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Old Wednesday, March 14, 2007
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The French Revolution of 1789 is recognized as one of the most significant events in world history. The revolution marked the first time Marx's "class struggle" presented itself, with the lower classes of France rising up against the Old Regime in order to make change. The impact of the revolution was indescribably massive, laying the groundwork for countless future revolutions in 1830, 1848, and many more.

At the time, the people were generally dissatisfied with the conditions under the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI, and they especially despised his wife Marie Antoinette, frequently referring to her as the "Austrian bitch." Ultimately, the French Revolution represented a time when social, economic and political chaos collided and conditions were ripe for change. The catalyst came in the form of the Estates General.

Diplomatic Revolution

The Diplomatic Revolution is a term applied to the reversal of longstanding diplomatic alliances in the wake of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle which concluded the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748. The traditional alliances of France and Prussia against Great Britain and Austria changed to France and Austria against Great Britain and Prussia. In order to cement the alliance, Maria Theresa of Austria married her daughter, Marie Antoinette, to Louis XVI, heir to the French throne.

Marie Antoinette is commonly considered one of the central causes of the French Revolution. She is best known for her extravagence, extreme even for a queen, and the most quoted remark never said; when told that the peasants of France were so poor that they could not put bread on the table, she was said to have replied, "let them eat cake," which supposedly "proved" that she was out of touch with the general populance. Although it is unlikely that the queen ever said such a thing, it is still an example of the French citizens' opinion of their royalty, that they would create such a story.


Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)The neoclassicism school of art took place primarily in the late 1700s. Neoclassicism was influenced by the Enlightenment, emphasizing reason and order rather than the emotion of Baroque or Rococo. In neoclassic art, sharp colors replaced pastels of previous generations of art.

Perhaps the most famous neoclassic artist was Jacques Louis David, who painted for the revolutionaries of the French Revolution as well as for Napoleon Bonaparte.

Precursors to the French Revolution

Countless ideas from the Enlightenment contributed to the French Revolution. Locke's ideas of overthrowing government that does not respect the social contract, as well as Rousseau's ideas of the general will and the French government's failure to respresent the general will of the people, were major factors. The Enlightenment also stripped away at religion, especially Catholicism, directly attacking the divine right theory that Louis XVI of France used to justify his position.

Additionally, there were massive food shortages across France, there was a constant war, anger over social inequality, and a weak queen and king. Moreover, a harsh winter had resulted in no harvest and the lack of food, especially bread, causing poverty, death, and destruction.

The immediate spark of the French Revolution, however, was the financial crisis in France. This problem stemmed from a number of issues. One of the most prominent of these issues was the fact that the nobles were tax-exempt, and the nobles resisted any attempt by Louis to tax them. In addition, France had accrued massive debt from assisting in the American Revolution, as well as from the Seven Years War. Finally, French tax collectors were corrupt. As a result, Louis called the Estates General for assistance and advice to resolve the financial crisis.

The Estates General consisted of three estates, each of which had an equal share of representation: the first estate was made up of clergymen, the second estate was made up of nobles, and the third estate was made up of commoners, who represented at least 95% of the populace. The third estate, angry over their disproportionate representation and their inability to act according to their needs, rebelled, and declared itself the National Assembly. Three days later members of the third estate took the Oath of the Tennis Court, swearing allegiance to the French nation and drawing up a list of grievances against the king. They aimed to democratically represent the will of the people and give the people a constitution, and they were clearly motivated by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England.

Class Struggle

For the first time, the war staged the different classes against one another - pitting the clergy and the commoners against the nobles. Social mobility and equality was desired and was one of the primary causes of the revolution.

Storming of the Bastille

On July 14, 1789, the revolting Paris mob stormed the Bastille. While only seven prisoners were housed behind its walls, this event was essential because it symbolized that the people were no longer standing for the power of the nobles and the king, or the rising of the people against the tyranny of absolutism.

New Governments

The revolutionaries in France established a new government in order to accomplish what they desired.

National Assembly 1789-1791

The members of the National Assembly came from the members of the third estate in the Estates General. These members tended to be from the upper middle class, or bourgeois, and were often referred to as "Jacobins" since they frequently met in Jacobin clubs to discuss the revolution.

The lower third estate, or the rest of the citizenry, led the fighting arm of the revolution and the National Assembly at this time. They did not, however, take part in the government. The urban middle class led the storming on the Bastille and the march on Versailles.

Efforts to Remake Society

The National Assembly took a number of actions to remake society. They established social equality, and signed the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, which was a social contract. It provided for freedom of religion, taxation of equality, legal equality, and freedom of press and expression. They wrote a constitution that established a constitutional monarchy with a parliament. The parliament was to be run by the bourgeois, who were considered "active" citizens, while the rest of the citizens were considered "passive" citizens and would not be allowed to take part in government. People in government were to progress based upon merit. Finally, the National Assembly established the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which clergymen were required to agree to. It provided that clergy would receive a state salary, it confiscated church property, and it eliminated monks and nuns.

Legislative Assembly 1791-1792

The provisions of the National Assembly established what was supposed to be a permanent constitutional monarchy, the Legislative Assembly, with Louis XVI as the monarch. However, the Legislative Assembly failed very quickly for a number of reasons. The lower third estate felt abandoned by the Bourgeois politically. In addition, the Legislative Assembly failed to fix the food and unemployment problems. As a result, the working men of France, or the sans-culottes, rose against the Legislative Assembly.

War with Austria and Prussia

Emigres, or nobility that had fled France during the Revolution, in Austria wanted Austria to crush the Revolution. Other nations feared revolution in their own countries. Austria signed the Declaration of Pillnitz, which stated that if the other powers attack France, so would Austria. The French interpreted this as a virtual declaration of war.

The Brunswick Manifesto by Prussia said that the Prussians would punish the citizens of Paris if they did anything to harm Louis XVI or Marie Antionette. Prussia and Austria allied for the balance of power, in order to weaken France. The draining of war on the newly formed government also contributed to its downfall.

Convention 1792-1795

Anonymous Portrait of Maximilien Robespierre c. 1793 (Carnavalet Museum).The Convention was an emergency republic with universal male suffrage. The head committee of the Convention was the Committee of Public Safety, who worked to suppress dissent and protect the revolution. The Committee was lead by Robespierre. The leadership of the Convention split into two factions: the Mountain, who was more radical and included Robespierre, and the Grondin, which was less radical.

The Convention had a number of issues to address. First, and perhaps most importantly, they were actively engaged in war with Prussia and Austria. They instituted the first draft, called the levee en masse, and a nationalist feeling rose among troops. In 1794, the French army invaded Austria and was successful.

In addition, the Convention needed to remake society. Members instituted "dechristianization," which was essentially the purging of Christians in France.

The Convention also needed to address the food problem, and established the "General Maximum" that controlled bread prices and wages.

Finally, the Convention needed to stop the counter-revolution and write a new constitution. During a period known as "The Terror," Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety utilized the newly invented guillotine to kill all counter-revolutionaries, numbering in the many tens of thousands. The Convention successfully wrote a new constitution, establishing a government known as the Directory as a permanent republic.

At the end of the Convention, Robespierre himself was executed. The resulting "Thermidorian Reaction" was a response to France's swing to the left, during which the government briefly went to the right, and finally back to the center. The Jacobins and Mountain were replaced with moderate Bourgeois, and Mountain members were executed.
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