Unit 3: The French Revolution and Its Legacy
Many argue that the French Revolution was the most important modern revolution. The revolutionary leaders abolished the monarchy and altered most of France's social and political institutions to make them more rational and modern. They proclaimed a republic, instituted parliamentary elections, introduced educational reforms, created a new revolutionary calendar, and reorganized France's electoral districts to make representation more democratic.
Unlike the American Revolution, which resulted in a government that has lasted until today, the French revolutionaries rejected their initial ideals when the new government began to use violence and terror to maintain its hold on power. By 1799, the revolution succumbed to a dictatorship at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). As the self-proclaimed emperor, Napoleon expanded his empire, plunging Europe into 15 years of conflict, shifting alliances, and French domination. The Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815) reshaped political boundaries in Europe and indirectly resulted in revolutions around the world.
The French Revolution (1789–1799) abolished the monarchy and transformed France's political system into a republic, a government where elected officials hold power. While elections and many public policy reforms were put into place, the revolution was extremely drastic and violent. It also resulted in the ascension of Napoleon and the reorganization of Europe. In this unit, we explore the roots and impact of the French Revolution, the ascension and importance of Napoleon, the partitioning of Poland and Lithuania, and the Congress of Vienna of 1815 that reorganized Europe. As you study, think about how it may have been inspired by the American Revolution and how it helped shape the modern world.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 11 hours.
3.1: Roots of Revolution
During the medieval period (from the fall of the Roman Empire in 400–1500 CE), France had developed a feudal system based on landed aristocracy and a monarchy. The class system of the French ancien régime (the old regime) was divided into three estates: the First Estate included the monarchy (the king and queen) and the clergy; the Second Estate included members of the nobility or aristocracy; everyone else comprised the Third Estate. This included peasants, artisans, lawyers, merchants, and the bourgeoisie (the middle class). The system was top-heavy, which means the Third Estate was oppressed, deprived of basic rights, and existed to serve the whims of those in the Second and First Estates.
By the end of the 18th century, the French government was virtually bankrupt after participating in many European wars, such as the Seven Years' War from 1756–1763. The ideas of the Enlightenment had already taken hold in Europe, and the protesters were inspired by the American Revolution a decade earlier. The financial oppression, lack of political power, and excesses of the Second and First Estates had become too much to bear.
While several smaller rebellions had occurred during prior years, historians mark the starting point for the French Revolution as June 20, 1789, when members of the Third Estate met to sign the Tennis Court Oath. They were infuriated by a new series of taxes the government had imposed to pay for the current economic crisis. The protesters vowed to stick together and withdraw from the Estates-General – the French legislature – until the government adopted a written constitution.
3.2: The Republic, Reign of Terror, and Thermidorean Reaction
The French Revolution was characterized by its violence and use of the guillotine to execute those who opposed the revolution, especially members of the First and Second Estates. This culminated in the execution of Louis XVI (1754–1793) and his wife Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) in 1793.
Louis XVI, and especially Marie Antoinette, became symbols of the excesses of the First Estate at the expense of the Third. They lived in luxury at the Palace of Versailles – their main estate was one of the most luxurious palaces in the world. Living lives of excess and leisure when the Third Estate struggled to survive, they symbolized the "evils" of privilege the Third Estate were fighting against. Their execution resounded throughout Europe and the world. The medieval concept of the divine right of kings – the idea that the monarch is chosen and designated by God to rule over the people – was metaphorically and literally toppled with the beheading of the monarchs. The revolutionaries asserted the will of the people and the idea that they were the ones with true power.
3.3: Revolution and New Government
The key symbolic start of the French revolution occurred on July 14, 1789, when a group of revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, the central prison that was a symbol of the monarch's power and abuses. The revolutionaries severed the social contract between the monarchy and Third Estate when they released the prisoners. The revolutionaries effectively rejected the laws of the establishment.
3.4: Napoleon and Legacies of the Revolution
The primary legacies of the French Revolution include the demise of feudalism, the end of absolute monarchy, support for modernization, the rise of nationalism, the disestablishment of the church, the promotion of human rights, and support for democracy.
The French Revolution ended with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who declared himself emperor of France in 1804. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato once described the perils of democratic government. He said democracies are fragile, frequently dissolve into chaos in the pursuit of absolute equality, and are susceptible to being replaced with a tyrant. In what ways do you think France followed Plato's prediction? How about today?
3.5: The Partitions of Poland-Lithuania
Napoleon's actions had a global geopolitical impact. For example, in 1803, Napoleon sold 530 million acres of land – from New Orleans to the Great Lakes – to the United States for $15 million to raise funds for his European campaigns. Known as the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon helped expand the borders of the fledgling United States and changed the geopolitical balance of North America.
3.6: The Congress of Vienna
Napoleon's downfall had great geopolitical consequences for the countries of Europe, which were tasked with drawing the correct national boundaries for each country in the wake of Napoleon's short-lived empire and the devolution of the Holy Roman Empire. The Congress of Vienna was held in Vienna, Austria, in 1815 and led by Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859).
Unit 3 Assessment
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