• 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.
  • The social, political and economic conditions of France in late eighteenth century engendered a revolution which completely destroyed the feudal order and its state apparatus. The revolution in its course established new principles of politics and democracy which had seminal effect on the minds of the people of Europe and the world.
  • It became a symbol of revolutionary action by masses and inspired many subsequent movements. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity ingrained in the democratic societies world over have their provenance in this revolution.

Causes of French Revolution

Social Causes

  • Feudal Society: The French society and its institutions before 1789 has been usually described as the Old Regime. The French society in the eighteenth century was feudal in nature, a remnant of the middle ages. The society was uncompromisingly stratified.
  • Three Estates: The French society was divided into three Estates. The first estate consisted of the clergy, the second estate of the nobility and the third estate of the bourgeoisie, urban workers, and peasants. The first two estates enjoyed many privileges by birth and were also exempted from taxation.
  • Unequal Access to Resources: The French society primarily comprised peasants, around 90 per cent of the total population. But only a small number of them owned the land they cultivated as about 60 per cent of the land was owned by nobles, clergy and richer members of the third estate. Moreover, the moderate growth and prosperity witnessed in eighteenth century France was unevenly disturbed.
  • Feudal Privileges and Taxes: The nobles were entitled to feudal dues, which they extracted from the peasants. The peasants were forced to render services to the nobles (Lords), either by working in his house and fields or by serving in his army. The Church too extracted its share of taxes (tithes) from the peasants.
  • Educated Middle Class: Eighteenth century France witnessed the emergence of Educated middle class, who earned their wealth through an expanding overseas trade, manufacture of goods, employment as administrative officials and by practicing profession. These educated individuals began to question the privileges available to the first two estates. The group provided the much needed leadership to the peasants and workers.


  • Centralization of Power: The royal authority was sustained by theories of divine right which rejected any form of resistance with utmost ruthlessness. An attempt to centralize the authority had been on. The Kings, who alone could call the meeting of the Estates General, a political body of the three estates, had not called its meeting since 1614. Moreover, the exceptionally expanded state apparatus had virtually destroyed the role of representative institutions. Tensions were mounting between centralizing and decentralizing pressures.
  • Rift between Nobility and Crown: The crown had deprived the nobility of its political power but left them with various privileges. They were bitterly hostile to the growing power of the royal government.

Economic Causes

  • Brink of Bankruptcy: Years of participation in numerous lengthy and costly conflicts (wars) by France during the seventeenth and eighteenth century had drained financial resource of the country. This coupled with wasteful spending by King Louis XVI ( 1754-93) and his predecessor had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy.
  • American War of Independence: Already debt ridden country added more than billion livers (unit of currency in France discontinued in 1794) of debt by its involvement in the American war of independence. The lenders began to charge an interest of 10 per cent on the loans and an increasing fraction of the government’ s revenue was being spent on interest payment.
  • Defective Tax Structure: A defective tax structure where in the nobility and the clergy were exempted from payment of taxes and the burden to finance the royal coffers fell upon rest of the population (commoners) had been becoming a matter of resentment .
  • Inflation: In general, the production of grains could not keep pace with increased demand due to increase in country’s population pushing up prices of bread and grain, which mattered most to the people and had a bearing on the public order.
    • An increase in grain and bread prices due to bad harvests in early 1770’s angered the people, who rioted at several places. The situation became worse due to harsh weather as witnessed from 1787, when a cereal crisis on account of catastrophic hailstorm, harsh winter and drought pushed up the prices of grains and bread between 50 and 100 per cent.
  • Subsistence Crisis: It has been held that France during the Old Regime (used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789) frequently witnessed situations when the wages of the workers did not keep pace with the rise in prices of bread, the staple diet of the people.
  • Financial Reform Package: Another event which further worsened the situation was a proposed financial reform package by Charles Alexanders de Calonne (Louis XVI’s controller general of finance ) in 1786. The package proposed an imposition of a universal land tax, such that the privileged classes would no longer be exempted. The package did not come through and Calonne recommended the calling of National Assembly.

Role of Enlightenment Thinkers

  • The role of enlightenment thinkers in the French revolution has been a matter of debate among the historians. Some historians contend that the presence of philosophers and their ideas brought about the replacement of old regime with the new order. It is held that although the peasants and workers had participated in revolts against increasing taxes and food scarcity in the past, they lacked the means and programme to carry out full-scale measures to change the existing social and economic order which was provided by the enlightenment thinkers and the new middle class. However, the thinkers did not espouse revolution.
  • The enlightenment thinkers questioned the customary arrangements which benefited a few and advocated confronting them for human progress, which according to them involved growth individual self-expression, elimination of authority and privilege based on birth, and guild regulations. These ideas were disseminated through political discussion, clubs, academic societies and salons.
  • It is important to note that the salons, the elegant drawing rooms of the wealthy urban elite, served as the gathering of philosophers and guests. It served as the rallying point of reform-minded people like Mirabeau, Robespierre and Sieyes.

John Locke

  • In his Two Treaties of Government, John Locke sought to refute the doctrine of divine and absolute right of the Monarch. He along with Rousseau questioned the idea of privilege by birth and advocated a society based on freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all.


  • Montesquieu believed that where government was more liberal and where people thought independently, society would be less devoted to religious ritual and more devoted to morality. He criticized France’s monarchical absolutism and the Church, offending authorities but adding to his popularity.
  • In The Spirit of the Laws, he proposed the idea of division of power within the government between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary (as had been established in America after its independence from Britain) to prevent any one organ of the government from becoming despotic.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

  • As per Edmund Burke, he was the chief ideologue of the French Revolution. Rousseau popularized the idea that the Kings did not have the right to ‘absolute’ rule and that the government was a ‘social contract’ between people and the Kind (their representative). He questioned the traditional base of political, social and economic authority.
  • His concept of ‘sovereignty’ of people and ‘general will’ made the leaders of the revolt feel that the society as whole should decide its own interest. His democratic principle of one individual one vote was proposed by the members of the third Estate as an alternative to the extant voting system, conducted by the assembly as whole.
  • Liberty, he wrote, was not to be found in any existing form of government, it was in the hearts of free men. He described existing laws as “always useful to those who own and as injurious to those who do not”. And such laws, he wrote, “give the weak new burdens, the strong new powers and irretrievably destroy natural freedom”.

Outbreak of French Revolution

Meeting of the Estates General

  • France’s population had changed considerably since The non-aristocratic members of the Third Estate now represented 98 percent of the people but could still be outvoted by the other two bodies. In the lead-up to the May 5 meeting, the Third Estate began to mobilize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto-in other words, they wanted voting by head and not by status. While all of the orders shared a common desire for fiscal and judicial reform as well as a more representative form of government, the nobles in particular were loath to give up the privileges they enjoyed under the traditional system.
  • By the time the Estates-General convened at Versailles, the highly public debate over its voting process had erupted into hostility between the three orders, eclipsing the original purpose of the meeting and the authority of the man who had convened it.
  • When the demand of equal voting for members of all the three estates were raised, talks over the procedure of the voting process stalled. Following this, on June 17, 1789, the third estate met alone and formally adopted the title of National Assembly.

Tennis Court Oath

  • The king ordered to lock the hall where the next meeting was scheduled to be held. Consequently, on June 20, 1789, the third estate decided to meet in a nearby indoor tennis court. In the Tennis court meeting, members of the third estate took the so called ‘Tennis Court Oath’. In that oath members vowed not to disperse until constitutional reform had been achieved .
  • Within a week, most of the clerical deputies and liberal nobles had joined them, and on June 27, 1789, Louis XVI reluctantly absorbed all three orders into the new assembly.
Tennis Court Oath
Tennis Court Oath

Fall of Bastille

  • The Bastille fort had served as a royal armory and a prison and also was a symbol of the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs. The Storming of the Bastille fort occurred in Paris, on July 14, 1789. This watershed event of the fall of Bastille, now commemorated in France as a National Holiday, was considered as the start of the French Revolution.
  • In June 1789, King Louis XVI surrounded Paris with troops and dismissed Jacques Necker, a popular minister of state who had supported reforms. The dismissal of Jacques Necker sparked the feeling of distress among the people of France. The revolutionary ideas were continuously instigated by the revolutionary leaders which led to incessant rioting and looting by the mob.
  • Bernard-Rene Jordan de Launay, the military governor of the Bastille, fearing an attack by the revolutionaries requested reinforcement which led to arrival of a company of the swiss mercenary soldiers. This led to abrupt broadcasting of the rumors of an impending military coup which engendered terror among the people of France.
  • A popular insurgency culminated on July 14, 1789 when rioters stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons.
  • The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the countryside. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the houses of tax collectors, landlords and elites. This agrarian insurrection which hastened the growing exodus of nobles from the country is known as the Great Fear (started in mid of July 1789 and continued till August).
  • The National Assembly feared that the raging rural peasants would destroy all that the assembly had worked hard to attain. In an effort to quell the destruction, the assembly issued the August Decrees, which nullified many of the feudal obligations that the peasants had to their landlords.
  • The August Decrees were declared with an idea of calming the people and encouraging them towards civility. The August Decrees were revised several times during the next two years. Nevertheless, it could be inferred that the August Decrees paved the way for the Assembly to make the Declaration of the Rights of Man and citizen.
Fall of Bastille
Fall of Bastille

National Assembly

  • National Assembly was the name of the revolutionary assembly formed by representatives of the Third Estate. Number of clerical deputies and liberal nobles had also joined them.
  • They declared that they would not adjourn their gatherings until France had been given a new constitution (the National Assembly took an oath to force a new constitution on the king). Louis XVI attempted to thwart that initiative on June 23, 1789 by ordering the three estates to resume their separate deliberations. But in the face of determined resistance he reluctantly accepted unified deliberation and voting by the head(s). On July 9, 1789, the delegates to the Estates-General declared themselves the National Constituent Assembly.
National Assembly (French Revolution)
National Assembly (French Revolution)

Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen

  • On August 26 , 1789, the assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
    1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.
    2. The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of man; these are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.
    3. The source of all sovereignty resides in the nation; no group or individual may exercise authority that does not come from the people.
    4. Liberty consists of the power to do whatever is not injurious to others.
    5. The law has the right to forbid only actions that are injurious to society.
    6. Law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to participate in its formation, personally or through their representatives. All citizens are equal before it.
    7. No man may be accused, arrested or detained, except in cases determined by the law.
    8. Every citizen may speak, write and print freely; he must take responsibility for the abuse of such liberty in cases determined by the law.
    9. For the maintenance of the public force and for the expenses of administration a common tax is indispensable; it must be assessed equally on all citizens in proportion to their means.
    10. Since property is a sacred and inviolable right, no one may be deprived of it, unless a legally established public necessity requires it. In that case a just compensation must be given in advance.
  • Analysis
    • It guaranteed due process in judicial matters.
    • It established sovereignty among the French people providing limited monarchy to France. Now the King had to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly, but he still retained his royal veto and the ability to select ministers.
    • The titles of the nobles were abolished.
    • New central and local courts were established.
    • Judges were to be elected.
    • Drastic action was also taken against the church. Absolute religious toleration was proclaimed.
    • The collection of titles by the church was abolished.
    • Measures were taken for the nationalization of church properties.
  • Influenced by the thoughts of the era’s greatest minds, the themes found in the declaration made one thing resoundingly clear: every person was a Frenchman – and equal. The document proclaimed the assembly’s commitment to replace the ancien regime (the political and social system in France before the Revolution) with a system based on equal opportunity, freedom of speech, popular sovereignty and representative government.
  • Although subsequent French constitutions, that the Revolution produced, would be overturned and generally ignored, but the themes of the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen would remain with the French citizenry in perpetuity.
  • The Declaration, together with Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the United States Bill of Rights, inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen
Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen

French Revolutionary Wars (1792 – 1802)

  • When the revolution broke out many of the nobles (called as French Emigres) managed to escape from France. They carried out propaganda against the revolution in France and tried to mobilize support from other countries. Austria and Prussia came forward to help them. King Leopold of Austria issued the famous Declaration of Pilnitz against the revolutionaries in August 1791. In this declaration, Austria and Prussia proposed that France put Louis XVI (who fled Paris with family in June 1791, captured near border with Austria) back to the throne. These countries were wary about the fact that the French people ’s revolutionary sentiment would infect their own citizens.
  • In April 1792, the newly elected legislative assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia believing that French Emigres were building counter-revolutionary alliances. It also hoped to spread its revolutionary ideals across Europe through warfare. Austria defeated the ill equipped revolutionary army. The wrath of the revolutionaries turned against the French king. In August 1792, the mob attacked the King’s palace at Tuileries (Paris). The mob brutally massacred the guards and besieged the royal palace.
  • This was followed by the ‘September Massacres’. During this, the Radicals at Paris, led by Georges Danton (a Jacobin who was executed for questioning the extremes of the Reign of Terror), massacred numerous suspected supporters of the French king. Facing the threat of the radicals, the members of the Legislative Assembly gave up the idea of a limited monarchy. They set aside the Constitution of 1791, declared the king deposed.
  • The assembly was dissolved, calling for the election of a new legislature. After the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly, the National Convention met in 1792. It abolished monarchy and declared France as a Republic. Around the same time, the French army won a war against Austria and Prussia (Battle of Valmy).
  • In January 1793, King Louis XVI was condemned to death for “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety” by a weak majority in Convention. This execution led to more wars with other European countries. The queen, Marie Antoinette, was also guillotined later on.
  • When war went badly, prices rose and the sans-culottes (poor laborers and radical Jacobins) rioted and counterrevolutionary activities began in some regions. This encouraged the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup. An alliance of Jacobin and sansculottes elements thus became the effective centre of the new government. They instituted a series of radical measures, including the establishment of a new calendar and the eradication of Christianity.

Jacobins and Reign of Terror

  • The Reign of Terror was the most violent phase of the French Revolution, a year -long period between the summers of 1793 and 1794. During this period around 50,000 French citizens were executed. Under the accusations of the counter-revolutionary activities large number of suspected enemies of the revolution were guillotined by the thousands. This 10-month draconian phase was regarded as the Bloody Reign of Terror during which the guillotine became the most potent political tool and repression the most vital political task .
  • In April 1793, the National Convention created an administrative body called as the ‘Committee of Public Safety’. It was formed to supervise and expedite the work of the executive bodies of the Convention and of the government ministers appointed by the Convention. In July 1793, following the defeat at the Convention of the Girondins, the prominent leader of the radical Jacobin, Maximilien Robespierre, took the charge of the Committee.
  • Heading the Committee of Public Safety Robespierre gained full powers to deal with the people causing the internal threats. He slowly gathered all control in his hands. As head of the committee, he decided who should be considered enemies of the republic. It was said that this committee often tried people in the morning and guillotined the same afternoon .
  • The Reign of Terror brought an end to many prominent lives. Fearful of conspiracies against his life, Robespierre had argued for the execution of fellow revolutionary leaders like Jacques Hebert (the radical sans-culotte leader) and Georges Danton (a populist political leader). In consequence, however, his own popular support eroded markedly.
  • On July 27, 1794, the Thermidorian Reaction (a moderate phase in which the French people revolted against the reign of terror’s excesses) led to the arrest and execution of Robespierre. The new government was predominantly made up of Girondists who had survived the Terror. After taking power, they took revenge as well by persecuting even those Jacobins who had helped to overthrow Robespierre. The Jacobin Club was banned. Many of its former members were executed in what was known as the White Terror .
  • A new Constitution was approved in August 1795 which created a ‘Directory’ and the first Bicameral Legislature in the French History. The two houses were called the ‘Council of Five Hundred ’ and the ‘Council of the Ancients’.
  • The Directory was a five-member committee which replaced the Committee of Public Safety. It governed France from 1795 until it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte replaced by the French Consulate.
  • In its initial years, the Directory concentrated on ending the excesses of the Reign of Terror. It stopped the mass executions and measures were taken against exiled priests.
  • The royalists were relaxed. The Jacobin political club was closed and the government crushed an armed uprising planned by the Jacobins. Also, before the constitution of the Directory, the French economy was in crisis. The treasury was empty, Assignat ( paper money) had fallen to a very low value. The Directory stopped printing assignats and took measures to restore the value of the money. But after few years the Directory riddled with huge corruption. Bickering and fighting within the Directory increasingly destabilized the country. This led to its repeal by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799.
Reign of Terror

Napoleon Bonaparte


  • When the Royalists and Jacobins protested against the new regime, a young , energetic and a successful General named Napoleon Bonaparte was then at Paris. He was entrusted with the task of defending the Convention against the Parisian mob. He swiftly silenced the mob and began his brilliant career as a military general.
  • The directory’s four years in power were riddled with financial crises, popular discontent, inefficiency and above all, political corruption. By the late 1790s, the directors relied almost entirely on the military to maintain their authority and had ceded much of their power to the generals in the field.
  • On November 9, 1799, as frustration with their leadership reached a fever pitch, Bonaparte signed a coup (Coup d’etat), abolishing the directory and appointing himself France’s ‘First Consul’. This event marked the end of French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era. With the start of the Napoleonic era came numerous reforms like the Continental system, Napoleonic code, etc .

Napoleonic Code

  • The Napoleonic code was a bunch of new laws created by Napoleon Bonaparte. These laws were concerned with the issues relating, inter alia, to property, colonial affairs, family, and individual rights. In 1800, General Napoleon Bonaparte started important task of taking a fresh look at France’s legal system. In 1804, he came up with and enacted a new legal framework for France, known as the ‘Napoleonic Code’.
  • In the pre-revolutionary legal order of France there was a diversity of laws. Each area had its own collection of customs. Different parts of France were governed by different laws, for instance, Roman law ( governing parts of south France ), Canon law, Customary law (under the feudal Frankish and the German Institutions), etc. This situation inspired Voltaire to observe that a traveler in France ‘changes his law almost as often as he changes his horses’.
  • Despite efforts in the 16th and 17th centuries to organize and codify each of the local customary laws, there had been little success at national unification. Vested interests hindered efforts at codification, because reform would encroach upon the privileges accorded to the elites.
  • The French Revolution not only set the stage but necessitated the building up of a new code of laws. Manors and the guilds had been destroyed, the power of the church had been suppressed, and the provinces had been transformed into subdivisions of the new national state . Demand for a new and uniform of law for the entire France was raised with the growing up of the national consciousness.
  • Hence, Napoleon Bonaparte came up with this new set of Laws, features of which could be mentioned as:
    • All male citizens were made equal.
    • Feudal features like primogeniture, hereditary nobility , and class privileges were extinguished .
    • Civilian institutions were emancipated from ecclesiastical control.
    • It subordinated the family and women under the authority of men, deprived women of any individual rights, and reduced the rights of illegitimate children.
  • The laws were applied to all territories under Napoleon’s control and were influential in several other European countries and in South America.

Socio-Political Reforms

  • Napoleon called himself the child of Revolution. He was a supporter of the principles of Revolution, viz ., liberty, equality and fraternity, but he laid greater stress on equality than liberty. Napoleon said that the people of France demanded equality, for many people had been massacred in France due to liberty.
  • Centralization of the Government: After becoming the first consul, he worked in such a way that all the powers were concentrated at one point . He centralized the government, putting control firmly in the hands of the national government. The Centralized government played a significant role in facilitating reforms in the field of education, taxation, religion, etc .
  • Abolition of Class distinction: He completely abolished the distinction between the lower class and the upper class . Anybody could get the highest post in the government on the basis of merit. He got the cooperation of both the Jacobins and Girondists and pardoned the French emigres. Consequently, forty thousand families came back to France.
  • Reforms in Education: In the field of education, Napoleon pursued a system of public education throughout France, as envisioned during the revolution. He setup University of France and separated the influence of Church from education. These reforms, however, were limited to boys only. Napoleon held backward views about education for girls and considered it not important for them.
  • Reforms in Art and Literature: Napoleon was an ardent votary of art and encouraged it a lot. Napoleon asked the craftsmen of France to make beautiful articles, which led to the employment of fairly large sum of craftsmen. He also encouraged literature. Napoleon established the ‘Legion of Honor ’ in order to inject feeling of honor among the French people. The people were awarded and honored on the basis of their merit and not on that of birth.
  • Financial Reforms: Napoleon realized the weaknesses of French financial infrastructure and made necessary changes to reform French economy. He introduced a system of tariffs and loans to strengthen local industry. He also laid the foundation of Bank of France to regulate currency and protect it against inflation. Roads, bridges and canals were built and repaired to facilitate trade and communications. Napoleon also provided food subsidies to keep the basic necessities of food at low prices. More employment opportunities were stimulated to cater for unemployed. Thus, Napoleon adopted multilateral approach to enhance economic development as well.
  • Religious Reforms:
    • Napoleon brought the religion back to France after the atheistic years of the Revolution. He used to say that, ‘a state without a religion is like a vessel without a compass ’. But, according to him, The people must have a religion and that religion must be under the control of the government ’.
    • Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement with the Catholic Church in 1801. This was called as Concordat. In the Concordat , Napoleon redefined the status of the Roman Catholic Church in France. He ended the breach caused by the church reforms and confiscations enacted during the French Revolution. The educational institutions would be controlled by the state. No official of the Church was to be allowed to open educational institution without the prior permission of state. All the Bishops would be appointed by the Pope from the proposed list of the state.
    • The lower clergy were to be appointed by the Bishops. The Roman Catholic religion was recognised as the religion of the majority of French people. The Protestants and Jews were also given protection by the state.
    • Thus, the Church became a part of the state due to the Concordat, and Napoleon received the favors of his opponent Church.
    • While most of his reforms aligned perfectly with the ideals of Enlightenment and French revolution, there were some shortcomings as well. Napoleon refused to grant political rights to his people and freedom of speech was suppressed. Role of women was limited to household because of lack of education and unfair gender laws.

Continental System

  • The French had lost access to colonial markets because the British and allied navies prevented trading ships getting through. This affected the French Economy and its export market very badly. The Continental system was an attempt to reshape the French export market and its economy.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte aimed to cripple Britain (regarded as the ‘merchant of the world’ or ‘nation of the shopkeepers’).
  • Since direct assault on the island nation was out of the question because of its strong Navy, Napoleon decided to do so by destroying British trade. Napoleon started building his own ships in prospect of building up France’s own manufacturing industry.
  • The Continental System began in 1806 with Napoleon’s Berlin Decree, which banned British ships from entering European ports. Britain made a concerted effort to undermine the Continental System by contracting out its shipments to neutral vessels. Napoleon next issued the Milan Decree, in December 1807, aimed against smuggling, stated that neutral ships that stopped in Britain before landing in Europe were subject to confiscation.
  • Napoleon, to some extent, was successful in gaining support of the European nations againstthe Britain because some way or the other nearly every European nation was envious of huge extent of Great Britain’s empire. Having an edge over the naval power the world over, Britain started naval blockade against the European nations. This further led to disruption of the internal trade across the Europe.


  • Though the Continental System was disquieting Britain, it also proved disastrous for Napoleon , because it backfired on him. Its impacts on France and the Europe could be summed up as under:
    • French customs revenue fell substantially.
    • European nations were starved of British colonial goods: coffee, sugar, tobacco, cocoa, and cotton textiles .
    • Apart from cotton, the imported goods were addictive luxuries. This led the people to wage resentment against the French.
    • Replacement items such as sugar beet and linen were not tolerated.


  • The British blockade of European ports and the scarcity of goods created a rise in European nationalism. The rise of nationalism in Europe gave Britain the opportunity to fight France on land. Sensing a potent danger, Napoleon slackened the restrictions. This immediately benefited Britain – so he again tightened up the regulations in 1811.
  • This led both his allies and his vassal to revolt. After 1808, Spain rose up in rebellion against the French rule. Russia refused to implement the Continental System and this led directly to the Moscow Campaign of 1812. Consequently, Napoleon found himself faced with a war on two fronts.

Napoleonic Wars

  • The Napoleonic wars (1799-1815) were a continuation of the French Revolutionary wars. During the Napoleonic wars, France stood virtually alone against the rest of Europe. Along with the French Revolutionary wars, the Napoleonic wars comprise a 23-year long period of recurrent conflict that concluded only with the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s second abdication on June 22, 1815.
  • In 1803 Great Britain declared war against France, and in 1805 the Third coalition against France was formed by Britain, Russia, Austria, Sweden and finally Prussia.
  • In 1805 Napoleon defeated the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz, the Prussians at Jena and Auerstedt ( both in today’s Germany ) in 1806, and the Russians again in 1807 at Friedland. Napoleon signed the Peace treaty of Tilsit with the Russian Czar ( in 1807) forcing the defeated powers to join the continental System. Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Portugal were also forced to join the System.
  • In 1807, Napoleon occupied Portugal and in 1808, Spain. This turned out to be a blatant error which led Spain raise against Napoleonic France.
  • In 1809, Napoleon attempted a forced crossing of the Danube near Vienna, but the French and their allies were driven back by Austria. The Austrian army inflicted the first defeat on Napoleon in the Battle of Aspen-Essling, after which Napoleon again defeated the Austrians at Wagram forcing another peace treaty. The battle was the first time Napoleon had been personally defeated in over a decade .
  • After a period of relative peace, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. This campaign proved to be a fatal error. After a glorious start and occupying Moscow, the forced withdrawal during the severe Russian winter totally annihilated the largest field army to date. The disaster resulted in Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia and Sweden forming a new coalition against France.
  • In 1813 during a campaign in lower Germany, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig, which involved armies from almost all the European states. Forced to retreat on all fronts back into France, Napoleon was compelled to abdicate in 1814 after the occupation of Paris by the allies. Napoleon was exiled to Elba.
  • In 1815, in a desperate attempt to regain power Napoleon escaped from Elba, returned to France and rebuild an army. He started a 100 days campaign in northern France and Belgium. This was concluded with his defeat at Waterloo and his exile under British supervision to St. Helen.

Napoleonic Era: A Critical Analysis

  • Napoleon Bonaparte was considered by most to be the Savior of the French Revolution by ending it and putting in place a government that brought equality and stability to a torn country . Napoleon brought stability and direction to a country without a course. His unification of France left a profound impact not only on Europe, but the entire world.
  • Napoleon was not liked by other European leaders because many of the changes he made, threatened their countries’ stability. His reforms made even the poor feel equal. The mainstays of the French Revolution that carried over into Napoleon’s changes in government were Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. This worried other leaders because it put the idea of equality in the minds of the poor in other countries.
  • Despite his defeat (in the battle of Waterloo) and the end of his empire one cannot discount many great effects Napoleon had on the Atlantic World. His institution of Laws ensured freedom and equality that set a trend throughout the world. Many revolutions that occurred after the French revolutions modelled their constitutions and beliefs on those first set by Napoleon. Freedom of religion, equality, centralized government, and strong economies were the new goals for those who wanted new regimes.
  • Napoleon gave not only the French, but all who fought for revolution a direction to follow. The systems he put in place ended the tumultuous years of the reign of terror and solidified equality for the poor in France. His military conquests are still studied today at the best military academies in the world. His contributions to the Atlantic World are just as numerous as they are important. Despite his fall at Waterloo, Napoleon’s legacy moved on and still impacts our world today.

Significance and Impact of the French Revolution

  • The French revolution could be regarded as a starting point of modern history. The revolution cemented the fact that sovereignty comes from the people and not from above. It slashed off the ill effects of the society.
  • It gave the people new concepts like Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and the feeling of brotherhood. Liberty ensured absence of arbitrary rule over the individual. Equality signified that all were equal before the law and social privileges in this respect stood abolished. Fraternity implied the brotherhood of humanity. The revolution thwarted the inequalities and social contradictions present in the then France.
  • Further, significance and impact of the French Revolution could be elaborated into France on one hand, and Europe and the globe together, on the other.

Impact on France

  • There is no doubt that the French Revolution had far reaching implication for the world. However, it had influenced France the most. The Revolution had left following social, economic and political effects on France.


  • France – The Representative of Humanity: France became the representative of the humanity. It gave to the world of humanity three main important messages of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality. Moreover, it led also to the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizens, which granted political liberty, like freedom of speech, press, association, worship and ownership of property.
  • French Empire became Nation: The French nation was born because of the French Revolution. Since then, there was one France in place of different regions. The thirty million French subjects were granted equality of status as citizens of the nation and equality before law.
  • End of Despotic Rule: Before the French Revolution, the Bourbon family ruled over France. The rulers of this dynasty believed in the theory of divine right of kingship and ruled as per their own wishes and whims. The French Revolution destroyed their very existence. It established a constitutional form of government and republic in France. They made the French people their own ruler.
  • Rise of Political Parties: France became a multi-party 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, Girondins that competed for power. These parties kept the government under check and in balance by criticizing bad policies.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte: As France struggled under ineffective leadership that changed very little in the course of the daily lives of the common people, Napoleon was able to seize power with the help of military. Perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of this was the establishment of the Napoleonic Code or Code civil des Frangais. Essentially, the Code made the legal system fairer to all in France regardless of religion or wealth.
  • Written Constitution: France got her first written constitution due to the French Revolution. It was also the first written constitution of the European continent . It gave the right of franchise to the citizen of France. There were some shortcomings in the constitution , but it had ushered in a new era in France.
  • Abolition of Feudalism: The Feudal system ended due to the French Revolution. With the French Revolution, the difference between the privileged and non-privileged class ended. It was an end of the old despotic system.
  • Decrease in Influence of Church: The influence of the high priests on the society of France ended. The priests took oath on the new constitution to maintain their loyalty to the French nation. The state became the owner of the wealth of the church. The priest started receiving salary from the state. On the other hand, the French people started adopting rational attitude in place of the blind faith based on religious affiliations.
  • Administrative Changes: Numerous changes were made in the administrative structure of France due to the French Revolution. The whole of the country was divided into 83 departments for the administrative purpose. The principle of election was adopted at the places required in administration.
  • National Guard: National Guard replaced the royal guard of the Bourbon monarchy. National Guard was formed 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.
  • Re-Organization of the Judicial System: The National Convention introduced a common judicial system for whole of France. The judicial system was made independent of the executive and legislator. The ‘Jury System’ was introduced to try the criminal cases.
  • Changes in the Conditions of Farmers: The feudal system ended, which liberated the farmers from the burden of unnecessary taxes. They did not have to pay the taxes to the landlords and tithes (the religious tax) to the church.
  • Cultural Effects: France made numerous achievements in the field of art, science, and literature due to French Revolution. Numerous schools, colleges, universities, and academies were opened in the country. The special attention was paid to art, literature, science , mathematics, technology, and physical training in the field of education. However, the French Revolution also had some negative impacts on the nation, the repercussions of which were felt for long and wide.


  • Led to Reign of Terror: The peaceful revolution that began on the 5th May 1789 changed into violence and causing reign of terror in France by 1792- 1794. During this period there was 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 the 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 serous 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 the clergy, nationalization of the church property and removing privileges of the church led to poor relationship between the church and the state.
  • Relationship with other States: The revolution led to poor relationship 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.

Effect on Britain

  • Effect on Reform Movements: Pit, the Younger, the Prime Minister of Britain in 1789, praised and welcomed the events of French Revolution, when it started in May 1789. When the Britishwatched the blood shed which followed the revolution, they turned against it. However, the main message of liberty, fraternity and equality arrested the attention of the British. They started various movements for social and political reforms.
  • Economic Crises: It led to Financial crises in Britain. Britain started supporting the anti -revolution parties. It also extended them the monetary help. Britain also suffered due to the economic blockade launched by Napoleon. It increased her financial liabilities and her citizens were made to suffer the load of extra taxes .
  • Influence on Ireland: The success of French Revolution encouraged the revolutionaries of Ireland. They increased their revolutionary activities. British government was forced to adopt oppressive measures in Ireland.

Effect on Europe

  • Responses and Reactions: In Poland and Ireland, the French Revolution encouraged revolutionary activities. The Revolution also influenced middle class of Germany and Italy.
  • A phase of new Wars: The rising tide of revolution in different countries became the cause of fear among the autocratic rulers. They joined to check the spread of the revolution. It pushed Europe in a spate of anti-revolutionary wars.
  • Rise of Concert of Europe: After defeating Napoleon, the European nations organised the Concert of Europe in 1815. It aimed at maintaining the status quo and reinstatement of European royal families. It was also accompanied by the reactionary policies against the revolutionary movements in European countries.

Permanent Effects

  • Spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity: The main gift of French Revolution was the ideas of Equality, Fraternity and Equality. It ended the dominance of the theory of divine right of kingship. It gave a deathblow to social status by birth. It became the cause of the rise of nationalism.
  • Rise of Nationalism: The French Revolution infused the sense of nationalism among the people of France. The people of France faced the attack of foreign power as one nation and inculcated the feeling of nationalism among them. It was soon followed by similar rise of feelings of nationalism in other countries .
  • Anti-colonial Wave: It inspired anti-colonial movements and weakened the European colonial powers like Spain and Portugal. People in Belgium and the Balkan states succeeded in gaining independence.
    • In Haiti, which at the time of the French Revolution was a French colony called Saint Domingue, independence movements broke out when the National Assembly passed he Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
  • In Asia and Africa there were struggles for Independence inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution. In India, Tipu Sultan and Raja Rammohan Roy were inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution.
  • Growth of Democratic Ideas: The French Revolution encouraged the rule of law, the politics of census and democratic rule.
  • Rise of Internationalism: The French Revolution gave rise to the need of coming together at international level to face the common danger. It emerged in form of Concert of Europe. It started an era of international bodies. The origin of UN ( UNO) is also traced to Concert of Europe.
    • So, in a nutshell, the French Revolution could be regarded as a turning point in the panorama of the world history which not only engendered new concepts but also encouraged the existing rational ones .

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