French revolution started in 1789. The series of events started by the middle class shook the upper classes. The people revolted against the cruel regime of monarchy. This revolution put forward the ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality. The revolution began on 14th July, 1789 with the storming of the fortress-prison, the Bastille. The Bastille was hated by all, because it stood for the despotic power of the king. The fortress was demolished.
Causes of the French Revolution:
- Social Inequality: French society in the eighteenth century was divided into three estates namely The Clergy, The nobility and third estates. First two estates, that is, the clergy and the nobility enjoyed certain privileges by birth. They were exempt from paying taxes. The Third estate comprises of businessmen, merchants, Peasants and artisans, labours had to pay taxes to the state.
- Political Causes: Long years of war had drained the financial resources of France. France had a debt of more than 2 billion livres. To meet its regular expenses, such as the cost of maintaining an army, the court, running government offices or universities, the state was forced to increase taxes which angered the people.
- Economic Problems: The population of France also increased from 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789. Food grains were now in great demand. The price of bread shot up. Wages did not keep pace with rising prices. This led to subsistence crisis.
- Strong Middle Class: A new middle class emerged educated and wealthy during the eighteenth century. They believed that no group in society should be given privileges by birth. Ideas of equality and freedom were put forward by philosophers. The ideas of these philosophers were discussed intensively in salons and coffee houses and spread among people.
- Immediate Causes: On 5 may, 1789, Louis XVI called together an assembly of Estates General to pass proposals for new taxes. Third estates protested against this proposal but as each estate have one vote, the king rejected this appeal. They walked out of the assembly.
The Outbreak of the French Revolution
Louis XVI called an assembly of the Estates General to pass his proposals to increase taxes on 5th May 1789. The first and second estates sent 300 representatives each, who were seated in rows facing each other on two sides, while the 600 members of the third estate had to stand at the back. The third estate was represented by its more prosperous and educated members only while peasants, artisans and women were denied entry to the assembly. Voting in the Estates General in the past had been conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote and same practice to be continued this time. But members of the third estate demanded individual voting right, where each member would have one vote.
After rejection of this proposal by the king, members of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest. On 20th June, the representatives of the third estate assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in the grounds of Versailles where they declared themselves a National Assembly and vowed to draft a constitution for France that would limit the powers of the monarch. The third estate was led by Mirabeau, a noble and Abbé Sieyès, a priest. While the National Assembly was busy at Versailles drafting a constitution, the rest of France was in trouble. Severe winter destroyed the food crops which resulted in increase in the prices. The bakers also hoarded supplies of breads for making greater profit. After spending hours in long queues at the bakery, crowds of angry women stormed into the shops. At the same time, the king ordered troops to move into Paris. On 14 July, the agitated crowd stormed and destroyed the Bastille.
In the countryside rumours spread from village to village that the lords of the manor were on their way to destroy the ripe crops through their hired gangs. Due to fear, peasants in several districts attacked the castle of nobles, looted hoarded grain and burnt down documents containing records of manorial dues. Large numbers of noble fled from their homes and many migrated to neighbouring countries. Louis XVI finally recognised the National Assembly and accepted the constitution. On 4th August, 1789, France passed the law for abolishing the feudal system of obligations and taxes. The member of clergy were also forced to give up their privileges. Tithes were abolished and lands owned by the Church were confiscated.
France Becomes a Constitutional Monarchy
The National Assembly completed the draft of the constitution in 1791, aiming to limit the powers of the monarch. The powers were now separated and assigned to different institutions – the legislature, executive and judiciary which made France a constitutional monarchy. The Constitution of 1791 gave the power of making laws in the hands of National Assembly, which was indirectly elected by a group of electors, which were chosen by active citizens. Active Citizens comprises of only men above 25 years of age who paid taxes equal to at least 3 days of a labourer’s wage. The remaining men and all women were classed as passive citizens who had no voting rights.
France Abolishes Monarchy and Becomes a Republic
Louis XVI had signed the Constitution, but he entered into secret negotiations with the King of Prussia. Rulers of other neighbouring countries too were worried by the developments in France and made plans to send troops to stop the revolutionary events taking place. Before this could happen, the National Assembly voted in April 1792 to declare war against Prussia and Austria. Thousands of volunteers joined the army from the provinces to join the army.People saw this war as a war of the people against kings and aristocracies all over Europe.
The revolutionary wars brought losses and economic difficulties to the people. The Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to the richer sections of society. Political clubs were established by the people who wished to discuss government policies and plan their own forms of action. The most successful of these clubs was that of the Jacobins. The members of the Jacobin club belonged mainly to the less prosperous sections of society. Their leader was Maximilian Robespierre. Jacobins start wearing long striped trousers and came to be known as the sans-culottes, literally meaning those without knee breeches. In the summer of 1792 the Jacobins planned a revolt of a large number of the people of Paris who were angered by the short supplies and high prices of food.
From the very beginning, women were active participants in the events which brought about so many changes in the French society. Most women of the third estate had to work for a living. Their wages were lower than those of men. In order to discuss and voice their interests, women started their own political clubs and newspapers. One of their main demands was that women must enjoy the same political rights as
men. Some laws were introduced to improve the position of women. Their struggle still continues in several parts of the world. It was finally in 1946 that women in France won the right to vote.
Women were disappointed that the Constitution of 1791 reduced them to passive citizens. They demanded the right to vote, to be elected to the Assembly and to hold political office.
The revolutionary government did introduce laws that helped improve the lives of women.
- By creation of state schools, schooling was made compulsory for all girls.
- Their fathers could no longer force them into marriage against their will.
- Divorce was made legal, and could be applied for by both women and men.
- Women could now train for jobs, could become artists or run small businesses.
It was finally in 1946 that women in France won the right to vote.
The Abolition of Slavery
The unwillingness of Europeans to go and work in the colonies in the Caribbean which were important suppliers of commodities such as tobacco, indigo, sugar and coffee created a shortage of labour on the plantations. Thus, the slave trade began in the seventeenth century.
French merchants sailed from their ports to the African coast, where they bought slaves from local chieftains. Branded and shackled, the slaves were packed tightly into ships for the three-month long voyage across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. There they were sold to plantation owners. The exploitation of slave labour made it possible to meet the growing demand in European markets for sugar, coffee, and indigo.
The National Assembly held long debates for about whether the rights of man should be extended to all French subjects including those in the colonies.But it did not pass any laws, fearing opposition from businessmen whose incomes depended on the slave trade. Jacobin regime in 1794, abolished slavery in the French colonies.However, ten years later, Napoleon reintroduced slavery. Slavery was finally abolished in French colonies in 1848.
Democratic rights we enjoy today whose origins could be traced to the French Revolution
- Right to Equality before law
- Freedom of Speech and expression
- Right against exploitation
- Right to justice
Legacy of the French Revolution
The ideas of liberty and democratic rights were the most important legacy of the French Revolution. These spread from France to the rest of Europe during the nineteenth century, where feudal systems were abolished. Later, these ideas were adopted by Indian revolutionary strugglers, Tipu Sultan and Rammohan Roy also.
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