A watershed event in modern European history, the French Revolution began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, French citizens razed and redesigned their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system. Like the American Revolution before it, the French Revolution was influenced by Enlightenment ideals, particularly the concepts of popular sovereignty and inalienable rights.
Although it failed to achieve all of its goals and at times degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, the movement played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people. Prelude to the French Revolution: Monarchy in Crisis As the 18th century drew to a close, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution and extravagant spending by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and his predecessor had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy.
Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but two decades of poor cereal harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes yet failed to provide relief by rioting, looting and striking. In the fall of 1786, Louis XVI’s controller general, Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802), proposed a financial reform package that included a universal land tax from which the privileged classes would no longer be exempt.
To garner support for these measures and forestall a growing aristocratic revolt, the king summoned the Estates-General (“les etats generaux”)–an assembly representing France’s clergy, nobility and middle class–for the first time since 1614. The meeting was scheduled for May 5, 1789; in the meantime, delegates of the three estates from each locality would compile lists of grievances (“cahiers de doleances”) to present to the king. The French Revolution at Versailles: Rise of the Third Estate France’s population had changed considerably since 1614.
The non-aristocratic members of the Third Estate now represented 98 percent of the people but could still be outvoted by the other two bodies. In the lead-up to the May 5 meeting, the Third Estate began to mobilize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto–in other words, they wanted voting by head and not by status. While all of the orders shared a common desire for fiscal and judicial reform as well as a more representative form of government, the nobles in particular were loath to give up the privileges they enjoyed under the traditional system.
By the time the Estates-General convened at Versailles, the highly public debate over its voting process had erupted into hostility between the three orders, eclipsing the original purpose of the meeting and the authority of the man who had convened it. On June 17, with talks over procedure stalled, the Third Estate met alone and formally adopted the title of National Assembly; three days later, they met in a nearby indoor tennis court and took the so-called Tennis Court Oath (“serment du jeu de paume”), vowing not to disperse until constitutional reform had been achieved.
Within a week, most of the clerical deputies and 47 liberal nobles had joined them, and on June 27 Louis XVI grudgingly absorbed all three orders into the new assembly. The French Revolution Hits the Streets: The Bastille and the Great Fear On June 12, as the National Assembly (known as the National Constituent Assembly during its work on a constitution) continued to meet at Versailles, fear and violence consumed the capital. Though enthusiastic about the recent breakdown of royal power, Parisians grew panicked as rumors of an impending military coup began to circulate.
A popular insurgency culminated on July 14 when rioters stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons; many consider this event, now commemorated in France as a national holiday, as the start of the French Revolution. The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the countryside. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the seigniorial elite.
Known as the Great Fear (“la Grande peur”), the agrarian insurrection hastened the growing exodus of nobles from the country and inspired the National Constituent Assembly to abolish feudalism on August 4, 1789, signing what the historian Georges Lefebvre later called the “death certificate of the old order. ” The French Revolution Turns Radical: Terror and Revolt In April 1792, the newly elected Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia, where it believed that French emigres were building counterrevolutionary alliances; it also hoped to spread its revolutionary deals across Europe through warfare. On the domestic front, meanwhile, the political crisis took a radical turn when a group of insurgents led by the extremist Jacobins attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the king on August 10, 1792. The following month, amid a wave of violence in which Parisian insurrectionists massacred hundreds of accused counterrevolutionaries, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, which proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French republic.
On January 21, 1793, it sent King Louis XVI, condemned to death for high treason and crimes against the state, to the guillotine; his wife Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793) suffered the same fate nine months later. Following the king’s execution, war with various European powers and intense divisions within the National Convention ushered the French Revolution into its most violent and turbulent phase. In June 1793, the Jacobins seized control of the National Convention from the more moderate Girondins and instituted a series of radical measures, including the establishment of a new calendar and the eradication of Christianity.
They also unleashed the bloody Reign of Terror (“la Terreur”), a 10-month period in which suspected enemies of the revolution were guillotined by the thousands. Many of the killings were carried out under orders from Robespierre, who dominated the draconian Committee of Public Safety until his own execution on July 28, 1794. His death marked the beginning of the Thermidorian Reaction, a moderate phase in which the French people revolted against the Reign of Terror’s excesses. The French Revolution Ends: Napoleon’s Rise
On August 22, 1795, the National Convention, composed largely of Girondins who had survived the Reign of Terror, approved a new constitution that created France’s first bicameral legislature. Executive power would lie in the hands of a five-member Directory (“Directoire”) appointed by parliament. Royalists and Jacobins protested the new regime but were swiftly silenced by the army, now led by a young and successful general named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). The Directory’s four years in power were riddled with financial crises, popular discontent, inefficiency and, above all, political corruption.
By the late 1790s, the directors relied almost entirely on the military to maintain their authority and had ceded much of their power to the generals in the field. On November 9, 1799, as frustration with their leadership reached a fever pitch, Bonaparte staged a coup d’etat, abolishing the Directory and appointing himself France’s “first consul. ” The event marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era, in which France would come to dominate much of continental Europe. Similarities America ; France Revolutionary Twins?
The American and French Revolutions were fought several years and an ocean apart. However, they feature enough similarities that some people initially consider them “mirror struggles. ” After all, there are some easy comparisons: both revolutions occurred in the later eighteenth century. Both subverted an existing, monarchical government. Finally, both created ripe conditions for constitutionalism and deep patriotism. But dig more deeply, and you’ll find that this “same revolution, different continent” concept is not as tidy as it initially appears.
Further similarities between the two revolutions are just different enough to produce profound distinctions between the two revolutions. Although most scholars believe that the two revolutions influenced one another (as well as had profound worldwide impact), each revolution is a very distinct and singular struggle for freedom, identity, and an improved way of life. Indeed, scholars have built entire careers on this subject, and rich debate and information is available online or at your local library. However, here are a few fundamental elements shared by the revolutions, with intricate but important differences highlighted: Causes
Both the American Revolution and the French Revolution were borne of dire economic conditions. Economic challenges definitely contributed to the basis for both revolutions. However, each nation’s money-related woes were quite unique. The American Revolution had roots in the financial pressure that Britain placed on the New World; because Britain was economically dependent on the colonies, it kept taxing them. However, the colonists didn’t oppose the taxation itself. They were more vexed by the lack of a reasonable basis for the taxation, feeling that they received little or no benefit from their unds that were being spent “back in the old country. ” This phenomenon—commonly known as taxation without representation—infuriated the colonies, building the basis for their revolt. Classic images of hungry, poverty-stricken French peasants are still familiar. Indeed, the pre-revolution French economy was dismal and had been for decades. As a second-tier trading nation, France was unable to pay off national debts using the scant amount of money it received on the taxes for traded goods. To make up for this deficit, the King imposed further taxes, especially on the peasants.
Paradoxically, the wealthiest nobles were not obligated to pay taxes. This allowed the King to successfully sell titles, pulling the two social classes further apart. So although the British tax-related woes were also tied to royal greed and exploitative control, they were relatively common to any new colonist establishment. France’s case, while certainly tax-related, was more deeply rooted in a historic division of social class. Although the rich and poor had long been separated, the King’s selling of titles totally isolated the two groups.
This resulted in famine and extreme poverty for the lower classes, and left them no choice but to revolt. Goals Both revolutions were undertaken with the goal of independence in mind. The American Revolution was not initially or even primarily fought for independence. Independence almost became a “by-product” of the colonists’ initial attempt to remove unfair taxes levied on them by British Parliament. On the other hand, France’s decades of class division and its burgeoning interest in thinkers like Rousseau (who emphasized the importance of human rights) sparked a popular interest in a more independent way of life.
The influence of speeches, articles, and pamphlets from gifted writers and orators like revolution leaders Jacques-Pierre Brissot and Maximillien Robespierre also fueled this desire for freedom. Finally, the success of the American Revolution (and the colonists’ resulting independence from British rule) arguably acted as an incentive for revolt. American-French Relationships Both revolutions spurred a strong response from the other nation. Before 1789, most people (excluding the Americans of the new United States) lived with the general form of government their ancestors had known for centuries, sually hereditary monarchy. After the French Revolution began in 1789, no form of government could be accepted as legitimate without justification. The revolutionaries established a republic in 1792, and henceforth republicans around the world would challenge monarchists. Overall, the French Revolution offered the world something totally novel: an ideology that allowed and encouraged the questioning of historic power structures. This ideology borne of the French Revolution laid the groundwork for other ideologies, including nationalism, socialism, and eventually communism.
In fact, early communist leaders Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both commented extensively on the French Revolution, hoping to find important lessons for building and governing communities. North Americans showed special interest in the French Revolution, believing the events of 1789 drew heavily on their own experience with Britain. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen seemed to borrow strikingly from the states’ bill of rights. Even more direct influence took place when American Thomas Jefferson, resident in France at this time, passed along specific ideas to the legislators through the Marquis de Lafayette.
Although the French Revolution took a far different path than the North American variety, this interaction was close, so it is not surprising that the initial U. S. reaction to the French Revolution was positive. Not all Americans approved of the France’s methods. For example, John Adams declared his early and ongoing disapproval, and the Federalist Party’s support began to waver toward the Revolution’s end. The Reign of Terror also did little to create American approval and drew criticism from some prominent American statesmen.
However, the Jefferson-led Republican Party remained largely supportive throughout most of the revolutionary decade. Famous Documents Both revolutions produced similar and seminal political documents. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted in France in August 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly. Drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette, it was intended as part of a transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, and presented the ideas of popular sovereignty and equal opportunity.
This document, which defined a set of universal individual and collective rights, was to be considered valid in all times, in all places, for all people. This novel way of thinking totally contradicted the traditional French idea of people being born into a nobility or into another favored class. It also eliminated the concept of people enjoying or being denied special rights based on family lineage of status, which clearly dismantled centuries of French ruling structure. The principles outlined in the Declaration sprung from the theories of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers.
However, the French Declaration is at least partly inspired by the declaration of Human Rights contained in the U. S. Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, and on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, developed by American George Mason in June 1776, which was itself based on the English 1689 Bill of Rights. The Declaration of the Rights of Man also showed similarities to the United States Constitution (1787) and the United States Bill of Rights, which was adopted in 1789, at approximately the same time as the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Like the U. S. Constitution, The French Declaration provided for a national defense, and emphasized equality before taxation (which was distinctly different from traditional France, in which the Catholic Church and the nobility were exempt from most taxes). Like these American documents, France’s Declaration prohibits ex post facto application of criminal law and proclaims the presumption of innocence to a crime suspect. Finally, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and addresses freedom of religion.
The Declaration departs from seminal American documents in some important ways. It’s vital to note that the Declaration is largely individualistic. It focuses less on the rights of a political or religious group and more on the singular citizen, thus straying from America’s “we the people” stance. The Declaration also fails to address the freedom of assembly, liberty of association, or the right to strike, which were important American tenets. Differences Self-Identification and Independence * France was a well-established nation long before the French revolution. It was not facing any acute external dangers in the late 1780s.
In contrast, the American revolution was a struggle for self-identification and independence from another nation. In France, the essential motive of the revolution was a stratification transformation of the society because “the third estate” saw the clergy and the nobles as social parasites. Attitudes Toward Monarchy * The Americans were not anti-monarchists from the very start. They considered their rights as the British subjects were being violated, and their main complaints were aimed against the British Parliament. In France, the revolution was very much against the monarch and his power.
Revolutionists saw the monarch as a traitor and acted aggressively toward the royal family. That led them to accuse the monarch of conspiracies against the French people, which in turn led to the execution of the royal family. Social Stratification * Social equality was not the main concern of the American revolution. Slavery was abolished in the Northern states, but it did not drastically influence the social stratification of American society. In France, the whole social structure was made up of three traditional estates: clergy, nobles and others. The revolution transformed all of them.
Elimination of the traditional privileges based on the social origin was the main goal of the French revolution. Revolution and Religion * The American patriots did want to break with the Church of England, but the American revolution was not driven by a religious goal. The French revolution was, and it accomplished most of those goals. It eliminated the privileges of the clergy. Monasteries and churches were closed, the monks and nuns were encouraged to return to the private life. Many priests were killed. The Cult of Reason emerged during the revolution as part of the new France’s plan to “de-Christianize” the country.
It stressed enlightenment and rationalism over the believe of a deity. Revolutionary Values and Mottos * John Locke formulated three basic values which were adopted by the American patriots: life, liberty and property. They fought for the idea that governments were obliged to preserve these values. The French revolution proclaimed three values too: liberty, equality and brotherhood, or death. The last part was adopted during the period of terror in 1793-1794. Thus, the common value shared by both revolutions was the pursuit of liberty.