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The French Revolution

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The French Revolution


During the late 1700's, France followed in America's footsteps towards their own revolution. A major shift in power would be seen within the short time period of 1789-1799, and with it a large advancement away from the absolutist government of France. During the late 1700's France was the most powerful estate in the world. The effects of the country's revolution would soon spread from France to the rest of Europe and finally result in a continental war.

The French Revolution was based mostly on the Third Estate's desire to obtain liberty and equality. France's social system was set up in such a way that it was only a matter of time before a revolution took place. The economic classes of France were set in three estates. The first estate was the church, or clergy, the second estate was the nobles, and the third estate consisted of peasants and the uneducated. France's economic system allowed for the highest taxation of the third estate while the clergy members were exempt from taxes, and the nobles paid little or no taxes at all. People who are starving and can barely afford to survive can only pay so much before they refuse to pay anymore. It is not suprising that the third estate was driven to immediate action with Louis XVI's demand for higher taxes. Ideas of liberty and equality sprang up with the onset of the American Revolution and paved a way for the third estate to change France's system of government. Philosophes such as Voltaire spread ideas of reform that excited the peasants to believe there was a chance for a better life.

Along with the social causes of the revolution, economic and political events brought about the desire for change as well. Economic conditions such as poor harvests made the price of food rise to such high prices that half a worker's wages were spent on trying to feed the family alone. The taxation system took money from the peasants, yet they did not reap any of the benefits that were supposed to come from their money. For Example, King Louis XVI lived such and extravagant life that three percent of the nation's GNP was spent on royal family lifestyle. Wars also played a major role in depleting the nation's funds. The cost of maintaining a standing army exceeded half of France's expenditures. The taxes were not used however to improve infrastructure, health facilities, schooling, or general life of the third estate from which all the money was being generated. These economic hardships set the stage for some major changes in France. Louis XVI did try, but was unsuccessful in reforming the political system of France. When King Louis XVI came into power, he realized that these problems existed. Louis appointed a man by the name of Robert Turgot ease the financial crisis of France, but he had difficulties when he tried to introduce a major reform. Turgot could not establish a change in the taxation policies of France. He was unable to introduce a higher tax to the second estate because the king could not tax the nobles unless the Parliament approved of the new tax laws. The people in the courts that voted on these laws were the nobles, called nobles of the robe, and therefore rejected Turgot's reform. After Turgot was rejected, the king fired him from his office. With the economic problems of France ever increasing, Louis XVI summoned the Estates General in 1789. The Estates General was a council where each social class could be represented. Louis convened the Estates General with the intent on raising taxes even higher within the third estate. However, the third estate thought that they would finally be able to express their ideas about a national change that would promote liberty and equality. When the Estates General met in 1789, the representatives from the third estate outnumbered the representatives of the first and third estates (reflecting the social class pyramid of the time). When the king realized this, he closed the doors to the third estate members. Outraged by the unwillingness to hear their views, the third estate convened in an indoor tennis court, declared themselves the National Assembly and made an oath not to leave until they had established a reformed government. This became the famous tennis court oath.

So in 1791, the National Assembly brought forward a new constitution. It made France a limited monarchy and established a system of separation of powers. Under the constitution, the old distinctions between the clergy, nobles, and commoners disappeared. Few people were satisfied with the old constitutional monarchy, and Louis XVI, frightened by the actions of the National Assembly fled the country with his wife, but he was later arrested and brought back to accept the constitution. Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were imprisoned and held powerless while a revolution destroyed the old system of government. The third estate had gained power, and leaders among them now took roles of government officials. With the overturning of power, Maximilien Robespierre came to power. In an attempt to stabilize the country under his control, Robespierre began what is now referred to as the "Reign of Terror." Robespierre's time in control was backed by the power of the guillotine. Any person that posed a threat to the new standing government was executed immediately. Much like the Holocaust in the 1900's, Robespierre's Reign of Terror allowed for only those loyal to him to hold any kind of power. Robespierre was successful continued his reign of terror until 1794. By this time the French Revolution engulfed all of Europe. France was successful on all fronts, and slowly gaining world power. However, in July of 1794 Robespierre's power was lost-he was executed by his own device of terror, the guillotine. With the end of Robespierre's reign, a new form of government came to power. A five man executive committee known as the "Directory" began to rule France. The Directory supported Robespierre's objectives, yet their power was short lived as a brilliant young general, Napolean Bonaparte, seized power in 1799.

The Napoleonic Era brought a sense of unity to France. This bold young leader quickly established a form of government of which he was in complete control. Napolean's goals were completely personal and held little respect for what was best for France. He dreamed of global conquest, and continued France's expansionist views by putting even more efforts in foreign fronts. While in power Napolean also established several beneficial systems that are still used in French society today. For this reason, it is argued as to whether Napolean was a hero or tyrant. There are arguments to support both sides, however, with his disregard for France's goals to fulfill his own, Napolean is more easily shown as a tyrant. Napolean did view his goals as benefiting France though. His foreign policy consisted of conquering as much of Europe as possible and building France's empire. Napolean gained a reputation throughout Europe that he was not to be trusted. Attacking every territory he could, Napolean soon over extended France's empire and made too many enemies. His downfall was inevitable. After defeat from his allies, Napolean was abducted from his throne and banished to the island of Elba. But in one more glorious attempt to regain power Napolean escaped to France and once again tried to raise an army. His attempt failed and as he was jailed the Napoleonic Era ended, and with it the era of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was a drawn out era that has no definitive beginning. Though the first actions may have occurred in 1789, the causes of the revolution began long before that. Though the time that the revolution took place is not important, the affects have changed the course of European history. France's revolution sparked a continental war while it also took its place with the United States to lead the way for future revolutions throughout the world. The far reaching implications of what the French Revolution became could never have been conceived by the poor peasants that took that Tennis Court Oath and vowed to change the government.

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