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Chapter 20 - The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era

Background to the Revolution:

  • Enlightenment: Spread of new ideas at the upper levels of French society created new expectations and possibilities (optimism and progress based upon the acceptance of nature)
  1. Provided the intellectual shift away from absolutism
  • Financial problems: Fr. Nation of great wealth and great poverty existing side by side
  1. Disputes over taxation were common place throughout the late 17th and entire 18th centuries (exacerbated by military demands - failure in the Seven Years War)
  • Political problems: Fr. Lacked sufficient bureaucratic infrastructure to implement royal policies
  1. Govt. authority still rested largely upon medieval concepts
  2. Monarchy in constant competition with the nobility for power
  3. Louis XVI very bad at being king
  • Conflict b/w social classes
  1. Aristocracy: constituted the first and second estates, traditional held power
  2. Bourgeoisie: wealthy and powerful class on the rise
  3. Sans-Culottes: urban working poor
  4. Peasants: rural working poor
  • Public Opinion: increased urbanization and mercantilist behavior led to an increase in literacy and publication of printed materials: Newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets
  1. Pamphlets allowed for the expression and shaping of public opinion into an effective revolutionary tool


How the French Government worked (or didn't?)

  • Mixture of feudal system and centralized government under the leadership of the king
  • King: in theory absolute, in practice restricted by feudal tradition and power of nobles
  • Legislative body: Estates General - tricameral


  1. 1st Estate: Clergy (traditionally the wealthiest, ie. Aristocracy
  2. 2nd Estate: Nobles (especially the Great Nobles)
  3. 3rd Estate: Everyone else
  • Voting: Traditionally each Estate received one vote, thus the nobility and king worked together to dominate all proceedings
  • Competition b/w King and nobles led to the failure of the king to call the Estates General b/w 1614 and 1792
  • Courts: Parlements (13 regional courts), Parisian Parlement was the most prestigious and powerful
  • Before Kings declarations could become law the Parlements had to register the declaration (check on kings)
  • In addition, France retained well over 100 separate and often times conflicting legal codes stemming from feudal tradition
  • Regional government: Still guided by the legacy of the feudal system, seen as repressive by the peasantry and essential by the nobility
  • Often times abused by the nobility (finding "new" rights in an "ancient" document)


Louis XVI

  • Nice guy, couldn't make a decision when he needed to.
  • Inherited great fiscal problems of indebtedness
  • Made them worse through financing the American Revolution
  • By the 1780's half the national budget went to serving the debt
  • French Taxation: due to tradition almost everyone who could afford taxes was exempt
  • System became increasingly regressive
  • Sold every office possible to increase revenues, not enough

 Attempt at Reform

  • Focus was often short sighted: looked for new revenue creating greater resentment
  1. Turgot: appointed Controller-General by Louis XVI, attempted laissez-faire reforms and soundly defeated by guilds, merchants and nobles
  2. Necker: created first accounting of the French Budget, attempted reform through increasing efficiency of govt. (wanted to eliminate tax-farmers)
  • created both broad support and absolute enemies
  1. Calonne: proposed to restructure taxation into a more progressive system
  • Nobility forced him to reform
  1. Brienne: advocated short term loans


Conflict: Parlement of Paris refused any new tax or loan for the king. Thus Louis XVI was forced to disband the Parlement and call a meeting of the Estates General (had not met since 1614)

  • Missed opportunity: Louis XVI could have compromised with the Parlement of Paris, but chose to maintain his claim to absolute authority

 First Stage of the Revolution:

 April 1798: Louis was forced to call a meeting of the Estates General (first in 178 years)

  • Problems: no established precedents for selection of membership or operation of the legislative body
  • Held national elections, results
  1. wealthy bourgeois, lower nobility (sympathetic to the peasants) and lower clergy dominated the 3rd Estate
  2. A sense of hope for reform developed among the people, increasing expectations
  • Each of the three Estates and the king had very different agendas
  1. 1st Estate: maintain tax exemptions and power / privilege of the nobility
  2. 2nd Estate: secure economic and political freedom, wanted a constitutional monarchy in the model of England (only great lords would have political power)
  3. 3rd Estate: wanted to end the legacy of Feudalism and the privileges of the nobility
  • Cahiers de Doleances: lists of grievances drawn up by each Estate, king was expected to deal with each grievance (tradition)
  1. Taxes and complaints about the state bureaucracy (tax farmers) led the lists
  2. Impact: together with the national elections the Cahiers de Doleances helped create very high expectations and a sense of a new national political ideology


Louis made mistakes:

  • Called for in May (very bad time of year, traditional unrest)
  • Louis missing for a week when the delegates arrived at Versailles
  • No agenda, the meeting lacked any sense of direction

 1st meeting:

  • 3rd Estate fought every element of tradition (dress and kneeling), demanded that voting conducted based on per representative
  • Sieyes developed as a key leader of the 3rd Estate, set the agenda
  • Meeting quickly reached a stalemate

 National Assembly:

  • In response to the stalemate the 3rd Estate took the dramatic step of meeting alone (invited the others to attend)
  • Louis failed to act for three days, then locked them out
  • Met across the street in a tennis court
  • Oath of the
Tennis Court
  • Goal: establish a representative government based on a constitution
  • Became the National Assembly, widely supported by popular opinion
  • Fearing popular support Louis attempted reconciliation (ordered everyone to meet together), too late
  • Louis then called in the Swiss Guard (feared the loyalty of his troops)
  • Swiss hated by the people, this move was seen as a step towards oppression
  • July 14,1789 people of Paris storm the Bastille (prison / armory), Louis sent in his troops to put down rebellion they joined the rioters
  • Lafayette took command of the rioters who formed a National Guard
  1. Adopt the tri-color flag (Red / Blue for Paris and White for the Bourbon Monarchy)

 The Great Fear and Peasant Revolt:

  • With events spinning out of control in Paris and Versailles and a series of poor harvests an uncertainty spread across the countryside (driven by publications)
  • “great fear”: idea that Fr. Society was falling apart
  • Peasant Revolt: began just outside of Paris and spread like a shock-wave throughout France
  1. Bands of Peasants attacked the privileges of the landed nobility, went to their houses and demanded all legal documents and then burned them

 August 4 1798 National Assembly responded to the Peasant Revolt

  • Representatives state, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” for all as their goals
  1. Meeting goes late into the night and got a little out of hand, everyone began to renounce their privileges


August 27, 1798 the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens

  • Guaranteed equal justice, freedom of religion and speech

 October unrest:

  • Continuing high bread prices resulted in a massive bread riot, as a result 6000 women march to Versailles and demand redress from Louis
  • In a nearly bloodless standoff they forced Louis and his family to return to Paris with them
  • Impact: King was no long insulated from popular unrest

 Between 1798 and 1790 a counter-revolutionary fervor began to develop:

  • Religious
  • Nobility
  • Economic distress cause a popular backlash
  • Foreign conflict (Austria) added support for the counter-revolutionary group and fractured revolutionary support

 March 1791, the National Assembly finished their work, creating a constitutional monarchy

  • King signed it, appeared to publicly support it
  • Established the idea that sovereignty rested with the people
  • Louis and his family caught trying to steal away in the middle of the night (June)
  • Women’s rights: seemed to many to be a natural extension of revolutionary principles, rejected by the National Assembly (Rights of Woman and Citizen)

 September 1791 the Legislative Assembly was elected (per the new constitution)

  • Did not know what to do? Divided.
  • Conservatives: sat "on the Right", wanted the king to be returned to power, no more changes
  • Radicals: sat "on the left", wanted to eliminate the king altogether
  • Moderates: sat "in the middle"
  • Decided that without a monarch, they had to call a new representative body to create a new govt.

 April 1792, France declared war on Austria

  • Act Two: The Radicalization of the Revolution / The Terror
  • September 1792 National Convention met to chart a new course, the convention eliminated the monarchy and place Louis on trial
  • Dominated by two groups of radical revolutionaries
  1. Girondins: most popular group, moderate revolutionaries – looked for a compromise solution
  2. Jacobins: extreme radical revolutionaries, wanted to end the monarchy and establish representative democracy
  • During the National Convention the war with Austria turned bad, coupled with counter-revolutionary fervor and popular unrest (agitated by the Jacobins)
  • The Girondin control slowly slipped away as the Jacobin’s continued to organize in the streets and cause problems
  1. The Jacobins were using the sans-culottes (think of the workers in the Great Cat Massacre) as muscle in mob violence to gain control over the National Convention
  2. ex. August 1972, the sans-culottes raided the home of the king in Paris

 Crisis faced the National Convention:

1. Economic:

  • Finances were based upon the Assignat (paper currency) backed up by the "bien nationanx" (royalist and church lands seized by the revolutionary govt.)
  • Assignat: govt. printed more money (finance foreign wars) than they had in assets to back it up
  • Food shortage: poor harvests and foreign blockades
  • War time failures: French generals sensing failure began to switch sides
  • Vendee / Choouans: riots in response to conscription


While the Convention focused on a new constitution the power to govern was turned over to the Committee of Public Safety (known as the “Great Committee” at the time)

  • July 1793 to July 1794, Robespierre (Jacobin leader) controlled the Committee of Public Safety and thus gained control over the direction of the Revolution
  • Robespierre used the Committee to conduct the Reign of Terror
  1. Robespierre was heavily influenced by the Social Contract and saw himself as the expression of the General Will (totalitarianism)
  • “Terror is the Order of the Day” as a means for re-establishing stability in the face of counter-revolutionary forces and a losing effort against Austria
  • Militant tribunals were hastily constructed to identify any “enemy of the state”
  • Used the law to implement the terror: Law of Suspects
  • Levee en Masse: gave the govt. legal right to take anything they needed for the war effort (first national mobilization in history)
  • The Terror as social reform
  • Attempted to replace the nobility with the Sans-Culottes and emphasized family as essential to the republic
  • Implemented the Cult of the Supreme Being to replace Christianity
  • 40,000 executions: victims included priests, nobles, anyone out of favor with revolutionary leaders (women’s leaders – Olympe de Gouges)

Impact: The terror was able to save France from foreign invasion at the cost of destroying democracy (the goal of the revolution)

 Themidorian Reaction

  •  Robespierre was killing people across the political spectrum
  • Enemies rallied (Girondin) together and disassociated Robespierre from the General Will
  • Danton (former friend and political ally) gave the order to guillotine Robes.
  • Marked the beginning of the end of popular revolution

 1794 the Directory was established to lead France

  • Collection of five men, serving set terms in office to act as the executive branch
  • Elected by the two thirds rule (2/3 of the convention votes)
  • Often proved to be ripe with corruption and largely ineffective
  • Faced opposition from the popularists and the monarchists
  • Also still engaged in a massive foreign war with Austria and it’s allies
  • Forced to conscript large armies = declining popularity

 Stage 3: The Reign of Napoleon 1977-1815

Napoleon Bonaparte: 1769-1812

  • Born on Corsica into the lower nobility
  • Attended Military school
  • Embraced Artillery in school (social advancement + strategic importance)


1795 – Suppressed riots against the Directory

  • “Whiff of Grapeshot”
  • Rewarded with the Italian Campaign – success
  • Egyptian Campaign – made him a national hero, despite military failure
  • Battle of the Nile

 1799 – Napoleon made himself “first counsel” in a coup

 Avoided Criticism by espousing no clear ideology

 Consolidated power through reform:

  • Guaranteed revolutionary property
  • Balanced the budget
  • Restored Catholicism
  • Military success ensured safety of France
  • Established peace with all other nations
  • Created the Code de Napoleon
  • Metric System
  • Bureaucratic reforms
  • New Nobility: Legion of Honor
  • Patron of Science (promote industrial / military development)
  • Rebuilt French infrastructure
  • Rebuilt the ascetics and structure of Paris (Champs d’ Elyss)
  • Bank of France (national bank to stabilize the econ.)

 1802 Plebiscite elected Napoleon First Counsel for life

  • 1803 War renewed
  • 1804 Napoleon crowned himself emperor
  • 1805: Austria defeated

Battle of Austerliz (Dec. 1805): Napoleon smashed Austrian army

Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Horatio Nelson: Britain destroyed French navy

  • Established supremacy of British navy for over a century
  • Napoleon forced to cancel invasion of Britain

1806: Prussia defeated

Battle of Jena: Napoleon defeated Prussia in 1806

1807: Russians defeated at Friedland (signed a treaty with the French)

1808: Invaded Spain

  • Francisco Goya - The Disasters of War (anti-Nap. propaganda)


Decline and fall of Napoleon

1. Continental System: In response to his inability to invade England, Nap. Blockaded English goods from European markets

  • Berlin Decree, 1806: British ships not allowed in European ports
  •  “order in council”, 1806: Britain proclaimed any ship going to Europe had to stop there first
  • Milan Decree, 1807: Napoleon proclaimed any ship stopping in Britain would be seized when it entered the Continent.
  • Failed: allies (by force) refused to sustain the blockage, English navy too powerful
  • Impact: created fissures within the Napoleonic Empire (Russian Campaign)


2. Peninsular War: Spain 1808-1814

  • Nap. Tried to suppress Sp. Guerrilla warfare (Duke of Wellington)
  • Proved impossible to defeat, lost 400,000 of his best troops


3. Russian Campaign: 1812

  • Tensions over the Continental System led to war
  • Nap. Invaded with 500,000 men, returned with less than 100,000
  • Scorched Earth policy implemented 
  • Nap. Reached Moscow in Sept. to find it in flames
  • Retreat by Nov., too late
  • Cossacks massacre French in retreat


Grand Alliance

  • Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia v. France
  • Battle of Nations at Leipzig (1813) Alliance won
  1. first” Treaty of Paris (1814)
  • France surrendered all lands gained since 1792
  • Nap. Exiled to Elba (too close), he returned
  • Final Battle of Waterloo, Duke of Wellington defeated Nap. For a final time
  1.  “2nd” Treaty of Paris: dealt more harshly w/ France; large indemnity, some minor territories
  • - Exiled to St. Helena
Subject X2: 

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