Earlier quality of life in Europe was according to the status into which one was born. A person born in a meager family would live a life of poverty, no matter how hard he worked. It seemed only the wealthy enjoyed the pleasures of European society and lived a life of comfort, ease, and recreation.
Poor saw wealthy getting richer while they had nothing. The gap between the poor and the healthy created a lot of resentment.
Then, in 1776, for the people in Europe, something remarkable happened – the American Revolution. The people at the bottom of the society won against those who were at the top. The British colonies not only won against the powerful military but declared themselves independent.
It gave the people of Europe hope and encouragement to fight for themselves as well the desire to see the aristocracies of Europe fall.
The French Estates
In Europe, France was where the divide between the rich and poor was the greatest. The French aristocrats were the wealthiest of all. They had money, power, and land that remained unchecked.
The French society was divided into estates ( three separate castes ). The first estate consisted of religious leaders and priests. They had the highest position in French Society. The second estate belonged to the nobility, and the lowest third estate consisted of 97% population of France.
The poor in France were abused, mistreated, and ignored. They worked on the estates of the wealthy under terrible conditions. They were given little pay and were starving and suffering. With each passing year, they were getting sick and tired.
The First Estate
The first estate consisted of religious leaders of the Church. They were 1% of the total population but owned 10 % of the land of France. They received rent from the peasant as well as wealth from products produced from it. To run the Church, they also received a 10% tax from the incomes of those who lived on their land. However, this money was used to maintain their lifestyles.
The Second Estate
The second estate was the nobility who lived on huge manors. They owned 25% of the total land in France, although they were about 2% of the total population. They also collected dues and rent from those who lived on their land. Their source of income was endless, and it maintained their extravagant lifestyles.
The Third Estate
The third estate, the largest social group, consisting of 97% of the population, had little political power and few rights. They had to pay rent to their lords, 10% tax to the Church, as well as land tax to the king. They had left with little to support their families.
Turmoil and Unrest in France
In 1774, a 19-year-old prince, Louis XVI, became the king of France. He had an 18-year-old wife named Marie Antoinette. He was under a lot of debt from his predecessors. His debt further increased when he supported the American Revolution against his rival Great Britain. He was now desperate to raise more money to pay off the debts.
[To know more about American Revolution – click here.]
To do so, he ordered first and second estates to pay taxes, but they refused to do so. In 1789, King Louis XVI called upon Estates-General to meet in Versailles to discuss and solve the problems of debt the nation was facing.
King Louis XVI hoped the meet would discuss to come out with a solution, but things turned out to be different.
A French Constitution
Members of the Estates-General were from all the three estates. But the representatives of the third estate outnumbered those of first and second. The third estate representatives wanted to use this meet to take powers away from the king and correct the social ills of the society.
Now, if each representative was given one vote, the third estate ended up having votes to pass any law. This issue worried King Louis XVI. To prevent this, the king blocked the entry of representatives of the third estate from the meet.
It created an outrage among them. The third estate ended up meeting at a nearby indoor tennis court to take an oath to write a new constitution for France. They called themselves The National Assembly.
It made King Louis XVI worried about what kind of form the constitution would end up taking if written solely by members of the third estate. He ordered members of the first and second estates to join the National Assembly.
A Revolution Begins
The debates on the new constitution started spreading into the streets in Paris that made everyone talk about the social evils of France. There were discussions about what form a new government should take. The sentiment of the revolution was spreading throughout.
Fearing for a revolution, King Louis XVI placed troops around the palace and throughout the city. But these troops created fear among the supporters of the National Assembly. People thought troops were building up to put an end to the National Assembly and the reforms.
The fear made rioters attack the Prison of Bastille, where ammunition and weapons were kept. In the end, rioters took the control of the prison to establish a radical government in Paris. Many soldiers and rioters got killed.
The Great Fear
The violence got spread to the French countryside. Rumors got spread, though they were not true, that feudal lords had hired robbers to murder peasants. In fear, peasants rose against their feudal lords. Many of the nobles got killed in their manor houses. Peasants took possession of their properties. This atmosphere created because of the violence was called the Great Fear.
The Declaration of Rights
As violence continued, members of the third estate demanded equality for the citizens of France. Initially, the first and second estates refused to grant equal rights and refused to give up the special privileges that they had enjoyed for centuries but finally realized that they had to submit to the will of the third estate.
On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly passed reforms
– abolished feudal dues
established taxes on the first and second estate
The focus of the National Assembly turned towards the bill of rights for the people of France.
The Declaration of Rights included
– freedom of speech
– freedom of press
– freedom of religion
– protection of citizens from being wrongly arrested
The Declaration of Rights is in the French Constitution to this day.
King Louis XVI moves to Paris
The king refused the new reforms and the Declaration of Rights presented by the National Assembly. The people who were anxious to see the new era of equality and freedom got angered by the lack of support from the king. They demanded that the king should acknowledge and move to Paris with his family.
In October 1789, an angry mob surrounded the palace and threatened to attack. Finally, King XVI agreed to move to Paris.
A New French Constitution is created
After forcing the king to accept the new reforms, the National Assembly began the process of writing the constitution to form a new government.
The constitution got ready by 1791. It established a legislature elected by the people who could vote so long they paid a tax. It granted equal rights to all men. Monarchy was retained but with limited royal powers.
The lands owned by the Church got confiscated. It got sold to pay off the national debt that was accumulated by the earlier kings. They demanded priests be elected and not appointed by the Church. They wanted the Catholic priests to take an oath of loyalty to the French government. It angered Pope Pius VI and made him condemn the revolution.
Royal Family Flees France
King Louis XVI feared that he and his family would be killed. His wife, Marie Antoinette, had a brother who was the emperor of Austria. They hoped that they would be safe in Austria.
In June of 1791, the royal family attempted to escape to Austria. But their attempt failed. On their way, they got recognized and made to return to Paris to accept the demands. They were to remain in their homes as prisoners.
France Declares War on Austria
In 1792, France declared war on Austria. The people of France worried that Austria would want to reinstate King Louis XVI on the throne. The war resulted in a shortage of food and poverty throughout France.
The war was having a devastating effect on France. It seemed like France could be defeated. But in the end, the French army pulled off a stunning victory that turned the tide of the war.
A Republic is Born
For three years, from 1792 through 1795, a National Convention met in Paris. They used to discuss how to further define the new form of the French Government. Ultimately, it was decided to do away with monarchy entirely to establish a republic. All men were granted the right to vote, regardless of whether they could pay taxes or not.
King Louis XVI is Beheaded
In 1792, the National Convention found King Louis XVI guilty of having conspired against the liberty of the nation. He was put to death in January of 1793.
The news of the death of the king got received with celebration throughout France. To them, it was a guarantee that the new revolution would go forward.
A Revolution in Trouble
The revolution in France disturbed the natural order that existed for centuries. Monarchs throughout Europe got concerned that the same thing could happen in their nations, and their lives might be at risk too.
These monarchs joined hands together to fight against France so that the revolution could not spread in their nations. The soldiers were sent from the Netherlands, Great Britain, Sardinia, and Spain to fight the revolutionaries in France.
Life became difficult in France. All men between the ages of 18 and 45 were called upon by the new French government to fight against the large armies. It resulted in a civil war in Western France where people (royalists) in France who were loyal to the king got angry to send their sons to fight against the cause they did not support.
Even within the National Convention, debate divided different political parties. Everything seemed to be threatening the newly formed government.
The Reign of Terror
There was a lot of disturbance, agitation, and disorder within and surrounding France. Seeing this, Jacobins, the leading political party, started crushing any resistance within the nation. The neighborhood watches got established to turn in anyone and often put to death, who was not loyal.
This period came to be known as the Reign of Terror. It lasted from July 1793 until July 1794. Many individuals got executed.
The Jacobins lost their power in France after their Reign of Terror ended. A new constitution got written by National Convention that again denied the right to vote to those who could not pay a vote tax.
The Directory got established, the office of five directors, who ruled France from 1795 until 1799. During this time army was used to settle disputes within France. Once again, the poor had very little, and the rich began to grow wealthier.
The people began to face the same old problems that existed in France before the revolution. The new government also did not have any money to run the country.
– French Revolution lasted from 1789 to 1799 ( 10 years )
– Outcome – End to monarchy, Feudalism
– Political power is taken from the church
– Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte
During the revolution, one general, Napoleon Bonaparte, 26year old, began to outshine all the others. He was a shelfful leader who was able to crush the rebellions within France, expand the territories of France, and had a victory against the Austrian army.
In 1804, Napoleon named himself as emperor of France.
Napoleon brought stability and peace back to France. He established several reforms and rewrote old laws that were confusing. He created the Napoleonic Code of Laws. He even brought economic prosperity to France. He set out to conquer the remainder of Europe.
By 1812, Napoleon ended up controlling most of Europe, either directly or indirectly.
Napoleon’s Empire Defeated
The nations that got conquered by Napoleon resented being ruled by France. They did not appreciate paying taxes to France nor liked sending their men to fight as soldiers for Napoleon’s cause.
A time came when these nations rebelled, starting with Spain. Napoleon got defeated and made to step down as the emperor of France by March 1814. Also, King Louis XVI’s brother was made to sit on the throne of France.
In 1815, Napoleon returned to Paris. He was still popular among people who had a quick rise to power under his empire. Napoleon again ruled France for 100 days. Monarchs of Europe started fearing this.
But history had other plans. In 1815, Napoleon got defeated in the battle of Waterloo, France. He got forced into exile, where he died in 1821.