Few periods of history have been introduced with such drama as was the
modern one. Whether historians date its emergence in 1789 or 1815--the beginning of
the French Revolution or the end of the Napoleonic Era--they are in agreement that the
two decades in which France upset the old European political and social order
comprised a uniquely turbulent time that forms a major turning point in world history.
Indeed, when the French historian Georges Lefebvre stated in 1939 that the
"ideas of the French Revolution toured the globe," he meant that in ideology and
example the actions of 1789 altered the political outlook and inspired new secular hope
among the peoples of the world. If the claim is exaggerated, it is so only in a mild way.
No revolutionary upheaval caused such anxiety, such excitement. Even the German
philosopher Immanuel Kant forwent his daily walk when he learned of what had
transpired in Paris in July of 1789. The Revolution interrupted the smallest daily routine,
just as it overthrew the most powerful example of the Old Regime.
As with so much drama, the outward play of events began quietly enough at the
center of established authority. The news of the fall of the Bastille greeted Louis XVI late
in the night of July 14, 1789, after that monarch had retired from a day at the hunt. Once
the duke who had carried the news from Paris finished his statement, the king laconically commented: "Then it's a revolt?" "No, sire," replied the duke, "it's a revolution."
On no other occasion has the French Revolution been described so simply and
directly. Yet the distinctions in the conversation between king and noble were not
semantic; they were real. The king imagined another bread riot or some such
expression of short-lived popular protest. The duke knew that the events in Paris were
more fundamental: a challenge to the very existence of the regime.
That challenge was met with equivocation by a king who was indecisive, inadequate rather than cruel, a ruler who was, moreover, supported by courtiers who did not generally appreciate that times were changing. The Old Regime as a political order fell quickly enough. By October, 1789, the royal title had changed from "Louis, by Grace of God, King of France," to "Louis, by Grace of God and the constitutional law of the State, King of the French." But the constructive work of the revolutionaries, the need to build a novus ordo seculorum, a new secular order, proved far more difficult than the toppling of the old one.
The French Revolution was, in fact, a series of upheavals, perhaps most aptly
described as a major revolution followed by a series of coups d'état. No revolutionary
wished to return to the pre-July political condition, but beyond that, there was no
clearly determined objective. Moreover, internal resistance to change and later, after
1792, external war between the revolutionary governments and the monarchies of
Europe made domestic decisions the more difficult to achieve. Thus, French
government between 1789 and 1799 followed the sweep of a pendulum, going from
absolutism in 1789 to constitutional monarchy in 1790, on to radical republicanism in
1792-1794 (with the Terror as the most dreadful aspect), then back to a middle position
with the Directory of 1795-1799, and finally on to the right with Napoleon, "first consul"
in 1799 and emperor in 1804. In outward appearance, this imaginary pendulum sweep
seemed to bring the French people back to the absolutism they had discarded in 1789.
The Phases of the Revolution
1789-1791: The National Constituent Assembly
Beginning in June 1789 the Third Estate of the Estates-General, called by King Louis XVI to repair France's finances, seized the political initiative and made the demand for fundamental governmental reform. The "Constituent" forced through a series of reforms that converted France into a constitutional monarchy, abolished feudal privileges and created a representative (but not democratic) electorate. Its most famous piece of legislation is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, roughly the equivalent of the American Bill of Rights.
1791-1792: The Legislative Assembly
The Constituent provided France with a unicameral parliament called the
Legislative Assembly. The king governed in conjunction with this body, but his
own wavering vis-a-vis the Revolution, the machinations of his wife, Marie
Antoinette, and a growing desire for republicanism worked to undermine the
regime. On August 10, 1792, a Parisian mob marched on the Tuileries (the royal
residence in the Louvre Palace) and forced the king to flee to the safety of the
Legislative Assembly. De facto, the monarchy was now through. The most
notable action of the Legislative Assembly was its declaration of war against
Austria and Prussia in April 1792. (From this date until Napoleon's abdication in
1814, with the exception of a brief period in 1802-1803, France was at war.)
1792-1795: The First Republic and the Terror
This period, during which the Revolution reached its height, witnessed the
establishment of the Terror as a governmental device to extinguish enemies of
the regime, and produced its two greatest figures, Danton and Robespierre. In
September 1792 France was declared a republic, and an elected Convention (in
imitation of Philadelphia) set out to give France a republican constitution.
Although a very liberal and democratic constitution was introduced in June 1793,
it was shelved and revolutionary government was continued. A political struggle
between the two major groups, the Girondins (moderates) and Jacobins
(radicals) was won by the Jacobins, of whom Robespierre was the most famous.
Actually, France was ruled by the Committee of Public Safety, a twelve-man
body of which Danton was the first acknowledged leader and then after
Danton's execution, Robespierre. The Revolution became more frenzied in the
spring of 1794 and began to "devour its own," that is, to execute revolutionaries
who were in opposition to the Committee's program. Finally, Robespierre was
arrested and executed in July (Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar) of 1794.
1794-1795: The Thermidorian Reaction
After Robespierre's execution, a reaction against the Terror and governmental
stringencies took place. A new constitution was created, and the Revolution
entered its final phase.
1795-1799: The Directory
In these years a weak and unpopular government known as the Directory
(executive power was held by five directors) attempted to rule France.
Attempted coups d'etat from Left and Right occurred, and the Directory came
more and more to rely on the military. The most famous of the coups occurred
on the 18th of Brumaire (November 9) 1799 when Napoleon overthrew the
Voltaire, master of epigrams, once cynically remarked that "the more things
change, the more they are the same." He seemed to have a point that could be applied
to the activities of the French Revolution. However, if political instability between
extremes was one obvious characteristic of the Revolution, a new ideological structure
was another. The French established a new realm of politics.
It is not too much to say that the ideas of the French Revolution became the
measure of what later characterized modern European society, both in principle and in
institution. Most obviously, the Revolution established the principle of popular
sovereignty in the place of absolutism, thus replacing the dynasty with the nation.
Providing the first major nation in Europe with a written constitution and a code of
political behavior--this was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen--the
revolutionaries, in the summer of the year 1789, had already converted the king's
subject into the nation's citizen. Representative, parliamentary government now rested
on the principle that the people's needs, not the king's will or whims, would direct the
affairs of the state. What the eighteenth-century French political theorist Jean-Jacques
Rousseau (1712-1778) called "civic virtue," the right and responsibility of the citizen to
participate in the affairs of the state, was most obviously recognized in the vote.
Universal manhood suffrage first appeared in 1792, but it did not become a permanent
feature of French political life until 1848.
On a grander scale, the effect of revolutionary credo and action was to make the
nation the major social unit. Heretofore, the loyalty of the subject was to his king, of the
countryman to his province. That there was a Nation (duly capitalized), a community of
like-minded citizens, motivated by common ideals and remembering a common past to
which individual loyalty should be primarily directed, was a concept the French
Revolution sharply outlined, if it did not originate. Again, during the revolutionary
decade, the notions of a "nation in arms," of the "motherland in danger," were
popularized, with the citizen army and the concept of the draft reinforcing the authority
of the state and preparing the way for modern warfare. The "defense of the sacred soil
of the homeland," became a primary duty of the citizen; and that homeland took on
fixed frontiers, within which the national community lived, separated from its
The new secular state, which the Revolution defined, created a community
ambivalent in purpose: first, the state was in theory designed to serve the individual, to
assure his rights; second, the individual was to serve the state, to defend it, uphold its
ideals. The relationship might have been reciprocal, and, in fact, it eventually came close
to that in England, the most democratic of the European nations in the nineteenth
century. But on the Continent, the citizen more served the state, than the state the
citizen. The rise of democratic government was slow, interrupted, still incomplete on
the eve of World War I. Here, as in so many other areas of influence, the results of the
French Revolution extended across the century.
NEXT: The Ideology of the French Revolution