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French Revolution


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French Revolution Essay, Research Paper

“Revolutions evolve in definite phases. At first they are

moderate in scope, then they become radical to excess and finally they

are brought to abrupt conclusions by the emergence of a strong man to

restore order.” Discuss this statement with specific references to the

French Revolution.

The French Revolution brought about great changes in the society

and government of France. The revolution, which lasted from 1789 to

1799, also had far-reaching effects on the rest of Europe. “It

introduced democratic ideals to France but did not make the nation a

democracy. However, it ended supreme rule by French kings and

strengthened the middle class.” (Durant, 12) After the revolution

began, no European kings, nobles, or other members of the aristocracy

could take their powers for granted or ignore the ideals of liberty

and equality.

The revolution began with a government financial crisis but

quickly became a movement of reform and violent change. In one of the

early events, a crowd in Paris captured the Bastille, a royal fortress

and hated symbol of oppression. A series of elected legislatures then

took control of the government. King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie

Antoinette, were executed. Thousands of others met the same fate in a

period known as the Reign of Terror. The revolution ended when

Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general, took over the government.

At the beginning of the revolution, events seemed minor and

proceeded in a logical fashion. One of the reasons the revolution

originated was the discontent among the lower and middle classes in

France. By law, society was divided in to three groups called estates.

The first estate was made of up clergy, nobles comprised the second

and the rest of the citizens, the third estate.

The third estate resented certain advantages of the first two

estates. The clergy and nobles did not have to pay most taxes. The

third estate, especially the peasants, had to provide almost all the

country’s tax revenue. Many members of the middle class were also

worried by their social status. They were among the most important

people in French society but were not recognized as such because they

belonged to the third estate.

“Financial crisis developed because the nation had gone deeply

into debt to finance the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the

Revolutionary War (1775-1783).” (Durant, 22) The Parliament of Paris

insisted that King Louis XVI could borrow more money or raise taxes

only by calling a meeting of the States-General. The States-General

was made up of representatives of the three estates, and had last met

in 1614. Unwillingly, the king called the meeting.

The States-General opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles. The

first two estates wanted each estate to take up matters and vote on

them separately by estate. The third estate had has many

representatives as the other two combined. It insisted that all the

estates be merged into one national assembly and that each

representative had one vote. The third estate also wanted the

States-General to write a constitution.

The king and the first two estates refused the demands of the

third estate. In June 1789, the representatives of the third estate

declared themselves the National Assembly of France. Louis the XVI

them allowed the three estates to join together as the National

Assembly. But he began to gather troops around Paris to break up the

Assembly. Meanwhile, the masses of France also took action. On July

14, 1789, a huge crowd of Parisians rushed to the Bastille. They

believed they would find arms and ammunition there for use in

defending themselves against the king’s army. The people captured the

Bastille and began to tear it down. Massive peasant uprisings were

also occurring in the countryside.

The king’s removal led to a new stage in the revolution. The

first stage had been a liberal middle-class reform movement based

on a constitutional monarchy. The second stage was organized around

principles of democracy. The National Convention opened on September

21, 1792, and declared France a republic.

“Louis XVI was placed on trial for betraying the country. The

National Convention found him guilty of treason , and a slim majority

voted for the death-penalty. The king was beheaded on the guillotine

on January 21, 1793. The revolution gradually grew more radical-that

is more open to extreme and violent change. Radical leaders came into

prominence. In the Convention, they were known as the mountain because

they sat on the high benches at the rear of the hall during meetings.

Leaders of the Mountain were Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Jacques

Danton, and Jean Paul Marat. The Mountain dominated a powerful

political club called the Jacobin Club.

“Growing disputes between the Mountain and the Gironde led to a

struggle for power, and the Mountain won. In June 1793, the Convention

arrested the leading Girondists. In turn, the Girondists’ supporters

rebelled against the Convention. One of these supporters assassinated

Marat in July 1793.” (Woloch, 526) This was the most horrific period

of the revolution. The Convention’s leaders included Robespierre,

Lazare Carnot, and Bertrand Barere. The Convention declared a policy

of terror against rebels, supporters of the king, and anyone else who

publicly disagreed with official policy. “In time, hundreds of

thousands of suspects filled the nation’s jails. Courts handed down

about 18,000 death sentences in what was called the Reign of Terror.

Paris became accustomed to the rattle of two-wheeled carts called

tumbrels as they carried people to the guillotine.” (Woloch, 526)

In time, the radicals began to struggle for power among

themselves. Robespierre succeeded in having Danton and other former

leaders executed. Many people in France wanted to end the Reign of

Terror, the Jacobin dictatorship, and the democratic revolution.

Robespierre’s enemies in the Convention finally attacked him as a

tyrant on July 29, 1794. He was executed the next day. The Reign of

Terror ended with Robespierre’s death.

“The Convention, which had adopted a democratic constitution in

1793, replaced that document with a new one in 1795. The government

formed under this new constitution was called the Directory. France

was still a republic, but once again only citizens who paid a certain

amount of taxes could vote.” (Woloch, 527)

The Directory began meeting in October 1795. In October 1799, a

number of political leaders plotted to overthrow the Directory. They

needed military support and turned to Napoleon Bonaparte, a French

general who had become a hero during a military campaign in Italy in

1796 and 1797. Bonaparte seized control of the government on November

9, 1799, ending the revolution. Napoleon would restore order to the

French people with such great achievements as his Code Napoleon.

Durant, Will and Ariel. The Story of Civilization XI: The Age of

Napoleon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Connelly, Owen. The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 14. Toronto: World

Book Inc., 1989. “Napoleon I.”

Woloch, Isser. The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 7. Toronto: World

Book Inc., 1989. “French Revolution.”

The Software Toolworks Multimedia Encyclopedia, Vers. 1.5. Computer

Software. Grolier, 1992. PC, CD-ROM. “French Revolution”

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