Skyline Paris with Eiffel Tower and French flag

The French Revolution that Changed Europe (Part 1)

Intro to the French Revolution


Skyline Paris with Eiffel Tower and French flag
Skyline Paris with Eiffel Tower and French flag

The history and events that took place in The French Revolution that changed Europe makes an interesting read and gives an insight into how the masses react when pushed to the wall. It also shows how things can get out of hand if not well managed by the initiators of such an action.

The French Revolution had a significant impact not just in France but also in modern European history. The revolution began in 1789 and continued up until the late 1790s.

During this period, French citizens rose up against monarchy and feudal systems, dismantling ancient institutions and establishing a republic. The major cause of this crisis was the poor economic policies introduced by King Louis XVI and the opulent lifestyle of the noble class.

King Louis, his wife and countless number of nobles were killed in the uprising that followed.

This crisis brought to the forefront a young, dynamic general and dictator Napoleon Bonaparte who spread his rule and ideology across areas he conquered in Europe and beyond.

The aftermath of the French Revolution was the decline into anarchy, bloodbath and dictatorship. Nonetheless it showed leaders of the world that power resides with the people and when they decide to take it, it comes with a heavy price.


Causes of the French Revolution

Prior to the revolution, France went into a seven year war with Britain due to its support to its rebellious former colony, in the American Revolution. This drove the economy of France into depression, with huge debts to pay, pushing the government to the brink of bankruptcy. To solve this problem heavy taxation and unpopular policies were imposed on the citizens by the King and his government.

Crop failures in 1788 compounded existing economic woes, coupled with its massive population; the highest in Europe, feeding the masses became an issue. This led to widespread disparity between the rich and poor which brewed dissatisfaction with the antiquated feudal system against the poor. The upper class and wealthy continued to live in opulence while the poor starved to death.

In addition to this there was resentment among the bourgeoisie for its exclusion from political power.

Intellectuals of that time gradually gained popularity with the masses and argued for political and social reforms. The masses listened more to these intellectuals and gradually developed social and political awareness. With time the masses who had previously been docile and scared to speak against those in power began to agitate. Looting of shops and violence began to creep in gradually into the social life of the French society.


The Estates General is convened

The British had developed a more sophisticated financial and taxation system which enabled it withstand the financial storm that emerged after the war. This was unlike the French that still operated an archaic and outdated financial structure. The rising debt profile of the country increased astronomically with French unable to pay and even to maintain its financial obligations.

In February 1787 the Controller General of Finances, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne summoned an assembly to propose reforms designed to address the budget deficit.

He proposed an increase in taxation of the privileged class which however he was unable to push through and implement.

Hence, King Louis called for an Estates General in 1787, which was recommended by the Assembly of Notables. This would be the first time in over a century; it last met in 1614. The reason for this assembly was to fashion out a plan to ease the financial crisis bedeviling the nation.

The Estate General comprised 303 Clergy, 291 Nobles (The Aristocrat) and 610 members of the Third Estate representing the rest of France.

The gathering was scheduled for May 5, 1789 with each group compiling a list of grievances to present to the King.

statue-of versaille
statue-of versaille

Despite the fact that the middle class (Third Estate) had about 98% of the population, the Clergy and nobles could still outvote them. The middle class thus advocated and started mobilizing for equal representation; count by head and the abolishment of noble veto.

This arrangement was vehemently opposed to by the nobles since they knew they were bound to lose out during voting.

On the day set for this gathering at The Versailles, hostilities broke out between the three orders making the purpose of the meeting insignificant.

The Third Estate declared themselves the National Assembly not of the Estate but of the people and met as Communes (Commons) on June 5, 1789 and threatened to proceed with the deliberations without the other two.


The Tennis Court Oath

To prevent the commons from proceeding as threatened the King locked them out of the meeting hall (Salle des Etats) using royal officials. The Third Estate now known as the commons  however occupied the Kings indoor tennis court just outside Versailles. There they and took the famous Tennis Court Oath on June 20, 1789 and vowed not to leave the court until they had given France a new constitution.

Throughout they met non-stop despite the presence of soldiers who were mainly foreign mercenaries brought in by the King. Their presence ultimately and unfortunately led to panic among the people resulting in riots, chaos and looting.

Days later the clerics and nobles joined the assembly with Louis XVI reluctantly joining on June 27.


Attack on Bastille and the Great Fear

france violence
violence in France

On July 14, 1789 rioters stormed and attacked the Bastille Fortress which is a symbol of royal power. The rioters planned to seize large stocks of weapons and ammunition due to rumors of a plan by the aristocrats to overthrow the Third Estate. This event which is today celebrated as a national holiday in France marked the beginning of The French Revolution.

The violence in no time spread round the country with homes of tax collectors, landlords and the elites burnt. This period known as the Great Fear, resulted in nobles fleeing the country to neighboring countries and were known as émigrés. They funded counter-revolutionaries against the revolutionaries in France throughout the period of the French Revolution.


King Louis is imprisoned

A proposal to create a regime in which legislative and executive powers was shared with the King failed. This was majorly due to weakness of the King to take decisions. Rather the King made an attempt to flee on June 20-21, 1791 due to the confusion in his country.

The King and the royal family dressed up as servants while their servants were dressed as nobles. They were however recognized and stopped at a place called Varnnes and brought back to Paris. His attempt to flee and his capture invariably led to the abolishment of feudalism.

A petition was raised against the King for trying to flee, he was therefore suspended and held under guard with his wife as well as the royal family.

The monarchy was then replaced with the National Constituent Assembly (NCA).

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