Monday, December 15, 2008


Early depiction of the tricolour
in the hands of a sans-culotte
French Revolution
From Wikimedia Commons

The French Revolution is one of the most important events in modern history. It was more radical than either the English or American Revolutions, and had a far greater impact on 19th century Europe. The unthinkable fall of the Bourbons resonated throughout Europe, sparking a series of revolutions which rallied behind liberalism and nationalism. The major socialist revolutions of the twentieth century in Russia, China and Cuba were inspired the French example.
1789 is one of the most significant dates in history - famous for the Revolution in France with cries of "Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!" that led to the removal of the French upper classes. The French Revolution didn't just take place in 1789. It actually lasted for another six years, with far more violent and momentous events taking place in the years after 1789.
(© Crown Copyright 2008)
The causes of the French Revolution are complicated, so complicated that a debate still rages among historians regarding origins, causes and results. In general, the real causes of the Revolution must be located in the rigid social structure of French society during the ancien regime. As it had been for centuries, French society was divided into three Estates or Orders. The First Estate consisted of the clergy and the Second Estate the nobility. Together, these two Estates accounted for approximately 500,000 individuals. At the bottom of this hierarchy was the vast Third Estate which basically meant everybody else, or about 25 million people. This social structure was based on custom and tradition, but more important, it was also based on inequalities which were sanctioned by the force of law.
In general, it can be said that there is no causal relationship between the philosophes of the Enlightenment and the outbreak of the French Revolution. Few philosophes, if any, advocated revolution and the reason is fairly clear. No philosophe advocated the violent overthrow of the existing order of things because violence was contrary to human reason. But because the philosophes of the Enlightenment attacked the established order together with authority of any kind, their ideas helped to produce what can only be called a revolutionary mentality.
One modern historian has correctly observed that:
18th century philosophy taught the Frenchman to find his condition wretched, unjust and illogical and made him disinclined to the patient resignation to his troubles that had long characterized his ancestors . . . . The propaganda of the philosophes perhaps more than any other factor accounted for the fulfillment of the preliminary condition of the French Revolution, namely discontent with the existing state of things. (Henri Peyre, "The Influence of Eighteenth Century Ideas on the French Revolution," Journal of the History of Ideas vol. 10, No. 1 (January 1949).
Liberty, equality, private property and representative government began to make more sense to European observers. If anything, the American Revolution gave proof to that great Enlightenment idea - the idea that a better world was possible if it was created by men using Reason.
As R. R. Palmer put it in 1959 (The Age of Democratic Revolution: The Challenge):
The effects of the American Revolution, as a revolution, were imponderable but very great. It inspired the sense of a new era. It added a new content to the conception of progress. It gave a whole new dimension to ideas of liberty and equality made familiar by the Enlightenment. It got people into the habit of thinking more concretely about political questions, and made them more readily critical of their own governments and society. It dethroned England, and set up America, as a model for those seeking a better world. It brought written constitutions, declarations of rights, and constituent conventions into the realm of the possible. The apparition on the other side of the Atlantic of certain ideas already familiar in Europe made such ideas seem more truly universal, and confirmed the habit of thinking in terms of humanity at large. Whether fantastically idealized or seen in a factual way, whether as mirage or as reality, America made Europe seem unsatisfactory to many people of the middle and lower classes, and to those of the upper classes who wished them well. It made a good many Europeans feel sorry for themselves, and induced a kind of spiritual flight from the Old Regime.
(copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis
Last Revised -- October 30, 2006)
Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution. To some extent at least, it came not because France was backward, but because the country's economic and intellectual development was not matched by social and political change. In the fixed order of the ancien régime, most bourgeois were unable to exercise commensurate political and social influence. King Louis XIV, by consolidating absolute monarchy, had destroyed the roots of feudalism; yet outward feudal forms persisted and became increasingly burdensome.

Louis XIV with Louis le Grand Dauphin,
Louis, duc de Bourgogne, and Louis, duc de Bretagne
c. 1710-1715
Artist: Formerly attributed to Nicolas de Largillière
Wallace Collection, London
Source: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei
Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In addition to the economic and social difficulties, the ancien régime was undermined intellectually by the apostles of the Enlightenment. Voltaire attacked the church and absolutism; Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie advocated social utility and attacked tradition; the baron de Montesquieu made English constitutionalism fashionable; and the marquis de Condorcet preached his faith in progress. Most direct in his influence on Revolutionary thought was J. J. Rousseau, especially through his dogma of popular sovereignty. Economic reform, advocated by the physiocrats and attempted (1774–76) by A. R. J. Turgot, was thwarted by the unwillingness of privileged groups to sacrifice any privileges and by the king's failure to support strong measures.

Voltaire en 1718
Portrait of Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778)
Source Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Author Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A 1766 portrait of Rousseau by Allan Ramsay
National Gallery of Scotland
Source: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The direct cause of the Revolution was the chaotic state of government finance. Director general of finances Jacques Necker vainly sought to restore public confidence. French participation in the American Revolution had increased the huge debt, and Necker's successor, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, called an Assembly of Notables (1787), hoping to avert bankruptcy by inducing the privileged classes to share in the financial burden. They refused in an effort to protect economic privileges.
Parisians mobilized, and on July 14 stormed the Bastille fortress. Louis XVI meekly recalled Necker and went to the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, where he accepted the tricolor cockade of the Revolution from the newly formed municipal government, or commune. The national guard was organized under the marquis de Lafayette. This first outbreak of violence marked the entry of the popular classes into the Revolution. Mobilized by alarm over food shortages and economic depression, by hopes aroused with the calling of the States-General, and by the fear of an aristocratic conspiracy, peasants pillaged and burned châteaus, destroying records of feudal dues; this reaction is known as the grande peur [great fear].
Int. Socialist Voice (01-10-05) - 'Terror' in the French revolution
By Peter Taaffe, in Socialism Today (01/09/05)

"The Storming of the Bastille"
Visible in the center is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan
Marquis de Launay (1740-1789)
Watercolor painting
Source From the Bibliothèque Nationale Française
Author Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Tennis Court Oath 1791
Artist David, Jacques-Louis
Musée national du Château de Versailles
Versailles, France
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

On Aug. 4, the nobles and clergy in the Assembly, driven partly by fear and partly by an outburst of idealism, relinquished their privileges, abolishing in one night the feudal structure of France. Shortly afterward, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
"The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" August 26, 1789 (From
Rumors of counterrevolutionary court intrigues circulated, and on Oct. 5, 1789, a Parisian crowd, aroused by rising food prices, marched to Versailles and brought the king and queen, “the baker and the baker's wife,” back to the Tuileries palace in Paris. The Assembly also removed to Paris, where it drafted a constitution. Completed in 1791, the constitution created a limited monarchy with a unicameral legislature elected by voters with property qualifications.

Paris Commune
The Storming of the Tuileries Palace
August 10, 1792
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Of gravest consequence were the Assembly's antireligious measures. Church lands were nationalized (1789), religious orders suppressed (1790), and the clergy required (July, 1790) to swear to adhere to the state-controlled Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Only a bare majority (52%) of all priests took the oath; disturbances broke out, especially in W France; and Louis XVI, though forced to assent, was roused to action. Numerous princes and nobles had already fled abroad (see émigré); Louis decided to join them and to obtain foreign aid to restore his authority. The flight (June 20–21, 1791) was halted at Varennes, and the king and queen were brought back in humiliation. Louis accepted the constitution.

The return of the royal family to Paris
25 June 1791
colored copperplate after a drawing of Jean-Louis Prieur
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Execution of Louis XVI
Now the Place de la Concorde
facing the empty pedestal
where the statue of his grandfather, Louis XV, had stood

An abortive insurrection of June 20, 1792, was followed by a decisive one on Aug. 10, when a crowd stormed the Tuileries and an insurrectionary commune replaced the legally elected one (see Commune of Paris).

Soldiers with a gun at a barricade during the Paris Commune
Copyright © 2008 San Francisco Sentinel

Under pressure from the commune, the Assembly suspended Louis XVI and ordered elections by universal manhood suffrage for a National Convention to draw up a new constitution. Mass arrests of royalist sympathizers were followed by the September massacres (Sept. 2–7), in which frenzied mobs entered jails throughout Paris and killed approximately 2,000 prisoners, many in grisly fashion.
On Sept. 21, 1792, the Convention held its first meeting. It immediately abolished the monarchy, set up the republic, and proceeded to try the king for treason. His conviction and execution (Jan., 1793) reinforced royalist resistance, notably in the Vendée, and, abroad, contributed to the forming of a wider coalition against France. The Convention undertook the foreign wars with vigor but was itself torn by the power struggle between the Girondists and the Mountain (Jacobins and extreme left). The Girondists were purged in June, 1793. A democratic constitution was approved by 1.8 million voters in a plebiscite, but it never came into force.
The French Revolution, though it seemed a failure in 1799 and appeared nullified by 1815, had far-reaching results. In France the bourgeois and landowning classes emerged as the dominant power. Feudalism was dead; social order and contractual relations were consolidated by the Code Napoléon. The Revolution unified France and enhanced the power of the national state. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars tore down the ancient structure of Europe, hastened the advent of nationalism, and inaugurated the era of modern, total warfare.
Code Napoléon (kôd näpôlāôN') or Code Civil (sēvēl'), first modern legal code of France, promulgated by Napoleon I in 1804. The work of J. J. Cambacérès and a commission of four appointed by Napoleon I in 1800 was important in making the final draft. The Code Napoléon embodied the private law of France (i.e., law regulating relations between individuals) and, as modified by amendments, it is still in force in that country. It is a revised form of the Roman law, i.e., the civil law, which prevailed generally on the Continent. It shows, of course, many specific French modifications, some based on the Germanic law that had been in effect in N France. The code follows the Institutes of the Roman Corpus Juris Civilis in dividing civil law into personal status (e.g., marriage), property (e.g., easements), and the acquisition of property (e.g., wills), and it may be regarded as the first modern analogue to the Roman work. Not only was it applied by Napoleon to the territories under his control—N Italy, the Low Countries, and some of the German states—but it exerted a strong influence on Spain (and ultimately on the Latin American countries) and on all European countries except England. It was the forerunner, in France and elsewhere, of codifications of the other branches of law, including civil procedure, commercial law, and criminal law. Quebec prov. and the state of Louisiana owe much of their law to the Code Napoléon. In addition to the Code Civil, Napoleon was responsible for four other codes: the Code of Civil Procedure (1807), Commercial Code (1808), Code of Criminal Procedure (1811), and the Penal Code (1811).
(The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2007, Columbia University Press.)

Images of the French Revolution

Timeline of Events
Louis XIV
Louis XV
Louis XVI
French Revolution

Some interesting comments on Rousseau and Voltaire supported by quotes from each:

The French Revolution. Interesting commentary about the actual success of the French Revolution, interspersed with William Wordsworth's poetry transforming from optimism to gloom:

Revolution and After
©1996, Richard Hooker

Jonathan Rowe stumbled upon a letter George Washington wrote to the French Minister January 1, 1796:
'Born, Sir, in a land of liberty; having early learned its value; having engaged in a perilous conflict to defend it; having, in a word, devoted the best years of my life to secure its permanent establishment in my own country; my anxious recollections, my sympathetic feelings, and my best wishes are irresistibly excited, whensoever, in any country, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of Freedom. But above all, the events of the French Revolution have produced the deepest solicitude, as well as the highest admiration. To call your nation brave, were to pronounce but common praise. Wonderful people! Ages to come will read with astonishment the history of your brilliant exploits! I rejoice, that the period of your toils and of your immense sacrifices, is approaching. I rejoice that the interesting revolutionary movements of so many years have issued in the formation of a constitution designed to give permanency to the great object for which you have contended. I rejoice that liberty, which you have so long embraced with enthusiasm, liberty, of which you have been the invincible defenders, now finds an asylum in the bosom of a regularly organized government; a government, which, being formed to secure the happiness of the French people, corresponds with the ardent wishes of my heart, while it gratifies the pride of every citizen of the United States, by its resemblance to their own. On these glorious events, accept, Sir, my sincere congratulations.
In delivering to you these sentiments, I express not my own feelings only, but those of my fellow citizens, in relation to the commencement, the progress, and the issue of the French revolution: and they will cordially join with me in purest wishes to the Supreme Being, that the citizens of our sister republic, our magnanimous allies, may soon enjoy in peace, that liberty which they have purchased at so great a price, and all the happiness which liberty can bestow.
I receive Sir, with lively sensibility, the symbol of the triumphs and of the enfranchisement of your nation, the colours of France, which you have now presented to the United States. The transaction will be announced to Congress; and the colours will be deposited with the archives of the United States, which are at once the evidences and the memorials of their freedom and independence. May these be perpetual! and may the friendship of the two republics be commensurate with their existence.'
(From Positive Liberty Copyright © 2008)

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