The FRENCH REVOLUTION – SYNOPSIS
PART ONE – “REVOLUTION”
1)Feudalism is often represented as a pyramid, with the monarch (king or queen) and nobility elite or “aristocracy” at the top and the peasant farmers at the base.
2)Peasants were the largest group in society, though they held the least power.
3)Feudalism politically is generally characterized by “absolute” monarchy –
“REX LEX” – the king was law. Political power was “top down”.
4)French monarch Louis XIV was the most famous “absolute” monarch. He called
himself the “Sun King”- everything in France “revolved” around him.
5)Louis XIV, Europe’s most powerful king, famously stated, “I am the state.”
6)Louis’ royal power was symbolized by his huge, lavish palace he had built at
Versailles, ten miles outside Paris.
7)Feudal economies was largely agricultural. Poor peasants farmed land owned by the noble elite and church. The Peasant class were heavily taxed.
8)Economic opportunity was limited in a “mercantilist” economy that was regulated by the king or state. Most were peasants, though there was a small merchant “middle class”.
9)Feudalism was based on social hierarchy – “privileged” classes of “superiors” and “inferiors”. Your class was largely determined.by birth.
10)French society was divided into rigid (unchanging) classes called Estates.
11)The elite class of clergy (priests) made up the First Estate Positions of Church power and wealth were largely “reserved” for the “elite” families of the nobility.
12)French and European feudal society gave religious pre-eminence or “monopoly” to
the Roman Catholic Church..
13)Church power and wealth was based on land ownership. The Church owned about
10% of land in France.
14)The second estate was the nobility. This “elite” class made up 2% of the population.
15)Neither of the first two estates paid much in taxes to the government. They were a
“privileged” class largely exempt from laws “regular” people were under.
16)The Third Estate (“everybody else”) made up 98% of the French population.
Peasants made up more than 80% of France’s 26 million people.
ENLIGHTENMENT POLITICAL THOUGHT
17)New, “liberal” ideals and the “enlightened” use of “reason” to change and
improve human life provided a sense of “optimism” to many.
18)The success of the American Revolution (1776-81) was an example of “enlightened”
government many French admired and wished to imitate..
19)Thomas Jefferson stated in the American Declaration of Independence (July 4,
1776) that all people born “free and equal” with “natural” Rights given by
the “Creator – “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
20)The American Constitution (1787-89) included a Bill of Rights guaranteed to all
citizens.Government formed by the people, for the benefit of the people was an
example of “enlightened” government by social contract.
21)American government and “egalitarian” society rejected “feudal” social hierarchy
with “privileged” elite classes of “superiors” and “inferiors”..(no king or nobility)
22)Government by natural rights, by law and social contract was an important
development in the “enlightened” transition from “REX LEX” (the “king is
law”, a.k.a. absolutism), to “LEX REX” (the “law is king” – limited monarchy)
to just plain “rex” – government by “representation” and “law” with no king or queen.
23)King Louis XVI, coronated king in 1775, was unable to keep a budget, spending more
than he took in from taxes. He borrowed money to maintain his royal life of luxury.
24)Wars also contributed to the French debt. Fighting in Europe was expensive.
Louis spent a sizable sum helping America to gain its independence from Britain.
25)France’s economic problems were made worse by an expanding population and
heavy taxation. The Third Estate paid more than 50% of their incomes to Nobility,
Church, and King.
26)Due to the very cold winter of 1788-89, the price of bread doubled at this time.
There were riots and killing due to food shortages.
27)Louis XVI’s financial crisis was caused by his overspending, indecisiveness and
overall mismanagement. When he tried to “fix” the crisis, he made things worse..
28)Facing bankruptcy, Louis attempted to tax the nobility to raise money. The nobility
resisted this “solution” to the problem.
29)The budget crisis would lead to “revolution”.
30)Louis XVI called the three estates to meet together as the “Estates General” in
May, 1789. This representative assembly had not met since 1614. (175 years)
31)With one vote each, the larger Third Estate (98% of the population) could always get
out-voted by the two smaller “privileged” classes. (Clergy and Nobility)
32)The more numerous Third Estate demanded more political power during the meeting
of the Estates General . The king and the nobility refused this demand.
33)The Third Estate delegates voted on June 17th to name themselves the National
Assembly and pass laws and govern in the name of the French people.
34)The National Assembly was the first “deliberate” act of revolution, the beginning of
the end of absolute monarchy (rex lex’), towards representative government (“lex rex”).
35)The king used the army to lock out the Assembly of their meeting hall.
36)The Assembly pledged on June 20th to stay in the King’s Tennis Court until they had
drafted a new Constitution. This pledge was called the “Tennis Court” Oath.
37)Louis then tried to make peace with the Third Estate. Louis instructed the nobility
and elite clergy to join the Third Estate in the National Assembly.
38)In Paris, rumors flew that foreign troops were coming to kill French citizens.
People gathered weapons to defend Paris against the foreign troops.
39)On July 14, 1789, a violent mob seized the infamous Bastille royal prison. killing
the guards and seizing gunpowder This became the great symbolic act of revolution.
July 14th is celebrated today as the French national holiday. (like our 4th of July)
40)On July 17th, the Great Fear began, a ‘panic” and riots by peasants and others amid
rumors of an “aristocratic conspiracy” by the elite to overthrow the Third Estate
41)In October, 1789, about 6000 Parisian women rioted over the rising price of
bread. Seizing knives and axes, these women led a march on Versailles. The 20,000+
sized mob demanded that Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette come to Paris.
42)The King and his family left Versailles as “hostages”, never again to return.
FRENCH REVOLUTION: PART #2 – REFORM, RADICALS and REACTION
1)The National Assembly on August 4, 1789. abolished most feudal privileges, including
tax exemptions, tithes, obligatory labor on roads, and the payment of “dues”.
The new revolutionary slogan became, “liberty, equality and fraternity.”
2)The National Assembly on August 27, 1789 adopted the Declaration of the Rights
of Man, which stated that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”….
“The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural rights of man.”
3)The “Rights of Man” included “liberty, property, security, and resistance to
oppression” The document guaranteed citizens “equal justice” and freedom of
speech and religion.
4)The Assembly focused on the relationship between Church and State.
The Church was seen as an opponent of revolutionary change.
5)The Assembly took over Church lands on November 2, 1789. The Assembly sold
off Church lands to pay government debts.
6)The Church lost both its source of income and political autonomy. Church officials and
priests were to be elected by property owners and paid as state officials..
7)The Assembly’s move to make the Church part of the State alarmed millions of devout
French Catholics, who believed the Church should be independent of the state.
8)Revolutionary reforms divided the peasants and middle classes The peasants often
resisted revolutionary change, which was generally supported by the “middle” classes.
9)Louis XVI, advised that he and his family could be in danger, tried to escape to
Austria in June, 1791. Captured before crossing the border, his radical enemies
considered him a “traitor” to the new revolutionary French state.
10)The new Constitution of 1791 gave the National Assembly the power to create
French law and declare war. The king and his ministers still had “executive”
authority to enforce the law. King Louis XVI reluctantly approved the new
Constitution and handed power over to the legislative (law-making) Assembly.
11)There was debate over the amount of revolutionary reform that should occur The
governing Assembly soon divided into “factions” or groups. Radicals wanted
sweeping changes in government, giving all power to “the people.” They sat on the
left side of the Assembly hall, hence the term “radical left.”
12)Conservatives wanted few/limited changes in government and society. They upheld
the political idea of a monarchy and socially hierarchy of “privileged” classes. They
generally sat on the right side of the hall, hence the term “conservative right.”
13)”Moderates” wanted changes in government, not as many as the radicals, but more
than conservatives.. These “centrists” typically sat in the middle of the assembly.
WAR and CHAOS
14)The monarchs of Europe sought to destroy this anti-feudal revolution.
Fearing the revolutionary changes sweeping France, they worried the same thing
could happen in own countries.
15)Prussian (Germans) and Austrian forces invaded France in July, 1792.. Hoping to
help King Louis regain his former dominant position as king. They threatened mass
destruction if any member of the royal family was harmed.
16)Parisians reacted to the foreign threats by imprisoning the Royal family in a stone tower and raiding prisons, killing many royalist supporters, former nobility and clergy so there could be no “going back”.
17)The war began badly for the massive, but poorly equipped and inexperienced French
“People’s Army.” After initial defeats, the French army stopped the foreign invasion.
18) During 1792, street mobs had more power than the elected government.
19)The Assembly set aside the Constitution of 1791 and declared the king deposed.
A new legislative body of revolutionaries called the Convention was elected.
RADICAL RULE and “TERROR”
20)The National Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a
republic. The Convention was led by a radical group called the “Jacobins”,
21)The radical “Jacobin” Robespierre took over power. He and the Jacobins
sought to eliminate every trace of France’s feudal past.
22)King Louis XVI was tried for treason, found guilty and executed by the “guillotine”,
a “modern” and “humane” way of killing by instantly cutting off people’s heads..
23)Peasants were horrified with the beheading of the king. Many Frenchmen, especially
outside of Paris, would not accept revolutionary state government control from Paris.
24)Robespierre headed the “Committee on Public Safety” to determine who were
enemies of the revolutionary republic. The Committee often tried people in the
morning and “guillotined” them in the afternoon. Spectators enthusiastically
greeted the death sentences to “enemies of the state”.
25)Robespierre was called “the Incorruptible” regarding revolutionary ideals. A grat
public speaker, he stated that an individual had the duty “to detest … despotism, to punish tyrants and traitors” …“to assist the unfortunate and respect the weak, to defend the oppressed” to do all the good one can to one’s neighbor, and to behave with justice towards all men.”
26)Robespierre’s rule, from July, 1793 to July, 1794, became known as the
“Reign of Terror” – anyone suspected of being an “enemy” of “the Revolution”
27)”Enemies” of the revolution became the potential critics or rivals of Robespierre.
Even other revolutionaries who challenged his leadership were guillotined. The
“revolution” would “eat its own.”
28)During the Terror, thousands of Parisians were guillotined. As many as 40,000
were executed around the country. Many (85% ?) were peasants, urban (city) poor
or middle class “common” people the “revolution” was supposed to “help”.
29)By July, 1794, the members of the National Convention felt threatened by
Robespierre. To save themselves, they turned on Robespierre and
guillotined him, shouting, “Down with the tyrant.”
30)The French had grown tired of the destructive “excesses” of the Terror. Many French
reacted against the “chaos” and “tyranny” of radical Jacobin rule.
31)In 1795, a new Constitution, the third since 1789, was ratified. It called for a
two-house legislature and a five man executive body known as “the Directory”
to lead the French nation. (after Robespierre’s one-man “dictatorship”)
32)The Directory was made up of five “moderates” who sought to restore
“order” and “stability” to French society.
The French Revolution: PART THREE – NAPOLEON
1)There was still a foreign military threat to the revolution. The Directory named the talented artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte to lead the military against the foreign threat to “revolutionary” France..
2)By 1799, an ineffective Directory exercised weak control and had lost the confidence of the French people.
3)Napoleon helped overthrow the ineffective Directory in November, 1799. A group of three “consuls” one of whom was Napoleon, assumed power.
4)In 1800, the people voted to approve a new constitution which in effect gave all power to Napoleon as First Consul. Desperate for strong leadership, the people
voted in favor of Napoleon’s rise to power.
5)Arguably, Napoleon’s greatest accomplishment was his reforming of French society.
The Napoleonic or “Civil” Code, was a comprehensive system of laws that eliminated
many injustices and “modernized” French society from it’s feudal past.
6)Napoleon was a relative “nobody”, born on the island of Corsica . Attending
military school in Paris, he was humiliated by his “elite” noble French classmates.
7)On May 1 1802, Napoleon restructured the French educational system
8)Napoleon set up a more equitable and efficient tax system and national bank in 1804.
These provided more state management and control of the economy.
9)Napoleon reformed government corruption, dismissing corrupt government officials
and setting up government-run schools for “ordinary” people to run government.
These trained candidates were appointed based on individual merit.
10)Napoleon signed a “concordat” (agreement) with Pope Pius VII on July 15, 1801 that
ended the split between the French government and the Catholic Church
11)The French government recognized the influence of the Catholic Church, yet
the government rejected Church control in government affairs.
12)The Concordat gave Napoleon the support of both Church authorities and
French Catholics. The French state would come to dominate the Church.
13)Napoleon’s greatest accomplishment was The Napoleonic or “Civil” Code,
a comprehensive system of laws that eliminated many injustices.
This “modern” law reform radically changed French society.
14)The Napoleonic Code also limited liberties and promoted order and
authority over individual rights. Freedom of speech and press, established
during the Revolution, was restricted.
15)Napoleon instituted a secret police responsible to himself only, and
“letters de cachet” permitted him to arrest anybody anytime and
be convicted without trial .
16)Napoleon fought a series of wars against Austria, Prussia and Britain, who sought to
drive him from power. Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.
After a series of wars in the 1790s, diplomacy and peace ensued in 1800 for 3 years.
17)In August, 1804, a new constitution was adopted, making Napoleon First Consul
“for life”. On December, 1804, Napoleon crowned himself emperor, with the
support of most French people.
18)Napoleon was not content to rule over just France. He sought to dominate Europe and
expand French influence in the Americas.
19)Victory in the Battle of Austerlitz (December, 1805) against Austria and Russia led to
French domination of mainland Europe. Napoleon was crowned king of Italy in
1805. By 1806, Napoleon had conquered much of mainland Europe
20)Napoleon conquered Spain in 1808, setting up his brother Joseph as king. The
Spanish resisted, using hit and run “guerrilla” warfare against the more powerful
21)Napoleon sought great influence in the Americas. The French had colonized
Louisiana, Florida, French Guyana and the French West Indies. French expansion
and domination of the Americas would be frustrated by France’s naval weakness.
and American and British interests. Napoleon sold Louisiana to the U.S. in 1803.
22)The naval defeat to the British at the Battle of Trafalgar (October, 1805) limited
French imperial expansion outside continental Europe. The British navy prevented the
French from a planned invasion of England.
23)Napoleon in 1806 set up Europe as a “fortress”, seeking to blockade British trade and
“starve” them into submission. He called this the Continental System.
24)American ships were seized by both French and British ships. British attacks
on American ships sparked the War of 1812 between America and Britain.
25)The Continental System ultimately failed. The British navy bypassed it,
ensuring trade with India and Africa. Goods became scarce in continental Europe,
creating price inflation and intensified resentment against French domination.
26)Napoleon married Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria in 1810 In 1811,
Napoleon’s son was born, referred to as the “King of Rome”
27)In June, 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, previously an ally who had “betrayed”
Napoleon, , with his 800,000 strong “Grand Army”
28)The Russians could not stop the French advance east, burning crops and villages as
they retreated east. Napoleon entered a torched Moscow in September, 1812.
29)Napoleon ultimately realized he could not feed and supply his army during a long Russian winter. His Grand Army retreated back to France.
30)The 2000 mile retreat back to France turned into a desperate battle for survival.
Only about 20,000 of the original “Grand Army” of 800,000 made it back.
31)Napoleon and his French Army returned home weakened and vulnerable. A renewed
alliance of Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia formed and invaded France in
32)Napoleon was forced into “exile” onto the Mediterranean island of Elba in May,1814.
King Louis XVIII, a brother of Louis XVI, was restored as king of France.
33)Napoleon escaped Elba in May, 1815 and return to France. He re-took power from
the rule of an ineffective and unpopular king, with the blessing of most of the French
34)The combined armies of Britain and Prussia would decisively defeat Napoleon’s
army at Waterloo in Belgium in June, 1815.
35)After his final military defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was forcibly exiled by the British to the remote south Atlantic island of St. Helena. He would die there in 1821..
110)Unlike American society, France RADICALLY changed after it’s “Revolution.”
111)”Feudal” France was changed into a “LIBERAL” and “MODERN” nation-state.
112)Inside France, the Revolution was LONG, CHAOTIC and extremely VIOLENT.
Outside France, the Revolution directly impacted most of the continent of
EUROPE, RUSSIA, and the AMERICAS, even MEXICO.
113)Was Napoleon a great MODERN-IZER, liberating and modernizing Europe from feudal “oppression”, a great LIBERATOR and spreader of “the Revolution”,
114) OR was Napoleon a “TYRANT” and “OPPRESSOR” achieving French imperial
domination and triggering war around the world? Claiming to free “the people”
with their individual “rights”, did he violate their “rights” as a “nation”?
115)Was Napoleon a “TOOL” of the Revolution, a “NOBODY” from Corsica who
became a great LEADER of a great NATION (and empire)?
116)OR, was Napoleon a “revolutionary” HYPOCRITE, marrying an Austrian princess,
a “DEMOGOGUE” who sought his own power (using the French people and nation).
Was Napoleon the world’s first “modern” DICTATORSHIP?
117)Napoleon stated, “I am the Revolution on horseback.” Louis XIV stated, “I am the state.” Were both “megalomaniacs” who USED “the state” for their OWN purposes?
118)Napoleon was UNLIKE the “other” great revolutionary leader – GEORGE WASHINGTON- a general from the “elite” who refused offers to be a “king” and VOLUNTARILY LEFT POWER.
119)Napoleon and the French Revolution brought “CHANGE” and “PROGRESS”,
Was it worth the PRICE or the PROBLEMS (death and destruction) ???
120)The French Revolution was POPULIST, bringing political power to “the people.”
It also provided a “model” for “modern” and future TOTALITARIAN dictatorships.