The French Revolution: Moderate to Radical Stages
The French Revolution began in a peaceful, conservative way as a call for reform within the monarchy. After the Seven Years War and the American Revolution –in which France assisted with arms and funds – the country was nearly bankrupt. The monarchy was in a financial crisis and attempted to reform some of the tax exemptions that the clergy and the aristocracy enjoyed. To that end, Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates-General in order to present these ideas formally. This was not necessary; France was not a constitutional monarchy.
The Third Estate, as well as liberal members of the other estates each drew up a list of grievances to present to the King. Among the reforms presented were the beginning of a national assembly that would meet on a regular basis, freedom of the press, and consent in matters of tax rates and many other points regarding personal freedom. In essence, the Estates-General asked for a constitutional monarchy to be established. Later on, it became clear that though both the liberal nobles and the Third Estate wanted reform, they disagreed as to the details of such reform.
This strife between the monarchy and the estates became a struggle between the first two estates and the Third Estate. Even though the Third Estate represented the majority of citizens of France, each estate only garnered a single vote when matters were decided upon. Consequently, the first two estates banded together on numerous occasions to block the moves to reform suggested by the Third Estate. This lopsided balance of power began to enrage many political figures of the Third Estate, as well as the liberal minority in the other estates.
Emmanuel Sièyes described the Third Estate as encompassing every type of individual necessary to establish a nation. The Third Estate included all of the occupations to sustain a viable society; however this very group had been overruled and ostracized to the outskirts of representative government. “The modest intention of the Third Estate is to have in the Estates-General an influence equal to that of the privileged” (Sièyes “What is the Third Estate”). It is clear that even at this point, the violence to come was not premeditated or foreseen.
When the demands of the Estates-General were not met, almost all of the members of the Third Estate and some of the clergy retired to a nearby tennis court to convene what would become known as the National Assembly. The nervous nobility, suddenly left alone with the threat of the Assembly looming over them, quickly put aside their differences with the king and allied with Louis XVI in opposition to the National Assembly. He quickly ordered the National Assembly to dissolve, but it was to no avail. The storming of the Bastille by the bourgeois of Paris ensured the longevity of the National Assembly and forced Louis XVI and the nobility to assent to the legitimacy of the Assembly.
In August of 1789, the National Assembly ratified the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but it wasn’t until months later, after numerous insurrections by the people of Paris, that the King agreed to all the reforms contained therein. The Declaration established the equal rights of all men before the law, the opening of employment to all men based on merit alone, freedom of speech and of the press, due process of law and religious freedom. Such reform satisfied the majority of members of the National Assembly.
While the people of France felt empowered by the reforms brought about, the price of bread was still high, poverty was still rampant and while the idea of nobility by birth was all but abolished, it was replaced by the reality of nobility by wealth. The term “citizen” was now a badge of honor, but the honor helped the peasant little when it came to feeding his family. Insurrections continued: the radical sans-culottes called for extreme measures for the purpose of closing the widening division between the wealthy and the poor. These measures included a limit on property ownership, higher taxes for the wealthy and official equality with the aristocrats.
These rising pressures within France were aggravated by the onset of war with Prussia and Austria. The King and his family had already fled Paris. They were soon caught and returned as prisoners. The Girondin party used this incident to call for the dissolution of the monarchy altogether and the introduction of a republic. The Legislative Assembly was followed by the National Assembly and the National Convention. It was this National Convention that officially established a republic in France and executed Louis VXI in 1793.
The radical Jacobin party gained control of the National Convention by force of arms. In support of the war effort, they drafted most of the young, unmarried men in France to fight. They established an intense sense of nationalism in the militia; and also in the people of France through their control of the press. While the Convention was very involved in fighting their enemies outside of France’s borders, Robespierre, an extreme Jacobin leader, seized the opportunity to tackle the problem of France’s internal enemies. He introduced the use of terror as a viable method of protecting the republic. Stemming from extreme nationalism, he linked terror with virtue, stating that while France lived in a time of revolution and upheaval, virtue could not exist without terrible justice for those who opposed the nation.
Such was the beginning of the radical stage of the revolution, by equating the supposed enemies within with the enemies outside of the nation. During a few months during Robespierre’s reign of terror, 269 people were executed and over 5,000 people were imprisoned (Robespierre’s Justification of the Use of Terror).
It seems very strange that a revolution that began with the humanist ideas of the Enlightenment, such as the freedom of the individual, would evolve into one of the most terrifying chapters of European history. This conversion from representative government to terrifying despotism was eventually tempered, but it effects still ring in hearts and minds of people today; not only in France, but throughout the world.