King Louis XVI of France decided to support the American Revolution in order to regain some of the prestige lost by his grandfather in the Treaty of Paris of 1763. American victory vindicated his purpose but struck a fatal blow at the royal treasury. Years of financial mismanagement and poor harvests put a tremendous strain on the French economy. The dysfunctional Estates-General of the ancien regime endowed the clergy and nobility with colossal wealth and power but left the remaining 98% of the population disenfranchised with enormous tax burdens and boiling resentment.
Louis attempted to ameliorate the situation by convening the Estates-General for the first time in nearly two centuries. The popularly elected Third Estate included a brilliant young lawyer from Arras named Maximilien Robespierre. The king’s effort at reform proved ineffective, however, when the elite First and Second Estate sacked his competent finance minister Jacques Necker and then locked the Third Estate out of the chambers. The excluded delegates then took the famous “Tennis Court Oath,” promising to reconvene with a new constitution and democratic government.
Word of Necker’s ousting caused popular anger to boil over into the streets. A large mob stormed the notorious Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, killed the guards and their commandant, and seized the gunpowder stores. On August 26 the new National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, both heroes of the American Revolution.
Frustration over continued poverty and bread shortages drove a large crowd of women to march on Versailles in October. Their rage was directed in particular against Queen Marie Antoinette, who had become a symbol of the excesses of the Bourbon court. Only the king’s direct intervention saved the queen’s life. Louis and his family and ministers were compelled to leave Versailles and move to Paris.
The lilies of the Bourbons were replaced with the revolutionary tricolor. Citizen became the new form of address in the streets of Paris. Louis agreed to submit to the National Assembly as a constitutional monarch, but a failed attempt to escape to his wife’s native Austria in 1791 enraged the delegates and resulted in his imprisonment and charges of treason. When Austria and Prussia threatened to rescue him and take Paris, hordes of angry revolutionaries slaughtered hundreds of prisoners from the former First and Second Estates. Louis was condemned and beheaded at the guillotine in January 1793. His queen followed him to the scaffold in October.
Robespierre now took over the National Convention and declared war against “enemies of the people,” sending thousands to the guillotine in a protracted “Reign of Terror.” The radical journalist Marat fed the flames of fear until his assassination by a woman from the provinces. Monarchist rebellions in the countryside were brutally crushed. Church lands were seized and priests forced to take an oath to the Revolution. Streets were renamed and the calendar changed to abolish religious holidays. Only Robespierre’s execution in July 1794 gave respite to the exhausted nation.
Out of the ashes of the Terror rose a new charismatic and ambitious leader. Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant young artillery officer from Corsica who had achieved distinction by retaking Toulon from an invading British fleet in 1793. Two years later he repelled royalist forces from Paris and was promoted to general. In 1797 he invaded Italy and crushed Austrian forces there, and in 1798 he sailed to Egypt and destroyed the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids. When British Admiral Nelson decimated the French fleet waiting to take the French army home, Napoleon responded by invading Palestine and Syria. In 1799 he returned to Paris and seized control of the government in a bold coup d’etat.
As First Consul, Napoleon instituted many notable reforms, including an expansion of public education and infrastructure and new codification of civil laws and the tax code. After crowning himself Emperor in December 1804, he looked eastward to expand his power across Europe. Proclaiming himself the representative of French revolutionary ideals, he defeated the armies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia in a series of brilliant campaigns. The destruction of his fleet by Nelson at Trafalgar in October 1805 was offset by his spectacular victory at Austerlitz in December. By 1807 he signed a peace treaty with the Russian czar and made moves to control trade across Europe.
His power began to crumble when conquest of Spain led to a brutal guerrilla war and Russia reneged on its agreement to support his trade policies. Napoleon retaliated by invading Russia in 1812 with a gigantic army of more than 600,000 men and took Moscow. The tide turned with stubborn Russian resistance at Borodino and scorched earth tactics which exhausted the French forces. The early onset of winter forced Napoleon to retreat. Russian cossacks and frostbite took their toll. Less than a tenth of his beloved Grande Armee returned alive to France.
Now his enemies moved in for the kill. Pushing him back to Paris, they compelled Napoleon to abdicate in April 1814. His exile to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean was short-lived, and he managed to escape and return in triumph in Paris. There he replaced the restored Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII and made plans to reassemble his army. An Allied force commanded by the Duke of Wellington met him at Waterloo in Belgium in June 1815 and drove him from the field with Prussian reinforcements.
This time his enemies took no chances. Napoleon was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic, where he died in May 1821 at the age of 51. France was returned to the Bourbons and the other monarchies restored to power under the terms of the 1814 Congress of Vienna. The conservative forces of the old regimes made every effort to erase Napoleon Bonaparte from history.
But the ideals of the French Revolution managed to survive the betrayal of the Terror and the dictatorship of Napoleon, inspiring new generations of Europeans to fight for democratic reform. Throughout the opening decades of the 19th century, industrialization and urbanization would lead to demands for greater representation. The age of absolute monarchy was gone forever.
- Why did the French Revolution follow such a different course from its American counterpart? Where did Robespierre and the other revolutionary leaders go wrong?
- Why is Napoleon Bonaparte still admired throughout France and much of the world? What were the positive and negative consequences of his rule?
- Why were the ideals of the French Revolution able to survive the turbulence of the Napoleonic wars?
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