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Lecture Notes Week 4

The Great French Revolution—rights, liberty, and conflicts over their definition and limits 

Lecture Outline:

I.  The Great French Revolution, 1789-1799

A) Causes

1)     "rigid" system of legal privileges based upon system of 3 "estates" (clergy, nobles, commoners), and King Louis XVI's claims to absolutist power

2) fundamental social and economic tensions  (noble fear of losing privilege, middle class lack of political power, artisans pressed by growth of merchant-driven market economy, peasant resentments re. taxes, tithes, and land).  Moreover, France was a "kingdom" with no real sense of "national" unity or identity, and remains fragmented by language, culture, etc.  

3)    growth of "liberal" public opinion—the spread of Enlightenment ideas re. rights, liberty, limited state power, need for rational administrative reforms, laissez-faire economic policies, a society in which people rise in status on basis of talent and ability, etc.

4) state financial crisis—need to increase revenues leads to discussion of taxing nobles (etc)

B) First Phase ("moderate revolution"), 1789-1792 

1)      revolt of the nobility --nobles refused to accept Louis XVI's proposed fiscal and tax reforms

2) the gathering of the Estates General –Louis XVI tried to do an "end run" around the nobility by gathering the E-G to approve his reforms.  But the majority of the 1st and 2nd estates intended to use the E-G to protect their privileges, and the majority of the 3rd estate intended to use it to force fundamental political change.  Seiyes document, "What is the Third Estate," lays out the view of this movement for political transformation.  Debate over "doubling the 3rd"  

3)      the 20 June 1789 Tennis Court Oath—Louis XVI understood threat posed by the E-G (esp. by the 3rd estate) and attempted to shut it down.  In the  "Oath," the E-G (esp. 3rd estate) declared itself a "NATIONAL" assembly and said it would meeting until it wrote a constitution.  

4) the July 1789 Paris uprising—Louis XVI understood that a constitution would limit his power, that he must stop the "Nat. Assembly," and prepared troops to shut it down.  Rumor of this sparked demonstrations, led by the middle class but with the lower-classes providing most of the crowds; these turned into street fighting, and "the people" took control of Paris, defeated the army and police, and declared a "provisional" revolutionary city government (again, under middle-class leadership).  The social context—2 years of bad harvests had forced up food prices, which led to a general economic depression—about 1/3 of workers in Paris were unemployed in summer 1789, and food (etc) prices has skyrocketed.  Lower classes saw the King as failing to help "the people," and viewed the National Assembly as the voice of the People—they felt that the "tyrant" King was trying to silence the People and take their Liberty, and so the revolt…

5) reverberations of the revolution in the provinces   --provincial urban uprisings, the Great Fear, peasant attacks to seize land and drive out the nobility

    6) the 26 August 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man ended the "estate system"—all men born equal in rights, purpose of government is to protect rights, the nation as source of sovereign power, limits to state power—state can not deprive men of liberty except under certain conditions, special reference to property rights    

    7) the issue of constitutional  monarchy—decision to keep the King in place as the executive power in a "constitutional" monarchy, with legislative power exercised by the Assembly.    

    8) the question of who exercises what rights--restrictions limited voting to property owners (active citizens), but the lower classes clearly saw this as "their" revolution, too, and expected equal political rights; the best politically organized artisans and shopkeepers saw a connection between political rights and social rights (eg, in reaction to food shortages, unemployment, etc).

C) Second Phase (radical or Jacobin revolution), 1792-1794

1)      opposition to the revolution in France--split in clergy as a result of the 1789-91 laws on the division of church lands and the "civil constitution of the clergy"; noble opposition to their loss of privilege (etc); King's desire to restore powers and his "secret" efforts to rally troops vs the revolution; regional opposition to policies made in Paris and especially to policies on taxes and on the church. Also, opposition to the Revolution from abroad, from monarchies (esp. Austria and Prussia) that saw Rev. as a threat to order.    

 2) the shift to the "left" in Spring 1792—steady shift to the "left" since 1789 among lower classes radicalized by: continuing economic crisis;  sense of exclusion from full citizens' rights (most were considered "passive" instead of "active" citizens); implications of some of the new "laissez-faire" policies (like the laws banning guilds); fear that there were secret "counter-revolutionaries" among the middle classes who would "hijack" the revolution; deep  belief in the cause of spreading the revolution to all mankind; and their fear that the King, the nobles, and the church all sought to crush "their" revolution.  This last fear was even greater after the King's failed attempt to "escape" in June 1791.  Growing demand from below for a Republic and for universal manhood suffrage.

3)      War with Austria and Prussia.  The dominant factions in the legislature—the Girondins and the Jacobins--both wanted to spread the revolution through Europe.  Both saw war as a means of promoting national unity and pushing reforms.  (But compared to the Girondins, the Mountain was much more in-tune with lower class calls for a Republic and universal manhood suffrage.)    The Girondins in the Assembly led it to a declaration of war on Austria and Prussia in April 1792.  But the war quickly turned sour for France, which lost battles and territories through spring and summer 1792.  This pushed the radicalization of politics and lower classes even further.

4)  In August 1792, in response to events, crowds of radical workers and soldiers attacked the royal palace, arrested the King, and demanded that the Assembly declare a Republic and hold elections based upon universal manhood suffrage.  With support from the crowds, the Jacobins expelled the Girondins from power and took control of the Assembly. 

5) Continued lower class demonstrations and popular violence in September 1792; popular elections for a new legislature—the Convention—based upon universal manhood suffrage.  The Convention proved more radical than the Assembly and declared France a Republic.   The Jacobins introduced a series of "radical" reforms, including emergency measures to mobilize the economy and society for war.  These included mass conscription of soldiers for the army; the "law of the maximum" to fix prices for food and other necessities; measures to require delivery of goods and services for the war effort, etc.  All these measures were justified on the grounds of security—Jacobins said it was necessary to do these things to save the revolution from its enemies.  Also, under the Jacobins, the armies of French won major victories in the war, which now spread into a war against Austria, England, Holland, and Spain.  But it also faced big internal rebellions, in particular in the western province of the Vendee.

    6) the King is executed for treason, January 1793   

     7) economic and social crisis (soaring food prices and unemployment, peasant rebellions, etc) worsened by the war, led to a shift even further to the “left”; further demonstrations resulted in power being given to the most radical elements of the Jacobins (the Mountain). The Mountain depended upon grass-roots support from the local "committees," made up largely of artisans and small shopkeepers.  These local committees were far more radical in their political demands than were most Jacobin leaders.

8) Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, July 1793-July 1794.  The Assembly appointed the CPS to act as “emergency authority” in the name of the Assembly.

a) Continuation of trend towards emergency economic measures that violate laissez-faire principles in the name to saving the revolution; but also further steps towards democratization, and the abolition of slavery in French colonies.

b) Revolutionary culture—rejection of organized religion, creation of "civic cult of virtue," in which great philosophers were treated as quasi-religious figures and there is public celebration of  "virtues" of the Republic, democracy, honesty, devotion to the nation, and subsuming ones' self to the "general will" (remember Rousseau), etc.  Symbolic "rational" reforms and changes come  with this—such as reform of the calendar to "reflect nature," to recognize the founding of the Republic as "Year One" of a new age in history, etc.

c) But along with the civic cult of virtue came a campaign against the "enemies of the people," whose actions--and even ideas and attitudes—were judged to be in violation of the "general will."  Not only were real counter-revolutionaries arrested and imprisoned or executed, but thousands of people who had been considered loyal citizens now faced subject to accusations and condemnations as "enemies" and were tried and convicted by "popular tribunals."  In all, some 30,000 people were killed in the "Terror," which the Jacobins and their supporters felt would "cleanse" the country and save the Revolution from its enemies.  Again, all of this could be justified on the grounds of “national security”—the Jacobins claimed that the rights of individuals had to be sacrificed in order to protect the Revolution…

8) The end of the radical phase, July 1794  The legislature turned on the Committee of Public Safety and executed its members as enemies of the revolution.

D) Third Phase (conservative reaction or Thermidorian revolution), 1794-1799

1)      end to Jacobin emergency measures (i.e., law of the maximum), but the economy continued to be in almost constant crisis.    

2) new constitution of 1795 placed limits on voting rights:  only the literate could vote; these were "indirect" elections--voters voted for "electors" (who met property requirements), who then chose legislators.  The New constitution reaffirmed "rights" but put greatest stress upon the duties that citizens owe to the state.  The point of the constitution was to keep government in hands of propertied classes so as to provide "stability" and prevent lower class "unrest."  The government's new Executive body, the "Directory," was composed of 5 men chosen by the legislature.

3) The State now repeatedly demonstrated willingness to use violence vs the rebellious crowd (e.g., Napoleon's "whiff of grapeshot" in October 1795); the Directory used force to crush remnants of popular lower-class radical movements.

4) The war against the rest of Europe continued.  Under the military leadership of General Napoleon Bonaparte, France dominated the land war and won control of territory across Central and Southern Europe.

5) Weakness of state leadership—the Directory proved unable to provide stable leadership and faced the constant threat of being overthrown from the Right (by monarchists), even once it has destroyed the opposition on the Left.  It annulled elections in 1797 because of large pro-monarchist vote.  By Fall 1799, members of the Directory were willing to support a "coup" to put Napoleon in power.  The coup provoked no middle class opposition, even though it effectively meant an end to the revolution and a reduction of political liberty.  However, there were scattered monarchist and workers’ revolts, which Napoleon put down with force.

II.  The Napoleonic Era, 1799-1815

A) Napoleon's rose to power as a "man of the Revolution"—he rose in military rank from junior officer to General on basis of talent and ability.  He also was a man of huge political ambitions.  In Nov. 1789 he returned from the Egyptian campaign to take part in overthrowing the Directory.  As member of the new ruling “Council” he served as First Counsel (1799-1804).  Then in 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor.  Status as Emperor from 1804-1814 (and during his return in 1815).  His strategy was to ease the social tensions created by the Revolution:  he made peace with nobles by recognizing their claim to “titles”; he made peace with the church by agreeing to recognize the Vatican's authority over France's Catholic hierarchy; he promised economic and political stability to the middle class and promised work and higher living standards to artisans and urban workers; and he assured peasants that they would keep the land that they gained in 1789. 

B) Napoleon consolidated and spreads the revolution's liberal economic and administrative reforms.  He completed much of the administrative reform work begun in 1789—e.g., creation of uniform codes of civil law and criminal law (1804) based upon "laissez-faire liberal" principles.  He re-organized the state administration based upon a "rational hierarchy" that took as its model the Army (in which "officers" rose on basis of talent and ability).   He centralized state administration, reformed tax codes, reformed and centralized education system, and pumped resources into infrastructure.  He also used his military victories to spread reforms across Europe.

C) Authoritarian rule.   At same time that Napoleon instituted “liberal” administrative reforms, he also created a police state:  he permitted no political permitted and shut down dissent using a network of government spies and instituted press censorship.  Under the pretense of constitutional rule, the powers of the legislature were minimal (it basically rubber-stamped whatever Napoleon decided); real power lay with the Emperor.  (From 1804, all civil servants took an oath to the Emperor and not to the constitution.) 

D) Over-extension of the Empire and defeat (1808-1814).  For years, Napoleon’s armies swept away their enemies.  In 1802, after France gained a peace agreement with England, Napoleon tried to integrate all French-dominated territories into one French-controlled economic bloc designed to hurt England (the Continental System).  Napoleon’s position was that France was the world’s #1 military power and had the right to impose its views on all other countries.  In mean time, he not only imposed new laws on conquered lands, but also imposed new governments run by his own brothers and sisters. 

War with England and its allies broke out again in 1805, but it seemed that Napoleon’s armies could not lose.  In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain, where he made his brother King.   By 1812, Napoleon controled most of Europe.  But his occupation policies promoted anti-French nationalism in Spain and elsewhere.  Then, in 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia (to extend French power into Eastern Europe).  The results were disastrous—he lost more than half of his army in Russia.  A long series of military defeats followed. 

In Spring 1814 the British, Prussians, and Russians occupied Paris and “restored” the old monarchy under Louis XVI’s brother (now King Louis XVIII).  They exiled Napoleon to the island of Elba.  In Spring 1815, though, Napoleon escaped Elba and retook power in Paris.  But the British and Prussian armies crushed Napoleon’s advancing forces at Waterloo in June 1815.  They exiled Napoleon again, this time in St. Helena (where he died in 1821).


1. The French revolution can be seen as a long series of conflicts over rights—e.g., who gets them, what do they mean, and what happens when rights come into conflict with “security.”

2. The French revolution yielded many critical new political concepts and practices (e.g., right, left, center; the new concepts of Nationalism and “nation-state”)

3. The French revolution can be seen as a conflict over the “best” nature and form of the state (Republic vs monarchy, centralized vs decentralized) and over the powers of the state visa vis the citizen.

4.  The French Revolution foreshadowed many later phenomenon.  For instance:  a) The Jacobin period represents first example of a “nation” mobilized for “total war,” and the first example of modern political terror; b) Napoleonic France represents first example of a modern police state, of dictatorship with a “benevolent face.”

5.  Napoleon’s armies did effectively spread principles of the Revolution through much of Europe, so that 1789-1815 was period of massive change not only in France, but across most of Europe.