Alfred Cobban stats in his text, In Search for Humanity, that, “The consequences of the Revolution were so momentous for Europe at the time, and for the whole world subsequently, that it has cast a shadow over the whole of modern history.” The French Revolution brought about significant changes in society and government of France. The revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, also had extending effects on the rest of Europe. It introduced democratic ideals to France but did not make the nation a democracy. However, it did end the supreme rule by French kings and strengthened the middle class. It was motivated by the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity and led to the growth of political liberalism and nationalism in France. At the same time it also caused conflicts both within and between nations. The revolution began with a government financial crisis but quickly became a movement of reform and violent change. The revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general, took over the government.
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 or the three estates had led to much discontent. Members of the clergy made up the first estate, nobles the second, and the rest of the people the third. The third estate was the largest and included the peasants as well as the working people of the cities and a large and prosperous middle class. This third estate resented the certain advantages of the first two. The clergy and nobles were exempt for paying tax, as the peasants generated most of France’s tax revenue.
The revolution was significant in the way it brought about new ideas about government challenged France’s absolute monarchy. Under this system, the king had ultimate authority. He governed under the divine right. However during the 1700s philosophers raised new ideas about freedom and government. Some of these thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, suggested that the right to govern came from the people. Denis Richards in Modern Europe 1789-1945, provides a good summing up of the monarchy and France: ‘France’s destiny rested in the hands of a King who was too weak-minded to be stable and a Queen who was too strong-minded to be sensible.’
The financial crisis developed because France had gone deeply into debt to finance fighting in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and the American Revolution (1775-1783). By 1788, the government was almost bankrupt. The King Louis XVI unwillingly agreed to hold a meeting of the Estates-General to discuss either raising taxes or borrowing more money.
The Estates-General opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles, near Paris. The third estate dominated the representative pool. They wanted all estates to merge into one national assembly and each representative have one vote. They also wanted the Estates-General to write a constitution. Louis XVI and most delegates refused the demands of the third estate. In June 1789, the representatives of the third estate declared themselves the National Assembly of France. The King allowed this Assembly but at the same time began to gather troops to break up them. The people of France also took action, as they rushed to the Bastille on July 14, 1789, believing they would find arms and ammunition to defend themselves against the king’s army. The uprisings in town and countryside saved the National Assembly from being disbanded by the king.
In August 1789, the Assembly adopted the Decrees August 4 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The declaration was important and significant as it guaranteed the same basic rights to all citizens, including “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression” as well as a representative government. The Assembly later drafted a...
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