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The French Revolution Begins
In the 1700s, the culture of France had specific classes of citizens. These classes were called estates. The First Estate included the Roman Catholic Clergy of France. They owned a lot of land and paid little in taxes.
The Second Estate included the nobility, people who were born into power and descended from families who owned a lot of land. They too paid little in taxes. The lowest estate paid the most in taxes.
This Third Estate consisted of a diverse cluster of various types of people. In this estate, there also existed a hierarchy. At the top were the bourgeoisie. They consisted of business owners, merchants, artists, and the like. Some bourgeoisie became very wealthy, as wealthy as nobles. Yet, due to their status in society, they had to pay higher taxes than the nobles. Also in the Third Estate were poor laborers in cities, including tradesmen, domestic servants, and the other urban dwellers. These urban dwellers faced drastic poverty and even suffered to meet their needs, such as eating. This led to unrest and riots for food in various places. Peasants, also in the Third Estate, lived on the land of nobles. They typically had to give over half of their produce to the nobles and pay other very high taxes. Many in the Third Estate began to view the higher estates with animosity and felt they were treated unfairly in society.
Prior to the French Revolution, Enlightenment philosophers began to challenge old institutions of class and government. John Locke (1632-1704) taught all people deserved the protection of their life, liberty, and property by the government. Montesquieu (1689-1755) taught that the government should be broken up and use checks and balances. Voltaire (1694-1778) taught just governments would protect the freedom of speech. Rousseau (1712-1778) taught that the general will should guide politics. Beccaria (1738-1794) taught that the government should use law enforcement to protect society, not enact vengeance.
The ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers were theoretical and barely emerging in their own times. Yet, they laid a foundation for the future implementation of their ideas. The United States government implemented the protection of life and liberty advocated by Locke, the freedom of speech encouraged by Voltaire, and the Separation of Powers that Montesquieu supported. The USA today is very much a product of the Enlightenment. Supporters of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) referenced the teaching of the Enlightenment as the battle cry and outline of the new nation they wanted. Many in the Third Estate began to demand that change occur in their country of France too. They wanted to reform past societal structures and usher in more equality between the people of France.
By the late 1700s, the economy of France was in a terrible state and poor weather devastated farms and radically reduced the food supply in France. By 1789, many were starving and tension was growing among the Third Estate. The desire to revolt and challenge the structure of France continued to grow. While many in the Third Estate suffered, King Louis the 16th (1754-1793) and his Queen, Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), continued to live lavish lifestyles, while many suffered. This angered many people of France and legitimized their complaints that an imbalance of equality had led to most people suffering in France, while its King and Queen lived extravagantly.
As France’s debt exploded, King Louis the 16th suggested taxing the nobility at higher rates. This led to a meeting of the leadership of the estate classes called the Estates-General in 1789. The Clergy of the First Estate and Nobility of the Second Estates always dominated the political power of the Third Estate. Yet, the leaders of the Third Estate demanded more power in the government and named themselves the National Assembly. They claimed their numbers gave them the power to implement a representative government and reduce the power of the absolute monarchy of Louis the 16th. The Third Estate led what was called the Tennis Court Oath, a pledge to reform the government to a representative government and abolish the monarchy through a new Constitution. It was called the Tennis Court Oath because the National Assembly used an indoor tennis court to meet in. Fearing the King was about to use the military to squash their movement, supporters of the National Assembly stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris, to arm themselves with weapons stockpiled there. The mob killed the guards of the prisons and paraded around their hacked body parts to declare their victory. While many wanted to restructure the government, fear spread that hysteria was ushering in mob induced violence that would be difficult to counter. Peasants began revolting against their nobles across the nation of France.
The National Assembly removed all recognition of the Clergy or Nobles as having more privilege than the Third Estate. The goal was to abolish the old Estate system. They also issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It stated, “The aim of all political association is the preservation of the nature and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” There was inconsistency to the movement. Marie Gouze (1748-1793) created a Declaration of the Rights of women. Yet, she was executed. The “equality” the group was striving for meant male citizens would still have more rights than female citizens.
King Louis the 16th tried to escape to Austria. Yet, he was apprehended. The National Assembly forced Louis to agree to sign the new constitution. This created the Legislative Assembly, a governing body that could create laws. This new entity radically weakened Louis’ power. The Legislative Assembly was not fully unified. Radicals wanted to abolish the monarchy. Moderates wanted to have temperate changes to the government. Conservatives wanted few changes and felt the King should play an important role in the future of the government.
Austria and Prussia, two European superpowers, feared the revolution would sweep Europe. They commanded that Louis the 16th be put back in power. France declared war against these nations in 1792. In the chaos that ensued, the Constitution was dissolved, along with the Legislative Assembly, and the National Convention, a new governing body, was established. They removed the monarchy from France and created a Republic where each grown male could vote.
Prominent in the National Convention was a group called the Jacobins. They were named after a convent in Paris. They used to meet at a convent called Rue Saint-Jacques, hence “Jacobins.” They were a radical group totally opposed to any form of monarchy and willing to use violence and intimidation to achieve their goals. In 1793, the National Convention executed Louis the 16th by cutting off his head with a guillotine. Now, in fear that this movement would spread, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain joined Austria and Prussia to stop the pandemonium of the French Revolution by declaring war on France. To take on the European alliance against them, the French government started drafting male citizens into the army. A militant atmosphere swept Europe. The Jacobins not only wanted to revolutionize France, they even attempted to eradicate its past by changing the name of months for calendars, asserting religion was dangerous and shouldn’t be followed, and taking other measures.
Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), a Jacobin, eventually rose to become the dictator of France. This was ironic because the Enlightenment notions of government challenged the past rule of despots and monarchs. He sent many people who opposed his interpretation of the Revolution to the guillotine. While the French Revolution claimed to be a movement to give power to the majority of citizens and strive for equality, Robespierre rose to be the dictator of the entire nation. From 1793 to 1794, the leadership of Robespierre led to over 16,000 individuals being killed through the guillotine. Even Marie Antoinette, the widow of Louis the 16th, was executed. Ironically, and fearing for their own safety, the National Convention turned on Robespierre and executed him through the guillotine in 1794. This ended the Reign of Terror that Robespierre unleashed across France.
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