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1. French Society During the Late Eighteenth Century
In 1774, Louis XVI of the Bourbon family became king of France, inheriting an empty treasury because of the following reasons:
- Long years of war had drained the financial resources of France.
- High cost of maintaining an extravagant court at the immense Palace of Versailles.
- Under Louis XVI, France helped the thirteen American colonies to gain their independence from the common enemy, Britain.
- The war added more than a billion Livres to a debt that had already risen to more than 2 billion Livres.
- Lenders, who gave the state credit, now began to charge 10 per cent interest on loans.
The French society was divided into three states or estates:
- First Estate (The Clergy):
The members of the clergy enjoyed privileges by birth, such as exemption from paying taxes to the state.
- Second Estate (The Nobility):
The nobility also enjoyed feudal privileges by birth, including the extraction of feudal dues from peasants, and were exempted from paying taxes.
- Third Estate (Rest of the population):
It comprised of peasants, artisans, landless laborers, servants, lawyers, doctors, administrative officials, traders, etc. and they had to pay all taxes to the State. This estate made up about 90% of the population.
- Peasants were obliged to render services to the lord, work in his house and fields, serve in the army or participate in building roads. However, only a small number of them owned the land they cultivated. The Church also extracted its share of taxes called ‘tithes’ from the peasants.
- All members of the Third Estate had to pay taxes to the state, including a direct tax called ‘Taille’ and a number of indirect taxes that were levied on articles of everyday consumption like salt or tobacco.
The Struggle to Survive
- The population of France increased rapidly during 1715–1789, leading to a rapid increase in the demand for food and grains.
- The production of grains could not keep pace with the demand, resulting in the rise of the price of bread.
- The wages of the workers did not keep pace with the rise in prices, causing the gap between the poor and the rich to widen.
- Drought or hail reduced the harvest, worsening the situation.
- This led to a subsistence crisis, which frequently occurred in France during the Old Regime.
A Growing Middle Class Envisages an End to Privileges:
- In the 18th century, the middle class emerged as a new social group.
- They gained wealth through expanding overseas trade and the manufacture of goods such as textiles.
- Members of this class were educated and believed in the importance of merit over birth right.
Ideas of Philosophers:
- Middle class thinkers, such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, put forward ideas for a society based on freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all.
- In Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued against the doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarch.
- Rousseau proposed a form of government based on a social contract between people and their representatives.
- Montesquieu suggested a division of power within the government between the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches in The Spirit of the Laws.
2. The Outbreak of the Revolution
Louis XVI had to increase taxes. In Old Regime France, the monarch could not impose taxes alone. The Estates General was a political body that could pass proposals for new taxes. The last time the Estates General had been called was in 1614
I. Calling the Estates General
- Louis XVI called an assembly of the Estates General on 5 May 1789
- The meeting was held in a resplendent hall in Versailles
- The three estates sent their representatives
- The third estate was represented by more prosperous and educated members, while peasants, artisans, and women were excluded
II. Voting in the Estates General
- In the past, voting was conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote
- Members of the third estate demanded that voting be conducted by the assembly as a whole, with each member having one vote
- This was a democratic principle put forward by philosophers like Rousseau
- The king rejected this proposal, leading members of the third estate to walk out of the assembly in protest
III. The National Assembly
- The representatives of the third estate viewed themselves as spokesmen for the whole French nation
- On 20 June, they declared themselves a National Assembly and swore not to disperse until they had drafted a constitution for France that would limit the powers of the monarch
- They were led by Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyès
- Mirabeau, born in a noble family, was convinced of the need to do away with a society of feudal privilege and delivered powerful speeches to the crowds assembled at Versailles
- Abbé Sieyès, originally a priest, wrote an influential pamphlet called “What is the Third Estate”?
France Becomes a Constitutional Monarchy
- The National Assembly completed the draft of the constitution in 1791
- The main object of the constitution was to limit the powers of the monarch
- Powers were separated and assigned to different institutions: the legislature, executive, and judiciary
- France became a constitutional monarchy
I. Indirect Election and Voting Rights
- The power to make laws was vested in the National Assembly, which was indirectly elected
- Citizens voted for a group of electors, who in turn chose the Assembly
- Only men above 25 years of age who paid taxes equal to at least 3 days of a labourer’s wage were given the status of active citizens, entitled to vote
- The remaining men and all women were classed as passive citizens
- To qualify as an elector and then as a member of the Assembly, a man had to belong to the highest bracket of taxpayers
II. Declaration of Rights
- The Constitution began with a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
- Established rights such as the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, equality before law, as ‘natural and inalienable’
- Natural rights belong to each human being by birth and cannot be taken away
- It was the duty of the state to protect each citizen’s natural rights.
3. France Abolishes Monarchy and Becomes a Republic
I. King Louis XVI’s Secret Negotiations
- France remained tense after Louis XVI signed the Constitution
- Secret negotiations with the King of Prussia heightened tensions
- Neighbouring countries planned to send troops to put down events in France
II. Revolutionary Wars
- National Assembly voted to declare war against Prussia and Austria in April 1792
- Thousands of volunteers joined the army
- Viewed as a war of the people against kings and aristocracies
- Patriotic song, the Marseillaise, composed by Roget de L’Isle and became national anthem
III. Economic difficulties and political clubs
- Revolutionary wars brought losses and economic difficulties
- Women were left to cope with tasks of earning a living and looking after families
- Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to richer sections of society
- Political clubs became important rallying point for people to discuss government policies
- Jacobins, formed from former convent of St Jacob in Paris, became the most successful club
- Women formed their own clubs
IV. The Sans-Culottes
- The Jacobin club consisted of mainly less prosperous sections of society
- Sans-culottes were a large group among the Jacobins who wore long striped trousers and the red cap symbolizing liberty
- Sans-culottes proclaimed the end of power held by those who wore knee breeches
V. France becomes a Republic
- Jacobins planned an insurrection in summer of 1792 due to short supplies and high prices of food
- On August 10, they stormed the Palace of the Tuileries and held the king as hostage
- The monarchy was abolished, and France was declared a republic on September 21, 1792
- Louis XVI was sentenced to death and executed publicly on January 21, 1793, followed by Marie Antoinette.
3.1. The Reign of Terror in France during 1793-94
The period between 1793-94 was one of the most violent and chaotic times in French history, known as the Reign of Terror. It was characterized by severe control and punishment enforced by the government under Robespierre.
I. Targeted Persecution
- Robespierre perceived anyone who opposed the republic, including ex-nobles, clergy, and political rivals as “enemies” and had them arrested, imprisoned, and tried by a revolutionary tribunal.
- The guilty were subjected to execution via the guillotine, a device named after its inventor, Dr. Guillotin, which beheaded its victims.
II. Government Control
- Robespierre’s government imposed laws to limit wages and prices, rationed food like meat and bread, and controlled grain prices in cities by forcing peasants to sell their produce at government-fixed rates.
- The use of white flour was forbidden, and citizens were required to eat whole wheat bread called “pain d’egalite” (equality bread) to promote equality.
- The government also enforced a new form of address, replacing Monsieur and Madame with Citoyen and Citoyenne (Citizen).
- Churches were closed down, and their buildings were repurposed into offices or barracks.
III. Robespierre’s downfall
- Robespierre’s policies were so extreme that even his supporters began to call for moderation.
- He was arrested and found guilty by a court in July 1794 and sent to the guillotine the next day.
3.2. The Directory Government
The fall of the Jacobin government in France gave way to a new constitution, creating the Directory government. It was an attempt to provide a balance of power between the legislative and executive branches, but its instability led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
I. The Constitution and the Directory Government
- The new constitution introduced after the fall of the Jacobin government denied the vote to non-propertied sections of society.
- It provided for two elected legislative councils, which then appointed a Directory composed of five members as the executive.
- The Directory was meant to prevent the concentration of power in a one-man executive, as was the case under the Jacobins.
II. Clashes and Instability
- The Directors often clashed with the legislative councils, who sought to dismiss them.
- Political instability marked the Directory’s rule, which resulted in a weak and ineffective government.
III. The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte
- The political instability of the Directory government paved the way for the rise of a military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.
- In 1799, he carried out a coup d’état and established himself as the First Consul of France, eventually leading to his proclamation as Emperor in 1805.
- The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who changed the course of French history forever.
Despite its shortcomings, the Directory government and the ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity continued to inspire political movements in France and Europe during the following century.
4. Did Women have a Revolution?
Women played an active role in the events that led to significant changes in French society. They hoped to pressurize the revolutionary government to introduce measures to improve their lives.
I. Women in the third estate:
- Most women in the third estate had to work for a living as seamstresses, laundresses, or domestic servants.
- They did not have access to education or job training, and their wages were lower than those of men.
- They had to care for their families and work to earn a living.
II. Women’s political clubs and demands:
- Women formed their own political clubs and newspapers to discuss and voice their interests.
- The Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women was the most famous women’s club.
- They demanded the same political rights as men, including the right to vote, to be elected to the Assembly, and to hold political office.
III. Early reforms and improvements:
- The revolutionary government introduced laws that improved the lives of women, such as compulsory schooling for all girls, the right to choose their own spouse, and legal divorce.
- Women could train for jobs, become artists, or run small businesses.
IV. Continuing struggle for equal political rights:
- Despite early improvements, women’s struggle for equal political rights continued.
- During the Reign of Terror, the government banned women’s political activities and arrested and executed many prominent women.
- Women’s movements for voting rights and equal wages continued globally for the next two hundred years.
- The international suffrage movement carried out the fight for the vote during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
- Women in France finally won the right to vote in 1946.
5. The Abolition of Slavery
- One of the most significant social reforms during the Jacobin regime was the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.
- The French colonies in the Caribbean were important suppliers of commodities like sugar, coffee, tobacco, and indigo.
- The shortage of labour on the plantations was met by the triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
II. The Triangular Slave Trade:
- The slave trade began in the seventeenth century and involved French merchants sailing from ports of Bordeaux and Nantes to the African coast, where they bought slaves from local chieftains.
- The slaves were then packed tightly into ships and transported across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where they were sold to plantation owners.
- The exploitation of slave labour made it possible to meet the growing demand for sugar, coffee, and indigo in European markets.
- Port cities like Bordeaux and Nantes prospered economically due to the flourishing slave trade.
III. Slavery in the Eighteenth Century:
- Throughout the eighteenth century, there was little criticism of slavery in France.
- The National Assembly debated whether the rights of man should be extended to all French subjects, including those in the colonies.
- No laws were passed due to fears of opposition from businessmen who depended on the slave trade.
IV. The Abolition of Slavery:
- In 1794, the Convention passed a law to free all slaves in French overseas possessions.
- However, this was a short-term measure, and ten years later, Napoleon reintroduced slavery.
- Plantation owners saw their freedom as including the right to enslave African Negroes in pursuit of their economic interests.
- Slavery was finally abolished in French colonies in 1848.
6. The Revolution and Everyday Life
- The French Revolution brought many changes to the lives of men, women, and children.
- The revolutionary governments aimed to pass laws that would translate the ideals of liberty and equality into everyday practice.
II. The Abolition of Censorship:
- One important law that came into effect soon after the storming of the Bastille was the abolition of censorship.
- In the Old Regime, all written material and cultural activities had to be approved by the king’s censors before they could be published or performed.
- The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen proclaimed freedom of speech and expression to be a natural right.
- Newspapers, pamphlets, books, and printed pictures flooded the towns of France and travelled rapidly into the countryside.
- This freedom of the press allowed opposing views to be expressed and debated through the medium of print.
III. Impact on Everyday Life:
- Plays, songs, and festive processions became popular ways for people to grasp and identify with the ideas of liberty and justice that were written about by political philosophers.
- These cultural activities attracted large numbers of people and helped spread revolutionary ideas.
- The ability to freely express oneself and access information also led to changes in the way people dressed, spoke, and interacted with each other.
- The revolution had a profound impact on the everyday lives of French citizens, bringing about significant changes in their cultural and social practices.
I. Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign as Emperor of France
- In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France.
- He sought to expand French territory by conquering neighbouring European countries.
- He created kingdoms where he placed members of his family.
- Napoleon saw himself as a moderniser of Europe and introduced many laws such as the protection of private property and a uniform system of weights and measures provided by the decimal system.
II. Initial views of Napoleon as a liberator and his defeat at Waterloo
- Initially, many saw Napoleon as a liberator who would bring freedom to the people.
- However, the Napoleonic armies soon came to be viewed everywhere as an invading force.
- Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.
3. Napoleon’s impact on Europe
- Many of Napoleon’s measures carried the revolutionary ideas of liberty and modern laws to other parts of Europe.
- His impact was felt long after he left.
- The ideas of liberty and democratic rights were the most important legacy of the French Revolution.
- These ideas spread from France to the rest of Europe during the nineteenth century, where feudal systems were abolished.
4. The Legacy of the French Revolution on the world
- The French Revolution had a profound impact on the world.
- The ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity inspired people across the globe to fight for their rights and freedoms.
- Colonised peoples reworked the idea of freedom from bondage into their movements to create a sovereign nation-state.
5. Tipu Sultan and Rammohan Roy inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution
- Tipu Sultan and Rammohan Roy are two examples of individuals who responded to the ideas coming from revolutionary France.
- They were inspired by the ideas of liberty and modern laws and sought to implement these ideas in their own countries.
The French Revolution was a period of political and social upheaval in France that lasted from 1789 to 1799. It marked the end of the ancient regime and the birth of modern France. The revolution brought about fundamental changes in the political, social, and economic structures of France. It also had a profound impact on the rest of Europe and the world. The ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity that emerged during the revolution inspired people across the globe to fight for their rights and freedoms.