During the 18th century, French Monarchs had unlimited power, and as such declared themselves as the “Representative of God,” to the people. They were engaged in a life of luxury and extravagance at the royal court of Versailles.
Louis XIV (1643-1715) of the Bourbon Dynasty, a most powerful and efficient monarch, who participated in many wars. His successor Louis XV (1715-1774) took France to war against England, which brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
Louis XVI (1774-1793), lived a life of luxury and extravagance, when the country’s finance was reaching near bottom. He may have been King, but his Queen; Marie Antoinette, played a major part in the affairs of the state.
The social condition of 18th century France, the French Society, consisted of three classes: Clergy – Nobles – Common People.
The Clergy was of the First Estate, subdivided into two groups; higher and lower clergy. The higher clergy, were held responsible for churches, monasteries and educational institutions, and paid no taxes to the monarchy.
The common people disliked the higher clergy, who lived a scandalous luxurious lifestyle, similar to the monarchy. Whilst the lower clergy, were appointed to serve the people.
Nobility was the Second Estate of French Society, exempt from paying taxes to the monarchy. Nobility consisted of two groups; count nobles and provincial nobles.
Court nobles, lived a life of luxury, and paid no interest, in the problems of its people, leaving provincial nobles, to listen to the problems of its citizen’s and resolve them.
France’s Third Estate, consisted of the country’s common people, its manual workers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and businessmen, and they paid taxes, keeping France afloat.
The lower clergies, provincial nobles and the ranks of the common people, joined together with the Bourgeoisie… so the French Revolution was born.
France’s economic condition was another cause for the outbreak of the “French Revolution.” Louis XVI attempted to resolve the situation…
- In 1774, Turgot was appointed, as France’s Finance Minister.
- In 1776, Necker was appointed, as France’s Finance Minister.
- In 1783, Callone was appointed, as France’s Finance Minister.
The finance ministers had their own ideas of sorting the country’s debt problem, from imposing taxes on all citizens of France, no matter what status they held to borrowing money to offset the debt.
For hundred’s of years, the members of France’s higher classes, had never paid taxes, and any suggestion was dismissed.
It was inevitable by 1789, the Monarchy had to go, and a Revolution would take place… The French Revolution.
In the 17th century the Bastille prison housed political agitators, high ranking officials and spies. Most never saw the inside of a court; they would be imprisoned by order of the King.
With food shortages in 1789, and resentment by the people towards King Louis XVI, France was on track, heading towards a revolution.
In June, Louis approved the foundation of the National Assembly, and the call of the commoners, for a constitution. Louis gave false hopes to his people, letting them believe he was prepared to compromise. Then he dismissed Jacques Necker, the minister who called for reforms, and surrounded Paris with his troops. In response, mobs rioted in Paris.
On the 7th July thirty-two Swiss mercenary soldiers arrived at the Bastille at the request of Bernard-Jordan de Launay, the military governor of the prison. Then on the 12th July 250 barrels of gunpowder were delivered to the prison.
On the 13th July, revolutionaries armed with muskets stormed the Bastille’s towers. On the 14th July, upwards of a thousand revolutionaries gathered around the Bastille.
Launay received two delegations that day, requesting he surrender the fortress and hand over the munitions. Both requests were denied, yet he promised he would not fire upon the crowd.
Some three-hundred revolutionaries attempted to lower the drawbridge, and one hundred of these rioters were cut down in a hail of fire. By mid-afternoon, deserters from the French army joined the rioters by removing five cannons and aiming them in the Bastille’s direction.
Launay and his men laid down their arms and were duly arrested. They were taken to the “Hotel de Ville” the town hall. Launay was dragged away and murdered by these revolutionaries, for they wanted justice.
The citizens of Paris, half expected a counterattack from the military as they built barricades and armed themselves.
The King could see a revolution was coming, and any military action against the Parisian people would only enhance the situation. So on the 15th July 1789, military troops concentrated around Paris were withdrawn.
The capture of the Bastille spread across France like wild-fire, which led to minor uprisings in many towns and cities.
The new Revolutionary Government had the Bastille torn down, stone by stone, and the last stone was presented to the National Assembly on the 6th February 1790.
In 1792, the monarchy was abolished, and King Louis XVI of France, along with his wife; Queen Marie-Antoinette were sent to the guillotine on the charge of treason. King Louis died on the 21st January 1793 and Queen Marie-Antoinette on the 16th October.
The 18th century drew to a close, and France’s involvement in the “American War of Independence (1775-1783)” added to the extravagant spending by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and his Queen; Marie Antoinette. Yet he wasn’t totally to blame for the financial situation the country found itself in, for he inherited a debt left by King Louis XV. The combination was pushing the country ever closer to bankruptcy.
The French Revolution started in 1789 and ended in 1799 with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, as France’s saviour and he proclaimed himself as Emperor of France in 1804.
French citizens redesigned the political landscape of their country, and some 17,000 people were known to have been executed, as this reign of terror swept across France.
France faced huge debts, and taxation of its people could not plug the hole in its economy. New reforms put forward, were instantly blocked by the clergy and nobility, eager to hang on to their tax exemptions.
Poverty existed within the peasantry groups, who themselves, depended on good harvests for basic subsistence. In 1787 and 1788 harvests had been poor, prices rose and fear of large scale famine was on the cards.
Even so, the peasants of the land were expected to pay feudal dues (The legal and social system in which people were given land and protection by a lord, in return for which they worked and fought for him) and obligations to the aristocracy.
King Louis XVI stepped in and called upon the Estates General (A medieval representative that had the power to deal with a financial crisis, consisting of; clergy – nobility – commoners) allowing the people to list their grievances. The Estates General met in 1789, and claimed frustration and obstruction by the clergy and aristocrats. This led to the formation of the National Assembly (The National Assembly claimed to legitimately represent the French population) and the drawing up of a constitution which limited Monarchy intervention.
In 1789, the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille, whilst peasants and farmers attacked manors and estates belonging to their landlords, until they be freed from oppressive contracts.
In 1790 the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” (The document granted due process in judicial matters and established sovereignty amongst the French citizens. It made it clear, every person was seen as equal) was written with the collaboration of Maximilien de Robespierre, this was the foundation to the French Constitution.
The National Assembly may have taken the first steps towards creating a New France through the Constitution, yet rifts existed between radical and more moderate members.
This was to come to a head in 1791-92 as Louis XVI attempted an escape from Paris.
Louis, anxiously felt for the safety of his family, as they were nothing more than prisoners in Tuileries Palace, and believed fleeing was their only option.
On the nights of 20th and 21st June 1791, the royal party was arrested at Varennes on route to the border. This attempt of escape compromised his position and that of the monarchy.
They returned to Paris, as prisoners, they were seen as enemies of the Revolution… Which left the question, how long would they keep Louis and Marie Antoinette alive?
This would cause the assembly to become divided.
The moderate Girondins, (Girondins were moderates in the National Convention who controlled the legislative assembly) stood up to be counted, and voted that France should retain a constitutional monarchy. Whilst on the other hand were the Jacobins (Jacobins were a radical wing of representatives in the National Convention, led by Robespierre calling for democratic solutions to France’s issues) with Robespierre as their president, who wanted King Louis XVI, gone forever, he even called for his execution.
Neighbouring countries, dreaded the thought of France’s revolutionary tactics would spread to other lands. They stepped in by issuing the “Declaration of Pillnitz,” calling that the French return Louis XVI, to his rightful place, on the throne.
It was seen as a declaration of hostile intent and the Girondin’s declared war on Austria and Prussia.
King Louis XVI was brought to trial on charges of conspiracy with foreign powers in the January of 1793. He was found guilty by the National Assembly and sentenced to death. On the 21st January 1793, King Louis XVI walked to the guillotine, and was executed in the Palace de la Revolution in Paris. In January 1793, the National Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a Republic.
On the 14th October 1793, Marie Antoinette faced a Revolutionary Tribunal, and was found guilty and executed by guillotine on the 16th October.
France’s was with Austria and Prussia suffered as foreign armies entered deeper and deeper into France.
The Jaconin’s overthrew the Girondin’s and took control, conscripting people to the French Army. It seemed France’s fortunes were ever changing.
Robespierre paranoia led to a reign of terror between 1793-1794, where some 17,000 counter revolutionaries were executed at the guillotine.
With foreign armies being pushed back across French borders. It wasn’t long before the Revolutionary Government questioned Robespierre true motives… On the 27th July 1794, he was arrested and executed on the 28th at the guillotine.
Following the removal of Robespierre a period of governmental restructuring took place, leading up to a new Constitution of 1795.
The Committee of Public Safety’s conscription drive had enlarged their armies, as they defended France against invasion by Prussia and Austria.
A young Napoleon Bonaparte trail blazed his armies through Italy and Egypt, winning considerable fame for himself and wealth as he tore through Europe.
With political upheaval in France, Napoleon returned to Paris in 1799, putting down a coup against the Directory, and naming himself “First Consul” leader of France. The Revolution was over, and France entered a fifteen-year period of military rule.
In May of 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte received the title: Emperor of France