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The outcome of the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and lasted for more than a decade, had numerous social, economic, and political effects not just in France but also in Europe and beyond.
Prelude to Revolt
By the late 1780s, the French monarchy was on the brink of collapse. Its involvement in the American Revolution had left the regime of King Louis XVI bankrupt and desperate to raise funds by taxing the wealthy and the clergy. Years of bad harvests and rising prices for basic commodities led to social unrest among the rural and urban poor. Meanwhile, the growing middle class (known as the bourgeoisie) was chafing under an absolute monarchical rule and demanding political inclusion.
In 1789 the king called for a meeting of the Estates-General-an advisory body of clergy, nobles, and bourgeoisie that had not convened in more than 170 years-to garner support for his financial reforms. When the representatives assembled in May of that year, they couldn't agree on how to apportion representation.
After two months of bitter debate, the king ordered delegates locked out of the meeting hall. In response, they convened on June 20 on the royal tennis courts, where the bourgeoisie, with the support of many clergy and nobles, declared themselves the new governing body of the nation, the National Assembly, and vowed to write a new constitution.
Although Louis XVI agreed in principle to these demands, he began plotting to undermine the Estates-General, stationing troops throughout the country. This alarmed the peasants and middle class alike, and on July 14, 1789, a mob attacked and occupied the Bastille prison in protest, touching off a wave of violent demonstrations nationwide.
On Aug. 26, 1789, the National Assembly approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the Declaration of Independence in the United States, the French declaration guaranteed all citizens equal, enshrined property rights and free assembly, abolished the absolute power of the monarchy and established representative government. Not surprisingly, Louis XVI refused to accept the document, triggering another massive public outcry.
The Reign of Terror
For two years, Louis XVI and the National Assembly co-existed uneasily as reformers, radicals, and monarchists all jockeyed for political dominance. In April 1792 the Assembly declared war on Austria. But it quickly went badly for France, as Austrian ally Prussia joined in the conflict; troops from both nations soon occupied French soil.
On Aug. 10, French radicals took the royal family prisoner at Tuileries Palace. Weeks later, on Sept. 21, the National Assembly abolished the monarchy entirely and declared France a republic. King Louis and Queen Marie-Antoinette were tried hastily and found guilty of treason. Both would be beheaded in 1793, Louis on Jan. 21 and Marie-Antoinette on Oct. 16.
As the Austro-Prussian war dragged on, the French government and society, in general, were mired in turmoil. In the National Assembly, a radical group of politicians seized control and began implementing reforms, including a new national calendar and the abolition of religion. Beginning in September 1793, thousands of French citizens, many from the middle and upper classes, were arrested, tried, and executed during a wave of violent repression aimed at the Jacobins' opponents, called the Reign of Terror.
The Reign of Terror would last until the following July when its Jacobin leaders were overthrown and executed. In its wake, former members of the National Assembly who had survived the oppression emerged and seized power, creating a conservative backlash to the ongoing French Revolution.
Rise of Napoleon
On Aug. 22, 1795, the National Assembly approved a new constitution that established a representative system of government with a bicameral legislature similar to that in the U.S. For the next four years, the French government would be beset by political corruption, domestic unrest, a weak economy, and ongoing efforts by radicals and monarchists to seize power. Into the vacuum strode French Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte. On Nov. 9, 1799, Bonaparte backed by the army overthrew the National Assembly and declared the French Revolution over.
Over the next decade and a half, he could consolidate power domestically as he led France in a series of military victories across much of Europe, declaring himself emperor of France in 1804. During his reign, Bonaparte continued the liberalization that had begun during the Revolution, reforming its civil code, establishing the first national bank, expanding public education, and investing heavily in infrastructures like roads and sewers.
As the French army conquered foreign lands, he brought these reforms, known as the Napoleonic Code, with him, liberalizing property rights, ending the practice of segregating Jews in ghettos, and declaring all men equal. But Napoleon would eventually be undermined by his own military ambitions and be defeated in 1815 by the British at the Battle of Waterloo. He would die in exile on the Mediterranean island of St. Helena in 1821.
Revolution's Legacy and Lessons
With the advantage of hindsight, it's easy to see the positive legacies of the French Revolution. It established the precedent of representational, democratic government, now the model of governance in much of the world. It also established liberal social tenets of equality among all citizens, basic property rights, and separation of church and state, much as did the American Revolution.
Napoleon's conquest of Europe spread these ideas throughout the continent, while further destabilizing the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, which would eventually collapse in 1806. It also sowed the seeds for later revolts in 1830 and 1849 across Europe, loosening or ending the monarchical rule that would lead to the creation of modern-day Germany and Italy later in the century, as well as sow the seeds for the Franco-Prussian war and, later, World War I.
- Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. "French Revolution." 7 February 2018.
- History.com staff. "French Revolution." History.com.
- The Open University staff. "French Revolution." Open.edu.
- Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media staff. "Legacies of the Revolution." chnm.gmu.edu.