[Part 3] French Revolution: the Era of Revolutions


Reign of Terror

The old National Assembly was replaced by a Legislative Assembly. It took over the property of those who had fled. The Legislative Assembly declared a war against the Austrian Emperor, when he refused to renounce treaty directed against the French nation. Soon, France was fighting against Austria, Prussia and Italy.

France had destroyed feudalism and monarchy and founded new institutions based on liberty and equality. The King and Queen were tried and executed in 1793. This was followed by war against Britain, Holland, Spain and Hungary.

In France, a radical group- the Jacobians– came to power, under the leadership of Robespierre. They abolished Kingship from France and set up a republic. Fearing that the revolution was in danger, it took some strong measures to crush forces inimical to the revolution. In 14 months, some 17000 people were tried and executed. Thus, some people refer to it as the Reign of Terror. Soon, leaders and people of France put an end to the Reign of Terror and executed Robespierre. This change of government has been referred to as Thermidorian Reaction. This was mainly led by the middle class.

The Directory

Soon, a new constitution was drawn up in 1795. it was realised that the concentration of executive power in one hand could be detrimental for the public liberties. Thus, the new constitution provided the executive power in the hand of Committee of Five Directors. They remained in power from 17951799, and this period was known as the Rule of Directory. However, the Directory was unable to provide substantial solutions to the problems of France. Counter revolutionaries and royalists were emerging in power. In 1797, partial bankruptcy was announced. Thus, the Directory failed miserably.

Rise of Napoleon

The army became increasingly powerful, under the leadership of Napoleon. He became a national hero. This led to the rise of the Napoleon, who was soon declared as the Emperor of the French Republic. The policies of Napoleon fulfilled the aspirations of many people. Thus, he was readily accepted as the monarch.

Rise of Napoleon was made possible only by the revolution, which had abolished the Monarchy and the estate system. Due to the introduction of the merit based system, Napoleon was able to emerge as a national hero. That is why, Napoleon has been referred to as the ‘Child of the Revolution‘.

Napoleon desired to conquer the whole world. However, the biggest hurdle in realization of this dream was the arch rival Britain. Britain maintained a strong navy which France could not rival. Napoleon tried to pressure Britain by ruining her trade and commerce upon which her power depended. France ordered a blockade of the British Isles. He ordered that any ship of any country which should touch at a British port was liable to be seized and treated as a prize. This is called as Napoleon’s Continental System. However, this system proved more detrimental to France. The prices of goods went up in France.

As a result, the subject allies of France became discontented with Napoleon and his rule became hateful to the masses. Continental system proved as a great blunder of Napoleon. He had to adopt a policy of organized aggression upon the continental countries, which led to a succession of costly wars, exhausting his men and money.

Napoleonic Wars

The ascendency of Napoleon in France as a result of the French Revolution proved to be watershed in the history of Europe. The political existence of Napoleonic Empire was short but it was an event with intense implications in the history of Europe. It brought Europe into contact with the ideas and institutions of France, and thereby shook the foundations of the social and political structure of Europe. Napoleon was welcomed by the people of the other countries as a liberator. From 1792 to 1815, France was engaged in war almost continuously. Some historians have termed it as an international civil war because it was fought between revolutionary France and countries upholding the old order.

Between 1793 and 1796, French armies conquered almost all of the Western Europe. However, when Napoleon pressed on to Malta, Egypt and Syria, in 1797-99, French were ousted from Italy. Napoleon defeated Austria in 1805; Prussia in 1806; and Russia in 1807. However, on the sea, French could not score against the stronger British army. Finally, an alliance of various European nations defeated France at Leipzig in 1813, and occupied Paris. Napoleon was again defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, by the Seventh Coalition of the European powers. The coalition forces defeated France and restored King Louis XVIII to the French throne.

Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia emerged as the dominant power in Europe again. Absolute monarchy was restored in France. The immediate task before the victor nations was reconstruction of Europe according to the old order.

Congress of Vienna

The peace settlement, which involved all Europe, took place at the Congress of Vienna. Major role was played by four nations- Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia. The task of the Congress was determined by 3 principles:

  1. The Balance of Power which would provide effective safeguards for the future peace of Europe. It meant that the Congress envisaged preventing the extensive expansion of any one great power in Europe;

  2. Principle of Legitimacy whereby pre-revolutionary conditions were to be restored, and to prevent political revolutions in Europe. Goal was to maintain status quo and the old order; and,

  3. The rewards to the victors and retribution to the defeated.

After the defeat of Napoleon, the old ruling dynasty of France was restored to power. However, within a few years, in 1830, there was another out break of revolution. In 1848, the monarchy was again overthrown though it soon reappeared. Finally, in 1871, the Republic was again proclaimed.

Since France was the epicentre of Revolution, the final settlement of Congress redistributed the territories in such a manner as to prevent any one of them from becoming too powerful. France was encircled with the strong European powers. This was formally done under the principle of ‘Security‘. States near, or adjacent, to France were enlarged to act as a buffer against France.

Criticism: Congress of Vienna was with many faults. One of the strongest criticisms pointed is that it disregarded the nationalistic sentiments, which were well established during the time of its making. Instead of unifying territories and their people by shared and common language and culture, the Congress established boundaries from the purview of national interests of the victorious nations, for maintaining the balance of power. The consequences of this were soon witnessed in the form of a series of revolutions that took place in Europe.

It also gave an unsighted support and encouragement to the traditional Conservative Order, which favored peace and stability at the cost of liberty and civil rights. This stifled the social progress of the Congress.

Concert of Europe

The Concert of Europe was formulated in 1815 as a mechanism to enforce the decisions of the Congress of Vienna. The proposal of periodic meetings to solve international issues by the four powers came to be known as Concert of Europe. It consisted of the Quadruple Alliance– Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain. Its main priorities were to establish a balance of power, thereby preserving the territorial status quo, and to protect ‘legitimategovernments.

The Concert was one of the first serious attempts in modern times to establish an international society to maintain peace. This made it significant in the world history, even though it lasted only for a few decades.

Significance of French Revolution

A major result of the Revolution was the destruction of feudalism in France. All the laws of the old feudal regime were annulled. Church lands were bought by the middle classes. Land of the nobles were confiscated. Privileged classes were abolished. Capitalist system replaced the feudal order in France.

The French Revolution gave the term ‘Nation‘ its modern meaning. A nation is not the territory that the people belonging to it inhabit, but the people themselves. France was not merely the territories known as France, but the ‘French People‘.

French revolution was gave the idea of sovereignty, that a nation recognizes no law or authority above its own. And that the people constituting the nation are the source of all power and authority. French Revolution and Napoleonic wars proved detrimental for the absolute monarchy and the old order in Europe. The popular support to the nation gave the French military its strength. The entire nation was united behind the army which consisted of revolutionary citizens.

Under the Jacobian constitution, all people were given the right to vote and the right of insurrection. The constitution stated that the government must provide the people with work and livelihood. The happiness of all was proclaimed as the aim of government. Thus, it became the first genuinely democratic constitution in history. Government abolished slavery in French colonies. The former French colony of Haiti became the first republic established by the black people, in the Americas.

France became one of the first countries where the ideas of social equality, of socialism, gave rise to a new kind of political movement.

French Revolution also became a world-changing event. It inspired revolutions in many countries of Europe and in South and Central America. For a long time, it remained the classic example of a revolution of the people. It completely dethroned the faith in the divine rights theory of the king.

After Napoleon seized power, the Napoleonic Code was introduced. Many elements of this code remained in force for a long time. Under him, the french had become conquerors instead of liberators. The countries which organized popular resistance against the french occupation carried out reforms in their social and political system, leading to the demise of the feudal order, which could never be reinstalled again.

The political and social system of the 18th century had received a heavy blow. They were soon to die in most of Europe under the impact of the revolutionary movements that sprang up everywhere in Europe.

Role of American Revolution in French Revolution

American revolution had a role in the outbreak of the French Revolution:

  • Ideas like- Liberty, Equality and No taxation without Representation, symbolized the crux of the American revolution. These ideas inspired the whole world, including France;

  • French soldiers participated in the American revolution, against the British forces. From there, they gained the idea of patriotism, liberty, equality and limited monarchy;

  • The cost of participating in the American war of independence, to France was enormous. This made King Louis bankrupt, putting the country under fiscal imbalance. The attempts to stabilize the situation hit the masses of France badly.

 

Phase

Year

Detail

Phase I

1789-92

Constitutional Monarchy; end of feudal rights and privileges; Declaration o f Rights of Man; Civil constitution of the Clergy; Government to be run by elected officials.

Phase II

1792-95

Monarchy abolished and Republic created; universal adult franchise for Men; King executed for treason; Reign of Terror of Robespierre

Phase III

1795-1804

5-man Directory created to share power with National Assembly. Moderates regain control.

Phase IV

1804-15

Napoleon crowned himself as emperor of France;

 

Thank You.

Team Aspirant Forum

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