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The French Revolution 1789-1799

The causes of the French Revolution may be traced partly to philosophical speculations. The writings of Montesquieu, of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists led to a spirit of unrest, to a questioning of existing institutions in Church and State. More important still, were the works of Rousseau advocating views on the popular origin of government and the natural equality of man, which were largely colored by the theories of the English philosophers of the seventeenth century, notably Hobbes and Locke. These speculations, and England's example in the Puritan Revolution and in the Revolution of 1688, all played a part in weakening, among thinking Frenchmen, respect for tradition and established authority. Yet these influences, solely of themselves, would not have brought about a revolution in France. The French philosophers contemplated peaceful reform by the spread of education and the properly directed efforts of a strong, enlightened monarch. But the logic of events proved too powerful.

The forms of French law and all the inherited method of French administration demanded a certain form of authority: a centralized government of unlimited power. The King was absolute. From him proceeded in the simplest fashion whatever will was paramount in the State. He could suspend a debtor's liabilities, imprison a man without trial, release him without revision of his case, make war of peace, and in minor details such as the discipline and administration of public bodies, the power of the Crown was theoretically and legally equally supreme.

It was not exercised as the enormous power of modern government is exercised, it did not perpetually enter into every detail of the life of the poor in the way in which the power of a modern English Government enters into it; it is in the very nature of such autocratic power that, while unlimited in theory, it is compelled to an instinctive and perpetual self-limitation lest it break down; and autocracy may be compared in this to aristocracy, or more properly speaking to oligarchy, the government of a few: for where a few govern they know that their government reposes upon public opinion or public tolerance; they are very careful not to exceed certain limits the transgression of which would weaken the moral foundation of their power; they welcome allies, they recruit themselves perpetually from other classes in the community.

The reverses in the struggles against the English, especially in the War of the Spanish Succession, had broken the spell which attached to the Old Regime. Then came the American Revolution to serve as a further stimulus to the discontented and the oppressed. These speculations and these events were the sparks which lit the flame.

The inflammable material was to be found in the deplorable conditions existing in France - the wretchedness of the lower classes, all the more striking from the splendor and extravagance prevailing at Court, and accentuated by the special privileges of the noblemen and the clergy who owned two thirds of the lands, who were largely exempt from taxation which bore so heavily upon the poor, and who enjoyed seigniorial rights oppressive to the unfortunate peasants who cultivated their estates. The arbitrary power of the sovereign, the expensive and wasteful administration, and the injustice of the laws completed the burden of grievances.

In those parts of Christendom in which this ancient Christian institution of a parliament had not narrowed to be the mask of an oligarchy or dwindled to be a mere provincial custom, its use had disappeared. The ancient function of Representation, when it had been most lively and vigorous, that is, in the Middle Ages, was occasionally to initiate a national policy in critical moments. The French, on the eve of the Revolution, clamoured for a revival of representation, or, as the system was called in the French tongue, "the States General."

France's status as a nation was reinforced by the Revolution in 1789. On 14 July 1790, a year after the fall of the Bastille, delegates from all parts of the country flocked to Paris to celebrate the Fête de la Fédération and proclaim their allegiance to a single, common nation. The ideals proclaimed were: individual freedom and mutual respect; the right of peoples to self-determination; and institutions which would protect the welfare of citizens. These aspirations, which were codified in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 26 August 1789, grew out of the work of Enlightenment philosophers in the eighteenth century and were heavily influenced by the ideas of authors like Montesquieu, who laid down the principle of separation of the legislature, executive and judiciary in his "The Spirit of the Law" of 1748, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who developed theories of political equality and the sovereignty of the people in "The Social Contract" (1762).

These texts had considerable influence on the writers of the Constitution of the United States of America in 1787. The values propounded in them are seen as universal and may be considered the cornerstone of modern democracy. They had widespread repercussions and provided a model for national liberation movements during the nineteenth century. The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948 also owed much to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

But these principles did not immediately become law. Many of them were enshrined in the first French Constitution in 1791, and even more in the 1793 Constitution; however, only time and numerous political struggles and social conflicts were to see them affirmed as inalienable rights. The First Republic was proclaimed on 22 September 1792, but the democratic Constitution it produced in 1793 was never implemented. Civil war and clashes with the many other European States who banded together against France ended in the Reign of Terror - a far cry from the noble ideals of 1789.

After Robespierre's execution in July 1794, the Directory (1795-1797) led to a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte, who took over first as Consul (1799-1804), then as Emperor of the French. The monarchy had been abolished in 1792; it was now superseded by the Empire and, however different the structures and organization of that Empire might be, the French, who had briefly been citizens, were once more subjects.

On the 26th of October 1795, the convention finished its session, and the directory comInenced. The legislature now consisted of the council of ancients (250 members), and the council of the five hundred. The executive directory (Barras, Rewbel, Carnot, Laréveilière-Lépeaux, and Letourneur) restored order in La Vendée, but substituted mandats for assignats (March 11, 1796) without success. This measure only increased the embarrassment of the finances, arising from the double bankruptcy of the republic. The national institute of science held its first session Oct. 6, 1796, and a national consistory, sworn to conform to the ordinances of the council of Trent, was established. The revolution of the 18th Fructioor Sept. 4), 1797, confirmed the power of the directory.

Able generals, at the head of inexperienced troops, were rendered victorious by the strategy of Carnot. The old European tactics could not resist the new military system. The nation rose en masse, and thirteen armies of the republic were victorious over the Hanoverians, the British, Dutch, Austrians, and Prussians.

Bonaparte, recalled from Egypt by his brother Joseph, who informed him of the state of things in Europe, placed himself at the head of the republic. The weak directory was abolished, and the 18th Brumaire (Nov. 9, 1799) gave France a consular government and her fourth constitution. This was, again, an approach to monarchy. Three consuls, chosen for ten years, and capable of being re-elected, were placed at the head of the government; but the first consul (Napoleon Bonaparte) alone had the power of appointing and dismissing the counsellors, ministers, ambassadors, and all military and naval officers; he also decided finally in all other affairs of government, the two other consuls (Cambacérès and Le Brun) having only a deliberative voice.

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Page last modified: 07-08-2018 23:39:50 ZULU