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French Revolution and Reaction



The French Revolution

The French Revolution began in 1789 and was a significant event in world history because of the importance of the political upheaval that it initiated throughout Europe.

The revolution produced a profound change in European politics, but revolutionary feeling was also to be found in the larger aesthetics movement called Romanticism.

What was the French Revolution?

There were a number of significant causes of the Revolution. Previously, King Louis XIV had manipulated his kingdom to ensure that he had strengthened the absolute power of the monarchy and basically removed any remnants of the old feudal system. His successors enjoyed the decadent lifestyle which this power generated. His reign saw the power and wealth of the privileged classes within society rise in prominence. The nobility and the clergy lived lives of luxury while the peasant farmers were forces to pay them heavy taxes and feudal dues. Rural areas became overpopulated and shortages of food for the people were frequent. Discontent grew amongst the peasants (this class of people are sometimes referred to as ‘the third estate') because they could see the disparity in living conditions. By the time of King Louis XIV's reign, it was obvious to the lower classes that most of the country's wealth was controlled by the privileged few.

Discontent at these economic and social problems was fuelled by the principles of the age of “Enlightenment”, which was a philosophical movement of the 18th century which dominated European and American thinking. This involved scientific and intellectual developments which suggested that a rational scientific approach to political, social, and economic problems would lead to progress.

A direct cause of the French Revolution was the economic crisis that faced the French Government. This was partly a result of the country's involvement in the American Revolution. The Aristocracy was called upon to help ease France's economic crisis, but they declined to help out because they were afraid that they would lose some of their economic privileges.

Representatives of each of the three classes met at Versailles and those from the third estate created the National Assembly on 17 June 1789. Some members of the clergy and a small number of aristocrats joined them. Despite desperate attempts by the King to quash this breakaway group, he eventually officially recognized the National Assembly. But, he ordered troops to surround Versailles.  Eventually a violent mob attacked Versailles and took the members of the royal family to the Tuilerie Palace which was inside the Parisienne walls. The King and Queen were kept as prisoners.

On 14 July 1789, members of the third estate stormed the Bastille (this was a political prison in the heart of Paris). They secured ammunition and freed a small number of prisoners. The storming of the Bastille is considered to be the start of the French Revolution. Louis XVI was forced to accept the Tricolour flag as a symbol of the Revolution. Many peasants joined in the Revolution spurred on by their fear of an aristocratic conspiracy against them. This reaction is often referred to as the grande peur or “great fear”.

The National Assembly abolished the feudal system in France and subsequently ratified the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” in August 1789. This document played a particularly significant role in the development of the liberal thinking that characterised the 19th century. It outlined the ‘inalienable rights' of the individual which included the right to Liberty and Equality for all people. Inherited privilege was to be abolished in favour of a system which rewarded talent and ability. It also outlined the need for freedom of speech and thought.

A new constitution was completed in 1791 which allowed for a monarchy with limited power supported by an elected legislature. Discontent mounted amongst the nobility and many decided to leave France for their own safety. Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) also attempted to escape in June 1791 but they were captured and the King was forced to accept the conditions of the new constitution. By October 1791 the catchcry from the various political groups became “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Initially there was broad international support for the revolutionary aims of the French people. However, this began to wane as the uprising became increasingly violent.

The King was deposed after an insurrection on 10 August 1792. Royalists were arrested and September saw the commencement of the massacres. Mobs of people stormed Parisienne prisons and about 2,000 people were ruthlessly killed. The new National Convention met on 21 September 1792 when it abolished the French monarchy and established the Republic which functioned as a dictatorship. The King was executed in January 1793. The period between 1793 and 1794 is often referred to as the “Reign of Terror”.  Under the rule of Georges Danton (1759-1794) and Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), the Committee of Public Safety oversaw the executions of  between about forty thousand people at the Guillotine and many more people were imprisoned. This included the Queen on 16 October 1793.

Foreign disgust at the bloodthirsty attitude of the new French regime led to military action so the following years were marked by war with other countries and internal turmoil caused by political corruption and economic difficulties. A military coup took place on 4 September 1797. The French Revolution ended in 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) rallied the army behind him and secured the overthrow of the government on 9 November 1799. As Napoleon I, he ruled as France's first Emperor until 1814.

In engaging in wars against a succession of other countries, Napoleon effectively united the moanrchies of Europe. A reaction against revolutionary politics was particulalrly severe in Britain. It was dangerous to be a sympathiser towards France, and indeed even to claim that one was a 'democrat' was sufficient for suspicion or jailing without cause. The final fall of Napoleon in 1815 did not end this oppression; it lingered until 1832 when the hotly-contested Reform Bill in Britain allowedvoting rights to a greater number (of men) and removed some strictures against Roman Catholics.

Romanticism and Revolution

Jean-Jacques Rousseau had famously observed that 'man is born free, yet everywhere we find him in chains'. The writings of Rousseau had an important role in establishing the intellectual atmosphere for the revolution. And once it came it was inistially welcomed by many writers, including those from England. William Wordsworth described in Book X of The Prelude how it was ' that dawn to be alive', and many felt that the world was being recreated anew. Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft experienced the Revolution at first hand, but the first generation of Romantic authors, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake were initally strong supporters as well. Governed by the teachings of Rousseau it seemed for a moment that human society itself was perfectible through the secular intellect. The Revolution came to embody a new and suddenly widespread belief that nothing was necessary merely because it was traditional. It was the role of Art as well as revolutionary politics to eradicate the old, the habitual, the conventional. These ideas are found in fundamental changes in creative work.



Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National