The French Revolution 1789-1799
France had a lot of problems at the end of the eighteenth century. Combined with the Feudal System were France’s three estates. The First Estate was comprised of the clergy; the Second Estate contained the aristocracy, which included the Monarch; and the Third Estate, by far the largest, was comprised of commoners from peasants to the emerging influential bourgeoisie. The ongoing imperial wars left France indebted to her creditors. Conflicts within the estates were compounded by the spread of Enlightenment ideas that had influenced a successful revolution in America. The Old Regime was about to meet its match.
France’s population was diverse. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity had played important roles in France and continued to do so. Even as divisions between Protestant and Catholic Christianity spread throughout Europe, France maintained multi-religious views. Relationships among the religious orders were relaxed and trade was good. Clerics were generally respected and maintained political voices as part of the First Estate.
Years of war eventually bankrupted France. In order to pay wartime debts, King Louis XVI ordered additional taxes on agricultural products. Those that carried the tax burden were members of the Third Estate. Unfortunately for the Third Estate, they now had to pay increased rents to landlords in the Second Estate while paying higher taxes on bread, which was a staple. Those that could not pay higher rents were evicted, forced to move to cities or towns and scrounge for food. Commoners in France were starving.
King Louis XVI censored France. The King prohibited the printing or selling of any literature that mentioned or directly discussed Enlightenment ideas. This included a ban on all news reports of France’s participation in the American Revolution and its outcome. Bookbinders printed bootlegged copies of Enlightenment literature, sometimes disguised in the form of a religious text. Merchants smuggled copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense into public houses where literate men disseminated them to the illiterate majority. The King’s censorship did little to squash revolutionary ideas. Instead, it made commoners question the need for a monarchy.
To address the debts of France, King Louis XVI called the General-Estates to meet. It did so on May 5, 1789. This governing body comprised of representatives from all three estates had not met since 1614. Elected members were instructed to compose a sort of book of grievances outlining problems in each Estate, suggestions for improvements, and ways in which taxes could be implemented to pay France’s debts. The Estates General could not agree on how to certify the credentials of the members present. Tired of an impasse, the Third Estate broke away and met as the new National Assembly.
When the King forced the closure of the meeting place for the Estates General, the National Assembly vowed to remain in session until it had provided France with a new constitution. The National Assembly moved to a new location and remained in session. Meanwhile, on July 11, 1789, the King’s finance minister had published inaccurate accounts of the government’s debt. When the King fired him, supporters of the new National Assembly interpreted the firing as a new attack on the People’s Assembly. Riots and violence broke out throughout Paris. The city was in a state of chaos.
The Bastille was a medieval fortress that represented the power of the monarchy and the old regime. Housed inside the Bastille were a few prisoners and a large amount of weaponry. Rioting citizens stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, freeing the seven prisoners and taking the weapons. When commoners in Paris attacked and took over the Bastille, they demonstrated not just displeasure with the King and the old regime, but the hope of a new order centered on the will of the people. In France, the will of the people was confusing and often violent.
In the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille, nobles began to flee Paris and France. Now that the commoners seemingly were in charge, no aristocrat, large landowner, or member of the monarchy was safe. Just as the Sons of Liberty attacked British sympathizers in America, the French men and women in outright revolt attacked the symbols of the monarchy and the feudal system. Peasants continued to revolt, forcing an official end to the feudal system. In August 1789, the constitutional assembly of France officially abolished the feudal system while it also proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The French Constitution of 1791, although short lived, removed most of the power from the King and created one legislative chamber. France had become a Republic.
After the drafting of the first constitution, a conundrum faced France: who could, would, or should become citizens of the new Republic? Attempts to answer this question resulted in riots, violence, and beheadings over several years. The most famous and violent phase of the French Revolutions was made possible by a new invention: the Guillotine.
The Guillotine was a new mode of execution. A sharp and angled blade was suspended on a wooden frame. A condemned person was placed in secure stocks at the bottom of the frame, below the blade. When the blade was released, gravity ensured that the blade fell quickly, cutting the head off of the condemned person’s body. The clean cut removed the head and it fell into a basket below the stocks. The Guillotine was the choice mode of execution during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.
Between March 1793 and July 1794, chaos overtook France. Commoners had become weary and untrusting of the new government as long-promised reforms and social equality had not yet materialized. Conspiracies began to overtake the rumor mill. The Catholic Church, the French nobility, and neighboring powers did not support the revolution. Within France, conspiracies to restore the monarchy surfaced. Residents in Paris and Versailles were required to take loyalty oaths. Those that did not proclaim their support of the Republic and its revolution were charged with treason.
The French Revolution was a conglomeration of revolts, riots, civil wars, and outright terror that occurred over a decade. The Revolution played out in Europe, Africa, and in the Caribbean. Its official end occurred after a Coup d’Etat that began in November and concluded on Christmas Eve 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte was declared First Consul under the Constitution of Year VIII. The violence in the French Revolution would be replicated and surpassed on France’s most important and profitable sugar island in the Caribbean.