The French Revolution (1)
The death of the Ancien Régime
The ‘ancien régime’ is the name given to the French government before the Revolution. It was marked by privilege, inequality, injustice and economic inefficiency. With its population of 28 million (compared with 13 million in Britain) the country ought to have been prosperous, yet many of its inhabitants lived in terrible poverty,
The monarch was, in theory absolute, though in practice there were many constraints on his power. The nation was divided into three Estates: the First (the clergy); the Second (the nobility); the Third (the rest). The first two Estates had important tax privileges, notably exemption from the taille, the main direct tax. The Catholic Church exercised monopoly religious power and the nobility exercised feudal privileges. The burden of taxation fell unjustly on the peasants who paid a compulsory salt tax (gabelle) and owed feudal duties to their landowners. The whole tax-collecting mechanism of the ancien regime was inefficient as well as unjust.
Yet France was also the home of the Enlightenment, and philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot had challenged the privileges of the Church and the monarchy. Enlightenment thought, seen in popular literature such as Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, stressed liberty and equality.
Louis XVI was incapable of tackling the deep-rooted problems of the French state. His Austrian-born wife, Marie-Antoinette, was extremely unpopular and lurid stories about her private life undermined the authority of the monarchy. The portrait on the right, Madame Vigée Lebrun's attempt to create a more sedate and maternal image, failed in its purpose.
The immediate cause of the Revolution was the bankruptcy of the monarchy and a series of catastrophic harvests that led to food shortages and food riots. In 1778 France entered the American Revolution and played a major role in Britain’s defeat. But the cost of the war led to a financial crisis that successive ministers were unable to solve. In 1788 Louis XVI was advised to turn for help to the nation as a whole and summon a body that had not met since 1614: the Estates-General. On 5 May 1789 this body assembled at Versailles.
The Tennis Court Oath: On 20 June the deputies of the Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath. It called itself the National Assembly and vowed that it would not disperse until it had provided France with a new written constitution.
The Fall of the Bastille: In Paris, food shortages, combined with mistrust of the king’s intentions, created an extremely tense atmosphere. The Parisian electors raised a militia of 48,000 men, the National Guard, to protect the Assembly. The National Guard was short of arms. On 14 July, having ransacked the armoury, the Invalides, for muskets and cannons, the crowd marched on the ancient fortress of the Bastille in search of gunpowder. When the governor appeared to offer resistance, it stormed the prison. The governor and the chief city magistrate were lynched, and their heads stuck on pikes. Although only eight prisoners were found, the fall of the Bastille was rightly seen as a moment of great symbolic significance.
The Beginning of Reforms
On 9 July, the National Assembly renamed itself the Constituent Assembly and began to draw up a series of reforms In the summer of 1789 the French countryside was in the grip of the ‘Great Fear’ as the peasants stormed the châteaux, destroying the tax records. On 4 August the National Assembly agreed to abolish the privileges of the nobility and declared that all citizens were eligible for office. On 28 August it promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
The 5-6 October
In October a rumour reached Paris that the king’s personal guards had trampled on the tricolour.
With the support of the National Guard a crowd of women marched to the Assembly at Versailles to protest against the price of bread and forced the royal family to return to Paris. The king was now a virtual prisoner in the Tuileries. However, the great majority of the revolutionaries still wanted a constitutional monarchy.
The divide over the Church
In 1790 the Assembly instituted a series of reforms. Internal customs barriers were abolished and France was divided into departments.
On 12 July 1790 the Assembly introduced the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a complete reorganization of the Catholic Church, which turned the clergy into a salaried profession, appointed by popular election. In November the clergy were required to swear allegiance to the Constitution, Almost half refused. The non-jurors were imprisoned or went into exile. This was the first major rift in the unity of the Revolution.
The Flight to Varennes
As a devout Catholic, Louis was profoundly hostile to the Civil Constitution, while Marie-Antoinette opposed any compromise. On 20 June 1791 the royal family attempted to flee to the Austrian Netherlands, but were stopped at the frontier town of Varennes. There was now a deep suspicion of the king and a further division had opened within France.
On 27 August Leopold II of Austria and Frederick William II of Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, threatening retribution of the royal family were harmed.
On 30 September the Constituent Assembly met for the last time. It was replaced on 1 October by the Legislative Assembly.
War and the Fall of the Monarchy
By 1792 extremist pressures were building up. Outside the Assembly radical clubs were proliferating and the sans-culottes attacked the monarchy and the middle classes. Within the Assembly the dominant group were the Girondins, who pressed for war against Austria and Prussia. In April France declared war on Austria and invaded the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium).
On 20 June the sans-culottes invaded the Tuileries and forced Louis to put on the red cap of liberty. On 10 August the crowds again invaded the Tuileries and the royal family fled for their lives to the protection of the Assembly. The Assembly voted to suspend the king from the exercise of his legislative functions and to establish a National Convention elected on manhood suffrage.
Between 2 and 6 September the news of the fall of Verdun led to the September Massacres, the murder of over 1,000 prisoners in Paris. On 20 September the French defeated the Austrians and Prussians at Valmy. On 21 September the Convention met.
The execution of Louis XVI
In January 1793 Louis was tried by the Convention under the name of ‘Citizen Capet’ for crimes against the nation. He was found guilty by a narrow margin and guillotined on 21 January. Royalists promptly declared his young son to be ‘Louis XVII’.
On 1 February France declared war on Britain.