The Old Order: The Monarchy of the French Revolution
France was ruled by absolute monarchy for much of its history. Absolute monarchy often meant power and affluence for the rich, clergy and nobles, while no privileges and rights were almost guaranteed for the poor. The Enlightenment of the late 1600's and 1700's, however, impacted many Europeans, and therefore led them to discover that they themselves were much more than they could ever imagine. They deserved more than they got. Therefore, the legal torture of the lower citizens sparked the beginnings for better, and the start of the French Revolution, which would change France forever and mark the inception of "the modern age of Europe".
To indefinitely change France would first and primarily mean to end the long and rigid monarchy. The monarchy had absolute control over France. In France, there were three different estates, or classes of society that would determine legal rights and, virtually, their place in the world. The first Estate, which made up about 1% of the population, was made up of the Roman Catholic clergy, who paid no taxes. It was divided into the higher and lower. The higher, made up of bishops and abbots, controlled about 5-10% of land, and received 10% tax incomes of church members for community good, but also for their own personal wishes. The lower wasn't so fortunate. The Second was composed of nobility, about 2% of the population, and they too weren't required to pay taxes. They were allowed high positions in the government and military, and owned 25% of land. Many resided in the palace of Versailles and received feudal dues of tenant peasants. The Third Estate was 97% of France. Most lived in the cities, except peasants, who lived in the rural areas. The higher members of the Third Estate, the bourgeoisie (doctors, lawyers, and other professionals) were informed about the Enlightenment. This was important because it helped bring them to realize the fact that they were being seriously mistreated.
Soon, the cost of living in France increased, the population burgeoned, and fees and prices grew higher. The bourgeoisie and the nobles all resented the monarchy's ever-growing control and wanted more political power of their own. All of this caught up with the royal debts. First of all, there were the deficits from Louis XIV's wars, and then the opulence of Louis XV eventually created a big problem.
Louis XVI took over France with his wife, Marie Antoinette, in 1774. He realized how much France needed funds, especially after banks stopped lending money to the government in 1786. He attempted to tax the First and Second Estates, but they refused to chip in their part. In addition to the growing debts, bread shortages and crop failure in '88-'89 created more pressure. Frustrated, the King decided to meet with the Estates General at Versailles.
The Estates General consisted of delegates of all three of the Estates. Louis hoped that calling together the Estates General would help him accumulate more taxes, but instead, the nobles intended to gain more control of the government with a 2:1 vote of the three Estates. The Third Estate wanted all three to meet instead of all separately, but the Estates General locked them out of the meeting room. Determined to continue, they met on the indoor tennis court at Versailles. The Third Estate representatives proclaimed themselves the National Assembly and agreed to remain until they had created a new constitution of France. Since that day in May 1789, all three of the Estates continued to fight for their rights, whether they had obtained them yet or not. The King realized how serious the situation was getting and called for more troops in Versailles. The Third Estate was scared that the King would disband their efforts with force, so they shifted their focus to the Bastille, a royal Paris prison, which they felt symbolized the "injustices of the monarchy". On July 15, 1789, the National Assembly marched to the Bastille in an attempt to steal weapons to defend themselves. However, things went out of place, and instead, many soldiers, rioters, and the prison commander found themselves killed in a flurry of freed prisoners and intruders. This was the start of the violence of the Revolution.
In the Great Fear, many peasants heard rumors that their noble had sent people to rob and murder them, they grew precarious and even paranoid. They basically revolted against their landlords, which was a great step toward their cause and the Revolution.
From then on, the population then separated into three groups: the royalists, moderates, and radicals. Royalists still preferred the absolute monarchy while moderates wanted the King to share his power with a new government. Radicals wanted the end of the monarchy, and that was that.
On August 4, 1789, the nobles in the National Assembly voted to give up their feudal dues, pay taxes, and allow any male citizen to be in the government, army, or church. This would mark the end of feudal France.
Under the influence of the United States' Constitution and Declaration of Independence, the National Assembly created the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This declared that all men are equal, and promoted freedom of speech, press, and religion. Also, it demoted capricious arrests and punishments. Women couldn't vote, but they could inherit property and got the benefit of easier divorce processes.
Despite all their work, however, the King rejected the Declaration. The National Assembly was worried, also, that the King would soon take action against them. A mob of hungry, bread-deprived and determined women drove him and his family to Paris from Versailles. The National Assembly followed. This gave them an opportunity to present their ideas once again to the King while they had him in their grasp. In 1790, they voted to sell church property to help pay the debt, and they passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which could set the Church under the government and hire mercenary officials for the clergy, in opposition to the Church and conservatives. In 1791, the National Assembly created a new constitution that retained the monarchy, but limited its powers. A unicameral legislature was proposed, in which the members of the government were voted for. Any man who paid tax could vote, and the people were given basic rights.
The King, beginning to realize the problems arising, took his family to Austria, but then was returned to Paris. He accepted his position of limited powers, but people were continuing to become opt for a republic.
Word of a revolt against the monarchy pervaded to Germany and Austria, where worry about their own governments arose. Emigres (former French nobles) persuaded the leaders of these countries to rise up against the revolutionary leaders in protection of their own countries. At the same time, the revolutionary leaders declared war on Austria in trepidation that they would become cobelligerents with the King. So then war began in 1792, and in an attempt to flee to the Legislative Assembly, the King and his family were voted for imprisonment. At that time, radicals voted that all men could vote.
France was waging poorly in war, and things looked bleak defeat after defeat. Finally, they won a battle at Valmy, near France. For a time, the monarchs of Europe were deterred and they had earned themselves more time to gain their rights. During the victory at Valmy, the National Convention assembled to create a new French government. From that day on, France became a republic by unanimous votes.
The Convention, composed of mostly bourgeoisie-type professional men, met and passed many democratic reforms. All men could vote, and the metric system was introduced. A new calendar was created to signify that from September 22, 1792 was the Year of Liberty.
Soon after the creation of the new reforms for the new republic, National Convention had to decide what to do with King Louis XVI. As it turned out, he was convicted of having "conspired against the liberty of the nation" and sentenced to death with letters to and from other monarchs. In January 1793, he was guillotined. This marked the end of the French monarchy, indefinitely.
Such a tumultuous event preceded the new dawn for France, the end of the monarchy (until Louis XVIII), the beginning of an unknown future. The Revolution was far from over, with the upcoming Reign of Terror by Robespierre, the uprising of Napoleon, and the eventual virtual peace of Europe. The French Revolution was probably one of the most important revolutions of Europe for the reason of the creation of new constitutions and reforms, the freedom of many Frenchmen, and the proof of the power of humankind.
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