The French Revolution was a radical political transformation of what had been one of the most traditional and most powerful of the great European states in the space of a few short years. France went from a Catholic absolute monarchy to a radical, secular republic with universal manhood suffrage, a new calendar, a new system of weights and measures, and the professed goal of conquering the rest of Europe in the name of freedom, all in about five years. Even though the Revolution “failed” to achieve the aims of its most radical proponents in the short term, it set the stage for everything else that happened in Europe for the rest of the nineteenth century, with major consequences for world history.
- 15.1: The Causes of the Revolution
- The immediate case of the French Revolution was the dire financial straits of the French state after a century of war against Britain and an outdated system of taxation. As noted in the last chapter, starting at the end of the seventeenth century there was an (on-again, off-again) century of warfare between France and Britain, almost all of it fought overseas (in India, the Caribbean, and North America). With the noteworthy exception of the American Revolution, Britain won every single war.
- 15.2: Events of the Early Revolution
- The Estates General had not met since 1614. Like the British parliament, its original function was to serve as a venue for the French king to bargain with the entire nation for money, almost always in the service of war. The Estates General was a gathering of representatives of the three estates - clergy, nobility, and everyone else - in which the French king could ask for tax revenue in return for various bargains and promises (often the promise not to ask for more taxes in the future).
- 15.3: "Equality"
- Of the three elements of the Revolutionary motto, “equality” was in some ways the most fraught with implications. All of the members of the National Assembly were men. Almost all were Catholic - a few were Protestants, but none were Jews. All were white as well, despite the existence of a large population of free blacks and mixed-race inhabitants of the French colonies (especially in the Caribbean).
- 15.4: The Radical Phase and the Terror
- In just over three years, France had gone from an absolute monarchy to the first major experiment in democracy since the days of the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier. In September of 1792, a new constitution was instituted that formally abolished the monarchy and made France into a republic with universal manhood suffrage. In January of 1793, Louis XVI was executed as a traitor to the republic after heated debate and a close vote in the Assembly.
Thumbnail: "Execution of Louis XVI" – German copperplate engraving, 1793, by Georg Heinrich Sieveking.