The French Revolution


     Beginning in 1789, France produced the most significant of the

eighteenth-century revolutions. In some ways it was remarkably similar to the

American movement that had preceded it. Both revolutions applied principles of

the Enlightenment; both swept away traditional systems; both followed similar

three-stage courses, moving from moderate to radical before a final

conservative swing; and both helped set in motion modern constitutional

government, along with democracy and nationalism. There were, however,

striking differences. Unlike the American colonies, France had a classic Old

Regime, with aristocratic privilege and monarchy. Instead of being far removed

from the centers of civilization, it was the most populous and cultured state

of western Europe. Its revolution, therefore, was more violent and more



The Explosive Summer Of 1789


     During the summer of 1789, France faced a financial crisis, caused

primarily by military expenditures and a parasitic aristocracy, which resisted

any cuts in its returns from the treasury and any taxes on its wealth. Louis

XVI had succeeded his grandfather in 1774. The young king was intelligent but

indolent and dominated by his frivolous wife, Marie Antoinette, whose limited

political vision and influence over her husband increased his problems. The

result of this lapse of leadership was a political near-breakdown, followed by

a sudden explosion of popular unrest and agitation.


     Between Louis' succession and 1789, his finance ministers continuously

struggled with a rapidly rising debt. It had increased by 400 million livres

during French participation in the American Revolution and had reached a total

of 4 billion livres in 1789 (equivalent to $5.6 billion in 1980 dollars), when

interest payments absorbed half of the national revenues. Robert Turgot

(1727-1781), controller-general of finance, had proposed deep cuts in

expenditure, but he was forced out by the nobles. His successor, Swiss banker

Jacques Necker (1732-1804), after resorting to more exhaustive borrowing, was

dismissed in 1781, and two succeeding ministers failed to deal with the

problem. In 1788, Louis called an assembly of nobles, hoping that they might

accept taxation and economy measures. They flatly rejected his requests,

insisting that he call the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614. In

this body, where the clergy and nobility traditionally voted separately, they

hoped to dominate the Third Estate, including the middle-class majority of



     Ultimately, Louis summoned the Estates-General, with more than 600

elected delegates representing the Third Estate. They were chosen during the

spring of 1789, amid feverish excitement, and supplied by their constituents

with lists of grievances, the famous cahiers, which involved a diverse mixture

of reform proposals, including demands for a national legislature, a jury

system, freedom of the press, and equitable taxes. Once the Estates-General

had convened, the Third Estate insisted that voting should be by head rather

than by chamber, because it had more members than the other two estates

(clergy and nobles) combined. Six weeks of wrangling over this issue brought

delegates from the Third Estate along with lesser numbers from the other two

orders, to a meeting at an indoor tennis court. There, on June 20, 1789, they

solemnly swore the historic tennis-court oath, agreeing not to disband until

they had produced a French constitution. Later, after defying a royal order to

reconvene separately, they declared themselves to be the National Constituent

Assembly of France.


     Within weeks, the king had completely lost control of the situation.

Although grudgingly accepting the National Assembly, he had 18,000 troops

moved to the vicinity of Versailles. Middle-class members of the Assembly, in

near panic at the threat of military intervention, appealed for popular

support. On July 14, an estimated 100,000 Parisian shopkeepers, workers, and

women demolished the Bastille, liberating the prisoners. It had served as the

most visible symbol of the Old Regime, and its fall clearly demonstrated the

rapily growing popular defiance. The event also destroyed Louis' courage and

his municipal Parisian government, which was replaced by a middle-class

council, with its own "national guard." Meanwhile, other urban uprisings and

peasant violence in the country consolidated the Assemby's position.


     As emotional tensions ran high throughout the country, the government

faced a serious problem involving blacks. Although illegal in France, slavery

was a legal foundation of the economy in the French West Indies, that

remaining valuable gem of the French empire. Many wealthy French aristocrats

and businessmen who owned plantations in Santo Domingo and Martinique feared

that revolutionary rhetoric would promote slave rebellion. Another

complication was provided by mulattoes, many of whom were wealthy planters

themselves, who supported the slave system but complained about infringement

of their civil rights, both in France and in the islands. Their petitions were

enforced and carried further by an organization known as the Amis des Noirs

("Friends of the Blacks"), which capitalized upon the revolutionary atmosphere

during the summer of 1789 to spread abroad antiracist ideas from the



     Another unique aspect of the summer upheaval was the aggressive roles

played by women. In the cahiers they had presented demands for legal equality,

improved education, and better conditions in the markets. They were present in

large numbers at the fall of the Bastille. Later, as bread prices rose, they

organized street marches and protests. On August 7, hundreds went to

Versailles and praised the king for accepting the Assembly. A climax in this

drama came on October 5, when some 6000 women, many of them armed, marched to

Versailles, accompanied by the National Guard. There a deputation of six

women, led by a seventeen-year-old flower seller, Louison Chabray, met the

king, who promised more bread for the city. Other women entered the hall where

the Assembly was sitting, disrupted proceedings and forced an adjournment. The

next day, after a mob stormed the palace and killed some guards, the king and

his family returned to Paris as virtual prisoners, their carriage surrounded

by women carrying pikes, upon which were impaled the heads of the murdered



The First Phase Of Middle-Class Revolution


     Shortly after the march on Versailles, the Assembly achieved some

political stability by declaring martial law, to be enforced by the National

Guard. During the next two years, its leaders followed the Enlightenment in

attempting to reorganize the whole French political system. Because most came

from the middle class, with a preponderance of lawyers and a sprinkling of

nobles, they were committed to change but also determined to keep order,

protect property, and further their special interests. Thus, as they achieved

their goals, they became increasingly satisfied and conservative.


     The most dramatic action of the Assembly occurred on the night of August

4, 1789. By then, order had been restored in the cities, but peasants all over

France were still rising against their lords - burning, pillaging, and

sometimes murdering - in desperate efforts to destroy records of their

manorial obligations. Faced with this violence and at first undecided between

force and concessions, the Assembly ultimately chose concessions.

Consequently, on that fateful night, nobles and clergy rose in the Assembly to

denounce tithes, serfdom, manorial dues, feudal privileges, unequal taxes, and

the sale of offices. In a few hours between sunset and dawn, the Old Regime,

which had evolved over a thousand years, was completely transformed.


     To define its political principles and set its course, on August 26 the

Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Intended

as a preamble to a new constitution, it proclaimed human "inalienable rights"

to liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. It also promised

free speech, press, and religion, consistent with public order. Property was

declared inviolate unless required for "public safety," in which case the

owner was to receive "just compensation." All (male) citizens were to be equal

before the law and eligible for public office on their qualifications. Taxes

were to be levied only by common consent. With its emphases upon civil

equality and property rights, the declaration was a typical middle-class

statement. ^4


[Footnote 4: For the text of the Declaration, see J. N. Larned, ed., The New

Larned History, 12 (Springfield, MA, 1923), vol. 4, pp. 3301-3302.]


     Understandably, the Assembly aimed its economic policies at freeing

capitalistic enterprise. It assured payment to middle-class bondholders of

government issues and financed this policy by sale of lands, confiscated from

the church and from nobles who had fled the country. It sold to middle-class

speculators much of this new public land; very little was ever acquired by

peasants. The Assembly also abolished all internal tolls, industrial

regulations, and guilds, thus throwing open all arts and crafts. It banned

trade unions, decreeing that wages be set by individual bargaining. Except for

a few remaining controls on foreign trade, the Assembly applied the doctrines

of Adam Smith and the physiocrats, substituting free competition for economic



     The Assembly's land policies conditioned its approach to organized

religion. Having taken church property and eliminated tithes, many members

were reluctant to abolish the state church completely, believing the church,

if controlled, would help to defend property. Consequently, the Assembly

passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which made the clergy salaried

public servants but abolished all archbishoprics and reduced the number of

bishoprics. Monastic orders were simply dissolved. Incumbent churchmen were

required to swear first loyalty to the nation, but only seven bishops and half

the clergy conformed. The remainder became bitterly hostile to the government,

exerting great influence, particularly among the peasants.


     Another serious problem involved the West Indian colonies, blacks, and

free mulattoes. News from France in 1789 brought quick and sometimes violent

political reactions in Santo Domingo and Martinique, as planters, merchants,

poor whites, mulattoes, and slaves hoped that the Revolution would further

their diverse interests. French absentee planters and island delegates in the

Assembly differed on trade policies and local colonial autonomy, but they

concurred in their fanatic defense of slavery and their opposition to civil

rights for free mulattoes. Meanwhile, mulattoes in France spread their

pamphlets and petitioned the Assembly, supported by the Amis des Noirs, whose

spokesmen also angrily attacked slavery in the Assembly hall. The chamber was

left divided and nearly powerless. It first gave the island governments

complete control over their blacks and mulattoes. Then, yielding to the

radicals, it granted political rights to mulattoes born of free parents.

Finally, as civil war racked the islands, it bowed to the planters and

repealed its last measure in September 1791.


     The Assembly also dashed some high hopes for French women. The early

Revolution enlisted many, not only from the poor rioting Parisians of the

shops and markets, but also women of the middle class, whose salons were

political centers. These hostesses included Theroigne de Mericourt

(1762-1817), a Belgian courtesan who became a revolutionary street orator,

Madame de Stael (1766-1817), Necker's daughter and a popular novelist, and

Madame Roland (1754-1793), a successful party stategist. Women were already

prominent in the political clubs of this era. Etta Palm d'Aelders, a Dutch

activist, formed a woman's patriotic society, and even proposed a female

militia. In addition, some women were involved in a strong feminist movement.

Olympe de Gouges (see ch. 20), charged the Assembly with securing the

"inalienable rights" of women. The cause was taken up by the Amis de la

Verite, a women's organization which regularly lobbied the Assembly for free

divorce, women's education, and women's civil rights. Its pleas, however, were



     After two years of controversy, the Assembly produced the Constitution of

1791, which made France a limited monarchy. It assigned the lawmaking function

to a single-chambered Legislative Assembly, which was to meet every two years.

The king could select ministers and temporarily veto laws but could not

dismiss the legislature. The Constitution also created an independent and

elected judiciary. Local government was completely reorganized on three levels

- departments, districts, and communes - with elected officials relatively

free of supervision from Paris. Despite rights guaranteed in the Declaration,

only those male citizens who paid a specified minimum of direct taxes acquired

the vote. Property qualifications were even higher for deputies to the

Assembly and national officials. Women were made "passive citizens," without

the vote, but marriage became a civil contract, with divorce open to both

parties. Other individual rights under a new law code were guaranteed

according to the principles of the Declaration.


     These provisions, and other acts of the Assembly involving the colonies,

blacks, and women, indicated the conserative orientation of the early

Revolution, before September 1791. This was particularly true of the property

qualifications on voting and office-holding, which guaranteed that the new

monarchy would be largely controlled by the upper middle classes. Their

concern now was to retain their supremacy by blocking further changes.


The Drift Toward Radicalism


     After June 1791, when the king and his family attempted to flee the

country, the Revolution drifted steadily toward radicalism. Although the

attempt failed, Louis' action as well as the suspicion that he was conspiring

with enemies of the Revolution turned many French people into republicans.


     When the Legislative Assembly met in September 1791, it was plagued with

troubles. The lower classes distrusted the Assembly because they were not

represented. Peasants, angry because their priests had been dispossessed, and

urban workers, worried about inflation and unemployment, petitioned the

Assembly with their grievances. Mulattoes on Santo Domingo denounced the

recent denial of their civil rights and launched revolts against the governor.

The Assembly also learned that many foreign governments were displeased with

its treatment of the French royal family and the nobles.


     Factionalism within the Assembly reflected divisions and differences of

opinion in the country. About a third of the deputies supported the

constitutional monarchy. Another large group wavered from issue to issue, and

a vocal minority wanted to scrap the monarchy and establish a republic. These

radical deputies generally expressed sentiments originating with the Jacobin

Club, a highly vocal organization of political extremists who met regularly at

a former Dominican monastery. Although most members were from the middle

class, they ultimately depended upon support from Parisian artisans and



     Sterile debate gave way to enthusiasm as the country slipped into foreign

war during the spring of 1792. Leopold of Austria, brother of the French

queen, joined the king of Prussia in declaring publicly that restoration of

French absolutism was "of common interest to all sovereigns." ^5 In response,

Theroigne Merincourt, just released from Austrian custody, addressed the

Jacobin Club, eloquently pleading for overthrow of the monarchy and war aginst

the Habsburg enemy. Her call echoed all over France. At the same time, raging

civil war in the West Indies, which drove up sugar prices and encouraged

speculative hoarding, turned popular opinion against the planters. Angry mobs

of men and women stormed the warehouses, seized the sugar, and sold it at

reasonable prices. The Assembly responded to both challenges by restoring

civil liberties to free black and mulatto citizens and declaring war on

Austria. French citizens went mad with fanatic patriotism. Thousands of

recruits enlisted, and Merincourt organized a company of "Amazons," armed with

pikes and muskets.


[Footnote 5: For the text of Leopold's Declaration of Pilnitz (August 27,

1791), see John Hall Stewart, A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution

(New York: Macmillan, 1951), pp. 223-224.]


     Despite their enthusiasm and dedication, French armies suffered early

defeats when Prussia allied with Austria against France. These misfortunes

aroused further suspicion of Louis, which intensified when the Prussian Duke

of Brunswick, commanding the invading army, threatened in June to destroy

Paris if the French royal family were harmed. The faction of the radicals

known as the Girondists, who mainly represented the middle class outside of

Paris, used the proclamation as propaganda. They relied on the support of

paramilitary organizations of men and women in the provinces and used a

mulatto legion in the army to arouse popular support.


     The French nation, particularly Paris, responded to Brunswick's manifesto

with fury maintained by the Jacobin leaders' impassioned oratory against the

king and the moderates. The most effective of the Jacobins was Georges-Jacques

Danton (1759-1794), the deputy prosecutor for the Paris Commune, an enormous

brute of a man with a voice of commanding power, who mesmerized angry

audiences as he denounced the king as a traitor. Supported by Paris mobs, the

Commune seized power from the Legislative Assembly, deposed the king, and

executed some 2000 suspected royalists in the notorious "September massacres."

It then called for a national convention, with members elected by universal

male suffrage, to draw up a new constitution. Jacobin hysteria spread

throughout France, even after September 22 when the newly assembled National

Convention declared France a republic.


     Debate over the fate of the king and the nature of the new constitution

intensified the contention between moderates and radicals. Danton shared

leadership of the radicals in the Convention with Maximilien Robespierre

(1758-1794) an idealistic and fanatic follower of Rousseau, and Jean-Paul

Marat (1743-1793), publisher of Ami du Peuple, a newspaper which violently and

consistently denounced traitors and counterrevolutionaries. Opposing Danton,

Robespierre, and Marat were the Girondists, who also favored war but feared

mob violence and democratic reforms. Most of them wanted to postpone the

king's trial, but they lost ground during the fall. The Jacobins finally

triumphed in the crucial debates that led to the king's execution in January



     Imbued now with a new fighting spirit, French armies defeated the foreign

invaders and went on the offensive, occupying the Rhineland, Belgium, Nice,

and Savoy. These French victories so fired the hopes and imaginations of the

Jacobins that they insisted on exporting the Revolution by force. The National

Convention, which the Jacobins now controlled, announced that France would

"grant fraternity to all peoples who wish to recover their liberty." ^6 It

then declared war on all tyrants and ordered the inhabitants of all countries

to accept the principles of the Revolution. Alarmed by the execution of the

king and this proclamation, England, Holland, Spain, and Sardinia joined

Austria and Prussia in a general coalition against France. In the spring of

1793, four armies of the coalition crossed the French frontiers.


[Footnote 6: Ibid., p. 181. Quotation is from the Convention's decree of

November 19, 1792.]


     Louis' execution plus worsening conditions among the Paris poor widened

the breach between Jacobins and Girondists and brought matters to a desperate

crisis. When Girondists staged uprisings in Marseilles, Lyons, Bordeaux, and

Toulon, Jacobins in the Paris Commune called a howling mob into the Convention

hall on May 31, 1793 and purged the National Convention of any remaining

Girondists. Other Girondists throughout France were placed under surveillance.


The Jacobin Republic


     The Convention was now a council of the most extreme Jacobins, but the

transition of power was not completed until after July 12, 1793, when

Charlotte Corday, a young Girondist sympathizer, came to Paris from Caen and

murdered Marat. He had been the revered leader of the extreme left, known as

the Enrages, and his death infuriated the street people. The resulting wave of

anti-Girondist hysteria brought the Convention under the domination of

Robespierre, who remained in power until the late spring of 1794. During that

time, revolutionary France reorganized itself, suppressed internal strife, and

drove out foreign invaders, thus bringing to climax the success of the radical

Jacobin party.


     The regime achieved its success largely through rigid dictatorship and

terror. The Convention created a twelve-member Committee of Public Safety,

headed first by Danton and after July by Robespierre. Subordinate committees

were established for the departments, districts, and communes. These bodies

deliberately forced conformity by fear, using neighbors to inform on neighbors

and children to testify against their parents. Suspects, once identified, were

brought to trial before revolutionary tribunals, with most receiving quick

death sentences. Between September 1793, and July 1794, some 25,000 victims

were dragged to public squares in carts - the famous tumbrels - and delivered

to the guillotine. Ultimately, the Terror swallowed most of the

revolutionaries, including Danton in April 1794 and Robespierre himself in

July 1794.


     While it lasted, the Jacobin dictatorship was remarkably successful in

its war efforts, mobilizing all of France to fight. The convention made all

males between eighteen and forty eligible for military service, a policy which

ultimately produced a force of 800,000, the largest standing army ever

assembled in France. Officers were promoted on merit and encouraged to

exercise initiative. The government also took over industries and directed

them to produce large quantities of uniforms, arms, medical supplies, and

equipment. In Paris alone, 258 forges made 1000 gun barrels a day. Between

1793 and 1795, the French citizen armies carried out a series of remarkably

sucessful campaigns. They regained all French territory, annexed Belgium, and

occupied other areas extending to the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees, thus

gaining, in two years, the "natural frontiers" that Louis XIV had dreamed

about. By 1794, Prussia and Spain had left the coalition and Holland had

become a French ally. Only England, Austria, and Sardinia remained at war with



     Flushed with their victories, the Jacobins enacted domestic reforms

reflecting a peculiar combination of hysteria and reason. They abolished all

symbols of status, such as knee breeches, powdered wigs, and jewelry. Titles

were discarded, and people were addressed as "citizen" or "citizeness."

Streets were renamed to commemorate revolutionary events or heroes. The

calendar was reformed by dividing each month into three weeks of ten days each

and giving the months new names; July, for example, became Thermidor (hot) to

eliminate reference to the tyrant Julius Caesar. The Revolution took on a

semireligious character in ceremonies and fetes, which featured young

attractive women as living symbols for reason, virtue, and duty. Along with

these changes came a strong reaction against Christianity: churches were

closed and religious images destroyed. For a while a "Worship of the Supreme

Being" was substituted for Roman Catholicism, but finally in 1794 religion

became a private matter.


     Despite their stated beliefs in free enterprise as an ideal, the Jacobins

imposed a number of economic controls. The government enacted emergency war

measures such as rationing, fixed wages and prices, and currency controls. It

also punished profiteers, used the property of emigres to relieve poverty,

sold land directly to peasants, and freed the peasants from all compensatory

payments to their old lords.


     Colonial problems, which had confounded the National and Legislative

Assemblies, were met head-on by the Jacobin Convention. The grant of

citizenship to free blacks and mulattoes of the islands in 1792 had drawn the

mulattoes to the government side, but colonial armies, enlisted by the

governors, faced determined insurrection from royalists and resentful escaped

slaves. Sometimes the two forces were united, with support from Spain or the

British. In the late spring of 1793, the harried governor of Santo Domingo

issued a decree freeing all former slaves and calling upon them to join

against foreign enemies. His strategy narrowly averted a British conquest.

Subsequently, the Convention received a delegation from Santo Domingo and

heard a plea for liberty from a 101-year-old former slave woman. The chamber

responded by freeing all slaves in French territories, giving them full

citizenship rights.


     Unfortunately, the revolutionary women in France were not so successful.

At first, the radicals welcomed women as supporters, but after the Jacobins

gained power they regarded revolutionary women as troublemakers. By the spring

of 1794, the Convention had suppressed all women's societies and imprisoned

many, including Olympe de Gouges. She was soon sent to the guillotine for her

alleged royalist sympathies. The Jacobin legislature continued to deny women

the vote, although it did improve education, available medical care, and

property rights for women.


     Because they regulated the economy and showed concern for the lower

classes, the Jacobins have often been considered socialists. The Constitution

of 1793, which was developed by the Convention but suspended almost

immediately because of the war, does not support this interpretation. The new

constitution guaranteed private property, included a charter of individual

liberties, confirmed the Constitution of 1791's accent on local autonomy, and

provided for a Central Committee, appointed by the departments. The greatest

difference, in comparison with the earlier constitution, was the franchise,

which was now granted to all adult males. Although the Jacobin constitution

indicated a concern for equality of opportunity, it also revealed its authors

to be eighteenth-century radical liberals, who followed Rousseau rather than



End Of The Terror And The Conservative Reaction


     The summer of 1794 brought a conservative reaction against radical

revolution. With French arms victorious everywhere, rigid discipline no longer

seemed necessary, but Robespierre, still committed to Rousseau's "republic of

virtue, " was determined to continue the Terror. When he demanded voluntary

submission to the "General Will" as necessary for achieving social equality,

justice, and brotherly love, many practical politicians among his colleagues

doubted his sanity. Others wondered if they would be among those next

eliminated to purify society. They therefore cooperated to condemn him in the

Convention. In July 1794 he was sent, with twenty of his supporters, to the

guillotine, amid great celebration by his enemies.


     Robespierre's fall ended the Terror and initiated a revival of the

pre-Jacobin past. In 1794, the Convention eliminated the Committee of Public

Safety; the next year it abolished the Revolutionary Tribunal and the radical

political clubs, while freeing thousands of political prisoners. It also

banned women from attendance in the Convention hall, an act which sympolized

the return to a time when women's political influence was confined to the

ballroom, the bedroom, or the salon. Indeed, as the formerly exiled

Girondists, emigre royalists, and nonconforming priests returned to France,

Parisian politics moved from the streets to private domiciles of the elite.

Outside of Paris, by the summer of 1795, armed vigilantes roamed the

countryside, seeking out and murdering former Jacobins. Everywhere, the

earlier reforming zeal and patriotic fervor gave way to conservative cynicism.


     There was to be one last gasp of idealism, although it was outside the

revolutionary mainstream. Francois-Noel Babeuf (1760-1797) was a radical

journalist and true believer in the spirit of the Enlightenment, who expected

utopia from the Revolution. To its success, he sacrificed his worldly goods

and his family; his wife and children went hungry while he moved into and out

of jails before 1795. An earlier follower of Robespierre, he later condemned

his former mentor as a traitor to the principle of equality. According to

Babeuf, liberty was not possible while the rich exploited the poor; the

solution had to be a "society of equals," where the republic would guarantee

efficient production and equitable distribution of goods. Babeuf's nascent

socialism, so out of tune with his times, was suppressed in May 1796, along

with his attempted uprising against the government. At his trial, despite his

heroic oratory, the support of his long-suffering wife, and his self-inflicted

stab wound, he was condemned and sent to the guillotine.


     Before it dissolved itself in 1795, the Convention proclaimed still

another constitution and established a new political system known as the

Directory, which governed France until 1799. Heading the new government was an

executive council of five members (directors) appointed by the upper house of

a bicameral (two-house) legislature. Deputies to the two chambers were

selected by assemblies of electors in each department. These electors were

chosen by adult male taxpayers, but the electors themselves had to be

substantial property owners. Indeed, they numbered only some 20,000 in a total

population of more than 25 million. Government was thus securely controlled by

the upper middle classes, a condition also evident by the return to free



     The Directory was conspicuously conservative and antidemocratic, but it

was also antiroyalist. A Bourbon restoration would have also restored church

and royalist lands, which had been largely acquired by wealthy capitalists

during the Revolution. Politicians who had participated in the Revolution or

voted for the execution of Louis XVI had even greater reason to fear

restoration of the monarchy.


     In pursuing this antiroyalist path at a time when royalist principles

were regaining popularity, the Directory had to depend on the recently

developed professional military establishment. In 1797, for example, the

army was used to prevent the seating of royalist deputies. The Directory

encouraged further military expansion, hoping to revive the patriotic

revolutionary fervor. Of three armies it sent into Austrian territory, two

failed, but the one led by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) crossed the Alps in

1796 to crush the Austrians and Sardinians. After 1797, only England,

protected by its fleet, remained at war with France. The French Revolution was

over, but its momentous Napoleonic aftermath of military dictatorship was just



Significance Of The French Revolution


     The French Revolution, as evidenced by the Napoleonic dictatorship which

it produced, was an immediate failure; for France at the turn of the

nineteenth century, had secured neither liberty, nor equality, nor fraternity.

Except for certain prosperous members of the middle classes, the French

economy promised less for most people in 1796 than it had two decades earlier.

Most discouraging was the realization that the Revolution had betrayed its own

ideals, leaving the French people cynical and disillusioned.


     The Revolution, nevertheless, had brought great changes. It had abolished

serfdom and feudal privileges, created a uniform system of local government,

laid the groundwork for a national education system, started legal reforms

that would culminate in the great Napoleonic Code, abolished slavery in the

colonies, and established the standardized metric system. The ideal, if not

the practice, of constitutional government had been rooted in the French mind.

Moreover, French armies, even before 1800, had scattered abroad the seeds of

liberalism, constitutionalism, and even democracy. The most striking result of

the Revolution in its own time was its violent disturbance of old orders; from

Ireland to Poland, nothing would ever be the same again.


     Long-term results of the Revolution may be evaluated much more positively

than its immediate effects. During the first decade of the nineteenth century,

many former idealists saw dark curtains drawn over windows through which the

Enlightenment had once shone so brightly. This blackout, however, was only

temporary. Even before Napoleon experienced his first major defeat at Leipzig

in 1813, his enemies had adopted that philosophy of liberation which had fired

French imagination in the early 1790s. The spirit of radicalism was revived

again among English working-class rioters in 1817. Every other European

liberal movement of the nineteenth century borrowed something from the French



     Another result was equally significant but less promising. The Jacobin

republic spawned a fanatic and infectious patriotism, most effectively

exploited by Napoleon. When this was combined with the self-righteous idealism

of the Enlightenment, it produced a mass hysteria that seems common the most

modern peoples as they first become aware of their national identities. A

parallel development was French militarism, symbolized later by Napoleon. The

concept of the nation in arms - military conscription and the marshalling of

an economy for war - appears familiar today. This modern note was a forerunner

of industrial society, with its complexities, interdependence, and mass

conformity. France in 1800 was not yet industrialized, but it was ripe to be

and was already populous enough to experience some tensions evident in modern

industrial societies.

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