In this article, I want to walk you through the French Revolution for UPSC, World History UPSC Notes.
In 1789 France was the most populated nation in Europe and had been growing in wealth and prestige since the time of Louis XIV. Despite this economic growth, it was still a very backward nation socially and politically: socially, because it was still divided into feudal classes of people (clergy–those who pray, nobles–those who fight, and the peasants–those who work); politically, because they were still ruled by an absolute monarch who believed in the divine right of kings.
Trace the Events
- The gap between rich and poor in France was vast. The inequalities of the economy of France were a major cause of the French Revolution.
- Driven by the example of the American Revolution and such Enlightenment ideas as liberty, equality, and democracy, the French ousted the government of Louis XVI and established a new political order.
- After seizing power in 1799, Napoleon conquered a huge empire that included much of Western Europe. His attempt to conquer Russia, however, led to his downfall.
You are living in France in the late 1700s. Your parents are merchants who earn a good living. However, after taxes they have hardly any money left. You know that other people, especially the peasants in the countryside, are even worse off than you. At the same time, the nobility lives in luxury and pays practically no taxes.
Many people in France are desperate for change. But they are uncertain how to bring about that change. Some think that representatives of the people should demand fair taxes and just laws. Others support a violent revolution. In Paris, that revolution seems to have begun. An angry mob has attacked and taken over the Bastille, a royal prison. Do you wonder what will happen next?
Think about these points!
- Economic and social inequalities in the Old Regime helped cause the French Revolution.
- Throughout history, economic and social inequalities have at times led peoples to revolt against their governments. Can you think of some examples?
Causes of the Revolution
The Revolution was the result of three related crises that fell upon France simultaneously; one social, one political, and one economic.
The Social Crisis
Feudal France was neatly divided into three social classes, or Estates, with different jobs and privileges: the clergy was the First Estate, the Nobles were the Second Estate, and the peasants were the Third Estate. Needless to say, the Third Estate was the largest and had practically no rights at all.
One of the major problems that upset this order was the incredible growth of the bourgeoisie in wealth and in number. This class of people–dedicated to self-improvement, hard work, education, and entrepreneurial adventures– had no place in the tidy system of feudal society: they were independent; however, they were becoming extremely wealthy and influential in French society. Soon they began to clash with the nobles (The nobles, you remember, were the aristocratic people who came from high-born families, inherited their wealth and were given to lives of extravagant spending).
The population of France in the 1780s was about 26 million, of whom 21 million lived in agriculture. French peasants were generally better off than those in countries like Russia or Poland. Even so, hunger was a daily problem that became critical in years of poor harvest and the condition of most French peasants was poor.
The fundamental issue of poverty was aggravated by social inequality as all peasants were liable to pay taxes, from which the nobility could claim immunity, and feudal dues payable to a local lord.
Similarly, the destination of tithes which the peasants were obliged to pay to their local churches was a cause of grievance as it was known that the majority of parish priests were poor and the contribution was being paid to an aristocratic, and usually absentee, abbot.
The Third Estate (commoners) carrying the First (clergy) and Second Estate (nobility) on his back.
The clergy numbered about 100,000 and yet they owned 10% of the land. The Catholic Church maintained a rigid hierarchy as abbots and bishops were all members of the nobility and canons were all members of wealthy bourgeois families. As an institution, it was both rich and powerful. As with the nobility, it paid no taxes and merely contributed a grant to the state every five years, the amount of which was self-determined. The upper echelons of the clergy had considerable influence over government policy.
A growing number of the French citizenry had absorbed the ideas of “equality” and “freedom of the individual” as presented by Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and other philosophers and social theorists of the Age of Enlightenment.
The American Revolution demonstrated that it was plausible for Enlightenment ideas about how a government should be organized to actually be put into practice. Some American diplomats, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, had lived in Paris, where they consorted freely with members of the French intellectual class.
Furthermore, contact between American revolutionaries and the French troops who served in North America helped spread revolutionary ideas to the French people.
France in 1787, although it faced some difficulties, was one of the most economically capable nations of Europe. The French population exceeded 28 million; of Europe’s 178 to 188 million. France was also among the most urbanized countries of Europe, the population of Paris was second only to that of London (approximately 500,000 vs. 800,000), and six of Europe’s 35 larger cities were French.
Historian John Shovlin states, “It is a truism that the French Revolution was touched off by the near bankruptcy of the state.” It was the burden of the national debt that led this to the longrunning financial crisis of the French government. Before the revolution, the French debt had risen from 8 billion to 12 billion lives.
Extravagant expenditures on luxuries by Louis XVI, whose rule began in 1774, were compounded by debts that were run up during the reign of his even-more-profligate predecessor, Louis XV (who reigned from 1715 to 1774). Heavy expenditures to conduct losing the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), and France’s backing of the Americans in their War of Independence, ran the tab up an even further 1.3 billion lives.
Louis XVI, his ministers, and the widespread French nobility had become immensely unpopular. This was a consequence of the fact that peasants and, to a lesser extent, the poor and those aspiring to be bourgeoisie, were burdened with ruinously high taxes levied to support a wealthy monarchy, along with aristocrats and their sumptuous, often gluttonous lifestyles.
Peasants and nobles alike were required to pay one-tenth of their income or produce to the church (the tithe). Peasants paid a land tax to the state, a 5% property tax (the vingtième). All paid a tax on the number of people in the family (capitation), depending on the status of the taxpayer (from poor to prince).
Further royal and seigneurial obligations might be paid in several ways: in labor (the corvée), in-kind, or, rarely, in coin. Peasants were also obligated to their landlords for: rent in cash, a payment related to their amount of annual production (the charm part), and taxes on the use of the nobles’ mills, wine-presses, and bakeries (the banalités). In good times, the taxes were burdensome; in harsh times, they were devastating. After a less-than-fulsome harvest, people would starve to death during the winter.
Failure of Reforms
During the reigns of Louis XV (1715–1774) and Louis XVI (1774–1792), several ministers, most notably, Turgot and Necker, proposed revisions to the French tax system so as to include the nobles as taxpayers, but these proposals were not adopted because of resistance from the parliaments (provincial courts of appeal). Members of these courts bought their positions from the king, as well as the right to transfer their positions hereditarily through payment of an annual fee, the Paulette.
Membership in such courts, or appointment to other public positions, often led to elevation to the nobility (the so-called Nobles of the Robe, as distinguished from the nobility of ancestral military origin, the Nobles of the Sword.) While these two categories of nobles were often at odds, they both sought to retain their privileges.
Let me tell you about a few terms-
Left, Right, and Center
- The terms we use today to describe where people stand politically derive from the factions that developed in the Legislative Assembly in 1791.
- People who want to radically change government are called left-wing or are said to be on the left.
- People with moderate views often are called centrist or are said to be in the center.
- People who want few or no changes in government often are called right-wing or are said to be on the right.
Revolution in France
There are four Stages in the French Revolution –
Stage 1: Revolution of 1789 (1789-1792)
The first stage of the revolution began because of the long-festering conflict between the monarchy and the aristocracy. King Louis XVI needed to raise taxes in order to pay the government’s large debt. Of course, the nobles refused and demanded that the Estates-General be called to determine whether the tax should be collected. The aristocracy believed, because the Estates-General voted by order, that the tax would be defeated. When the Estates-General met in Versailles during the summer of 1789, the Third Estate broke away. Its members, who were primarily from the upper-middle class (bourgeoisie) felt that they were not adequately represented. They demanded voting by head and greater representation. The nobility certainly did not expect this to happen!
Upon breaking away, they formed the National Assembly (which later became the National Constituent Assembly). The National Assembly demanded a written constitution. Louis initially refused to acknowledge the new governmental body. However, because of pressure from the populace in both the cities and the countryside (e.g., the storming of the Bastille and the “Great Fear”), he eventually accepted the National Constituent Assembly.
After being recognized by the king, the National Constituent Assembly went about restructuring France. The Constitution of 1791 created a Constitutional Monarchy. The new legislative body would be the Legislative Assembly. The executive branch would be the king. Louis XVI, however, had little power. The first stage of the revolution was conservative when compared to other stages of the Revolution. It did, however, represent the death of the Old Regime and effectively transferred power from aristocratic wealth to all forms of commercial wealth.
- Ceased to exist after the Third Estate broke away
- National Constituent Assembly
- Initially was called the National Assembly
- Was made up of the Third Estate, most of the First Estate (clergy) and liberal members of the Second Estate (the nobility)
- Ceased to exist after restructuring France
- Legislative Assembly
- Legislative body of the new constitutional monarchy
- Members had to own a certain amount of property
- Had a brief existence (1791-1792)
Players and Political Factions
- Conservatives refused to join the National Constituent Assembly and supported an absolute monarchy.
- Liberals sided with the National Constituent Assembly
- Under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, all bishops and priests became employees of the state
- The Middle Class (bourgeoisie)
- only those who owned property had political power in the new government
- The Populace
- Contrary to popular belief, it was not the populace that rebelled to overthrow the king.
- Rather, the populace became a tool of the various political groups vying for power during the revolution.
- It was the people who forced Louis XVI to accept the National Constituent Assembly.
- Tennis Court Oath
- The National Assembly met on a tennis court at Versailles and refused to leave until the king agreed to accept a written constitution
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
- Declared that all French citizens were subject to same and equal laws
- Constitution of 1791
- Set up a Constitutional Monarchy
- Did not recognize social or political equality.
- members of the National Constituent Assembly did not desire social equality or extensive democracy
- wanted to lessen the influence of the unpropertied class on the new government
Stage 2: Second Revolution (1792)
Many felt that the revolution had not gone far enough. In particular, the radical Jacobins (the Mountain) wanted a republic instead of a constitutional monarchy. The more moderate Jacobins (the Girondists) desired to preserve the new government.
Because of –
- Louis XVI did many things to raise suspicion that he was a counterrevolutionary
- The poor economy
- The fact that most of France had no political power
- A war with Austria and Prussia, the Mountain was able to gain control of the Legislative Assembly. Again, the populace played a part. With the help of the sans-culottes (the common people of Paris), the Mountain ousted the Girondists and transformed France into a Republic. The new legislative body was called the Convention. The Legislative Assembly ceased to exist.
It was during this stage that Louis XVI was tried and executed as a counterrevolutionary.
- Replaced the Legislative Assembly
- Members were picked by universal male suffrage.
- Would last until 1795
Players and Political Factions
- Members of the Third Estate and National Constituent Assembly who had favored republic rather than a constitutional monarchy.
- Moderate Jacobins
- Initially controlled the Legislative Assembly
- desired to preserve the government established after the Revolution of 1789
- Radical Jacobins
- With the help of the sans-culottes gained control of the Legislative Assembly
- Driving force behind the Second Revolution
- Parisians (shopkeepers, artisans, factory workers, and wage earners) who felt the revolution was moving too slowly
- The monarchy ends when France becomes a Republic
- France goes to war with Austria and Prussia (1792), and, eventually, declares war on most of Europe (1793).
Stage 3: The Reign of Terror (1793-1795)
This was, by far, the most radical phase of the French Revolution. The war with Europe created a situation that allowed the Convention to crush opposition in France without due process of the law. No one, from royalists to republicans was safe.
The new government attempted to create a “Republic of Virtue.” This new republic was essentially a military state whose main objective was preserving the new government and destroying all aristocratic elements and traditions.
- This was the legislative branch of the new government
- The Committee of Public Safety
- This was the executive branch of the new government.
- The Committee was responsible for finding enemies of the new government.
- Because of the war, had almost dictatorial power
Players and Political Factions
- Controlled the Convention (with the help of the sans-culottes)
- As the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, essentially controlled France from 1793 to 1794
- Executed all those (both radical and conservative) who opposed him or opposed the Republic of Virtue
- Radical sans-culottes who opposed the Republic of Virtue
- levee en masse (1793)
- Conscripted French males and directed economic production to military purposes.
- Example of nationalism
- Republic of Virtue
- Revolutionaries eventually turned against each other
Stage 4: The Thermidorian Reaction and the Establishment of the Directory (1795-1799)
This was a backlash against the radical elements of the revolution. The political pendulum swung back to the right and a government that was neither a constitutional monarchy nor a democracy was established. Social change was avoided. When all was said and done, the real “winners” of the French Revolution were the owners of the property.
- Legislative Branch (bicameral)
- Council of Elders
- Council of Five Hundred
- Executive Branch
- The Directory
Players and Political Factions
- Property owners
- The bourgeoisie and the aristocracy reestablished power
- Along with soldiers, were the only citizens allowed to vote or hold office
- Many were executed
- Completely ousted from the political scene
- Along with radical democrats (who wanted universal male suffrage), caused problems for the new government
- Constitution of the Year III
- Set up the new government and a limited democracy
- The new government relied on the military to keep order and stability
- If you think the guillotine was a cruel form of capital punishment, think again. Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin proposed a machine that satisfied many needs––it was efficient, humane, and democratic.
- A physician and member of the National Assembly, Guillotin claimed that those executed with the device “wouldn’t even feel the slightest pain.”
- Prior to the guillotine’s introduction in 1792, many French criminals had suffered through horrible punishments in public places. Although public punishments continued to attract large crowds, not all spectators were pleased with the new machine. Some witnesses felt that death by the guillotine occurred much too quickly to be enjoyed by an audience.
- More than 2,100 people were executed during the last 132 days of the Reign of Terror.
Role of Women in the French Revolution
Role in Society before Revolution
- Women in the Third Estate worked for a living.
- Didn’t have access to education or training
- Only daughters of the noblewomen and richer sections of societies had access to any education
- Wages were lower than those of men. Clear wage gap.
- Women were also homemakers, they had to do all the housework, care for children.
- Played an active role in the revolutionary movements
- Started their own clubs and newspapers.
- One of the most famous political clubs was the Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women. They were disappointed by the Constitution of 1971 which designated them, passive citizens.
- The Society demanded equal political rights as men. They wanted to vote and stand in elections for political office.
Outcomes of Revolution
- The early revolutionary governments introduced many laws that improved the lives and status of women in society.
- Schools were created, and education was made compulsory for all girls.
- Marriage without consent was made illegal.
- Divorce was made legal.
- Women were allowed to be artisans and run small businesses.
Impact of Revolution on France
The France revolution that started in 1789 brought fundamental social, political, and economic changes in the history of France. The changes caused by the revolution were both positive and negative in the history of France.
Destruction of social classes:
The French Revolution destroyed the social discriminative class system in France and declared equality for all. The revolution came up with the equality and career open to talents, i.e., appointment and promotion was to be based on talents and ability. This led to the rise of the middle class who had acquired education to positions of responsibilities.
The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte:
The French revolution contributed to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to power without which he would have died a common man. It destroyed the congregative class system and opened the opportunity to talented peasants like Napoleon. All the army generals were swept away during the reign of terror giving chance to Napoleon to rise to power in France.
Declaration of rights of man:
The French revolution led to the declaration of rights of man and citizens. The constitutional assembly/parliament came out with the document of human rights. It granted political liberty, like freedom of speech, press, association, worship, and ownership of property. Although they were abused during the reign of terror, they became the foundation of freedom.
The revolution gave birth to the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity. These ideas started in France and got spread to other areas like Italy, German, etc. such ideas promoted equality, freedom and democracy, and good governance. This made France to be a nursery bed of democracy in Europe.
Ended the rule of Bourbon Monarch:
The Bourbon monarch that had ruled France for over 400 years came to end by the French revolution. The monarchy rule was abolished in 1792 and replaced it with the Republican form of Government. Although the Bourbon monarch was restored by the great powers after the downfall of Napoleon, it could not survive beyond 1830 because the monarchs were already weakened by the changes caused by the French revolution.
Rise of Political Parties:
France became a multiparty state as a result of the 1789 French revolution. The freedom of association led to the rise of political clubs such as the Jacobins, Cordeliers, Giirondin Fauvillants that competed for power. These parties kept the government under check and balance by criticizing bad policies.
However, these political parties caused the reign of terror in France.
The French revolution led to the revival of the parliament which was abandoned for a period of over 175 years. The revolution gave France a functional parliament with representatives who are democratically elected. The French men were able to participate in the governing of their country.
Constitution and Rule of Law:
The French revolution introduced the rule of law in the history of France. Before 1789, France had no constitution to safeguard people’s rights and freedom. However, in 1791, the government enacted the constitution that was amended in 1793 and 1795. The constitution clearly separated the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature. The constitution reduced the king’s excessive powers.
The revolution brought new reforms and changes to land ownership in France. Before the revolution, the land was dominated by the clergy and the nobles who exploited the peasants. The revolution brought change in the land tenure system in France. The idea of private ownership of land by everybody was encouraged this provided chance to peasants to own land. I.e., the church land was nationalized and sold to peasants.
There was the formation of the National Guard that replaced the royal guard of the Bourbon monarchy. National Guard was the revolutionary army whose role was to protect the achievements of the French revolution. By the end of 1793, there were about 700, 000 well trained and disciplined soldiers of the National Guard that protected people and their property. This was one of the great achievements of the revolution in France.
Loss of lives and property:
There was a massive loss of lives and destruction of property most especially during the reign of terror. There were heavy massacres of nobles, clergy, and other important people like King Louis, Marie Antoinette, Murato, Danton, Robespierre, and Hotels like De- Ville were destroyed beyond repair during the course of the revolution.
Led to Reign of Terror:
The peaceful revolution that began on the 5th of May 1789 changed into violence and causing a reign of terror in France by 1792-1794. During this period there was a total breakdown of law and order, heavy massacres as people were competing to kill in order not to be killed especially by the leaders of political clubs.
Economic decline in France:
The revolution led to a general decline in the level of economic activities. It hindered progress in agriculture, trade, industrial sector, transport, and communication especially during the reign of terror. This led to unemployment, inflation, poverty, starvation, and famine.
The church and the state:
The revolution led to a serious conflict between the Catholic Church and the state. Before the revolution, the Catholic Church and the state were inseparable. However, the declaration of the civil constitution, nationalization of the church property, and removing privileges of the church led to poor relations between the church and the state.
Relationship with other states:
The revolution led to the poor relationships between France and other states. Revolutionary ideas of the french revolution were great threats to other powers and monarchs in Europe. That is why Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and other countries allied against France in order to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas to their countries.
Impact of the french revolution on the World
The French Revolution had been one of the most dynamic events of the modern world history. For the years to come its direct influence was felt in many parts of the world. It inspired many revolutionary movements in almost every country of Europe and in South and Central America.
For a long time, the French Revolution became the classic example of a revolution, and people of many nations took it as inspiration.
The impact of the French Revolution can be summed up, in the words of T. Kolokotrones, one of the revolutionary fighters in the Greek war of independence: “According to my judgment, the French Revolution and the doings of Napoleon opened the eyes of the world. The nations knew nothing before, and the people thought that kings were gods upon the earth and that they were bound to say that whatever they did was well done. Through this present change it is more difficult to rule the people.”
Even though the old ruling dynasty of France had been restored to power in 1815, the autocratic rulers of Europe found it difficult to rule their nations.
The wars during the revolution with other countries of Europe resulted in the French occupation of vast areas of Europe for some time.
The French soldiers, wherever they went, carried with them ideas of revolution viz. liberty and equality. They destroyed serfdom in areas that came under their occupation and modernized the systems of administration.
The political and social systems of the 18th century had received a nail in their coffin. They were soon to die in most of Europe under the impact of the revolutionary movements that sprang up everywhere in Europe.
France under Napoleonic Era (1799-1815)
- Napoleon Bonaparte, a military genius, seized power in France and made himself emperor.
- In times of political turmoil, military dictators often seize control of nations.
- Can you think of a few similar examples in contemporary times of the same?
Napoleon Bonaparte was quite a short man—just five feet three inches tall. However, he cast a long shadow over the history of modern times. He would come to be recognized as one of the world’s greatest military geniuses, along with Alexander the Great of Macedonia, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome. In only four years, from 1795 to 1799, Napoleon rose from a relatively obscure position as an officer in the French army to become a master of France.
The Napoleonic era is a period in the history of France and Europe. It is generally classified as including the fourth and final stage of the French Revolution, the first being the National Assembly, the second being the Legislative Assembly, and the third being the Directory.
The Napoleonic era begins roughly with Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état, overthrowing the Directory, establishing the French Consulate, and ends during the Hundred Days and his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (9 November 1799 – 28 June 1815).
The Consulate (1799-1804)
- The success of the French forces made a hero out of their best commander, Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1799, Napoleon staged a successful coup d’état and became First Consul of the new French Consulate.
- Napoleon, as First Consul presided over the most important body, viz. the Council of State and all the local government officials were appointed directly by him, a fact which shows the amount of centralization achieved by him.
Napoleonic Empire (1804-1814)
- Soon after he made himself the Emperor of France and tried to revive the dignity of the old empire. He began the task of subduing the Europe, Except England which remained invincible; all the continental European powers (Spain, Prussia, Austria, etc.) fell before his well-directed military campaigns.
- To cripple England Napoleon initiated the Continental System or Continental Blockade (blocking the continental ports in order to cripple English commerce which was the main source of her strength), the foreign policy against the United Kingdom during the Napoleonic Wars. As a response to the naval blockade of the French coasts enacted by the British government on 16 May 1806, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree on 21 November 1806, which brought into effect a large-scale embargo against British trade.
- In terms of economic damage to the UK, the blockade was largely ineffective; however, British exportations to the continent saw a loss from 25% to 55% of their total value in between the years 1802 and 1806.
- As Napoleon realized that extensive trade was going through Spain and Russia, he invaded those two countries. His forces were tied down in Spain — in which the Spanish War of Independence was occurring simultaneously — and suffered severely in, and ultimately retreated from, Russia in 1812.
- In 1813, Prussia and Austria joined Russian forces in the War of the Sixth Coalition against France. A lengthy military campaign culminated in a large Allied army defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, but his tactical victory at the minor Battle of Hanau allowed retreat onto French soil.
- The Allies then invaded France and captured Paris in the spring of 1814, forcing Napoleon to abdicate in April. He was exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany, and the Bourbon dynasty was restored to power.
- However, Napoleon escaped from Elba in February 1815 and took control of France once again. The Allies responded by forming a Seventh Coalition which defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo in June. The British exiled him to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died six years later at the age of 51.
The Napoleonic Code is the French civil code established under Napoléon I in 1804. The Code, with its stress on clearly written and accessible law, was a major step in replacing the previous patchwork of feudal laws. Historian Robert Holtman regards it as one of the few documents that have influenced the whole world.
Under the code all male citizens are equal: primogeniture, hereditary nobility, and class privileges are extinguished; civilian institutions are emancipated from ecclesiastical control; freedom of person, freedom of contract, and inviolability of private property are fundamental principles.
The first book of the code deals with the law of persons: the enjoyment of civil rights, the protection of personality, domicile, guardianship, tutorship, relations of parents and children, marriage, personal relations of spouses, and the dissolution of marriage by annulment or divorce.
The code subordinated women to their fathers and husbands, who controlled all family property, determined the fate of children, and were favored in divorce proceedings. Many of those provisions were reformed only in the second half of the 20th century.
The second book deals with the law of things: the regulation of property rights—ownership, usufruct, and servitudes.
The third book deals with the methods of acquiring rights: by succession, donation, marriage settlement, and obligations. In the last chapters, the code regulates a number of nominate contracts, legal and conventional mortgages, limitations of actions, and prescriptions of rights.
The Battle of Trafalgar
In his drive for a European empire, Napoleon lost only one major battle, the Battle of Trafalgar. This naval defeat, however, was more important than all of his victories on land. The battle took place in 1805 off the southwest coast of Spain. The British commander, Horatio Nelson, was as brilliant in warfare at sea as Napoleon was in warfare on land. In a bold maneuver, he split the larger French fleet, capturing many ships. (See the map inset on the opposite page.)
The destruction of the French fleet had two major results. First, it ensured the supremacy of the British navy for the next 100 years. Second, it forced Napoleon to give up his plans of invading Britain. He had to look for another way to control his powerful enemy across the English Channel. Eventually, Napoleon’s extravagant efforts to crush Britain would lead to his own undoing.
The French Empire was huge but unstable. Napoleon was able to maintain it at its greatest extent for only five years—from 1807 to 1812. Then it quickly fell to pieces. Its sudden collapse was caused in part by Napoleon’s actions.
Causes of his Downfall
Napoleon’s conquests aroused nationalistic feelings across Europe and contributed to his downfall. Napoleon worried about what would happen to his vast empire after his death. He feared it would fall apart unless he had an heir whose right to succeed him was undisputed. His wife, Josephine, had failed to bear him a child. He, therefore, divorced her and formed an alliance with the Austrian royal family by marrying Marie Louise, the grandniece of Marie Antoinette. In 1811, Marie Louise gave birth to a son, Napoleon II, whom Napoleon named king of Rome.
- Weaknesses of the Napoleonic System: defects of too much dictatorship; too much dependence on one person; its militaristic nature (War face cannot be continued forever); Adoption of his tactics of warfare by the opponents from 1819; etc.
- Spirit of Nationalism: Spread of Nationalism in the conquered territories and the growing hatred among the subject people for the foreigners led to the rise of forces against napoleon in conquest lands.
- Superiority in Naval and strong finances of England made it check the Napoleonic conquests.
- Failure of the Continental system
- Peninsular War with Spain and the Russian Campaign: while the former exhausted the resources of France, the latter ended in disaster for Napoleon and for France.
CONGRESS OF VIENNA
- After exiling Napoleon, European leaders at the Congress of Vienna tried to restore order and re-establish peace.
- International bodies such as the United Nations play an active role in trying to maintain world peace and stability today (Contemporary Angle)
European heads of government were looking to establish long-lasting peace and stability on the continent after the defeat of Napoleon. They had a goal of the new European order—one of collective security and stability for the entire continent. A series of meetings in Vienna, known as the Congress of Vienna, was called to set up policies to achieve this goal.
Originally, the Congress of Vienna was scheduled to last for four weeks. Instead, it went on for eight months.
Metternich’s Plan for Europe
Most of the decisions made in Vienna during the winter of 1814–1815 were made in secret among representatives of the five “great powers”—Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, and France. By far the most influential of these representatives was the foreign minister of Austria, Prince Klemens von Metternich.
The first and greatest concern for the immense majority of every nation is the stability of laws—never their change. Metternich had three goals at the Congress of Vienna. First, he wanted to prevent future French aggression by surrounding France with strong countries. Second, he wanted to restore a balance of power, so that no country would be a threat to others. Third, he wanted to restore Europe’s royal families to the thrones they had held before Napoleon’s conquests.
The Congress took the following steps to make the weak countries around France stronger:
- The former Austrian Netherlands and the Dutch Republic were united to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
- A group of 39 German states were loosely joined as the newly created German Confederation, dominated by Austria.
- Switzerland was recognized as an independent nation.
- The Kingdom of Sardinia in Italy was strengthened by the addition of Genoa.
The Congress of Vienna was a political triumph in many ways. For the first time, the nations of an entire continent had cooperated to control political affairs. The settlements they agreed upon were fair enough that no country was left bearing a grudge. Therefore, the Congress did not sow the seeds of future wars. In that sense, it was more successful than many other peace meetings in history.
By agreeing to come to one another’s aid in case of threats to peace, the European nations had temporarily ensured that there would be a balance of power on the continent. The Congress of Vienna, then, created a time of peace in Europe. It was a lasting peace. None of the five great powers waged war on one another for nearly 40 years, when Britain and France fought Russia in the Crimean War.
Despite their efforts to undo the French Revolution, the leaders at the Congress of Vienna could not turn back the clock. The Revolution had given Europe its first experiment in democratic government. Although the experiment had failed, it had set new political ideas in motion. The major political upheavals of the early 1800s had their roots in the French Revolution.
The Congress of Vienna left a legacy that would influence world politics for the next 100 years. The continent-wide efforts to establish and maintain a balance of power diminished the size and the power of France. At the same time, the power of Britain and Prussia increased. Nationalism began to spread in Italy, Germany, Greece, and other areas that Congress had put under foreign control. Eventually, the nationalistic feelings would explode into revolutions, and new nations would be formed.
European colonies also responded to the power shift. Spanish colonies took advantage of the events in Europe to declare their independence and break away from Spain.
At the same time, ideas about the basis of power and authority had changed permanently as a result of the French Revolution. More and more, people saw democracy as the best way to ensure equality and justice for all. The French Revolution, then, changed the social attitudes and assumptions that had dominated Europe for centuries. A new era had begun.
Long Terms Causes
- Social and economic injustices of the Old Regime
- Enlightenment ideas—liberty and equality
- Example furnished by the American Revolution
- Economic crisis—famine and government debt
- Weak leadership
- Discontent of the Third Estate
- Fall of the Bastille
- National Assembly
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and a new constitution
- End of the Old Regime
- Execution of monarch
- War with other European nations
- Reign of Terror
- Rise of Napoleon
- Conservative reaction
- Decline in French power
- Spread of Enlightenment ideas
- Growth of nationalism
- Revolutions in Latin America