Published On: Tue, Nov 12th, 2013

Lessons from the French Revolution

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It is terribly ironic that the French monarchy, under Louis XVI, was a major supporter of the British colonists in America’s bid for independence in 1775 – 1783. Only six years after the American colonists won, in 1789, France was ripped apart by one of the most violent revolutions in history.  Louis XVI, who only came to power in 1774, was executed in 1792.

{Editor’s note:  This is part of a longer article about “What does it take to get Europeans to have a Revolution?”}

Unlike Britain, which had seen a gradual transfer of power from the monarch to Parliament over centuries, France still maintained a very strong centralised autocratic monarchy.  Louis XIV, who ruled France for an impressive 72 years until his death in 1715, had famously said “L’etat, c’est moi.” (I am the state).  He personified the state and was an absolute, divinely ordained monarch with full control.   Louis XIV was threatened by the Parliamentary antics of the English to his north, which was why he was a supporter of the Jacobins and aimed for the restoration of James II and then James III.

In reality, the French monarchy shared power with another major group: the Roman Catholic Church who ruled a state within a state.  They were the largest single landowner in the country, owning about 10% of the land and they were exempt from paying any taxes.

It was the lack of money that set the stage for the French Revolution, in a similar way that the lack of money set the stage for the English Civil War.   France was in deep financial trouble, partially due to the losses during two major periods of conflict. First, the Seven Years War of 1754 -1763 which was a world war involving all the great European powers and ranged from Europe, North America (where it is known as the French and Indian War), Central America, West Africa, India and the Philippines. Second, was the American Revolutionary War, during which France saw the opportunity to weaken its British rival by cutting it off from its increasingly wealthy American colonies.  In the first conflict France lost.  In the second conflict France won but gained nothing, and still had all the costs.

To resolve the financial crisis Louis XVI called for an assembly of the Estates-General in 1789.  This was a major step.  The last time this had been called was in 1614.  175 years previously.  He needed the Estates-General to gather together because he needed a broad agreement on comprehensive tax changes.  The church and nobility needed to be taxed and the commons needed to get on side.

So what was the Estates-General?  There were three parts. Each part had one, equal, vote.   The First Estate was the clergy.  The Second Estate was the nobles.  The Third Estate was the common people.

But by convening an assembly of the Estates-General Louis XVI had opened a Pandora’s Box.  In the spring of 1789 elections were held for the Third Estate and French males over 25 who paid taxes were allowed to vote.  610 Third Estate members were elected in total.  But nobody could agree on the mechanics of voting for the Estates-General.  So in June 1789 the Third Estate declared themselves as the National Assembly and invited members of the clergy and nobility to join them, which many did.  The new National Assembly then proclaimed that they would not disband until they had drawn up a new constitution for France.

By this stage Louis XVI had completely lost control of the situation.  By calling for the Estates-General to be assembled and permitting the Third Estate to hold elections he lost legitimacy.  By July many Parisians believed that the king was bringing in foreign mercenaries to disband the National Assembly and they stormed the Bastille Fortress on the 14th July to capture the large cache of weapons and ammunition. Civil authority deteriorated and militias began to emerge throughout France.  Meanwhile, the National Assembly worked towards creating a new constitution and in August 1789 published a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The situation in France was rapidly deteriorating and the Catholic Church, who had effectively shared power in France, came under attack.  In November Church property was confiscated -“handed over to the nation”-  and by early 1790 all religious orders were dissolved. Many senior army officers, who had formed part of the nobility, deserted and fled to other parts of Europe.  In June 1791 the King and his wife tried to slip out of the country, dressed as servants.  They were discovered at the border and are dragged back to Paris and were kept under guard.

By September 1791 the king accepted a new position as a figurehead in a new constitutional monarchy.  This did not last long, however, and in the following year the monarchy was abolished and a Republic was declared.  Within weeks France was also at war with its neighbours who had threatened invade if the king was deposed.  Unfortunately for Louis, this made him an enemy of the state and he was guillotined on the 21 January 1793.

The entire French state became militarised to a level that had never previously existed in any other country.  All men and women were involved in fighting against outside, anti-revolutionary, forces.  Despite initial losses, French revolutionary armies were incredibly successful against all of the other powers that it confronted.

This concept of total war was applied internally and externally.  As France was set upon by outside forces, a reign of terror began within France.  Anybody deemed against the new state was eliminated, with the egalitarian execution machine – the Guillotine – being used extensively.

The French Revolution differed from the English Revolution and Civil War in its speed and its scope.  What had started off as a reasonably good idea by Louix XVI to call an assembly of the Estates-General in 1789 rapidly devolved into chaos and death.  Unlike the English Revolution, which affected relatively few people, and was fought over by armies involving a few thousand soldiers, everybody in France was affected.  The revolution lasted until 1799 when Napoleon became first dictator and then Emperor in 1804.

So what was the French Revolution really about?  Clearly as the king had been executed and a republic had been declared it had something to do with a power struggle between a newly elected elite and the monarchy.

It was also about pulling France out of a middle ages time warp. An absolute monarchy and a hugely powerful church made no sense in 1789.  The French could see how successful Britain and America had become over the past decades. The British way of governing seemed to be more enlightened.  Better.

So the lesson of the French Revolution is that French citizens were fed up with bad government that kept them both poor and unable to do anything about their fate. When they were given the opportunity to have power, (thanks to Louis XVI’s fatal call for the Estates- General to be assembled, permitting direct democratic elections by qualified French men), they seized the opportunity and revolted.

If you want to find out more about European Revolutions and the lessons that can be learned, click here.


History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

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