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Modern World History: Historical Overview: French Revolution - Process of Building a Republic
The French Revolution was when the ideas of the Enlightenment came into sudden and violent conflict with the
Absolute Monarchy that existed in France. Unlike the American Revolution, where the revolution resulted in the
relatively smooth development of a constitutional democracy, the French Revolution began a violent struggle within
France as the society fought about what type of government should be formed after the fall of the monarchy. This
expanded into a conflict that resulted in nearly twenty-five years of war between France and the other countries of Europe.
The conflict over whether France would be a monarchy or democracy flared in France for almost a century.
The events that caused French Revolution began in the late 1780’s when France became bankrupt (ran out of
money) because of the high cost of supporting the grandiose palace of Versailles and fighting wars against England (like
the American Revolution). A large part of this problem was that the nobility, the wealthiest part of the population, paid
no taxes. The commoners paid all of the taxes to support the government, which was becoming more difficult because
poor harvests and a poor economy had pushed many poor commoners to the point of starvation. The king of France,
Louis XVI, called for a meeting of the, which was made up of representatives of the whole of French society (both nobles
and commoners), to deal with the problem of government’s bankruptcy. The commoners, inspired by the Enlightenment
wanted to use the meeting of the Estates General to make the taxes burden more equal and fair.
The Estates General had not met for over a hundred years and under an absolute monarchy of Louis XIV, the
people of France had not been able to change their government. However, during that time the French people were
influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the examples of the English Glorious Revolution and the American
Revolution. Many of the French commoners admired the British form of government in which a Parliament limited the
power of the king and had supported the American Revolution. For example, the Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette had
fought in the American Revolution and supported changing the government of France. They wanted to make the French
government more democratic like those of England and the United States.
At the meeting of the Estates General in 1789, Louis XVI who desperate for more tax money came into conflict
with the demands of the French commoners who wanted a say in their government. This was a collision of the ideas of
absolute monarchy with those of the Enlightenment. At first, Louis XVI and the nobles refused to give into the demands
of the commoners. However, after the commoners formed themselves into a group called the National Assembly that
swore to write a constitution for a new government for France, Louis XVI and the nobles gave in and agreed to work
together to develop a new government that would represent the French people.
The success of the National Assembly inspired people. However it also created a fear that Louis XVI might use
his army to crush the National Assembly before it could develop a new government. This fear drove the people of Paris to
attack the Bastille, the king’s fortress in the center of the city, to get gun powder and weapons. At the same time the
country began to slip into chaos as peasants attacked nobles across France in an event called the Great Fear. In spite of
the chaos, the National Assembly was able to organize a new government due to strong moderate leaders, such as the
Marquis de Lafayette, who organized a new army under the control of the National Assembly called the National Guard.
The National Assembly’s passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which stated the goals of the
French Revolution was to develop a new government for France where everyone would be equal, where the government
would be democratic and it would protect the rights of the people. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, which begins
with the phrase, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights” reflects the ideals of the Enlightenment.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen began the process of writing a constitution for France. This
was the first time that the powers of the French government were written into law. A new constitution which was
accepted in 1791 changed France so the monarch would no longer have absolute powers and instead have his powers
limited by an elected group called the Legislative Assembly. Elections were held across France to elect the members of
the Legislative Assembly. In these elections all male citizens of France were allowed to vote which resulted in the
Legislative Assembly being more radical and wanting to get rid of the monarchy and make France into a representative
democracy called a republic. Louis XVI did not clearly support this new constitution and opposed the work of the
Legislative Assembly. After Louis XVI and his family caught as they attempted to escape from France, the Legislative
Assembly moved to end the monarchy. The king and his family were put under arrest and France became a republic.
The new French Republic went to war with the other European countries around it as a way of spreading the
democratic ideals of the revolution. These other countries were monarchies and they feared that the ideas of the French
Revolution would cause their own populations to rebel. In the first part of the war, the French Army did very badly
because it was disorganized and had poor leadership. France began to lose the war and was invaded by the armies of the
other European countries. This invasion threatened to undo the French Revolution because if these other countries won
the war they would end the republic and put Louis XVI back in power as an absolute monarch. At the same time groups
that opposed the revolution and the republic rose up in rebellion across France. In response to all of these threats, radical
French revolutionaries, like Maximilian Robespierre, took power with the goal of saving the revolution from both foreign
and internal threats. Robespierre and the other radicals viewed anyone who threatened the survival of the revolution as an
enemy and needed to be stopped at all cost. Robespierre and the other radial revolutionaries began a Reign of Terror in
which anyone who was considered to be an enemy of the revolution was arrested, given a short trial and then executed.
During the Reign of Terror more than 40,000 people were killed – including Louis XVI and is wife Marie Antoinette.
While the Terror was effective in silencing the critics of the revolution, it also killed many supporters of the revolution.
For example, the Marquis de Lafayette, the moderate revolutionary leader, had to flee France. This was because
Robespierre and other radical revolutionary leaders went beyond just trying to protect the revolution; they saw this as an
opportunity to create an ideal democratic society, which Robespierre called a “Republic of Virtue”. However, for many
supporters of the revolution, this was too far. As the revolutionary French armies became more organized under the
leadership of generals like Napoleon Bonaparte and began to win victories against the armies of the other European
countries, the French people began to see Robespierre’s actions as too extreme and turned on Robespierre, arresting him
and executing him.
After the death of Robespierre, more conservative forces took over the revolution and enacted a “counterrevolution” to push back against the extreme parts of the revolution. They established a small government of wealthy
commoners called the Directory which discouraged democracy. While this government stabilized France, it was not
popular with most of the people of France. There were many popular revolts against the Directory, and the Directory
became dependent on Napoleon Bonaparte, who used the French army to violently put down the rebellions.
Napoleon was a good military leader and under his leadership, the French were able to defeat many of the
countries they were fighting against. These victories made Napoleon more popular than the Directory. Napoleon realized
this and turned his army against the Directory, overthrew it and made himself dictator of France. As dictator, Napoleon
enacted many changes that improved the lives of average French people such as reforming the system of laws, introducing
a national bank and a new currency and establishing public schools. These changes improved the lives of French people
and made him more popular. He became so popular that in 1804 Napoleon became Emperor of France, with absolute
powers. This was only fifteen years after the French Revolution began.
While Napoleon was popular within France, he was very unpopular outside of France because of the wars he
fought against the other countries of Europe. Napoleon spent most of his time fighting wars, which he generally won.
Napoleon was successful in war because he was a military genius and he was able to draw on the full strength of the
French nation. The French Revolutionary government had organized the whole country for war against the combined
strength of the other European countries by requiring all young men to be in the army and having everyone else work to
support the military. As a result, Napoleon was able to use the strength of the entire French nation to build a large
powerful army to use in his wars. Napoleon fought wars to conquer other countries and bring them under the control of
France. At one point, Napoleon dominated most of Europe – the only country able to oppose him was England.
Napoleon’s control of Europe spread many of the French Revolutionary ideas to other countries. However, it also
angered many people across Europe who did not like living under French rule. As time when one, the cost of fighting
wars across Europe weakened France and made it harder for Napoleon to dominate Europe. In 1812, after a disastrous
invasion of Russia in which Napoleon lost most of his army, Europe turned against Napoleon. The combined armies of
Europe finally defeated Napoleon in 1814. After Napoleon’s defeat, the other countries of Europe removed Napoleon as
emperor and a put a new French king, in charge of France with absolute powers.
While this might seem like the end of the revolution, the ideas of the French Revolution had take root in France
and, over the next sixty years, France alternated between monarchs and republican governments until it became a stable
democracy. Louis XVIII ruled France as a traditional absolute monarch until he died. The next king, Charles X angered
the people with his harsh rule and was overthrown in 1830. With the support of the French people and approval of the
other countries of Europe, Louis Philip became the king of the French. Louis Philip was a member of the royal family
who had fought in the French Army during the wars of the revolution and fled France during the Reign of Terror. Louis
Philip introduced some democracy back into France by allowing wealthy people the right to vote and was called “the
Citizen King”. However, over time he became less popular because he did little to help the average French people. The
condition of the poor and working classes became worse as the result of several years of poor harvests. .
In 1848, the French people rebelled against Louis Philip and he fled the country. The people formed a new
democratic government called the Second Republic and all male citizens were given the right to vote. Louis Napoleon
(nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) was elected president of the Second Republic. Louis Napoleon had been a liberal in his
youth and he had large plans his powers as president to redesign France. However, conservative groups blocked many of
his reforms. In December 1851, Louis Napoleon, with support from the army, over threw the democratic Second
Republic. Later in the month, though a popular election, Louis Napoleon got the support for a new constitution that made
him president for 10 years. The constitution also allowed for universal male suffrage, but that did not matter since
Napoleon held all the real power. Later, in November 1852, he made himself Emperor of France with the popular support
of the French people. He took the title Napoleon III, ruler of the Second French Empire.
As Emperor, Napoleon III focused his energies on building up the French economy and overtime making the
government more democratic. One of his long lasting actions was to demolish and rebuilt central Paris as a city of wide
boulevards and parks with grand government buildings. In addition, he ordered building of the railroad network across
France which helped develop the modern capitalist economy in France because it funded the mining of coal and steel,
building steel mills and a financial system to fund the program. In order to keep the support of both the business interests
in France and the French population, Napoleon began a series of reforms that gave the people the right to assemble and
form political groups and allowing for the freedom of the press. Finally, in 1869, he allowed some leaders in Parliament
to form a government, which lead to the development of a constitutional limited monarchy.
This constitutional monarchy was short lived because in 1870, Napoleon III was defeated in the Franco-Prussian
War and was removed from power. After the war France became democratic again with the creation of the Third
Republic in 1875 when the government approved a new constitution. Since then, except for the period of World War
Two, France has had a democratic government. The process of building a stable prosperous democracy took almost a
century from the beginning of the French Revolution to the establishment of the Third Republic. The ideas of the French
Revolution also spread to other parts of the world, encouraging people to develop democracy and form new countries
based on the idea of nationalism.