the first estate (the clergy) and the second estate (the nobility) combined, but both he and Louis failed to make a ruling on the method of voting.
Despite general agreement among the three estates that national salvation required fundamental changes in the status quo, class antagonisms precluded unity of action in the Estates-General, which convened at Versailles on May 5, 1789. The delegations representing the privileged strata of French society immediately challenged the third-estate caucus by rejecting its procedural proposals on methods of voting. The proposals were designed to establish a system of simple majority rule, thereby ensuring domination of the Estates-General by the third estate, numerically the most powerful caucus. The deadlock on procedure persisted for six weeks, but finally, on June 17, the insurgent caucus, led by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, proclaimed itself the National Assembly. This display of defiance of the royal government, which had given its support to the clergy and nobility, was followed by the passage of a measure vesting the National Assembly with sole power to legislate taxation. In swift retaliation, Louis deprived the National Assembly of its meeting hall. The National Assembly responded, on June 20, by gathering at a Versailles tennis court and swearing, in what is known in history as the Tennis Court Oath, that it would not dissolve until it had drafted a constitution for France. At this juncture, serious divisions split the ranks of the upper two estates, and numerous representatives of the lower clergy and a number of liberal nobles broke off to join forces with the National Assembly.
Continued defiance of royal decrees and the mutinous mood of the royal army forced the king to capitulate. On June 27 he ordered the refractory nobility and clergy to join the unicameral legislature, which then designated itself the National Constituent Assembly. Yielding to pressure from the queen and the comte d’Artois, later Charles X, Louis issued orders for the concentration of several loyal foreign regiments in Paris and Versailles. At the same time, Necker, the popular apostle of a regenerated France, was again dismissed from the government. The people of Paris reacted to these provocative acts with open insurrection. Rioting began on July 12, and on July 14 the Bastille, a royal prison that symbolized the despotism of the Bourbons, was stormed and captured.
Even before the Parisian outburst, violence, sporadic local disturbances, and peasant uprisings against oppressive nobles occurred in many parts of France, alarming the propertied bourgeoisie no less than the Royalists. Panic-stricken over these ominous events, the comte d’Artois and other prominent reactionaries, the first of the so-called émigrés, fled the country. The Parisian bourgeoisie, fearful that the lower classes of the city would take further advantage of the collapse of the old administrative machine and resort again to direct action, hastily established a provisional local government and organized a people’s militia, officially designated the National Guard. A red, white, and blue tricolor was substituted for the white standard of the Bourbons as the national flag. Provisional local governments and militia units were soon established throughout the nation. The National Guard was placed under the command of the marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution. Unable to stem the rising tide of revolt, Louis XVI withdrew his loyal troops. He recalled Necker, and then he formally legalized the measures that had been taken by the provisional authorities.
Drafting a Constitution.
Provincial unrest and disorder, known as the Great Fear, stimulated the National Constituent Assembly to action. During the night session of Aug. 4, 1789, the clergy, nobles, and bourgeoisie renounced their privileges; a few days later the assembly passed a law abolishing feudal and manorial prerogatives, but guaranteeing compensation in certain cases. Parallel legislation included prohibition of the sale of public offices, of exemption from taxation, and of the right of the Roman Catholic church to levy tithes.
The assembly then proceeded to grapple with its primary task, the drafting of a constitution. In the constitutional preamble, known in history as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the delegates formulated the revolutionary ideals later summarized as Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”). While the Constituent Assembly deliberated, the hungry population of Paris, a hotbed of discontent and of rumors of Royalist conspiracy, clamored for food and agitated for action. Reports of a gala banquet at Versailles stirred the political ferment in Paris to the boiling point. On October 5–6 a large body of Parisians, mostly women, marched on Versailles and laid siege to the royal palace. Louis and his family were rescued by Lafayette, who, on demand of the crowd, escorted them to Paris. After this episode some conservative members of the Constituent Assembly, which followed the king to Paris, handed in their resignations. In Paris, both the court and the assembly became increasingly subject to pressures from its citizens. Radical sentiment became predominant in the assembly, but the original objective, a constitutional monarchy, was retained.
The first draft of the constitution received the approval of the French monarch on July 14, 1790, at elaborate ceremonies in Paris, attended by delegations from all parts of the nation. By the terms of the document, the provinces of France were abolished, and the country was divided into departments, each named for a mountain or stream and provided with a local elective administrative apparatus. Hereditary titles were outlawed, trial by jury in criminal cases was ordained, and fundamental modification of French law was projected. By the institution of property qualifications for the vote, the constitution confined the electorate to the middle and upper classes. The constitution vested legislative authority in a Legislative Assembly, to consist of 745 members elected by an indirect system of voting. Although executive authority was vested in the king, strict limitations were imposed on his powers. His veto power was merely suspensive, and the assembly had effective control of his conduct of foreign affairs. Severe restrictions on the power of the Roman Catholic church were legalized through a series of articles, called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the most important of which confiscated all ecclesiastical estates. To relieve financial distress, the state was authorized to issue a new form of paper currency, called assignats, which were secured by the seized lands, constituting a tenth of France. The constitution also provided for the election of priests and bishops by the voters, for remuneration of the clergy by the state, for a clerical oath of allegiance to the state, and for dissolution of most monastic orders.
During the 15-month interval between Louis’s acceptance of the initial draft of the constitution and completion of the final draft, important changes in the relationship of forces within the French revolutionary movement took shape. These changes were dictated, first of all, by the mood of suspicion and discontent among the disfranchised section of the population. Wanting the vote and relief from social and economic misery, the nonpropertied classes steadily gravitated toward radicalism. This process, largely accelerated throughout France by the highly organized Jacobins and, in Paris, by the Cordeliers, acquired further impetus as reports circulated that Marie Antoinette was in constant communication with her brother Leopold II, Holy Roman emperor. Like most other monarchs of Europe, Leopold had afforded sanctuary to the émigrés and had otherwise revealed his hostility to the revolutionary occurrences in France. Popular suspicions regarding the activities of the queen and the complicity of the king were confirmed when, on June 21, the royal family was apprehended at Varennes while attempting to escape from France.
The Growth of Radicalism in the Government.
On July 17, 1791, the Republicans of Paris massed in the Champ de Mars and demanded that the king be deposed. On the order of Lafayette, who was affiliated politically with the Feuillants, a group of moderate monarchists, the National Guard opened fire on the demonstrators and dispersed them. The bloodshed immeasurably widened the cleavage between the republican and bourgeois sections of the population. After suspending Louis for a brief period, the moderate majority of the Constituent Assembly, fearful of the growing disorder, reinstated the king in the hope of stemming the mounting radicalism and of preventing foreign intervention. Louis took the oath to support the revised constitution on September 14. Two weeks later, with the election of the new legislature authorized by the constitution, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved. Meanwhile, on August 27, Leopold II and Frederick William II, king of Prussia, had issued a joint declaration regarding France, which contained a thinly veiled threat of armed intervention against the revolution.
The Legislative Assembly, which began its sessions on Oct. 1, 1791, was composed of 750 members, all of whom were inexperienced, inasmuch as members of the Constituent Assembly had voted themselves ineligible for election to the new body. The new legislature was divided into widely divergent factions, the most moderate of which was the Feuillants, who supported a constitutional monarchy as defined under the Constitution of 1791. In the center was the majority caucus, known as the Plain, which was without well-defined political opinions and consequently without initiative. The Plain, however, uniformly opposed the Republican factors that sat on the left, composed mainly of the Girondists, who advocated transformation of the constitutional monarchy into a federal republic similar to the U.S., and of the Montagnards, consisting of Jacobins and Cordeliers, who favored establishment of a highly centralized, indivisible republic. Before these differences caused a serious split between the Girondists and the Montagnards, the Republican caucus in the assembly secured passage of several important bills, including stringent measures against clergymen who refused to swear allegiance. Louis exercised his veto against these bills, however, creating a cabinet crisis that brought the Girondists to power. Despite the opposition of leading Montagnards, the Girondist ministry, headed by Jean Marie Roland de la Platière (1734–93), adopted a belligerent attitude toward Frederick William II and Francis II, Holy Roman emperor, who had succeeded his father, Leopold II, on March 1, 1792. The two sovereigns openly supported the activities of the émigrés and sustained the opposition of the feudal landlords in Alsace to the revolutionary legislation. Sentiment for war spread rapidly among the monarchists, who hoped for defeat of the revolutionary government and the restoration of the Old Regime, and among the Girondists, who wanted a final triumph over reaction at home and abroad. On April 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly declared war on the Austrian part of the Holy Roman Empire, beginning the series of conflicts known as the French revolutionary wars.
The Struggle for Freedom.
Aided by treasonable errors of omission and commission among the French high command, mostly monarchists, the armies of Austria won several victories in the Austrian Netherlands. The subsequent invasion of France produced major repercussions in the national capital. The Roland ministry fell on June 13, and mass unrest erupted, one week later, into an attack on the Tuileries, the residence of the royal family. On July 11, after Sardinia and Prussia joined the war against France, the Legislative Assembly declared a national emergency. Reserves were dispatched to the hard-pressed armies, and volunteers were summoned to Paris from all parts of the country. When the contingent from Marseille arrived, it was singing the patriotic hymn thenceforth known as the “Marseillaise.” Popular dissatisfaction with the Girondists, who had rallied to the support of the monarchy and had dismissed charges of desertion against Lafayette, increased the agitation. On August 10 the discontent, combined with the threat contained in the manifesto of the allied commander, Charles William Ferdinand, duke of Brunswick (1735–1806), to destroy the capital city if the royal family were mistreated, precipitated a Parisian insurrection. The insurgents, led by radical elements of the capital and national volunteers en route to the front, stormed the Tuileries and massacred the king’s Swiss guard. Louis and his family took refuge in the nearby hall of the Legislative Assembly, which promptly suspended the king and placed him in confinement. Simultaneously, the insurrectionists deposed the governing council of Paris, which was replaced by a new provisional executive council. The Montagnards, under the leadership of the lawyer Georges Jacques Danton, dominated the new Parisian government. They swiftly achieved control of the Legislative Assembly. The assembly shortly approved elections, by universal male suffrage, for a new constitutional convention. Between September 2 and 7, more than 1000 Royalists and suspected traitors who had been rounded up in various parts of France, were tried summarily and executed. These “September massacres” were induced by popular fear of the advancing allied armies and of rumored plots to overthrow the revolutionary government. On September 20 a French army, commanded by Gen. Charles François Dumouriez (1739–1823), checked the Prussian advance on Paris at Valmy.
On the day after the victory at Valmy, the newly elected National Convention convened in Paris. In its first official moves that day, the convention proclaimed establishment of the First Republic and abolished the monarchy. Agreement among the principal convention factions, the Girondists and the Montagnards, extended little beyond common approval of these initial measures. No effective opposition developed, however, to the decree sponsored by the Girondists and promulgated on November 19, which promised the help of France to all oppressed peoples of Europe. Encouraging reports arrived almost weekly from the armies, which had assumed the offensive after the battle at Valmy and had successively captured Mainz, Frankfurt am Main, Nice, Savoie, the Austrian Netherlands, and other areas. In the meantime, however, strife steadily intensified in the convention, with the Plain vacillating between support of the conservative Girondists and the radical Montagnards. In the first major test of strength, a majority approved the Montagnard proposal that Louis be brought to trial before the convention for treason. On Jan. 15, 1793, by an almost unanimous vote, the convention found the monarch guilty as charged, but on the following day, when the nature of the penalty was determined, factional lines were sharply drawn. By a vote of 387 to 334, the delegates approved the death penalty. Louis XVI went to the guillotine on January 21.
Girondist influence in the National Convention diminished markedly after the execution of the king. The lack of unity within the party during the trial had irreparably damaged its national prestige, long at low ebb among the Parisian populace, who favored the Jacobins. The Girondists lost influence as a consequence of the military reverses suffered by the French armies after the declaration of war against Great Britain and the United Netherlands (Feb. 1, 1793) and against Spain (March 7), which, with several smaller states, had entered the counterrevolutionary coalition against France. Jacobin proposals designed to strengthen the government for the crucial struggles ahead met fierce resistance from the Girondists. Early in March, however, the convention voted to conscript 300,000 men and dispatched special commissioners to the various departments for the purpose of organizing the levy. Royalists and clerical foes of the Revolution stirred the anticonscription feelings of peasants in the Vendée into open rebellion. Civil war quickly spread to neighboring departments. On March 18, the Austrians defeated the army of Dumouriez at Neerwinden, and Dumouriez deserted to the enemy. The defection of the leader of the army, mounting civil war, and the advance of enemy forces across the French frontiers inevitably forced a crisis in the convention between the Girondists and the Montagnards, with the more radical elements stressing the necessity for bold action in defense of the Revolution.
The Reign of Terror.
On April 6 the convention established the COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC SAFETY, (q.v.) as the executive organ of the republic and reorganized the Committee of General Security and the Revolutionary Tribunal. Agents were sent to the departments to supervise local execution of the laws and to requisition men and munitions. During this period rivalry between the Girondists and the Montagnards became increasingly bitter. A new Parisian outburst, organized by the radical journalist Jacques René Hébert (1757–94) and his extremist colleagues, forced the convention to order the arrest of 29 Girondist delegates and the Girondist ministers Pierre Henri Hélène Marie Lebrun-Tondu (1763?–93) and Étienne Clavière (1735–93) on June 2. Thereafter, the radical faction in control of the government of Paris played a decisive role in the conduct of the Revolution. On June 24 the convention promulgated a new constitution, the terms of which greatly extended the democratic features of the republic. The document was never actually put into effect, however. Leadership of the Committee of Public Safety passed, on July 10, to the Jacobins, who completely reorganized it. Three days later the radical politician Jean Paul Marat, long identified with the Jacobins, was assassinated by the aristocrat Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathizer. Public indignation over this crime considerably broadened the Jacobin sphere of influence. On July 27 the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre was added to the Committee of Public Safety and soon became its dominant member. Aided by Louis Saint-Just, Lazare Carnot, Georges Couthon (1755–94), and other prominent Jacobins, Robespierre instituted extreme policies to crush any possibility of counterrevolution. The powers of the committee were renewed monthly by the National Convention from April 1793 to July 1794, a period known in history as the Reign of Terror.
From a military standpoint, the position of the republic was extremely perilous. Enemy powers had resumed the offensive on all fronts. Mainz had been recaptured by the Prussians, Condé-Sur-L’Escaut and Valenciennes had fallen, and Toulon was under siege by the British. Royalist and Roman Catholic insurgents controlled much of the Vendée and Brittany. Caen, Lyons, Marseille, Bordeaux, and other important localities were in the hands of the Girondists. By a new conscription decree, issued on August 23, the entire able-bodied male population of France was made liable to conscription. Fourteen new armies, numbering about 750,000 men, were speedily organized, equipped, and rushed to the fronts. Along with these moves, the committee struck violently at internal opposition.
On October 16 Marie Antoinette was executed, and 21 prominent Girondists were beheaded on October 31. Beginning with these reprisals, thousands of Royalists, nonjuring priests, Girondists, and other elements charged with counterrevolutionary activities or sympathies were brought before revolutionary tribunals, convicted, and sent to the guillotine. Executions in Paris totaled 2639; more than half (1515) the victims perished during June and July, 1794. In many outlying departments, particularly the main centers of Royalist insurrection, even harsher treatment was meted out to traitors, real and suspect. The Nantes tribunal, headed by Jean Baptiste Carrier (1756–94), which dealt most severely with those who aided the rebels in the Vendée, sent more than 8000 persons to the guillotine within three months. In all of France, revolutionary tribunals and commissions were responsible for the execution of almost 17,000 individuals. Including those who died in overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons and insurgents shot summarily on the field of battle, the victims of the Reign of Terror totaled approximately 40,000. All elements of the opposition suffered from the terror. Of those condemned by the revolutionary tribunals, approximately 8 percent were nobles, 6 percent were members of the clergy, 14 percent belonged to the middle class, and 70 percent were workers or peasants charged with draft dodging, desertion, hoarding, rebellion, and various other crimes. Of these social groupings, the clergy of the Roman Catholic church suffered proportionately the greatest loss. Anticlerical hatred found further expression in the abolition, in October 1793, of the Julian calendar, which was replaced by a Republican calendar. As a part of its revolutionary program, the Committee of Public Safety, under the leadership of Robespierre, attempted to remake France in accordance with its concepts of humanitarianism, social idealism, and patriotism. Striving to establish a “Republic of Virtue,” the committee stressed devotion to the republic and to victory and instituted measures against corruption and hoarding. In addition, on Nov. 23, 1793, the Commune of Paris, in a measure soon copied by authorities elsewhere in France, closed all churches in the city and began actively to sponsor the revolutionary religion known as the Cult of Reason. Initiated at the insistence of the radical leader Pierre Gaspard Chaumette (1763–94) and his extremist colleagues (among them Hébert), this act accentuated growing differences between the centrist Jacobins, led by Robespierre, and the fanatical Hébertists, a powerful force in the convention and in the Parisian government.
The tide of battle against the allied coalition had turned, meanwhile, in favor of France. Initiating a succession of important victories, Gen. Jean Baptiste Jourdan (1762–1833) defeated the Austrians at Wattignies-La-Victoi on Oct. 16, 1793. By the end of the year, the invaders in the east had been driven across the Rhine, and Toulon had been liberated. Of equal significance, the Committee of Public Safety had largely crushed the insurrections of the Royalists and the Girondists.
Struggle for Power.
The factional struggle between the Committee of Public Safety and the extreme group surrounding Hébert was resolved with the execution, on March 24, 1794, of Hébert and his principal associates. Within two weeks, Robespierre moved against the Dantonists, who had begun to demand peace and an end of the terror. Danton and his principal colleagues were beheaded on April 6. As a result of these purges and wholesale reprisals against supporters of the two factions, Robespierre lost the backing of many leading Jacobins, especially those who feared for their own safety. A number of military successes, notably that at Fleurus, Belgium, on June 26, which prepared the way for the second French conquest of the Austrian Netherlands, increased popular confidence in eventual triumph. As a consequence, doubt regarding the necessity of Robespierre’s terroristic security measures became widespread. The general dissatisfaction with the leader of the Committee of Public Safety shortly developed into full-fledged conspiracy. Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon, and 98 of their followers were seized on July 27, the Ninth Thermidor by the Republican calendar, and beheaded the next day. The Ninth Thermidor is generally regarded as marking the end of the “Republic of Virtue.”
Until the end of 1794, the National Convention was dominated by the group, called Thermidoreans, that overthrew Robespierre and ended the Reign of Terror. The Jacobin Clubs were closed throughout France, the revolutionary tribunals were abolished, and various extremist decrees, including one that had fixed wages and commodity prices, were repealed. After the recall to the convention of expelled Girondists and other rightist delegates, Thermidorean conservatism was transformed into sharp reaction. During the spring of 1795, bread riots and protest demonstrations spread from Paris to many sections of France. The outbreaks were suppressed, and severe reprisals were exacted against the Montagnards.
The morale of the French armies was undamaged by these events on the home front. During the winter of 1794–95, French forces, commanded by Gen. Charles Pichegru (1761–1804), overran the Austrian Netherlands, occupied the United Netherlands, which the victors reorganized as the Batavian Republic, and routed the allied armies of the Rhine. This sequence of reversals resulted in the disintegration of the anti-French coalition. On April 5, 1795, by the Treaty of Basel, Prussia and a number of allied Germanic states concluded peace with the French government. On July 22 Spain also withdrew from the war, leaving Great Britain, Sardinia, and Austria as the sole remaining belligerents. For nearly a year, however, a stalemate prevailed between France and these powers. The next phase of the struggle opened the Napoleonic Wars.
Peace was restored to the frontiers, and in July an invading army of émigrés was defeated in Brittany. The National Convention then quickly completed the draft of a new constitution. Formally approved on Aug. 22, 1795, the new basic law of France vested executive authority in a Directory, composed of five members. Legislative power was delegated to a bicameral legislature, consisting of the Council of Ancients, with 250 members, and the Council of the Five Hundred. The terms of one member of the Directory and a third of the legislature were renewable annually, beginning in May 1797, and the franchise was limited to taxpayers who could establish proof of one-year residence in their voting district. The new constitution contained additional evidence of retreat from Jacobin democracy. In its failure to provide a means of breaking deadlocks between the executive and legislative bodies, it laid the basis for constant intragovernmental rivalry for power, successive coups d’etat, and ineffectual administration of national affairs. The National Convention, however, still anticlerical and anti-Royalist despite its opposition to Jacobinism, created safeguards against the restoration of the monarchy. By a special decree, the first directors and two-thirds of the legislature were to be chosen from among the convention membership. Parisian Royalists, reacting violently to this decree, organized, on Oct. 5, 1795, an insurrection against the convention. The uprising was promptly quelled by troops under the command of Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, a little-known leader of the revolutionary armies who later became Napoleon I, emperor of France. On October 26 the powers of the National Convention were terminated; on November 2 it was replaced by the government provided for under the new constitution.
Although a number of capable statesmen, including Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Joseph Fouché, gave distinguished service to the Directory, from the outset the government encountered a variety of difficulties. Many of these problems arose from the inherent structural faults of the governmental apparatus; others grew out of the economic and political dislocations brought on by the triumph of conservatism. The Directory inherited an acute financial crisis, which was aggravated by disastrous depreciation (about 99 percent) of the assignats. Although most of the Jacobin leaders were dead, transported, or in hiding, the spirit of Jacobinism still flourished among the lower classes. In the higher circles of society, Royalist agitators boldly campaigned for restoration. The bourgeois political groupings, determined to preserve their hard-won status as the masters of France, soon found it materially and politically profitable to direct the mass energies unleashed by the Revolution into militaristic channels. Old scores remained to be settled with the Holy Roman Empire. In addition, absolutism, by its nature a threat to the Revolution, still held sway over most of Europe.
The Rise of Napoleon.
Less than five months after the Directory took office, it launched the initial phase (March 1796 to October 1797) of the Napoleonic Wars. The three coups d’état—on Sept. 4, 1797 (18 Fructidor), on May 11, 1798 (22 Floréal), and on June 18, 1799 (30 Prairial)—which occurred during this period, merely reflected regroupings of the bourgeois political factions. Military setbacks inflicted on the French armies in the summer of 1799, economic difficulties, and social unrest profoundly endangered bourgeois political supremacy in France. Attacks from the left culminated in a plot initiated by the radical agrarian reformer François Noël Babeuf who advocated equal distribution of land and income. This planned insurrection, called the Conspiracy of the Equals, did not materialize, however, as Babeuf was betrayed by an accomplice and executed on May 28, 1797 (8 Prairial). In the opinion of Lucien Bonaparte, president of the Council of the Five Hundred, of Fouché, minister of police, of Sieyès, then a member of the Directory, and of Talleyrand-Périgord and other political leaders, the crisis could be overcome only by drastic action. A coup d’état on Nov. 9–10, 1799 (18–19 Brumaire), destroyed the Directory. In these and subsequent events, which culminated on Dec. 24, 1799, in a new constitution and the Consulate, Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, currently the popular idol of the recent campaigns, was a central figure. Vested with dictatorial power as First Consul, he rapidly shaped the revolutionary zeal and idealism of France to his own ends. The partial reversal of the national Revolution was compensated for, however, by its extension, during the Napoleonic conquests, to almost every corner of Europe.
Changes Resulting from the Revolution.
One direct result of the French Revolution was the abolition of the absolute monarchy in France. The Revolution was also responsible for destroying the feudal privileges of the nobles. Serfdom was abolished, feudal dues and tithes were eliminated, the large feudal estates were broken up, and the principle of equal liability to taxation was introduced. With the sweeping redistribution of wealth and landholdings, France became the European nation with the largest proportion of small independent landowners. Other social and economic reforms initiated during this period included eliminating imprisonment for debt, introducing the metric system, and abolishing the rule of primogeniture in the inheritance of land.
During the Consulate, Napoleon Bonaparte carried through a series of reforms that were begun during the Revolution. He established the Bank of France, which has continued to function, more or less unchanged, up to the present time, as a quasi-independent national bank and as the agent of the French government for currency, public loans, and the deposit of public funds. The present highly centralized, uniform, secularly controlled French educational system was begun during the Reign of Terror and completed by Napoleon; the University of France and the Institut de France were organized. Teaching appointments, based on competitive examinations, were opened to all citizens regardless of birth or wealth. The reform and codification of the diverse provincial and local law, which culminated in the Napoleonic Code, reflected many of the principles and changes introduced during the Revolution: equality before the law, right of habeas corpus, and provisions for fair trial. Trial procedure provided for a board of judges and a jury for criminal cases; an accused person was considered innocent until proven guilty and was guaranteed counsel.
An additional area in which the Revolution played an important part was that of religion. Although not always practiced in the revolutionary period, the principles of freedom of religion and the press, as enunciated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, resulted ultimately in freedom of conscience and in civil status for Protestants and Jews. The Revolution paved the way also for separation of church and state.
The more intangible results of the Revolution were embodied in its watchwords, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” These ideals became the platform of liberal reforms in France and Europe in the 19th century and remain the present-day passwords of democracy. Revisionist historians, however, attribute to the Revolution less laudable effects, such as the rise of the highly centralized (often totalitarian) state and mass warfare involving total wars of nations-in-arms. Rev. by D.J.H., DONALD JOSEPH HARVEY, M.A., Ph.D.
For further information on historical figures, see biographies of those whose names are not followed by dates.
For further information on this topic, see the Bibliography, sections 906. Enlightenment, Age of, 957. French Revolution.
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