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Begin typing here..... The French Revolution: Causes and Consequences The French Revolution was an exciting, dramatic, and violent episode in western history. The rise of the middle class, the use of the beheading, the fall of monarchy, the outbreak of European warfare, the growing role of women, and the harsh realities of mob violence all contributed to making this episode truly significant and memorable. The French Revolution was one of the bloodiest revolutions in history, it was responsible for taking the lives of thousands of Frenchmen. The French Revolution was not only a crucial event considered in the context of Western history, but was also, perhaps the single most crucial influence on British intellectual, philosophical, and political life in the nineteenth century. The roots of the French Revolution of 1789 can be traced back to the reign of Louis XIV, an absolute monarch. He established the basis of the French Revolution by reducing the power of nobles, taking them away from their land, the roots of their power. Then came Louis XV who allowed political and social positions to be bought by wealthy commoners, enraging nobles even further. During the time of the French revolution the conditions in France were no worse than the conditions that existed in other parts of Europe. Autocratic, extravagant rulers, privileged nobles and clergy, landless peasants, jobless workers, unequal taxation - the lists of the hardships endured by the common people is a very long one. France was a strong and powerful state in the 18th century. She had seized vast territories in North America and islands in West Indies. Despite its outward strength, the French monarchy was facing a crisis, which was to lead to its destruction The French society was divided into three classes, or estates. There were two privileged classes - the clergy and the nobility. These were known as the First Estate and Second State respectively. The First State consisted of about 130,000 clerics. The nobility or Second State numbered about 80,000 families. People in these two classes were exempted from almost all taxes. They controlled most of the administrative posts and all the high-ranking posts in the army. In a population of 25,000,000, these two classes together owned about 40 percent of the land in France. Their incomes came primarily from there large land-holdings. A minority of these also depended on pensions and gifts from the king. They considered it beneath their dignity to trade or engage in manufacture or to do any work. The life of the nobility was everywhere characterized by extravagance and luxury. There were, of course, poorer sections in these two top estates. They were discounted and blamed the richer members of their class for their misery. The rest of the people of France were called the Third Estate. They were the common people and numbered about 95 percent of the total population. People of the Third Estate were the unprivileged ones. However, there were many differences in their wealth and style of living. The Peasants - The largest section of the Third Estate consisted of the peasants, almost 80 percent of the total population of France. The lives of the vast class were wretched. Most of the peasants were free, unlike the serfs in the Middle Ages, and unlike the serfs in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. Many owned their own lands. But a great majority of the peasants were landless or held very small land holdings. They could earn hardly enough for subsistence. The plight of the tenants and sharecroppers was worse. After rents the sharecroppers was reduced to one-third or one-fourth of what he produced. The people who worked on land for wages lived on even less Certain changes in agriculture in the 18th century France further worsened the conditions of the peasants. He could no longer take wood from the forests or graze his flocks on uncultivated land. The burden of taxation was intolerable. Besides taxes, there was also 'forced labor' which had been a feudal privilege of the lord and which was more and more resorted for public works. There were taxes for local roads and bridges, the church, and other needs of the community. A bad harvest under these conditions inevitably led to starvation and unrest. The Middle Classes - Not all the people belonging to the Third Estate worked on the land. There were the artisans, workers and poor people living in the towns and cities. Then there was the middle class or the bourgeoisie. This class consisted of the educated people - writers, doctors, judges, lawyers, teachers, civil servants - and the richer people who were merchants, bankers, and manufacturers. Economically, this class was the most important one. It was the forerunner of the builders of the industries, which were to transform economic and social life in the 19th century. The merchant-business groups, though new in history, had grown very important and rich, helped by the trade with French colonies in America. Since these people had money, the state, the clergy and the nobility were indebted to them. However, the middle class had no political rights. It had no social status, and its members had to suffer many humiliations. The Artisans and City Workers - The condition of the city poor - workers and artisans - was inhuman in the 18th century France. They were looked upon as inferior creatures without any rights. No worker could leave his job for another without the employer's consent and a certificate of good conduct Workers not having a certificate could be arrested. They had to toil for long hours from early morning till late at night. They, too, paid heavy taxes. The oppressed workers formed many secret societies and often resorted to strikes and rebellion. This group was to become the mainstay of the French Revolution, and the city of Paris with a population of more than 500,000 was to play an important part in it. In this number was an army of rebels, waiting for an opportunity to strike at the old order. At the head of the French State stood the King, an absolute monarch. Louis XVI was the king of France when the revolution broke out. He was a man of mediocre intelligence, obstinate and indifferent to the work of the government. Brainwork, it is said, depressed him. His beautiful but 'empty headed' wife, Marie Antoinette, squandered money on festivities and interfered in state appointments in order to promote her favorites. Louis too showered favors and pensions among his friends. The state was always faced by financial troubles. Keeping huge armies and waging wars made matters worse. Finally, it brought the state to bankruptcy. Because of the ideas expressed by the French intellectuals, the 18th century has been called the Age of Reason. Christianity had taught that man was born to suffer. The French revolutionary philosophers asserted that man was born to be happy. They believed that man could attain happiness if reason is allowed 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. They urged faith in reason. The power of reason alone, they said was sufficient to build a perfect society. The clergy were the first to feel the brunt of the French philosophers. A long series of scientific advances dating from the Renaissance helped in their campaign against the clergy. Voltaire, one of the most famous French writers of the time, though not an atheist, believed all religions absurd and contrary to reason. AfteVoltaire, other philosophers, atheist and materialists, gained popularity. They believed that man's destiny lay in this world rather than heaven. Writings attacking religion fed the fires of revolution because the Church gave support to autocratic monarchy and the old order. The French economists of that time were called 'physiocrats'. They believed in laissez faire. According to this theory, a person must be left free to manage and dispose of his property in the way he thinks best. Like the English and American revolutionaries before them, the physiocrats said that taxes should be imposed only with the consent of those on whom taxes are levied. These ideas were a direct denial of the privileges and feudal rights that protected the upper classes. The philosopher-writer, Montesquieu, thought about the kind of government that is best suited to man and outlined the principles of constitutional monarchy. However, it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who asserted the doctrine of popular sovereignty and democracy. He said, 'Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.' He talked of 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'. What was needed, said Rousseau, was a new 'social contract' to guarantee the freedom, equality and happiness which man had enjoyed in the state of nature. Rousseau theories had 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'. In 1789, Louis XVI's need for money compelled him to agree to a meeting of the States General - the old feudal assembly. Louis wanted to obtain its consent for new loans and taxes. All three states were represented in it but each one held a separate meeting. On 17th June 1789, members of the Third Estate, claiming to represent 96 percent of the nation's population, declared themselves the National Assembly. On 20th June, they found their meeting-hall occupied by royal guards but, determined to meet, they moved to the nearby royal tennis court to work out a constitution. Louis then made preparations to break up the Assembly. Troops were called; rumors spread that leading members of the Assembly would be arrested. This enraged the people who began to gather in thousands. The guards soon joined them. They surrounded the Bastille, a state prison on 14th July. After a four-hour siege, they broke open the doors, freeing all the prisoners. The fall of the Bastille symbolized the fall of the autocracy. July 14th is celebrated as a national holiday in France every year. After 14 July 1789, Louis XVI was king only in name. The National Assembly began to enclose. Following the fall of the Bastille, the revolt spread to other towns and cities and finally into the countryside. The national Assembly adopted the famous Declaration of the rights of man and citizen. It specified the equality of all men before the law, eligibility of all citizens for all-public offices, freedom from arrest and punishment without proven cause, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Most important of all, to the middle class, it required equitable distribution of the burden of taxation and rights of private property. The revolutionary importance of this declaration for Europe cannot be over estimated. Every government in Europe was based on privilege. If these ideas were applied, the entire old order of Europe would be destroyed. The people of France were soon involved in a war to defend the revolution and the nation. Many nobles and clerics fled the country and encouraged foreign governments to intervene in France against the revolution. The king and queen tried to escape from France in disguise but they were recognized and brought back as captives and traitors. The old National Assembly was replaced by a legislative Assembly. This Assembly took over the property of those people who had fled. It sent word to the Austrian emperor, who was mobilizing support against France, to renounce every treaty directed towards the French nation. When the emperor refused, the Legislative Assembly declared war. Soon France was fighting Austria, Prussia, and Savoy in Italy. The three were supported by an army of French exiles France had destroyed feudalism and monarchy and founded new institutions based on liberty and equality, whereas in these countries the old way of life remained. The commander-in-chief of the Astro-Prussian forces stated that the aim was to suppress anarchy in France and to restore the King's authority. The French revolutionaries replied by offering 'fraternity and assistance' to all people wishing to destroy the old order in their countries. The King and Queen were tried and executed in 1793. This was followed by a declaration of was against Britain, Holland, Spain and Hungary. Then a radical group, the Jacobeans, believing in direct democracy, came to power. Fearing that the revolution was in danger, this group took strong measures to crush forces inimical to the Revolution. In 14 months, some 17,000 people, including those who were innocent were tried and executed. Later a new constitution was drawn up. But the army became increasingly powerful and this led to the rise of the Napolean, who was soon to declare himself Emperor of the French Republic. There were many consequences of the French Revolution. Amajor result of the Revolution was the destruction of feudalism in France. All the laws of the old feudal regime were annulled. Church lands and lands held in common by the community were bought by the middle classes. The land of nobles was confiscated. Privileged classes were abolished. After Napoleon seized power, the Napoleonic code was introduced. Many elements of this code remained for a long time; some of them even exist today. Another lasting result of the revolution in France was the building up of a new economic system in place of the feudal system which had been overthrown. Even the restored monarchy could not bring back the feudal system or destroy the new economic institutions that had come into being. The French Revolution gave the term 'nation' its modern meaning. A nation is not a territory that the people belonging to it inhibit but the people themselves. France was not merely the territories known as France but the 'French People'. From this followed the idea of sovereignty, that a nation recognizes no law or authority above its own. And if a nation is Sovereign, that means the people constituting the nation are the source of all power and authority. There cannot be any rulers above the people, only a republic in which the government derives its authority from the people and is answerable to the people. It is interesting to remember that when Napoleon became emperor he called himself the 'Emperor of the French Republic'. Such was the strength of the idea of people's sovereignty. It was this idea of the people that gave France her military strength. The entire nation was divided behind the army which consisted of revolutionary citizens. Under the Jacobean 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 or livelihood. The happiness of all was proclaimed as the aim of the government. Though it was not really put into effect, it was the first genuinely democratic constitution in history. The government abolished slavery in French colonies. Napoleon's rise to power was a step backwards. However, though he destroyed the Republic and established an empire, the idea of the republic could not be destroyed. After the defeat of the Napoleon, the old ruling dynasty of France was restored to power. However within a few years, in 1830, there was another outbreak of revolution. In 1848, the monarchy was again overthrown though it soon reappeared. Finally, in 1871, the Republic was again proclaimed. The Revolution had come about with the support and blood of the common people - the city poor and the peasants. In 1792, for the first time in history, workers, peasants and other non-propertied classes were given equal political rights The right to vote and elect representatives did not solve the problems of the common people. The peasants got their lands. But to the workers and artisans - the people, who were the backbone of the revolutionary movement, the Revolution did not bring real equality. To them real equality could come only with economic equality. France soon became one of the first countries where the ideas of social equality, of socialism, gave rise to a new kind of political movement. Bibliography 1. The Story of Civilization, by Arjun Dev, New Delhi, 1997: Pg 225-227. 2. Hand-outs given during class. 3. Notes given dur