During the late 1700's, France followed in America's footsteps to their own revolution. The French were very unhappy with their current status, jobs, and living conditions. They saw what America did to get liberty, and how successful they were. Many of them also read the writings of the philosophers and thought that change was necessary. During this time, France was the most powerful country in Europe. The main problems that led to the French Revolution were severe debt, competition between social classes, and the unfair conduct of King Louis XVI.
The French Revolution was based mostly on the Third Estate's desire to obtain liberty and equality. France was divided into three different social classes, also called estates. The first two estates enjoyed privileges over the Third Estate. The First Estate was the church, or clergy, and the Second Estate was the nobles.
These two estates were the richest, and were exempt from taxes. They were the only members in society who could hold positions of importance, such as officers in the army. Most of its people hated the enlightenment ideas because they threatened their status and power. The Third Estate consisted of "everyone else". Its people were at the bottom of the hierarchy. About 25 million people were part of the Third Estate.
There were three groups that made up the Third Estate, and each one was very different in their economic conditions. The first group, called the bourgeoisie, were merchants and artisans. They were well-educated and believed strongly in the enlightenment ideas. Some of the bourgeoisie were as rich as nobles, but they had to pay high taxes. The second group of the Third Estate was made up of the workers of France, such as cooks, servants, and others. They were paid very low wages and frequently out of work.
Many of them often went hungry. If the cost of bread rose, many of these workers would raid the carts of bread and steal what they needed. Peasants formed the largest group within the Third Estate. More than 80 percent of the population were peasants. The peasants paid about half their income to nobles and taxes. They hated the higher Estates, and were eager for change.
Philosophes, such as Voltaire, spread ideas of reform that excited the peasants to believe that there was a chance for a better life. Debt was one of the problems that led France toward a revolution. France was badly in debt after participating in the American Revolution and after King Louis XIV's and Louis XVI's enormous expenses. In order to save France from bankruptcy, Louis XVI called on the Estates General for help and to get approval for a tax reform. The Estates General was made up of the First, Second, and Third Estate. However, each estate met in a different hall to vote, and each estate had one vote.
The two privileged estates could always outvote the third estate. When the Estates General met in 1789, the representatives from the Third Estate demanded that the three estates meet together, with each representative having an equal vote. That way, the Third Estate would have the advantage, since it had as many representatives as both the First and Second estate combined. When the king heard of this, he demanded that the three estates meet separately. The Third Estate was outraged that no one would listen to their views, so on June 17, 1789, they voted to declare themselves the National Assembly.
They broke down a door to an indoor tennis court, and made an oath not to leave until they had established a reformed government. This became the famous Tennis Court Oath. After the National Assembly started working on a constitution, the peasants expected relief from the taxes they had to pay. Little happened, and the peasants were still starving. People were beginning to break into the bakeries to steal food, and instead of giving them the food they need, Louis brought in troops to guard the bakeries. This upset the people even more.
Women, needing to feed their children, rioted. There were reports that Louis was bringing more troops to Paris, and this increased the people of Frances' fears. When Louis brought more troops to Versailles, the people feared that he wanted to get rid of the National Assembly. They stormed the Bastille, believing they could find arms and ammunition there for use in defending themselves against the king's army. The French soldiers, who were supposed to be protecting the king and keeping the people from invading the Bastille, joined the riot and helped bring down the Bastille.
These events forced Louis to call the National Assemble on August 4. The people discussed possible reforms. On this day, the National Assembly ended serfdom, and the nobles agreed to give up their feudal rights. Towards the end of August, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It was important because it was a philosophy for all people, not just France. The National Assembly began writing the constitution.
Throughout France, all ancient customs were thrown away by the revolution. The National Assembly called for freedom of worship and abolished all special activities and privileges of the Catholic Church. In 1791, the National Assembly drafted a new constitution. It made France a limited monarchy, and established a system of separation of powers. The different social classes disappeared. Louis XVI was worried by the actions of the National Assembly, and fled the country with his wife, Marie Antoinette.
He was later arrested, and brought back to accept the constitution. Thus began a new government, called the Legislative Assembly. It lasted from October 1791 until September 1792. After the action of the king, moderate revolutionaries still wanted to preserve the constitutional monarchy, while the conservative wanted to keep the king.
The radicals distrusted the king, and wanted a republic. This group will soon take control of the revolution. In 1792, the war between France and Austria broke out. The war spread revolution ideas, and unified the country, creating Nationalism. When Louis and his wife fled, the Legislative Assembly suspended him as a monarch and imprisoned him and his family. Because this went against the constitution, a new government was established, called the National Convention.
This convention wrote a new constitution. The National Convention met in September. They tried and convicted King Louis of treason. He was sentenced to death. The Third Estate had gained power, and leaders among them now took roles as government officials. The National Convention made a constitution that created the Committee of Public Safety.
It campaigned against people who were considered enemies of France. Maximilien Robespierre led the committee. In attempt to stabilize the country under his control, Robespierre began what is now known as the "Reign of Terror". Any person that posed a threat to the new standing government was brought to the guillotine and executed. Most of the victims were commoners. The terror scared the people, and all revolts toward the government ended.
In early 1794, France was slowly gaining world power. However, in July 1794, Robespierre was executed. This ended the Reign of Terror. In 1795, the National Convention established another constitution. It established a new government, called The Directory, which was made up of five men.
It built the largest army in Europe, and this army was headed by the great military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Napoleonic era brought a sense of unity to France. Napoleon was almost impossible to stop. He began conquering most of Europe. The first country he defeated was Austria.
He collected lots of money and sent it back to Paris, this helped the weak economy of France. After he came close to Vienna, the Austrians surrendered, and made a treaty with France. This gave France the Netherlands, and it made the Rhine River the eastern border of France. He made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Egypt.
In 1799 he returned to France to find the Directory was a mess. He overthrew the Directory, and created a new government, in which there were three consuls, and he was the most important one. At this time, everyone in France loved Napoleon, and his power increased. He created the Napoleonic Code of Law: The first clear statement of the French law. The Napoleonic Code has served as a base for legal systems around the world. He changed the government again and made himself ruler of the French Empire.
He divorced his wife Josephine in 1809, and married Marie Louise, the daughter of the Emperor of Austria. He soon had a son by his second wife, and made him king of Rome. Napoleon now was the ruler of a great empire, and he had 42 million people under his control. After he tried to invade Russia, his empire began to crumble. On April 6, 1814, he was forced from the throne.
He was exiled to the island of Elba. About a year later, he gathered about 1,000 soldiers and went to Paris and regained power. He ruled for a short time, and then he surrendered to the English. He was exiled to the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic, where he stayed until he died on May 5, 1821 at age 51. After Napoleons' death, the Congress of Vienna developed. It was an alliance system to keep power balanced.
The Congress of Vienna agreed that there would be no more revolutions; all thrones would be given back; France would be a constitutional monarchy; and there would be a balance of power.