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The French Revolution

Updated on November 30, 2010

Robespierre leads the Tennis Court Oath

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION: The French Revolution(1789-1799) was one of the pivotal events in European history. It tore apart the old feudal fabric of western civilization and began a new era. Like the American Revolution, the seeds of the French Revolution began with the Seven Years War, also known as the French-Indian War.

The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a disastrous event for France. Not only did it deprive France of all its territories on the American Continent, as well as most of what they’d possessed in Canada, but it was also economically devastating. France was crippled by war debt. To make things worse, gross mismanagement of the national treasury caused the monetary crisis to reach emergency proportions. Unemployment and poverty began to overwhelm the struggling population. This led to increasing homelessness and hunger.

Louis the 15th, the long reigning, popular King of France, was`getting old`and was grooming his grandson as his successor. Louis the 16th was trained in the duties of the monarchy at the young age of sixteen. His father decided he also needed a queen.

Since France had recently signed a peace treaty with long time enemy Austria, Louis the 15th decided to cement the alliance with a political marriage. Marie Antoinette, the beautiful daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and Francis (The head of the Holy Roman Empire), was sent to France to marry Louis the 16th. She was only fifteen years old when she wed.

The venerated Louis the 15th died soon after and young Louis became king. He was 16 and not overly intelligent or forceful. He was sadly unqualified to rule France even at the best of times. During this severe economic crisis, he was the worst man for the job.

The royal family was housed in Versailles at the time, a fact that was a sore spot to the people of Paris, which was the original seat of the monarchy. When Louis and Marie made their first visit to Paris, they were greeted politely for the most part but there were small protests against the government for their pathetic management of Frances finances. Louis and Marie attended a ceremony at a prestigious college. One of the students who had the honor of speaking before the King and Queen that day was an eloquent young law student named Maximilien Robespierre. This was the first time their paths would cross but it was far from the last.

Aside from the economic woes of France, another event was turning the population against the monarchy. A new wave of philosophical, literary and technical thinking was under way, which questioned the traditional way of doing things. The new thinking, represented by the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau, encouraged people to question the way things were and not accept the status quo. This new period of intellectual growth was called the Enlightenment. It caused a great deal of disenchantment among the population, aimed at the ineffective monarchy.

At the same time, the American Revolution was under way across the Atlantic. The French were inspired by seeing the underdog American colonies uprising against the juggernaut British Empire. There was no love lost between France and Great Britain. They had fought each other several times and would do so again in the future.

America sent the loquacious and personable Benjamin Franklin as an Ambassador to France, hoping to convince King Louis to aid the colonies in their battle with Britain. Louis held deep animosity against King George of Britain, due to his defeat of Louis’ father in the Seven Years War. And Franklin charmed the King, as well as the whole French court. Franklin was highly persuasive and well liked by everyone at court. He succeeded in convincing King Louis to finance the American Revolution. Further, France sent troops and ships to assist in combat. This assistance allowed America to defeat Great Britain at Yorktown and win independence.

However, as advantageous as this was for America, it was a tragically bad move for the French. It caused France to further spiral down into total economic collapse. Food shortages became common, particularly bread, which was the most commonly bought and consumed food in France until that point. People were getting desperate.

Marie Antoinette became a symbol of everything the public hated about the monarchy. Bored at the endless rituals and lack of intellectual stimulation, she sought solace in material possessions. She liked to buy clothes and she famously dressed in outfits that the common person couldn’t purchase with a years wages. Her lavish expenses were well known to France and a source of great anger by the population.

As the price of bread rose and homelessness increased, people began protesting more openly against the King and Queen. Robespierre, now a well-known lawyer, began a letter writing campaign and personally wrote a scathing letter addressed to the King (which the King probably never received) condemning his incompetent stewardship of the country and the fact that the nobles did not pay any taxes.

Feeling he should try to solve this great crisis, King Louis made some inept and ultimately disastrous attempts at economic reform. With his usual incompetence, his plan backfired. His reforms led to higher taxes for the poor, which caused an uproar among the lower classes. Robespierre, who was becoming increasingly involved in politics, didn’t miss the opportunity to speak out against the King. Hostility against the monarchy increased.

The winter of 1788-89 was the most brutally cold winter in decades. The poor and homeless were ravaged by the horrible winter weather. The price of bread kept increasing until it cost a month’s wages for the average citizen. People were cold and hungry and scared.

The food riots began. Houses and stores were robbed. Anyone walking with food was likely to be attacked. Merchants who were suspected of stockpiling food or raising prices were beaten or killed.

King Louis appointed noted economist Jacques Necker as the head of the Treasury, hoping he could redress the financial chaos. Necker did make some small improvements and publicly admitted that the government had mismanaged the economy. He stated that it was the government’s job to provide for the people and that they’d failed in that attempt. These pronouncements made Necker instantly popular. Much more so than King Louis himself.

Necker surprised everyone by calling for a meeting of the Estate General. The Estate General was basically a French senate who represented the three castes of the population…The Nobility; the Clergy; and the 3rdEstate (the Middle/Lower classes.) The Estate General had not convened in over 100 years. Necker convinced King Louis to get the current members together for the first time.

Robespierre came onto the political scene with a bang, when he arrived to take his place as one of the representatives of the 3rd Estate. He’d been waiting for this opportunity for years, patiently reading the works of Enlightenment scholars and predicting the end of the old regime.

Backed by Necker, Robespierre demanded that the nobility start paying their fair share of the taxes. But King Louis refused, seeing this as a threat to his authority. He didn’t like the 3rd Estate making demands of the crown and so wasn’t willing to give an inch.

Seeing the 3rd Estate as a threat, Louis made the odd move of locking all the members of the Third Estate out of the hall. While the Nobles and the Clergy met behind locked doors, Robespierre wasn’t ready to quit. He gathered the whole 3rd Estate in the tennis court and declared that they were forming their own assembly. This would become known as ‘the Tennis Court Oath’ and would lead to the birth of the National Assembly.

Over the next few weeks, the National Assembly movement started growing, holding public meetings. Their popularity swiftly grew. This was seen as a dire threat by King Louis. He fired Necker who supported the new movement and then sent 30,000 troops to arrest Robespierre and the other members of the National Assembly.

But by this time, the National Assembly had become so organized and developed so much public support, that they had formed their own national guard. This guard unit vowed to protect the assembly and had the guns, but they needed gunpowder. And they knew where to get it.

The Bastille was an old stone structure which represented the history of the monarchy. It was still used as a prison for political captives. Conditions were horrible for anyone held in the Bastille. It was a symbol of everything that the new movement hated. And it also was a place that had plenty of gunpowder. There were armed guards and some military men stationed inside the Bastille and they had a large supply of gunpowder.

The National Assembly felt they had no option now except violence. Necker, the one voice of reason in the King’s court had been fired. There was no way to negotiate now. They weren’t going to allow themselves to be arrested. They approved the new National Guard’s plan to Storm the Bastille.

The Governor tried to lock down the Bastille but failed. He was soon captured and dragged through the streets. He was killed and his head was marched around Paris on a pike. All the prisoners of the Bastille were freed. The Bastille was torn down, using small tools and bare hands. Now supplied with gunpowder, the National Guard was able to drive away the troops which came looking for the National Assembly. The revolution had officially begun!

The National Assembly wrote a new charter of rules that they considered more just and fair. This new declaration of rights stated that sovereignty of France belonged to the people, not the crown.

Robespierre encouraged freedom of the press, something that had been censored by the monarchy. Emboldened by the victories of the national Assembly, some papers started freely printing the news.

The dark side of freedom-of-the-press was a paper called “The Friend of the People”, which was a small periodical run by Jean Paul Marat. Marat had reasons to be bitter about the way the country was run under the monarchy. Now that he had a voice, he unleashed his long held resentment in vitriolic tirades against Louis and the nobles. He advocated violence and was a paranoid zealot. Marat became the official press representative of the movement; the ultimate rabble rouser.

In October 1789, ‘Fish Women of Versailles’ began their revolt. These women were an Amazonian group of female fisherman who were notoriously good with knives (from scaling fish) and had often fought with men over territory. They watched each other’s backs and could be very fierce. The fisherwomen were threatened by poverty and high taxes. Inspired by the storming of the Bastille, the fisherwomen stormed the King’s palace at Versailles.

Surrounding the palace and refusing to budge, they shouted their grievances to the nobles inside. This was the day that the infamous quote, often attributed to Marie Antoinette, was first heard. A message sent to the crowd said “Let them Eat Cake”. It enraged the mob. It’s unlikely that it was Marie Antoinette herself who said it. More likely it was a lower ranked noble or a guard, but regardless, that quote has soured Marie Antoinette’s reputation until this day.

Soon the fisherwomen were joined by other protestors. The crowd demanded that the King and Queen move their headquarters back to France where the National Assembly could keep a better eye on them. The crowd threatened to storm the castle and kill the queen if their demands were not met.

king Louis hesitated too long in deciding how to deal with the crowd. The Fisherwomen led an assault on the palace. They pierced security with surprising ease. The women found the Queen’s room. Although she wasn’t present, they destroyed the room and sliced up the mattress with their knives.

Trapped inside the palace, Louis and Marie surrendered, hoping that a show of submission would calm the mob. The tactic worked. The crowd accepted their surrender without harming them.

The King and Queen were marched all the way to Paris, escorted by the hostile crowd, who shouted derisive comments at them. The food stores of the palace were raided and used to feed the people of Versailles.

The King and Queen were forced to relocate to a smaller palace in Paris, where they were constantly watched. They were afraid to leave the palace since the public hated them. The National Assembly was now able to regulate the King’s doctrines. For the first time, the people were in charge.

Some people wanted the nobles executed but the National Assembly convinced them to allow the royals to live in their diminished and humiliated capacity. Still, many were waiting for a reason to enact their revenge.

For the next seven yeas, the government was run from the Jacobin Club, where the National Assembly met. Robespierre had maneuvered his way to the leadership of the assembly, becoming the voice of France. He was considered the people’s champion and became known as “Robespierre the Incorruptible”.

In 1791, Louis was tired of his situation and wanted to regain control. He knew he needed foreign help to do it. He hoped that he and Marie could reach her family in Austria , who would help re-conquer Paris. Disguising themselves as servants, they slipped out of the palace at night and took a horse-and-carriage, hoping to make it to the border. They didn’t make it. Border guards recognized them and they were re-arrested.

This made Louis and Marie even more reviled than ever before. In the public’s eyes, the King had caused this crisis and now was trying to abandon the French people to their unhappy lot. He was declared a turncoat and traitor. The cries to kill the royal couple increased.

The National Assembly used this as an excuse to take full control. The old order died. The Assembly began writing their own laws without the King. One of the laws written by Robespierre made the death penalty illegal. Many of the Assembly still thought killing the king would send the wrong message and the anti-death penalty law was meant to prevent it.

The law failed to pass and the death penalty became a common means of punishment in France. About this time, a new device was invented that would make executions quick and spectacular. It was called the guillotine!

Marat, ever the voice for bloodshed (He never heard of a situation that more executions couldn’t solve) heartily endorsed the use of the guillotine. Anyone suspected of loyalty to the King would be sentenced to beheading.

Since relatives of Marie and the King had escaped to Austria, and since Marie was a French prisoner, the National Assembly feared an attack by the Austrians. They wanted to declare war, but Robespierre didn’t think France could win a war against Austria. But he was again outvoted and France went to war in 1792.

The French received some very bad news when the Prussians allied themselves with the Austrians. The Austrians sent an ultimatum to the National Assembly, insisting that no harm must come to either Marie or the King. This attempt at intimidation backfired.

The National Assembly became split between the extremists who called themselves the Jacobins, and the conservatives who were known as the Girodons. The Jacobins controlled the military, as well as the National Guard. They were divided between fighting the enemy abroad and policing the streets for rebels.

George Danton was made the new Minister of Justice. Anyone even suspected of being disloyal to the National Assembly was arrested or executed. Priests, nobles, writers who wrote the wrong thing or politicians with the wrong opinions were all considered enemies of France. And while the streets were being swept for possible threats, Danton was whipping the country into a jingoistic pro-war frenzy with his oratory. He convinced many men to join the army.

But there was a problem. With so many young men away at war, there were few to guard the streets, hunt down traitors and guard prisoners. There were so many people in prison that they were set to burst. How could the short-handed National Guard handle all that? Marat had a solution. His usual solution. He advocated killing all the prisoners. He frightened the public with talk of massive jailbreaks and criminals running amok.

When Prussia took nearby Verdun, the population of France panicked. The enemy was at the gate. This was just what Marat wanted. It was easy to manipulate frightened people. This led to “the September Massacres” where thousands of prisoners were butchered in their cells. Great Britain condemned this atrocious act.

Robespierre realized that things were starting to unravel. The people obviously couldn’t be trusted to govern themselves, as was the original plan. Someone had to keep them in line. He turned his attention away from the war and decided that he had to unite everyone under his watchful eye.

His first action was to announce the trial of King Louis, which many had been waiting for. The result of the trial was preordained and Louis was sentenced to death. He was killed by Guillotine in January of 1793.

There was much celebration of the King’s death, which was just what Robespierre wanted. He hoped it would be a unifying event. But some people weren’t happy.

The Girodon party was tired of all the violence. After the September Massacre, they were determined to reign in the bloodshed. Robespierre and the Jacobins saw this as a challenge to them. They wanted the Girodons arrested. This upset many people who didn’t like seeing the government fighting among itself. People outside Paris, who were not so caught up in the patriotic fervor, were tired of the increasing violence and wanted it stopped.

The Jacobins lost their spokesman on July 13, 1793. A young woman named Charlotte Corday got an appointment to meet Marat in his home. She was a beautiful woman and claimed to have information that Marat would want, so he allowed her to enter. Marat was bathing in his tub when Charlotte approached and suddenly stabbed him to death with a dagger.

Charlotte Corday was sentenced to death, claiming that she did the right thing. She hoped that silencing the hate-mongering voice of Marat would end the bloodshed. But it didn’t. Marat became a martyr for the Jacobin cause. His picture was seen everywhere. His death inspired revenge against Girodons and others who were anti-war and anti-violence.

Marie Antoinette was tried in October of 1793 and accused of numerous charges, many of them unfounded. They even accused her of incest with her son (The only charge she denied during the trial.) She was paraded through the streets in an open cart so people could throw things at her. She was beheaded among howls of execration.

In July of 1793, the war was going badly for France. The Girodons had started their own civil war. The British had blocked France, isolating them from any aid. Robespierre and Danton were desperate.

They declared martial law and began a new policy of using fear to end any insurrection or disloyalty. They suspended their constitution and declared that “Terror would be the order of the day”. Secret police began to round up anyone they decided was a possible threat, and no evidence was needed. Rumor was enough to get a person arrested. Simple things like complaining about the price of bread were reasons for arrest. The idea was to scare people into cooperation and obedience. He even tried to claim that there was a link between terrorizing and integrity. This new policy was called the Terror!

The Terror lived up to its name. People were rounded up and executed by the score. Everyone was paranoid about being arrested. Neighbors turned in neighbors. It was a common site to see the death carts rolling through Paris with the latest casualties of the Terror.

The Terror was run by a twelve man committee, overseen by Robespierre himself. The worse things got, the more they advocated increased beheadings. Censorship of the media was imposed again. They even decided that the Catholic Church was too powerful and began the de-Christianization of France. Priests were tied together with suspected rebels and placed in boats with holes in the bottom. They were sent floating out to drown.

The war finally started to go France’s way. Vital victories were won by a clever, savvy General named Napoleon Bonaparte. Also, food was becoming more readily available.

As things were slowly improving on the economic and military front, Danton felt that the need for the Terror had passed. Many agreed with him. They were called Dantonites. Robespierre declared the Dantonites traitors. He had Danton and his associates arrested and executed.

Spring of 1794 was called “the Great Terror” because the amount of executions increased to 800 per month. Robespierre was at the height of his power. He decided to declare a new religion. He began the Cult of the Supreme Being, which was dedicated to the God of Logic and intelligence.

Then, on June 27th, Robespierre made his fatal miscalculation. He knew that all the other members of the Assembly were afraid of him. He wanted them all intimidated. So he announced that he had a list of traitors and that some of them were present, but he refused to divulge the names. He promised to return the next day to reveal some of the traitors but not all. The rest would be arrest on a later date. It was a tactic meant to use terror to control the assembly, just as he’d used it to control the population.

The tactic backfired completely. When Robespierre arrived at the assembly the following day, He was suddenly set upon and placed under house arrest. He was soon sentenced to death.

Robespierre made an unsuccesful attempt to kill himself. He survived but his jaw was shattered by a bullet. He couldn't speak. The master of oratory was silenced.

He was executed on July 27th, 1794. He was unable to say any last words. This was the end of the Terror, and it was also the beginning of the end of the Revolution. Without the rabble rousing Robespierre or Marat to fire things up, cooler heads started to prevail and slowly things began to calm down. But it wasn’t until five years later that the revolution officially ended.

A new leader came along to unite the disparate forces of the French government and military. He began a new era in 1799. The Napoleonic Era. His name was Napolean Bonaparte.


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