The French Revolution

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The French Revolution French Revolution, cataclysmic political and social upheaval, extending from 1789 to1799. The revolution resulted, among other things, in the overthrow of the Bourbonmonarchy in France and in the establishment of the First Republic. It was generated by avast complex of causes, the most important of which were the inability of the rulingclasses of nobility, clergy, and bourgeoisie to come to grips with the problems of state,the indecisive nature of the monarch, impoverishment of the workers, the intellectualferment of the Age of Enlightenment, and the example of the American Revolution.Recent scholarship tends to downplay the social class struggle and emphasize political,cultural, ideological, and personality factors in the advent and unfolding of the conflict.The Revolution itself produced an equally vast complex of consequences. This articledeals mainly with highlights of the revolutionary period. For an account of many of theimportant events that preceded and followed the Revolution. Historical Reasons For the Revolution For more than a century before the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, the Frenchgovernment had undergone periodic economic crises, resulting from the long wars wagedduring the reign of Louis XIV, royal mismanagement of national affairs under Louis XV,the losses incurred in the French and Indian War (1756-63), and increased indebtednessarising from loans to the American colonies during the American Revolution (1775-83).The advocates of fiscal, social, and governmental reform became increasingly vocalduring the reign of Louis XVI. In August 1774, Louis appointed a liberal comptrollergeneral, the economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, baron de L'Aulne, who instituted apolicy of strict economy in government expenditures. Within two years, however, most ofthe reforms had been withdrawn and his dismissal forced by reactionary members of thenobility and clergy, supported by Queen Marie Antoinette. Turgot's successor, thefinancier and statesman Jacques Necker, similarly accomplished little before hisdownfall in 1781, also because of opposition from the reactionaries. Nevertheless, hewon popular acclaim by publishing an accounting of the royal finances, which revealedthe heavy cost of privileges and favoritism. During the next few years the financial crisissteadily worsened. Popular demand for convocation of the Estates-General (an assemblymade up of representatives of the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners), which hadbeen in adjournment since 1614, finally compelled Louis XVI in 1788 to authorizenational elections. During the ensuing campaign, censorship was suspended, and a floodof pamphlets expressing ideas derived from the Enlightenment circulated throughoutFrance. Necker, who was reinstated as comptroller general by Louis in 1788, supportedthe king in his decision that the third estate (commoners) would have as manyrepresentatives in the Estates-General as the first estate (the clergy) and the second estate(the nobility) combined, but both he and Louis failed to make a ruling on the method ofvoting.Despite general agreement among the three estates that national salvation requiredfundamental changes in the status quo, class antagonisms precluded unity of action in theEstates-General, which convened at Versailles on May 5, 1789. The delegationsrepresenting the privileged strata of French society immediately challenged thethird-estate caucus by rejecting its procedural proposals on methods of voting. Theproposals were designed to establish a system of simple majority rule, thereby ensuringdomination of the Estates-General by the third estate, numerically the most powerfulcaucus. The deadlock on procedure persisted for six weeks, but finally, on June 17, theinsurgent caucus, led by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes and Honore Gabriel Riqueti, comte deMirabeau, proclaimed itself the National Assembly. This display of defiance of the royalgovernment, which had given its support to the clergy and nobility, was followed by thepassage of a measure vesting the National Assembly with sole power to legislatetaxation. In swift retaliation, Louis deprived the National Assembly of its meeting hall.The National Assembly responded, on June 20, by gathering at a Versailles tennis courtand swearing, in what is known in history as the Tennis Court Oath, that it would notdissolve until it had drafted a constitution for France. At this juncture, serious divisionssplit the ranks of the upper two estates, and numerous representatives of the lower clergyand a number of liberal nobles broke off to join forces with the National Assembly.Open Rebellion Continued defiance of royal decrees and the mutinous mood of the royal army forced theking to capitulate. On June 27 he ordered the refractory nobility and clergy to join theunicameral legislature, which then designated itself the National Constituent Assembly.Yielding to pressure from the queen and the comte d'Artois, later Charles X, Louis issuedorders for the concentration of several loyal foreign regiments in Paris and Versailles. Atthe same time, Necker, the popular apostle of a regenerated France, was again dismissedfrom the government. The people of Paris reacted to these provocative acts with openinsurrection. Rioting began on July 12, and on July 14 the Bastille, a royal prison thatsymbolized the despotism of the Bourbons, was stormed and captured.Even before the Parisian outburst, violence, sporadic local disturbances, and peasantuprisings against oppressive nobles occurred in many parts of France, alarming thepropertied bourgeoisie no less than the Royalists. Panic-stricken over these ominousevents, the comte d'Artois and other prominent reactionaries, the first of the so-called migr s, fled the country. The Parisian bourgeoisie, fearful that the lower classes of thecity would take further advantage of the collapse of the old administrative machine andresort again to direct action, hastily established a provisional local government andorganized a people's militia, officially designated the National Guard. A red, white, andblue tricolor was substituted for the white standard of the Bourbons as the national flag.Provisional local governments and militia units were soon established throughout thenation. The National Guard was placed under the command of the marquis de Lafayette,a hero of the American Revolution. Unable to stem the rising tide of revolt, Louis XVIwithdrew his loyal troops. He recalled Necker, and then he formally legalized themeasures that had been taken by the provisional authorities.Drafting a Constitution Provincial unrest and disorder, known as the Great Fear, stimulated the NationalConstituent Assembly to action. During the night session of August 4, 1789, the clergy,nobles, and bourgeoisie renounced their privileges; a few days later the assembly passeda law abolishing feudal and manorial prerogatives, but guaranteeing compensation incertain cases. Parallel legislation included prohibition of the sale of public offices, ofexemption from taxation, and of the right of the Roman Catholic church to levy tithes.The assembly then proceeded to grapple with its primary task, the drafting of aconstitution. In the constitutional preamble, known in history as the Declaration of theRights of Man and of the Citizen, the delegates formulated the revolutionary ideals latersummarized as Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite ( Liberty, Equality, Fraternity ). While theConstituent Assembly deliberated, the hungry population of Paris, a hotbed of discontentand of rumors of Royalist conspiracy, clamored for food and agitated for action. Reportsof a gala banquet at Versailles stirred the political ferment in Paris to the boiling point.On October 5-6 a large body of Parisians, mostly women, marched on Versailles and laidsiege to the royal palace. Louis and his family were rescued by Lafayette, who, ondemand of the crowd, escorted them to Paris. After this episode some conservativemembers of the Constituent Assembly, which followed the king to Paris, handed in theirresignations. In Paris, both the court and the assembly became increasingly subject topressures from its citizens. Radical sentiment became predominant in the assembly, butthe original objective, a constitutional monarchy, was retained.The first draft of the constitution received the approval of the French monarch on July14, 1790, at elaborate ceremonies in Paris, attended by delegations from all parts of thenation. By the terms of the document, the provinces of France were abolished, and thecountry was divided into departments, each named for a mountain or stream andprovided with a local elective administrative apparatus. Hereditary titles were outlawed,trial by jury in criminal cases was ordained, and fundamental modification of French lawwas projected. By the institution of property qualifications for the vote, the constitutionconfined the electorate to the middle and upper classes. The constitution vestedlegislative authority in a Legislative Assembly, to consist of 745 members elected by anindirect system of voting. Although executive authority was vested in the king, strictlimitations were imposed on his powers. His veto power was merely suspensive, and theassembly had effective control of his conduct of foreign affairs. Severe restrictions on thepower of the Roman Catholic church were legalized through a series of articles, calledthe Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the most important of which confiscated allecclesiastical estates. To relieve financial distress, the state was authorized to issue a newform of paper currency, called assignats, which were secured by the seized lands,constituting a tenth of France. The constitution also provided for the election of priestsand bishops by the voters, for remuneration of the clergy by the state, for a clerical oathof allegiance to the state, and for dissolution of most monastic orders.During the 15-month interval between Louis's acceptance of the initial draft of theconstitution and completion of the final draft, important changes in the relationship offorces within the French revolutionary movement took shape. These changes weredictated, first of all, by the mood of suspicion and discontent among the disfranchisedsection of the population. Wanting the vote and relief from social and economic misery,the nonpropertied classes steadily gravitated toward radicalism. This process, largelyaccelerated throughout France by the highly organized Jacobins and, in Paris, by theCordeliers, acquired further impetus as reports circulated that Marie Antoinette was inconstant communication with her brother Leopold II, Holy Roman emperor. Like mostother monarchs of Europe, Leopold had afforded sanctuary to the migr s and hadotherwise revealed his hostility to the revolutionary occurrences in France. Popularsuspicions regarding the activities of the queen and the complicity of the king wereconfirmed when, on June 21, the royal family was apprehended at Varennes whileattempting to escape from France.The Growth of Radicalism in The Government On July 17, 1791, the Republicans of Paris massed in the Champ de Mars and demandedthat the king be deposed. On the order of Lafayette, who was affiliated politically withthe Feuillants, a group of moderate monarchists, the National Guard opened fire on thedemonstrators and dispersed them. The bloodshed immeasurably widened the cleavagebetween the republican and bourgeois sections of the population. After suspending Louisfor a brief period, the moderate majority of the Constituent Assembly, fearful of thegrowing disorder, reinstated the king in the hope of stemming the mounting radicalismand of preventing foreign intervention. Louis took the oath to support the revisedconstitution on September 14. Two weeks later, with the election of the new legislatureauthorized by the constitution, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved. Meanwhile, onAugust 27, Leopold II and Frederick William II, king of Prussia, had issued a jointdeclaration regarding France, which contained a thinly veiled threat of armedintervention against the revolution.The Legislative Assembly, which began its sessions on October 1, 1791, was composedof 750 members, all of whom were inexperienced, inasmuch as members of theConstituent Assembly had voted themselves ineligible for election to the new body. Thenew legislature was divided into widely divergent factions, the most moderate of whichwas the Feuillants, who supported a constitutional monarchy as defined under theConstitution of 1791. In the center was the majority caucus, known as the Plain, whichwas without well-defined political opinions and consequently without initiative. ThePlain, however, uniformly opposed the Republican factors that sat on the left, composedmainly of the Girondists, who advocated transformation of the constitutional monarchyinto a federal republic similar to the U.S., and of the Montagnards, consisting of Jacobinsand Cordeliers, who favored establishment of a highly centralized, indivisible republic.Before these differences caused a serious split between the Girondists and theMontagnards, the Republican caucus in the assembly secured passage of severalimportant bills, including stringent measures against clergymen who refused to swearallegiance. Louis exercised his veto against these bills, however, creating a cabinet crisisthat brought the Girondists to power. Despite the opposition of leading Montagnards, theGirondist ministry, headed by Jean Marie Roland de la Plati re, adopted a belligerentattitude toward Frederick William II and Francis II, Holy Roman emperor, who hadsucceeded his father, Leopold II, on March 1, 1792. The two sovereigns openly supportedthe activities of the migr s and sustained the opposition of the feudal landlords inAlsace to the revolutionary legislation. Sentiment for war spread rapidly among themonarchists, who hoped for defeat of the revolutionary government and the restoration ofthe Old Regime, and among the Girondists, who wanted a final triumph over reaction athome and abroad. On April 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly declared war on theAustrian part of the Holy Roman Empire, beginning the series of conflicts known as theFrench revolutionary wars.The Struggle For Freedom Aided by treasonable errors of omission and commission among the French highcommand, mostly monarchists, the armies of Austria won several victories in theAustrian Netherlands. The subsequent invasion of France produced major repercussionsin the national capital. The Roland ministry fell on June 13, and mass unrest erupted, oneweek later, into an attack on the Tuileries, the residence of the royal family. On July 11,after Sardinia and Prussia joined the war against France, the Legislative Assemblydeclared a national emergency. Reserves were dispatched to the hard-pressed armies, andvolunteers were summoned to Paris from all parts of the country. When the contingentfrom Marseille arrived, it was singing the patriotic hymn thenceforth known as the Marseillaise. Popular dissatisfaction with the Girondists, who had rallied to support ofthe monarchy and had dismissed charges of desertion against Lafayette, increased theagitation. On August 10 the discontent, combined with the threat contained in themanifesto of the allied commander, Charles William Ferdinand, duke of Brunswick, todestroy the capital city if the royal family were mistreated, precipitated a Parisianinsurrection. The insurgents, led by radical elements of the capital and nationalvolunteers en route to the front, stormed the Tuileries and massacred the king's Swissguard. Louis and his family took refuge in the nearby hall of the Legislative Assembly,which promptly suspended the king and placed him in confinement. Simultaneously, theinsurrectionists deposed the governing council of Paris, which was replaced by a newprovisional executive council. The Montagnards, under the leadership of the lawyerGeorges Jacques Danton, dominated the new Parisian government. They swiftly achievedcontrol of the Legislative Assembly. The assembly shortly approved elections, byuniversal male suffrage, for a new constitutional convention. Between September 2 and7, more than 1000 Royalists and suspected traitors who had been rounded up in variousparts of France, were tried summarily and executed. These September massacres wereinduced by popular fear of the advancing allied armies and of rumored plots to overthrowthe revolutionary government. On September 20 a French army, commanded by GeneralCharles Francois Dumouriez, checked the Prussian advance on Paris at Valmy.On the day after the victory at Valmy, the newly elected National Convention convenedin Paris. In its first official moves that day, the convention proclaimed establishment ofthe First Republic and abolished the monarchy. Agreement among the principalconvention factions, the Girondists and the Montagnards, extended little beyond commonapproval of these initial measures. No effective opposition developed, however, to thedecree sponsored by the Girondists and promulgated on November 19, which promisedthe help of France to all oppressed peoples of Europe. Encouraging reports arrived almostweekly from the armies, which had assumed the offensive after the battle at Valmy andhad successively captured Mainz, Frankfurt am Main, Nice, Savoie, the AustrianNetherlands, and other areas. In the meantime, however, strife steadily intensified in theconvention, with the Plain vacillating between support of the conservative Girondists andthe radical Montagnards. In the first major test of strength, a majority approved theMontagnard proposal that Louis be brought to trial before the convention for treason. On January 15, 1793, by an almost unanimous vote, the convention found the monarch guiltyas charged, but on the following day, when the nature of the penalty was determined,factional lines were sharply drawn. By a vote of 387 to 334, the delegates approved thedeath penalty. Louis XVI went to the guillotine on January 21.Girondist influence in the National Convention diminished markedly after the executionof the king. The lack of unity within the party during the trial had irreparably damaged itsnational prestige, long at low ebb among the Parisian populace, who favored theJacobins. The Girondists lost influence as a consequence of the military reverses sufferedby the French armies after the declaration of war against Great Britain and the UnitedNetherlands (February 1, 1793) and against Spain (March 7), which, with several smallerstates, had entered the counterrevolutionary coalition against France. Jacobin proposalsdesigned to strengthen the government for the crucial struggles ahead met fierceresistance from the Girondists. Early in March, however, the convention voted toconscript 300,000 men and dispatched special commissioners to the various departmentsfor the purpose of organizing the levy. Royalists and clerical foes of the Revolutionstirred the anti-conscription feelings of peasants in the Vendee into open rebellion. Civilwar quickly spread to neighboring departments. On March 18, the Austrians defeated thearmy of Dumouriez at Neerwinden, and Dumouriez deserted to the enemy. The defectionof the leader of the army, mounting civil war, and the advance of enemy forces across theFrench frontiers inevitably forced a crisis in the convention between the Girondists andthe Montagnards, with the more radical elements stressing the necessity for bold action indefense of the Revolution.The Reign of Terror On April 6 the convention established the Committee of Public Safety as the executiveorgan of the republic and reorganized the Committee of General Security and theRevolutionary Tribunal. Agents were sent to the departments to supervise local executionof the laws and to requisition men and munitions. During this period rivalry between theGirondists and the Montagnards became increasingly bitter. A new Parisian outburst,organized by the radical journalist Jacques Ren Hebert and his extremist colleagues,forced the convention to order the arrest of 29 Girondist delegates and the Girondistministers Pierre Henri H l ne Marie Lebrun-Tondu and Etienne Claviere on June 2.Thereafter, the radical faction in control of the government of Paris played a decisive rolein the conduct of the Revolution. On June 24 the convention promulgated a newconstitution, the terms of which greatly extended the democratic features of the republic.The document was never actually put into effect, however. Leadership of the Committeeof Public Safety passed, on July 10, to the Jacobeans, who completely reorganized it.Three days later the radical politician Jean Paul Mart, long identified with the Jacobeans,was assassinated by the aristocrat Charlotte Corey, a Grandest sympathizer. Publicindignation over this crime considerably broadened the Jacobean sphere of influence. OnJuly 27 the Jacobean leader Maximilien Robespierre was added to the Committee ofPublic Safety and soon became its dominant member. Aided by Louis Saint-Just, LazierCarnet, George s Caution, and other prominent Jacobeans, Robespierre institutedextreme policies to crush any possibility of counterrevolution. The powers of thecommittee were renewed monthly by the National Convention from April 1793 to July1794, a period known in history as the Reign of Terror.From a military standpoint, the position of the republic was extremely perilous. Enemypowers had resumed the offensive on all fronts. Mainz had been recaptured by thePrussians, Conde-Sur-L Escaut and Valenciennes had fallen, and Toulon was under siegeby the British. Royalist and Roman Catholic insurgents controlled much of the Vendeeand Bretagne. Caen, Lyons, Marseille, Bordeaux, and other important localities were inthe hands of the Girondists. By a new conscription decree, issued on August 23, the entireable-bodied male population of France was made liable to conscription. Fourteen newarmies, numbering about 750,000 men, were speedily organized, equipped, and rushed tothe fronts. Along with these moves, the committee struck violently at internal opposition.On October 16 Marie Antoinette was executed, and 21 prominent Girondists werebeheaded on October 31. Beginning with these reprisals, thousands of Royalists,nonjuring priests, Girondists, and other elements charged with counterrevolutionaryactivities or sympathies were brought before revolutionary tribunals, convicted, and sentto the guillotine. Executions in Paris totaled 2639; more than half (1515) the victimsperished during June and July, 1794. In many outlying departments, particularly the maincenters of Royalist insurrection, even harsher treatment was meted out to traitors, realand suspect. The Nantes tribunal, headed by Jean Baptiste Carrier, which dealt mostseverely with those who aided the rebels in the Vendee, sent more than 8000 persons tothe guillotine within three months. In all of France, revolutionary tribunals andcommissions were responsible for the execution of almost 17,000 individuals. Includingthose who died in overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons and insurgents shot summarily onthe field of battle, the victims of the Reign of Terror totaled approximately 40,000. Allelements of the opposition suffered from the terror. Of those condemned by therevolutionary tribunals, approximately 8 percent were nobles, 6 percent were members ofthe clergy, 14 percent belonged to the middle class, and 70 percent were workers orpeasants charged with draft dodging, desertion, hoarding, rebellion, and various othercrimes. Of these social groupings, the clergy of the Roman Catholic church sufferedproportionately the greatest loss. Anticlerical hatred found further expression in theabolition, in October 1793, of the Julian calendar, which was replaced by a Republicancalendar. As a part of its revolutionary program, the Committee of Public Safety, underthe leadership of Robespierre, attempted to remake France in accordance with itsconcepts of humanitarianism, social idealism, and patriotism. Striving to establish a Republic of Virtue, the committee stressed devotion to the republic and to victory andinstituted measures against corruption and hoarding. In addition, on November 23, 1793,the Commune of Paris, in a measure soon copied by authorities elsewhere in France,closed all churches in the city and began actively to sponsor the revolutionary religionknown as the Cult of Reason. Initiated at the insistence of the radical leader PierreGaspard Chaumette and his extremist colleagues (among them Hebert), this actaccentuated growing differences between the centrist Jacobins, led by Robespierre, andthe fanatical Hebertists, a powerful force in the convention and in the Parisiangovernment.The tide of battle against the allied coalition had turned, meanwhile, in favor of France.Initiating a succession of important victories, General Jean Baptiste Jourdan defeated theAustrians at Wattignies-La-Victoi on October 16, 1793. By the end of the year, theinvaders in the east had been driven across the Rhine, and Toulon had been liberated. Ofequal significance, the Committee of Public Safety had largely crushed the insurrectionsof the Royalists and the Girondists.Struggle For Power The factional struggle between the Committee of Public Safety and the extreme groupsurrounding Hebert was resolved with the execution, on March 24, 1794, of Hebert andhis principal associates. Within two weeks, Robespierre moved against the Dantonists,who had begun to demand peace and an end of the terror. Danton and his principalcolleagues were beheaded on April 6. As a result of these purges and wholesale reprisalsagainst supporters of the two factions, Robespierre lost the backing of many leadingJacobins, especially those who feared for their own safety. A number of militarysuccesses, notably that at Fleurus, Belgium, on June 26, which prepared the way for thesecond French conquest of the Austrian Netherlands, increased popular confidence ineventual triumph. As a consequence, doubt regarding the necessity of Robespierre'sterroristic security measures became widespread. The general dissatisfaction with theleader of the Committee of Public Safety shortly developed into full-fledged conspiracy.Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon, and 98 of their followers were seized on July 27, theNinth Thermidor by the Republican calendar, and beheaded the next day. The NinthThermidor is generally regarded as marking the end of the Republic of Virtue. Until the end of 1794, the National Convention was dominated by the group, calledThermidoreans, that overthrew Robespierre and ended the Reign of Terror. The JacobinClubs were closed throughout France, the revolutionary tribunals were abolished, andvarious extremist decrees, including one that had fixed wages and commodity prices,were repealed. After the recall to the convention of expelled Girondists and other rightistdelegates, Thermidorean conservatism was transformed into sharp reaction. During thespring of 1795, bread riots and protest demonstrations spread from Paris to many sectionsof France. The outbreaks were suppressed, and severe reprisals were exacted against theMontagnards.The morale of the French armies was undamaged by these events on the home front.During the winter of 1794-95, French forces, commanded by General Charles Pichegru,overran the Austrian Netherlands, occupied the United Netherlands, which the victorsreorganized as the Batavian Republic, and routed the allied armies of the Rhine. Thissequence of reversals resulted in the disintegration of the anti-French coalition. On April5, 1795, by the Treaty of Basel, Prussia and a number of allied Germanic statesconcluded peace with the French government. On July 22 Spain also withdrew from thewar, leaving Great Britain, Sardinia, and Austria as the sole remaining belligerents. Fornearly a year, however, a stalemate prevailed between France and these powers. The nextphase of the struggle opened the Napoleonic Wars.Peace was restored to the frontiers, and in July an invading army of migr s was defeatedin Bretagne. The National Convention then quickly completed the draft of a newconstitution. Formally approved on August 22, 1795, the new basic law of France vestedexecutive authority in a Directory, composed of five members. Legislative power wasdelegated to a bicameral legislature, consisting of the Council of Ancients, with 250members, and the Council of the Five Hundred. The terms of one member of theDirectory and a third of the legislature were renewable annually, beginning in May 1797,and the franchise was limited to taxpayers who could establish proof of one-yearresidence in their voting district. The new constitution contained additional evidence ofretreat from Jacobin democracy. In its failure to provide a means of breaking deadlocksbetween the executive and legislative bodies, it laid the basis for constantintragovernmen

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