French Revolution: Influence, Causes and Course of the Revolution!
The Influence of the French Revolution:
The French Revolution of 1789 is an important landmark in the history of Europe. It was the first great uprising of the people against the autocracy of the ruler.
It generated ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity which crossed the boundaries of France and influenced whole of Europe.
The revolution not only changed the political, social and economic life of the people but also affected the entire course of world history.
In the 18th century, France was a feudal society under the authority of an absolute monarchy. The Bourbon monarchs lived in splendor in the royal palace of Versailles. The finances of France were in a deplorable condition.
The treasury was practically empty after the numerous wars that France was involved in. King Louis XVI was incapable of guiding France through the political and financial crises. Queen Marie Antoinette, an Austrian princess, was blamed for squandering away public money. The administration was corrupt and autocratic.
The social conditions of France were as distressing as its political organisation. French society was divided into three classes or estates. The privileged class comprising the clergy and the aristocracy formed the first estate and the second estate respectively. These two estates enjoyed many privileges under the government and did not have to bear the burden of taxation.
The nobility monopolised all important positions in the French administration and lived a life of luxury. The third estate comprised the common people. It consisted of middle class people, peasants, artisans, workers and agricultural labourers. Even the rich middle class, consisting of merchants, factory owners etc., fell in this category. The entire burden of taxation fell on the third estate. But these taxpayers had no political rights.
The condition of the artisans, peasants and workmen was miserable. The peasants had to work for long hours and pay separate taxes to the Crown, to the clergy and to the nobility. After paying all these taxes, they hardly had enough money to feed themselves. The wealthy middle class had to pay heavy taxes and resented the privileges enjoyed by the aristocrats and the higher clergy i.e. the first two estates. The workers, the peasants and the middle class who suffered under the social and economic system wanted to change it.
Influence of Philosophers:
French philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu inspired the people with revolutionary ideas of liberty and equality. Montesquieu rejected the theory of the Divine Right of Kings and urged for separation of powers. Rousseau, in his book ‘Social Contract’, announced that sovereign power lay in popular will.
Influence of the American Revolution:
The success of the Americans in their war for independence also encouraged the French people to protest against their exploitation by the aristocracy, the clergy and the state.
Immediate Cause of the Revolution:
The immediate factor which caused the outbreak of the Revolution was the bankruptcy faced by the Government. The heavy expenditure on the army during the Seven Years’ War had drained the finances of the country.
France had also helped the American colonies to gain independence from Britain. This added to the already massive Government debt. In order to pay for the cost of maintaining various Government offices, law courts, universities, the army, etc., the state was forced to raise taxes.
Several able ministers proposed to tax the aristocracy. But the aristocrats were not prepared to pay taxes. In desperation, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General (the French Assembly) on May 5, 1789, so that it would grant him the required amount of money. In the past, voting in the Estates-General had been conducted on the principle that each estate would have one vote.
The third estate now demanded that voting be conducted by the Estates-General as a whole (with every member having one vote). There were 600 memers of the third estate and 300 each of the first and second estates. When Louis XVI rejected the proposal of the third estate, they walked out of the Estates-General. A few weeks later, the third estate declared themselves to be the National Assembly. The decision of the National Assembly to draft a new constitution for France signalled the end of absolute monarchy and the beginning of democracy.
The Course of the Revolution:
Apart from the National Assembly, the common people of France, inspired by the ideals of liberty and equality, had decided to revolt against injustice. Thousands of people gathered in the streets of Paris on July 14, 1789, and broke into the Bastille, the state prison. They entered the prison and released the prisoners. The Bastille, the symbol of a despotic monarchy, was destroyed.
The fall of the Bastille is an important landmark in the history of the French Revolution. France observed 14th July 1789 as the Independence Day. On August 12, 1789, the National Assembly adopted the “Declaration of the Rights of Man”. It declared, “Men are born and remain free and are equal in rights.” The drafting of the Constitution was completed by the end of 1791.
In 1792, the French monarchy was abolished and France became a republic upholding the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. A provisional government was set up. In 1793, executive authority passed into the hands of a radical political group called the Jacobins.
Their leader was Robespierre. He passed orders to execute thousands of “enemies” of the Republic. During this ‘Reign of Terror’ thousands of innocent Robespierre people were also guillotined on the suspicion of treason. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were also guillotined (1793) as traitors.
The execution of Emperor Louis XVI and his Queen came as a rude shock to the monarchical countries of Europe. The European powers formed a coalition against France (1793). In France, after the death of Robespierre, the moderate leaders gained ground. A Directory comprising five directors exercised power (1795-1799). During this period France went through great turmoil due to lack of efficient governance.
The Directors depended on the military genius of Napoleon to fight the European coalition and earn the confidence of the people. Finding himself popular, Napoleon overthrew the Directory. In December 1804, Napoleon declared, himself the “Emperor of the French”. The legal veil of republicanism was dropped.