Modern Europe 1684-present
If They Are Hungry Then Let Them Eat Cake: The Extremities of the French Revolution
Throughout history, many civilizations started out with some form of a monarchy, that type of government in which one person rules a country. The most common monarchy was a royal family. Monarchies have proven to be successful where the ruler has been competent, rules in a way which strengthened their nation, and acted in the best interests of its citizens. Some monarchs strayed from these principles, and, instead, acting from greed, focused on their own personal satisfaction or gain. In France, this self-interest resulted in an enormous national debt, suppression of the lower class citizens, and high taxation of poor citizens. Historically, when this occurs, the citizens have risen up in revolt as they are no longer able to sit idly by and allow this type of rule to continue. The two most famous revolts were the American and the French Revolutions. The success of the Americans in gaining independence from King George greatly influenced the French to have a revolution of their own. Although the people of both countries sought freedom from monarchal rule, they differed in their goals and the means used to achieve those goals. The outcome was that the French Revolution was more extreme, more radical, and more violent than the American battle.
The purpose of the Patriots in America engaging in an organized battle with King George was to establish their own democracy on the new land for themselves. They had no desire to change the existing system of government in England. In the end, the English monarchy agreed to the separation. However, the French citizens, on the other hand, wanted a democratic ideology for their entire nation. They sought to change every segment of France, including the social structure, the economy, the political system, and the legal system. The existence of the feudal state in France, with an extreme difference between the classes, was a contributing factor to the chaos that occurred during this revolution. Although King Louis XVI showed some support, at times, for the people, he never wanted to give up his power or control of his country. As a result, the people were forced to use extreme measures to gain equality and try to bring France out of financial and political turmoil. Fear, suspicion, and desperation drove the revolutionaries to commit violent and fanatical acts to gain the attention for their cause. At the beginning of the revolution, France suffered enormous national debt, caused by Louis XV and Louis XVI’s willingness to partake in multiple wars, including the Seven Year War and the American Revolution. Compounding the problem was the royals’ excessive spending and extravagant taste. While the monarchy and the nobles were enjoying lavish parties and living in luxury, the commoners and peasants were starving and unemployed. In an attempt to reduce the debt, Louis XVI levied a five percent taxation on all citizens, who were already paying the highest tax that had ever been imposed. This money went to the government and clergy and provided no benefit to the people paying the taxes. The lower class did not have the means to pay this taxation, but they were forced by law to pay a tax which they couldn't pay. Anger and resentment rose and added to their hatred for the current governmental system. The French citizens loved their country, but they were powerless to take any action to save it from being destroyed by debt. Their nationalism spurred them into action.
There is a point when a person’s hatred is so intense that it clouds their judgment and common sense. It does not happen over-night, but it gradually builds up over time. The French people had been tolerant with the monarchy for generations. But, it became apparent that the monarchy had no respect for nor did he care about the welfare the lower classes. Instead of living modestly and trying to help his people, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette spent national money without any consideration for anyone else’s condition. The poor were being taxed while the rich kept all their privileges. The people were pushed beyond their limits, their hatred was inflamed, their judgment was blinded, and they were literally starving. Instead of organizing and planning strategy, like the Americans, how to best get what they wanted (many just wanted food), the citizens only knew that change was needed and they would do anything to accomplish that.
It was only after the civil unrest increased that the government was left no choice but to call a meeting of the Estates-General. However, because of the inequality of the representation that existed in the organization of the estates, the third estate had the highest population and was made up of the commoners, but they had the least amount of power. This ratio demonstrated the inequality of the existing government. In order to ensure that the people were treated fairly, the third estate was compelled to separate from the estates and create their own National Assembly. This was a drastic act needed to ensure equal representation of the people. When the assembly was locked out of the Estates General meeting, they met in the Tennis Court to swear an oath that they would not separate until a new constitution was in place. The next extreme feat for the National Assembly was to try to eliminate the privileges that members of the nobility and clergy had. When some noblemen voluntarily gave up their rights, the people hoped that Louis would agree to the constitution. However, their hopes were dashed when the king instead stationed his troops in the streets of Paris. King Louis XVI was a weak leader who let events get quickly out of control. It was then that the citizens realized that they could not win reform through agreements. The French people, who had become impulsive and dangerous in their fight for freedom, stormed the Bastille. They killed the guards and marched through the streets with their heads on sticks. They were out for blood. The reform movement had become a revolution. The newspapers, which did not always report the truth, further incited the people and kept their frenzy going, and urged them to take arms and fight the clergy and nobles. The National Assembly quickly drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Declaration stated that men were born and lived free and equal under the laws. The peasants rushed to take land, the masses looted for food, and the nobles ran away. The rebellion lacked organization and leadership.
The riots, known as the bread riots, began causally and peacefully. The lower class was starving and demanded that the king give them food to survive. The price of bread had risen because severe weather conditions had destroyed the crops. While the poor had no food, the royals and the nobles continued to eat and drink the country into further debt. A group of women demanding food marched into the palace of Versailles and took King and Queen to Paris. They were held prisoner, the citizens took an extreme approach in order to secure cooperation, essentially holding the king under house arrest. The king reluctantly signed the Declaration which took away all his powers, but allowed him to keep his title as king.
The violence escalated in June 1791 when Louis and Marie Antoinette attempted to escape from France to her family’s support in Austria. Prussia also wanted to join forces with Louis to restore the monarch to power in France and to put an end to the French anarchy. The people’s distrust and suspicions about the royal family soared. The masses considered him a traitor, a threat to everything they had fought for. They were afraid that Austria and Prussia were planning to attack France, so the National Assembly declared war on both countries. An angry mob put Louis XVI on trial and found him guilty of treason. The issue of his sentence divided the assembly, the Jacobins who wanted him dead and the Girondins who wanted to keep him alive. While the goal was liberty, equality, and fraternity, there was also disagreement about political ideologies, which further separated the revolutionaries. Maximillien Robespierre, leader of the Jacobins, convinced the people that the king must die for the republic to live. Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine.
This was the unofficial beginning of the Reign of Terror, a phase dominated by the Jacobins. It was a cruel era which involved continued war and a massive death toll. Essentially anyone who opposed the new government was considered an enemy of the state and killed. People outside of Paris rose up to oppose all the violence but they were destroyed in mass killings. The people were in fear of the thought of their nation being forced into the chaos that existed within the absolute monarchy. Fear and mistrust propelled the large death toll. Fear of life returning to the old way, fear of starving and being abused by the nobles again, fear of losing the power that they had gained, fear that they would be fingered as a traitor next; these were strong enough motivators to allow a nation to engage in the degree of bloodshed that France did during the Revolutionary War. This is the kind of fear that has the ability to block a person’s whole sense of right and wrong, their rational side. The Jacobans, especially Robespierre had begun a witch hunt and instead of living under a monarch, they were subject to a police rule, a state of terror. Only when no one considered themselves safe did Robespierre’s rule end.
Fear, desperation, hatred, and suspicion are all factors that lead the French people to revolutionize. They were not fighting for independence from their mother country like the Americans; they were fighting for their survival. Antagonism and resentment grew over the unfair tax and the financial burden it placed on the poor. The king had managed to arouse the deepest hatred in the French, which fueled them into action. There was no clear leader of the revolution that could ensure equality and fairness to all people. The end result was chaos, violence, instability.