Sunday, 14 July 2013

Quatorze Juillet - French Revolution

A watershed event in modern European history, 
the French Revolution began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s 
with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. 
During this period, French citizens razed and redesigned 
 their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions 
such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system.

Like the American Revolution before it, 
the French Revolution was influenced by Enlightenment ideals, 
particularly the concepts of popular sovereignty and inalienable rights.

Although it failed to achieve all of its goals and at times degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, 
the movement played a critical role in shaping modern nations 
by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people.


 "You should hope that this game will be over soon."
Caricature of the Third Estate carrying the First Estate (clergy) 
and the Second Estate (nobility) on its back.

Prelude to the French Revolution: Monarchy in Crisis

As the 18th century drew to a close,
France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution
and extravagant spending by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and his predecessor
had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy.
Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but two decades of poor cereal harvests,
drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices
had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor.
Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime
that imposed heavy taxes yet failed to provide relief by rioting, looting and striking.

 File:Ludvig XVI av Frankrike porträtterad av AF Callet.jpg
 Portrait of Louis XVI
by Antoine-François Callet (1741-1823) 

In the fall of 1786, Louis XVI’s controller general, Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802),
 proposed a financial reform package that included a universal land tax
from which the privileged classes would no longer be exempt.
To garner support for these measures and forestall a growing aristocratic revolt,
the king summoned the Estates-General (“les états généraux”)
–an assembly representing France’s clergy, nobility and middle class–
for the first time since 1614.
The meeting was scheduled for May 5, 1789; in the meantime,
delegates of the three estates from each locality
would compile lists of grievances (“cahiers de doléances”) to present to the king.

The meeting of the Estates General May 5, 1789 
in the Grands Salles des Menus-Plaisirs in Versailles.

The French Revolution at Versailles: Rise of the Third Estate

France’s population had changed considerably since 1614.
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.
On June 17, with talks over procedure stalled, the Third Estate met alone and formally adopted the title of National Assembly; three days later, they met in a nearby indoor tennis court and took the so-called Tennis Court Oath (“serment du jeu de paume”), vowing not to disperse until constitutional reform had been achieved. Within a week, most of the clerical deputies and 47 liberal nobles had joined them, and on June 27 Louis XVI grudgingly absorbed all three orders into the new assembly.

Le Serment du Jeu de paume, 1791
The National Assembly taking the Tennis Court Oath 

The French Revolution Hits the Streets: The Bastille and the Great Fear

On June 12, as the National Assembly (known as the National Constituent Assembly during its work on a constitution)
continued to meet at Versailles, fear and violence consumed the capital.
Though enthusiastic about the recent breakdown of royal power,
Parisians grew panicked as rumors of an impending military coup began to circulate.
A popular insurgency culminated on July 14 when rioters stormed the Bastille fortress
in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons;
many consider this event, now commemorated in France as a national holiday,
as the start of the French Revolution.

 Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789.

The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the countryside.
Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors,
landlords and the seigniorial elite.
Known as the Great Fear (“la Grande peur”),
the agrarian insurrection hastened the growing exodus of nobles from the country
and inspired the National Constituent Assembly to abolish feudalism on August 4, 1789,
signing what the historian Georges Lefebvre later called the
“death certificate of the old order.”


 On 10 August 1792 the Paris Commune stormed the Tuileries Palace 
and massacred the Swiss Guards
by Jean Duplessis Bertaux (1747-1819)

La bataille du Mans, 1793
The War in the Vendée was a royalist uprising 
that was suppressed by the republican forces in 1796.


The French Revolution's Political Culture: Drafting a Constitution

On August 4, 1789, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
(“Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen”),
a statement of democratic principles grounded in the philosophical and political ideas
of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
The document proclaimed the Assembly’s commitment to replace the ancien régime
with a system based on  
equal opportunity, 
 freedom of speech, 
popular sovereignty 
and representative government.

by Jean-Jaques-François Le Barbier


 The Fête de la Fédération on 14 July 1790
celebrated the establishment of the constitutional monarchy, 1790
Graveur; Isidore-Stanislas Helman (1743-1806?). Graveur (eau-forte); Antoine-Jean Duclos (1742-1795). 
Dessinateur du modèle; Charles Monnet (1732-180.?).


In this caricature, monks and nuns enjoy their new freedom after the decree of 16 February 1790


Drafting a formal constitution proved much more of a challenge for the National Constituent Assembly, 
which had the added burden of functioning as a legislature during harsh economic times. 
For months, its members wrestled with fundamental questions about the shape and expanse of France’s new political landscape. 
For instance, who would be responsible for electing delegates? 
Would the clergy owe allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church or the French government? 
Perhaps most importantly, how much authority would the king, 
his public image further weakened after a failed attempt to flee in June 1791, retain?

 File:Retour Varennes 1791.jpg
  Retour de la famille royale à Paris le 25 juin 1791, 
après la « fuite à Varennes ». 
Gravure coloriée, Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

Adopted on September 3, 1791, 
France’s first written constitution echoed the more moderate voices in the Assembly, 
establishing a constitutional monarchy in which the king enjoyed royal veto power and the ability to appoint ministers. 
This compromise did not sit well with influential radicals 
like Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794), Camille Desmoulins (1760-1794) 
and Georges Danton (1759-1794), who began drumming up popular support 
for a more republican form of government and the trial of Louis XVI.

Feminist agitation


Engraving of the Women's March on Versailles, 5 October 1789


The March to Versailles is but one example of feminist militant activism during the French Revolution. 
While largely left out of the thrust for increasing rights of citizens, 
as the question was left indeterminate in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, 
activists such as Pauline Léon and Théroigne de Méricourt agitated for full citizenship for women. 
Women were, nonetheless, "denied political rights of ‘active citizenship’ (1791) and democratic citizenship (1793).

While some women chose a militant, and often violent, path, 
others chose to influence events through writing, publications, and meetings. 
Olympe de Gouges wrote a number of plays, short stories, and novels. 
Her publications emphasized that women and men are different, 
but this shouldn’t stop them from equality under the law. 
In her "Declaration on the Rights of Woman", 1791, 
she insisted that women deserved rights, especially in areas concerning them directly, 
such as divorce and recognition of illegitimate children.

 Portrait of Olympes de Gouges (1748-1793)
by Alexander Kucharsky (1741-1819)

De Gouges also expressed non-gender political views; 
even before the start of the terror, Olympe de Gouges addressed Robespierre 
using the pseudonym "Polyme" calling him the Revolution’s "infamy and shame."
She warned of the Revolution’s building extremism saying that leaders were 
"preparing new shackles if [the French people’s liberty were to] waver." 
Stating that she was willing to sacrifice herself by jumping into the Seine 
if Robespierre were to join her, de Gouges desperately attempted to grab the attention 
of the French citizenry and alert them to the dangers that Robespierre embodied. 
 In addition to these bold writings, her defense of the king was one of the factors 
leading to her execution.
An influential figure, one of her suggestions early in the Revolution, 
to have a voluntary, patriotic tax, was adopted by the National Convention in 1789

Club of patriotic women in a church, 1793


The French Revolutionary Army defeated the combined armies of Austrians, 
Dutch and British at Fleurus in June 1794.
by  Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse

The French Revolution Turns Radical: Terror and Revolt

In April 1792, the newly elected Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia, where it believed that French émigrés were building counterrevolutionary alliances; it also hoped to spread its revolutionary ideals across Europe through warfare. On the domestic front, meanwhile, the political crisis took a radical turn when a group of insurgents led by the extremist Jacobins attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the king on August 10, 1792.

The following month, amid a wave of violence in which Parisian insurrectionists massacred hundreds of accused counterrevolutionaries, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, which proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French republic. On January 21, 1793, it sent King Louis XVI, condemned to death for high treason and crimes against the state, to the guillotine;
his wife Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793) suffered the same fate nine months later.

Following the king’s execution, war with various European powers and intense divisions within the National Convention ushered the French Revolution into its most violent and turbulent phase. In June 1793, the Jacobins seized control of the National Convention from the more moderate Girondins and instituted a series of radical measures, including the establishment of a new calendar and the eradication of Christianity. They also unleashed the bloody Reign of Terror (“la Terreur”),
a 10-month period in which suspected enemies of the revolution were guillotined by the thousands.

 Satirical cartoon from England lampooning the excesses of the Revolution 
as symbolized through the guillotine
between 18,000 and 40,000 people were executed during the Reign of Terror

Many of the killings were carried out under orders from Robespierre, who dominated the draconian Committee of Public Safety until his own execution on July 28, 1794. His death marked the beginning of the Thermidorian Reaction,
a moderate phase in which the French people revolted against the Reign of Terror’s excesses.

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794. 
Note: the beheaded man is not Robespierre, but Couthon: Maximilien Robespierre is shown sitting on the cart, 
dressed in brown, wearing a hat, and holding a handkerchief to his mouth. 
His younger brother Augustin is being led up the steps to the scaffold.


The French Revolution Ends: Napoleon's Rise

Orangerie du parc de Saint-Cloud — 
Coup d'État des 18-19 brumaire an VIII —  
Le général Bonaparte au Conseil des Cinq-Cents, à Saint Cloud. 10 novembre 1799.
Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud.
by Francois Buchot (1800-1842)

On August 22, 1795, the National Convention, composed largely of Girondins who had survived the Reign of Terror,
approved a new constitution that created France’s first bicameral legislature.
Executive power would lie in the hands of a five-member Directory (“Directoire”) appointed by parliament.
Royalists and Jacobins protested the new regime but were swiftly silenced by the army,
now led by a young and successful general named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821).
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 staged a coup d’état, abolishing the Directory and appointing himself
France’s “first consul.”
The event marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era,
in which France would come to dominate much of continental Europe.


Early depiction of the tricolour 
in the hands of a sans-culotte during the French Revolution.


All this happened over 200 years ago.
 Where do we stand in these days?

Too many people are still fighting for their rights,
just for simple human rights,
fighting against corruption, feudalism, suppression, 
despotism, intolerance, religious fanaticism, or...
...simply having enough to eat, enough to survive. 

Far too many - allover the world!

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate,
"Fly, thought, on wings of gold"
 Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves - Nabucco, Verdi


What is meant by
we have to ask our self all the time.

The answer is to tolerate and respect each other,
to respect people who think differently,
who live differently and who believe differently.
To turn to each other and support each other's qualities.


English text source "French revolution" with thanks to:
and Wikipedia


  1. Possibly the Tennis Court oath is the high point of convergence between this revolution and the American rising of 1776, except that internal waves of monarchist and aristocratic emigration began immediately in the US and would come later to France; in proportion to total population these human costs were very similar. It is interesting that the revolution in France, made so famous by Burke and Carlyle for its supposedly inherent radicalism, preserved the King on his throne even longer than the King endured it, well into 1792, all the while plotting with counter-revolutionaries and foreign powers to destroy his own commitments to the Estates General; but I do not offer these as quibbles with an excellent and graphically articulate summary. Since 1794 we have found states growing more sophisticated in their imposition of terror from above, against the resolution of the questions you correctly cite as being left open by the revolution in France - which, nevertheless, laid them immortally on the table with the capacity to this day, to spark the civic soul of humankind to strive for social justice.

  2. Hello Karin

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this part of French history. I had forgotten it, or perhaps was gazing out the window on the day of this lecture!!! Verdi's Nabucco is blasting as I write. Your choice in music always pleases
    Wishing you a marvelous week

    Helen xx

  3. Karin,
    I sent a long comment about this that seems to have disappeared! Déja vu all over again!
    Anyway, wanted you to know I thought this was superbly done, in your usual style. So clear, concise, illuminating -- and your choice of art and music makes it truly come to life.
    We all know La Marseilleise, can even sing it, many of us (unlike the Star Spangled Banner which, with its absurd range, is almost unsingable). But historically speaking, most of us are kindergarten. So your grown-up presentation was really welcome. I passed it along to my weekly French conversation group, where it was gratefully received.
    Bises, Judith

  4. Oh Karin thanks for the post very interesting !! wonderful music too ! over here we are having a bit of a heat wave so I'm sat in the shade in the garden catching up on my blogging ! have a lovely weekend ! Gail x

  5. Bonjour Karin!
    I hope you all had a wonderful Bastille Day. We have been away, and celebrated B.D. in Maine. We were in the coastal town of Castine, which was settled by the French during the 1600s. Have you been to Maine? Thanks for this informative and powerfully illustrated post. You always invest in so much research into your posts, and I truly appreciate it. I always learn a lot from your posts....such as the history of grain sacks, gardening and plants, etc. And the music is also beautiful and moving.
    Cheers from very hot and humid DC!

  6. you have a great blog ^ ^
    you want to follow each other?
    follow me and let me know with a comment
    and follow you too :))


  7. I wish you had taught me French History in college! This was so much more interesting than any college lecture...and I love the beautiful header with your lovely lavender!


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