French Revolution

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On the morning of 14 July 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The king had commanded troops to move into the city. Rumours spread that he would soon order the army to open fire upon the citizens. Some 7,000 men and women gathered in front of the town hall and decided to form a peoples’ militia. They broke into a number of government buildings in search of arms. Finally, a group of several hundred people marched towards the eastern part of the city and stormed the fortress-prison, the Bastille, where they hoped to find hoarded ammunition. In the armed fight that followed, the commander of the Bastille was killed and the prisoners released. The fortress was demolished and its stone fragments were sold in the markets. Various social, political and economic conditions led to the French revolution. These conditions included dissatisfaction among the lower and middle classes, interest in new ideas about government, and financial problems caused by the costs of wars. Legal divisions among social groups that had existed for hundreds of years created much discontent. According to law, French society consisted of three groups called estates. Members of the clergy made the first estate, nobles the second, and the rest of the people, i.e. the peasants, the third. The Estates-General opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles, near Paris. Most members of the first two estates wanted each of the three estates to take up matters and vote on them separately by estate. The third estate had as many representatives as the other two estates combined. It insisted that all the states be emerged into one national assembly and that each representative have one vote. The third estate also wanted the Estates-General to write a constitution. The King and the first two estates refused the demands of the third estate. In June 1789, the representatives of the third estate declared themselves the National Assembly of France. They gathered at a tennis court and pledged not to disband until they had written a constitution. This vow became known as the Oath of the Tennis Court. Louis XVI then allowed the three estates to join together as the National Assembly. But he began to gather troops to break up the National Assembly. Meanwhile, the masses of France also took action. On July 14, 1789, a huge crowd of Parisians rushed to the Bastille. They believed they would find arms and ammunition there for use in defending themselves against the king’s army. The people captured the Bastille and began to tear it down. At the same time, leaders in Paris formed a revolutionary city government. Massive peasant uprisings against nobles also broke out in the countryside. A few nobles decided to flee France, and many more followed in the next five years. The uprisings in town and countryside saved the National Assembly from being disbanded by the King. Napoleon Bonaparte was a key leader in the French Revolution. He crowned himself the emperor of France. He was the greatest military genius of his time and perhaps the greatest general in history. He created an empire that covered most of western and central Europe. Napoleon was also an excellent administrator. Many of his reforms are evident today in the institutions of France and of areas once under its control. He earned the nickname “Le Petit Caporal” (the little corporal) in 1796 at the battle of Lodi, near Italy. He had great energy and ambition. He personally directed complex military maneuvers and at the same time controlled France’s press, police system and domestic affairs. His ambition ultimately led him to overextend his power. His downfall also resulted in part from feelings of nationalism in areas invaded by French troops. Other factors that contributed to his downfall included bitter reaction to the taxes and conscription (the draft) that he imposed across his empire and opposition to Napoleon of many of Europe’s royal rulers. During the early 1790’s, Napoleon spent many...
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