[Part 2] French Revolution: Events of Revolution

Background: Intellectual Movements in France

In every revolution, revolutionary thinking and ideas precede revolutionary actions. The 18th century France produced many revolutionary thinkers.

Age of Reason

Because of the ideas expressed by the French intellectuals, the 18th century has been called the Age of Reason. While Christianity taught that man was born to suffer, the French thinkers asserted that man was born to be happy. Happiness can be achieved if reason is used to destroy prejudice and reform man’s institutions. They either denied the existence of God or ignored him. In place of God, they asserted the doctrine of ‘Nature’ and the need to understand its laws. Faith was put in reason.

Attack on Clergy

Clergy were the first to be attacked by the french philosophers. A long series of scientific advances helped in the campaign against the clergy. Voltaire, though not an atheist, believed that all religions are absurd and contrary to reason. Atheist and Materialist thinkers gained popularity. They believed that man’s destiny lay in this world rather than in heaven. Church was attacked because it supported autocratic monarchy and the old order.

Physiocrats and Laissez Faire

French economists of the time were called Physiocrats. They believed in Laissez Faire. They asserted that taxes must be imposed only with the consent of those on whom they were levied. These ideas were a direct denial of the privileges and feudal rights of the upper classes.

Idea of Democracy

Montesquieu described the kind of government that best suited to man and outlined the principles of constitutional monarchy. He also explained the need for having a separation of powers. Jean Jacques Rousseau asserted the doctrine of popular sovereignty and democracy. He talked about the state of nature, when man was free, and said that freedom was lost following the emergence of property. He recognized property in modern societies as a necessary evil. He advocated the need of a social contract to guarantee the freedom, equality and happiness which man had enjoyed in the state of nature. Rousseau’s theories also contained a principle that had been written into the American Declaration of Independence– no political system can maintain itself without the consent of the governed.

Outbreak of the Revolution

The Estate General

In 1789, Louis XVI’s need for money compelled him to agree to a meeting of the Estates General– the old feudal assembly- at Versailles. He wanted to obtain its consent for new loans and taxes. All the three Estates were represented in it, but each one held a separate meeting. Estate General was the legislative Assembly of the three Estates. It functioned as an advisory body to the king, by presenting petitions, and consulting on the fiscal policy. Each estate had a single vote. The basic weakness of the estate general was its discriminatory representation. Despite having more than 95% proportion of the French society, the Third Estate was given only one vote.

Representatives of the Third Estate wanted a uniform taxation for all. But the First and the Second Estate were adamant about their special privileges. There were also differences about the manner of voting. The Third Estate wanted voting on the basis of head count. These differences often resulted resulted into deadlocks.

On June 17, 1789, the members of the Third Estate, claiming to represent 96% of the nation’s population, declared themselves the National Assembly. Soon, they met in a tennis court to work out a constitution. Their solidarity forced the King to recognize the National Assembly.

Fall of Bastille

Cautioned by it, Louis prepared to break the Assembly, and called the troops. Thousand of people gathered, and surrounded the Bastille Palace, which was a state prison and a symbol of brutality and totalitarian power. On July 14, 1789, they broke open the doors, freeing all prisoners. The fall of Bastille symbolized the fall of the autocracy. Since then, July 14th is considered as the Declaration of Independence of the French People, and is celebrated as a national holiday in France.

The National Assembly

After the fall of Bastille, the revolt spread to other towns and cities, and to countryside. In a landmark session of the National Assembly, on August 4, 1789, the nobles voluntarily surrendered their feudal rights and privileges. All the class distinctions were abolished and the principle of Equality was adopted. The National Assembly adopted the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It specified the equality of all men before the law, equality of all citizens for all public offices, freedom from arrest and punishment without proven cause, freedom to speech and press. More importantly, it provided for an equitable distribution of the burdens of taxation and rights of private property.

A new Constitution was adopted in 1791 in France. It overthrew the absolute monarchy, along with the relics of feudalism. Thus, the estate system ended in France. Under the new system, a Constitutional Monarchy was established in France and the sovereignty resided in the people. The Declaration of Rights was an integral part of the Constitution. Legislative and Executive powers were rigidly separated. The King was the head of the executive, while the legislative powers were entrusted to the legislative assembly. The Bishops and Priests were made as state employees, to be elected by popular votes.

The neighboring countries were alarmed by the intensification of the ideas of revolution in France. Soon, people of France were involved in a war to defend the Revolution and the nation. Many nobles and clerics fled the country and encouraged the foreign governments to intervene in France. The King and Queen also tried to flee but were captured and made captives.

Part 3 coming soon…

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