Conflict and Identity in Modern Europe, c. 1770-200

The French Revolution (Context)

  • Seen as a "bloody, anarchic mess..."
  • Some argue it was more significant in changing peoples ideas than the American Revolution
  • 18th century France = a rich and populous country, but it had a systemic problem collecting taxes because of the way its society was structured internally 
  • L' Acien Regime = nobles and clergy never paid taxes despite being the richest members of society 
  • Modern nationalism has its roots in the French Revolution 
  • The revolutionaries proclaimed principles they held to be universal, among these were the sovereignty of the nation and the rights and duties of citizenship 
  • The revolutionaries celebrated the fact that the Revolution had occurred in France
  • Wars intended to free European peoples from monarchical and noble domination transformed into wars of French conquest
  • The Revolutionary wars contributed to the emergence or extension of nationalism across Europe
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The French Revolution (Long Term Causes)

  • Mounted the first effective challenge to monarchial absolutionism on behalf of popular sovereignty 
  • Difficult economic conditions in the preceding two decades, combined with the growing popularity of a discourse that stressed freedom in the face of entrenched economic and social privileges, made some sort of change/revolution seem possible, and almost likely 
  • Increasing prevailence of the language of the Enlightenment = this stressed the idea of equality before the law and differentiating between absolute and despotic rule, placing the monarchy under the close scrutiny of public opinion 
  • France remained a state of overlapping layers of privileges, rights, traditions and jurisdictions 
  • Economic hardship compounded financial problems by decreasing revenue while exacerbating social tensions 
  • Rising prices and rising rents in the 1770s and the 1780s 
  • Series of bad harvests = worst was in 1775, and the harvests of 1787-8 were also poor 
  • Meager harvests generated popular resistance to taxation and rising prices of grain/bread
  • A growing population = put more pressure on already scarce resources 
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The Financial Crisis


  • France had been involved in 3 major wars during this time period 
  • Almost 3/4 of state expenses went to maintaining the army, navy and for paying off debt 
  • Nobles and clergy were exempt from paying tax despite being the richest members of society 
  • The financial crisis of the monarchy was closely tied to the nature of its fiscal system 
  • The absolute monarchy of France collected taxes less efficiently than Britain. Why?
    • Britain = Bank of England facilitated the governments borrowing of money at low interest through the national debt 
    • France = No central bank - monarchy depended on private interests and sufferred from a cumbersome assessment of fiscal obligations and inadequate accounting 
    • RESULT = French public debt was much higher than that of Britain and continued to rise as the monarchy sought financial expedients 
  • In general, the public had a strong lack of confidence in the monarchy, and in Louis XVI also 
  • This lack of confidence and distrust was accentuated by the dissatisfaction that was felt among the public towards Marie-Antoinette 
    • 'Diamond necklace affair' and they believed she was hoarding grain inside the palace
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The First Stages of the Revolution

  • In response to the public, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General, which hadn’t met since 1614
  • Estates General = closest thing France had at the time to a Parliament; made up of representatives from the 1st estate (Clergy), the 2nd estate (Nobles) and the 3rd estate (Commoners – which had the most representatives – 600)
  • 3rd estate decided to independently form their own National assembly = angered King Louis XVI
  • Tennis Court Oath (20th June 1789) – the National Assembly agreed not to give up until a French Constitution was established
  • In response, King Louis sent troops to Paris primarily to quell uprisings over food shortages however the revolutionaries saw this as provocation so they responded by seizing the Bastille prison on July 14th = freed 7 prisoners and got guns to fight
  • Why is the storming of the Bastille so significant? 
    • Triumph of popular protest over royal authority
    • Transformation of relationship between political reform and popular violence 
    • Symbolic destruction of Old Regime repression 


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National Constituent Assembly (9th July 1789 - 30t

  • Abolition of Feudalism 
    • 4th August 1789
      • In one night, the national assembly abolishes: aristocratic hunting rights, tithes (taxes to the Church), noble exemptions from national taxes, obstacles to commoners getting major government jobs and more 
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
    • 26th August 1789
      • Men are born and remain free and equal in rights 
      • Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society 
      • Law is the expression of general will 
      • No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions 
  • Nationalisation of Church Lands 
  • Civil Constitution of the Clergy 
  • Emancipation of the Jews
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War and the Second Revolution

  • Jacobins = the most radical and ruthless of the political groups formed in the wake of the French Revolution, and in association with Robespierre they instituted the Terror of 1793-4
  • A petition drive became unruly causing troops controlled by the National Aseembly to fire on the crowd, killing 50 people 
  • RESULT = The National Assembly which had been the revolutionary voice of the people, had killed people in an attempt to reign in revolutionary fervour 
  • Meanwhile, Frances monarchical neighbours were getting nervous about all this republican business, espeically Leopold II, who in addition to being the not holy, not Roman and not imperial Holy Roman Emperor, was Maries brother
  • Leopold II and King William Frederick II of Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz which promised to restore the French monarchy 
  • Louis XVI and the National Assembly developed a plan: Lets INVADE AUSTRIA!
  • Idea = plunder Austria's wealth, steal grain and spread revolutionary zeal
  • What actually happened = Prussia joined Austria in fighting the French, encouraged by Louis, making him look like an enemy of the revolution 
  • RESULT = Assembly voted to suspend the monarchy, have new elections where every man could vote and draw up a new republican constitution 
  • Death of Louis XVI marks beginning of the second phase of the revolution 
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Reactions to the French Revolution in Europe

  • The French Revolution had a considerable impact on the rest of Europe
  • Abolition of feudal rights and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy found favor among educated people in Britain, the Netherlands and some German and Italian states
  • Reduced ndependence of the Catholic Church was applauded by lawyers and merchants
  • However, the promulgation of the principles of national sovereignty and self-determination threated the European monarchies 
  • Reapprochment between Austria and Prussia and a wary alliance between Britain and Russia
  • Prussias inital reaction = try and subvert alliance between France and Austria 
  • London = radical Whigs applauded the storming of the Bastille and the first steps towards constitutional monarchy in France.
  • BUT... In 1790, Edmund Burke attacked the Revolution, stating, "the abstract rationalism of the Enlightenment threatened the historic evolution of nations by undermining monarchy, established churches and the natural ruling elite" 
  • Mary Wollstonecraft, a teacher and writer, greeted the Revolution with optimism. She wrote the first book in Britain that demanded the right for women to vote and hold elected office - Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
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Reactions to the French Revolution in Europe

  • The rulers of other European states felt threatened by the proclamation of universal principles embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen 
  • The Revolution also posed the threat of French expansion, now on behalf of carrying the revolutionary principles of 'liberty, equality and fraternity' to other lands 
  • Prussia, Austria, Naples, and Piedmont undertook the suppression of Jacobin sympathizers 
  • In Britain, the threat of foreign invasion helped affirm British national identity 
  • Despite Robespierre's speeches warning the deputies that the Revoltion must first deal with its enemies within France before waging war abroad, the Assembly declared war on Austria in April 1792. Why?
    • The stated reason was fear than an Austrian invasion from the Southern Netherlands was imminent 
  • Declaration of war was a rash move - 2/3 of the armies officers left (85% of army officers were nobles before the Revolution)
  • Moreover, Prussia soon joined with Austria in fighting the French 
  • The early stages of the war produced French defeats
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The Second Stage: The Terror

  • Faced with foreign invasion and civil insurgency, the Jacobins further centralized government authority and implemented the 'Terror' against those considered enemies of the revolution
  • The government killed people under the leadership of the Committee of Public Safety, led by Maximilien Robespierre
  • 16,000 enemies were guillotined during the terror, including Marie Antoinette and Robespierre himself in thermidor, year 2
  • The committee also changed the measurements of time as traditonal measurements were too irrational and religiony - renamed all months and made each day 10 hours long with each hour consisting of 100 minutes 
  • After the terror the revolution pulled back a bit and another new consitution was put into place which gave a lot more power to wealthy people 
  • Despite initial defeats, France ended up winning the war against Austria and Britain thanks to Corporal Napoleon Bonaparte
  • A coup in 1799 established Napoleon as the First Consul of France, which granted him unlimited executive power under another new consitution 
  • Napoleon declared that the Revolution was now OVER.
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European Responses to the Revolution

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How Revolutionary was the French Revolution?


  • Napoleon was basically an emperor, and in some ways he was more of an absolute monarch than Louis XVI 
  • Gradually, the nobles came back to France, although they had lost their special privileges 
  • The Catholic Church returned too, although much weaker because it had lost land and the ability to collect tithes 
  • When Napoleon fell in 1814, France restored the monarchy, and except for a 4 year period, between 1850-1870 France had a king
  • While it was a constitutional monarch rather than an absolute, it was still a monarch 
  • The fact remains that France had a king, a noble mobility, an established religion and it was definitely not a democracy or a republic
  • As a result, the French Revolution is both controversial and open to interpretation 
  • Some argue that the revolution succeeded in spreading enlightenment ideals even if it didn't bring democracy to France
  • Others argue that the real legacy of the Revolution wasn't the enhancement of liberty, but of state power
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Historiography of the French Revolution

  • Marxist historians long dominated the historiography of the French Revolution 
  • They described the Revolution as the 'inevitable result of a bourgeois challenge to the Old Regime, dominated by nobles'
  • Thus, Marxists have interpreted the Revolution in terms of the rise of the bourgeoisie and its struggle for sociopolitical influence commensurate with its rising economic power during the eighteenth century 
  • Marxists have insisted that the nobility compromised the authority of the absolute monarchy by refusing to be taxed, then the emboldened bourgeoisie allied with urban artisans and workers to bring down the absolute monarchy 
  • They described the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the dominant social class in France
  • This traditional economic interpretation has been strongly discredited 
  • Some historians have noted that differences between social classes became blurred and that the upper middle class and nobles during this period were obsessed with money, not privilege. Thus, one cannot depict the revolution as simply a victory for the bourgeoisie 
  • Did not expedite capitalism, but rather retarded it by launching France into costly wars
  • Historians now see the revolution as affirming the victory of men of property (nobles and bourg)
  • 'Atlantic Revolution' - American War of Independence was the first manifestation that influenced the French Revolution 
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The French Revolution: My Judgement

Regardless, I’d argue that the French Revolution was ultimately far more revolutionary than its American counterpart. In some ways, America never even had an aristocracy but in other ways it continued to have one. The French enlightenment thinker, Diderot, felt that Americans should “fear a too unequal division of wealth resulting in a small number of opulent citizens and a multitude of citizens living in misery”. And the American Revolution did nothing to change that polarization of wealth. What made the French Revolution so radical was its insistence upon the universality of its ideals. Article 6 of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizenhighlights the idea that laws come from citizens and not God. 

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