French Revolution Compare and Constrast Essay

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French Revolution

French Revolution, major transformation of the society and political system of France,
lasting from 1789 to 1799. During the course of the Revolution, France was temporarily
transformed from an absolute monarchy, where the king monopolized power, to a republic of
theoretically free and equal citizens. The effects of the French Revolution were
widespread, both inside and outside of France, and the Revolution ranks as one of the most
important events in the history of Europe.

During the ten years of the Revolution, France first transformed and then dismantled the
Old Regime, the political and social system that existed in France before 1789, and
replaced it with a series of different governments. Although none of these governments
lasted more than four years, the many initiatives they enacted permanently altered
France¡¯s political system. These initiatives included the drafting of several bills of
rights and constitutions, the establishment of legal equality among all citizens,
experiments with representative democracy, the incorporation of the church into the state,
and the reconstruction of state administration and the law code.

Many of these changes were adopted elsewhere in Europe as well. Change was a matter of
choice in some places, but in others it was imposed by the French army during the French
Revolutionary Wars (1792-1797) and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). To later generations
of Europeans and non-Europeans who sought to overturn their political and social systems,
the French Revolution provided the most influential model of popular insurrection until
the Russian Revolution of 1917.

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From the beginning of the 20th century until the 1970s, the French Revolution was most
commonly described as the result of the growing economic and social importance of the
bourgeoisie, or middle class. The bourgeoisie, it was believed, overthrew the Old Regime
because that regime had given power and privilege to other classes¡ªthe nobility and the
clergy¡ªwho prevented the bourgeoisie from advancing socially and politically. Recently
this interpretation has been replaced by one that relies less on social and economic
factors and more on political ones. Economic recession in the 1770s may have frustrated
some bourgeois in their rise to power and wealth, and rising bread prices just before the
Revolution certainly increased discontent among workers and peasants. Yet it is now
commonly believed that the revolutionary process started with a crisis in the French

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By 1789 many French people had become critical of the monarchy, even though it had been
largely successful in militarily defending France and in quelling domestic religious and
political violence. They resented the rising and unequal taxes, the persecution of
religious minorities, and government interference in their private lives. These
resentments, coupled with an inefficient government and an antiquated legal system, made
the government seem increasingly illegitimate to the French people. The royal court at
Versailles, which had been developed to impress the French people and Europe generally,
came to symbolize the waste and corruption of the entire Old Regime.

A Parlements and Philosophes
During the 18th century, criticism of the French monarchy also came from people who worked
for the Old Regime. Some of the king¡¯s own ministers criticized past practices and
proposed reforms, but a more influential source of dissent was the parlements, 13 regional
royal courts led by the Parlement of Paris. The parlements were empowered to register
royal decrees, and all decrees had to be registered by the parlements before becoming law.
In this capacity, the parlements frequently protested royal initiatives that they believed
to threaten the traditional rights and liberties of the people. In widely distributed
publications, they held up the image of a historically free France and denounced the
absolute rule of the crown that in their view threatened traditional liberties by imposing
religious orthodoxy and new taxes.

These protests blended with those of others, most notably an influential group of
professional intellectuals called the philosophes. Like those who supported the
parlements, the philosophes did not advocate violent revolution. Yet, they claimed to
speak on behalf of the public, arguing that people had certain natural rights and that
governments existed to guarantee these rights. In a stream of pamphlets and
treatises¡ªmany of them printed and circulated illegally¡ªthey ridiculed the Old
Regime¡¯s inefficiencies and its abuses of power.

During this time, the parlementaires and the philosophes together crafted a vocabulary
that would be used later to define and debate political issues during the Revolution. They
redefined such terms as despotism, or the oppression of a people by an arbitrary ruler;
liberty and rights; and the nation.

B Fiscal Crisis
The discontent of the French people might not have brought about a political revolution if
there had not been a fiscal crisis in the late 1780s. Like so much else in the Old Regime,
the monarchy¡¯s financial system was inefficient and antiquated. France had neither a
national bank nor a centralized national treasury. The nobility and clergy¡ªmany of them
very wealthy¡ªpaid substantially less in taxes than other groups, notably the much
poorer peasantry. Similarly, the amount of tax charged varied widely from one region to

Furthermore, the monarchy almost always spent more each year than it collected in taxes;
consequently, it was forced to borrow, which it did increasingly during the 18th century.
Debt grew in part because France participated in a series of costly wars¡ªthe War of the
Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years¡¯ War (1756-1763), and the American
Revolution (1775-1783). Large existing debts and a history of renouncing earlier ones
meant that the country was forced to borrow at higher interest rates than some other
countries, further adding to the already massive debt. By 1789 the state was forced to
spend nearly half its yearly revenues paying the interest it owed.

B 1 Attempts at Reform
Financial reform was attempted before 1789. Upon his accession to the throne in 1774,
Louis XVI appointed the reform-minded Anne Robert Jacques Turgot as chief finance
minister. Between 1774 and 1776 Turgot sought to cut government expenses and to increase
revenues. He removed government restrictions on the sale and distribution of grain in
order to increase grain sales and, in turn, government revenue. Jacques Necker, director
of government finance between 1777 and 1781, reformed the treasury system and published an
analysis of the state of government finance in 1781 as a means to restore confidence in
its soundness. But most of these reforms were soon undone as the result of pressure from a
variety of financial groups, and the government continued to borrow at high rates of
interest through the 1780s.

Charles Alexandre de Calonne was appointed minister of finance in 1783, and three years
later he proposed a new general plan resembling Turgot¡¯s. He wanted to float new loans
to cover immediate expenses, revoke some tax exemptions, replace older taxes with a new
universal land tax and a stamp tax, convene regional assemblies to oversee the new taxes,
and remove more restrictions from the grain trade.

B 2 Assembly of Notables and Estates-General
To pressure the parlements into accepting the plan, Calonne decided to gain prior approval
of it from an Assembly of Notables¡ªa group of hand-picked dignitaries he thought would
sympathize with his views. But Calonne had badly miscalculated. Meeting in January 1787,
the assembly refused to believe that a financial crisis really existed. They had been
influenced by Necker¡¯s argument that state finances were sound and suspected that the
monarchy was only trying to squeeze more money from the people. They insisted on examining
state accounts. Despite a public appeal for support, Calonne was fired and replaced by
Lom¨¦nie de Brienne in April 1787.

Brienne was also unable to win the support of the assembly, and in May 1787 it was
dismissed. Over the summer and early fall, Brienne repeatedly tried to strike a compromise
with the Parlement of Paris. But the compromise fell through when the king prevented the
Parlement from voting on proposed loans, an act that was seen as yet more evidence of
despotism. In May 1788 the government abolished all the parlements in a general
restructuring of the judiciary.

Public response to the actions of the king was strong and even violent. People began to
ignore royal edicts and assault royal officials, and pamphlets denouncing despotism
inundated the country. At the same time, people began to call for an immediate meeting of
the Estates-General to deal with the crisis. The Estates-General was a consultative
assembly composed of representatives from the three French estates, or legally defined
social classes: clergy, nobility, and commoners. It had last been convened in 1614. Under
increasing political pressure and faced with the total collapse of its finances in August
1788, the Old Regime began to unravel. Brienne was dismissed, Necker reinstated, and the
Estates-General was called to meet on May 1, 1789.

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Almost immediately contention arose regarding voting procedures in the upcoming
Estates-General. In its last meeting, voting had been organized by estate, with each of
the three estates meeting separately and each having one vote. In this way the privileged
classes had combined to outvote the third estate, which constituted more than 90 percent
of the population. In registering the edict to convene the Estates-General, the Parlement
of Paris, which had been reinstated by the monarchy on September 23, 1788, ruled in favor
of keeping this form of voting. The Parlement probably did this more to prevent the
monarchy from potentially exploiting any new voting system to its advantage than to
preserve noble privilege. However, many observers read this decision as a betrayal of the
third estate. As a result, a flood of pamphlets appeared demanding a vote by head at the
Estates-General¡ªthat is, a procedure whereby each deputy was to cast one vote in a
single chamber composed of all three estates. This method would give each estate a number
of votes that more accurately represented its population and would make it more difficult
for the first two estates to routinely outvote the third. Now two battles were being waged
at the same time: one to protect the nation¡¯s liberty against royal despotism, and the
other over how the nation would be represented in the Estates-General.

During the early months of 1789, the three estates prepared for the coming meeting by
selecting deputies and drawing up cahiers des dol¨¦ances (lists of grievances). These
lists reflected overwhelming agreement in favor of limiting the power of the king and his
administrators and establishing a permanent legislative assembly. In an effort to satisfy
the third estate, the monarchy had agreed to double the number of their representatives
but then took no firm stand on whether the voting would proceed by estate or by head.

When the Estates-General assembled at Versailles in May 1789, the monarchy proposed no
specific financial plan for debate and left the voting issue unsettled. As a result, the
estates spent their time engaged in debate of the voting procedure, and little was

A National Assembly
Five wasted weeks later, the third estate finally took the initiative by inviting the
clergy and nobility to join them in a single-chambered legislature where the voting would
be by head. Some individual members of the other estates did so, and on June 17, 1789,
they together proclaimed themselves to be the National Assembly (also later called the
Constituent Assembly).

When officials locked their regular meeting place to prepare it for a royal address,
members of the National Assembly concluded their initiative was about to be crushed.
Regrouping at a nearby indoor tennis court on June 20, they swore not to disband until
France had a constitution. This pledge became known as the Tennis Court Oath.

B Storming of the Bastille
On June 23, 1789, Louis XVI belatedly proposed a major overhaul of the financial system,
agreed to seek the consent of the deputies for all new loans and taxes, and proposed other
important reforms. But he spoiled the effect by refusing to recognize the transformation
of the Estates-General into the National Assembly and by insisting upon voting by
estate¡ªalready a dying cause. Moreover, he inspired new fears by surrounding the
meeting hall of the deputies with a large number of soldiers. Faced with stiffening
resistance by the third estate and increasing willingness of deputies from the clergy and
nobility to join the third estate in the National Assembly, the king suddenly changed
course and agreed to a vote by head on June 27.


Despite much rejoicing, suspicions of the king¡¯s intentions ran high. Royal troops
began to thicken near Paris, and on July 11 the still-popular Necker was dismissed. To
people at the time and to many later on, these developments were clear signs that the king
sought to undo the events of the previous weeks.

Crowds began to roam Paris looking for arms to fight off a royal attack. On July 14 these
crowds assaulted the Bastille, a large fortress on the eastern edge of the city. They
believed that it contained munitions and many prisoners of despotism, but in fact, the
fortress housed only seven inmates at the time. The storming of the Bastille marked a
turning point¡ªattempts at reform had become a full-scale revolution. Faced with this
insurrection, the monarchy backed down. The troops were withdrawn, and Necker was

In the year leading up to the storming of the Bastille, the economic problems of many
common people had become steadily worse, largely because poor weather conditions had
ruined the harvest. As a result, the price of bread¡ªthe most important food of the
poorer classes¡ªincreased. Tensions and violence grew in both the cities and the
countryside during the spring and summer of 1789. While hungry artisans revolted in urban
areas, starved peasants scoured the provinces in search of food and work. These vagrants
were rumored to be armed agents of landlords hired to destroy crops and harass the common
people. Many rural peasants were gripped by a panic, known as the Great Fear. They
attacked the residences of their landlords in hopes of protecting local grain supplies and
reducing rents on their land.

Both afraid of and politically benefiting from this wave of popular violence, leaders of
the revolutionary movement in Paris began to massively restructure the state. On the night
of August 4, 1789, one nobleman after another renounced his personal privileges. Before
the night was over, the National Assembly declared an end to the feudal system, the
traditional system of rights and obligations that had reinforced inherited inequality
under the Old Regime. The exact meaning of this resolution as it applied to specific
privileges, especially economic ones, took years to sort out. But it provided the legal
foundation for gradually scaling back the feudal dues peasants owed to landlords and for
eliminating the last vestiges of serfdom, the system that legally bound the peasants to
live and work on the landlords¡¯ estates.

At the end of August, the National Assembly promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of
Man and of the Citizen. Conceived as the prologue to a new constitution that was not yet
drafted, the declaration was a short, concise document ensuring such basic personal rights
as those of property, free speech, and personal security. It left unresolved the rights of
women and the limits of individual rights in relation to the power of the newly emerging
state. But by recognizing the source of sovereignty in the people, it undermined the idea
that the king ruled by divine right (see Divine Right of Kings).

A Restructuring the State
As these developments unfolded, Louis XVI once again failed to act decisively. The queen,
Marie-Antoinette, feared catastrophe if events continued on their current course and
advocated a hard line. But power was quickly slipping away from the king, as
revolutionaries began to organize political clubs and an influential periodical press.
Having lost control of events, Louis was forced to yield to them. He gave in so
reluctantly¡ªfor example, taking months to approve the August 4, 1789, decrees and the
Declaration of Rights¡ªthat hostility to the crown only increased.

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When rumors circulated that guests at a royal banquet had trampled on revolutionary
insignia, a crowd of many thousands, most of them women who were also protesting the high
cost of bread, marched to Versailles on October 5. They were accompanied by National
Guards, commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette. The Guards were barely able to prevent
wholesale massacre, and the crowd forced the royal family to leave Versailles for Paris,
never to return. The king and his family were now, in effect, prisoners, forced to inhabit
the Tuilerie Palace along with the National Assembly, which moved there as well. Paris had
replaced Versailles as the center of power, and the government was now more vulnerable
than ever to the will of the restless, and occasionally violent, people of the city.

A 1 Political Change: Constitutional Monarchy
The National Assembly next focused on writing a new constitution, a process that took more
than two years. Although it was agreed that France would remain a monarchy, the Assembly
decided almost immediately that the constitution would not simply reform the old order, as
the more moderate deputies wanted. Instead, it transformed the political system of the Old
Regime, but preserved the monarchy.

The new constitution was designed to prevent the return of despotism by making all
government officials subject to the rule of law. It proclaimed France as a united,
sovereign kingdom, dissolved the entire system of royal administration, and adopted a
system of federalism that shifted authority from Paris to the localities. France was
divided into 83 districts called departments, each of which would elect administrators to
execute laws, maintain public order, levy taxes, and oversee education and poor relief.

The powers of the national government were divided among separate, independent branches.
The chief executive was to be the king, who would continue to inherit his office, but his
powers were to be limited, particularly in legislative matters. The king was allowed only
a suspensive veto, whereby he could at most delay the laws passed by the assembly. As the
only law-making body, the single-chambered Legislative Assembly was the heart of the
state, enjoying wide powers. Although the right to vote was extended to more than half the
adult male population¡ªcalled active citizens¡ªelection to the assembly was made a
complex process. Very restrictive qualifications made only about 50,000 men (out of about
26 million French people) eligible to serve as deputies. Like the administration of the
departments, the judiciary was also decentralized. Legal procedure was streamlined, and
torture banned.

A 2 Social Change: Equal Rights
In addition to reconstituting the state, the National Assembly made many changes to the
existing social order. Among the most notable changes were the elimination of the nobility
as a legally defined class and the granting of the same civil rights to all citizens; the
elimination of guilds and other organizations that monopolized production, controlled
prices and wages, or obstructed economic activity through strikes; the extension of rights
to blacks in France and to mulattoes in France¡¯s Caribbean colonies, though not the
outright abolition of slavery; and the granting of full civil rights to religious
minorities, including Protestants and Jews.

A 3 Religious Change: Civil Constitution of the Clergy
Political and social restructuring on this scale raised complicated issues regarding the
Catholic Church. The clergy had enjoyed extensive property rights and special privileges
under the Old Regime and had long been a target of criticism. The National Assembly
incorporated the church within the state, stripping clerics of their property and special
rights. In return, the state assumed the large debts of the church and paid the clergy a
salary. Dioceses were redrawn to correspond to departments. A presiding bishop would
administer each diocese, with local priests beneath him. Since active citizens would elect
the bishops and the priests, a Protestant, Jew, or atheist might be chosen to fill these
positions. Finally, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790 required all priests and
bishops to swear an oath of loyalty to the new order or face dismissal.

Almost half the parish priests and bishops (called the refractory clergy) refused to take
the oath. This marked an important turn of events. Before the Civil Constitution,
opposition to the Revolution had remained a scattered affair. It had been led by an
ineffective group of high nobles called the ¨¦migr¨¦s, who had fled the country
beginning in July 1789 and had been conspiring from abroad ever since. More than anything
else, the Civil Constitution and the oath solidified resistance to the Revolution by
giving the resistance a religious justification and publicly designating a group of
influential individuals¡ªthe refractory clergy¡ªas enemies of the new state.

Although there were many reasons for the Civil Constitution, financial considerations were
some of the most important. The government¡¯s fiscal problems continued well past 1789.
The assembly had assumed the Old Regime¡¯s debts, but tax collections had been
interrupted by administrative disorders and simple refusals to pay. To cover expenditures,
the assembly issued bonds, called assignats; then to repay the assignats, it confiscated
and sold the church¡¯s considerable property holdings. The government justified this
practice by saying that church property belonged to the nation.

B Growing Factionalism
All these measures were vigorously debated inside and outside the assembly. The assembly
had been divided from the start into a conservative right that wanted to limit change and
a radical left that wanted major social and political reforms. The assembly therefore
lacked a unified voice. As head of state, the king was expected to provide this unifying
influence, even if his power was formally limited. However, hopes that the king would step
in and fill this role were dashed in June 1791 when the royal family fled Paris in
disguise, leaving behind a manifesto denouncing nearly all the Revolution had accomplished
since 1789. Poorly planned and executed, the effort ended with the royal family¡¯s
arrest at the border town of Varennes. From there they were returned to Paris under heavy
guard, now more prisoners than ever.

Because so much had been expected of the king, the Varennes fiasco proved more of a shock
than could be absorbed all at once. In an attempt to recover, assembly leaders announced
that the incident had been a case of kidnapping, not an escape, and in mid-July the
assembly voted to clear the king of all responsibility for what had happened. But these
fictions were hardly convincing, and once they collapsed, so did the likelihood of ending
the Revolution and establishing a stable government. On the left, moderate revolutionaries
who sought to keep the monarchy, called Feuillants, split from the more radical
revolutionaries, known as the Cordeliers and the Jacobins, who now began to talk openly
about replacing the monarchy with a republic.

The king reluctantly approved the new constitution on September 14, 1791. Alarmed by the
radical direction the Revolution was taking, more nobles began to cross the border to
become ¨¦migr¨¦s. Pressured by these ¨¦migr¨¦s and concerned about the potential
effects of the Revolution on their own kingdoms, the Austrian emperor and Prussian king
issued the Declaration of Pillnitz on August 27. In this declaration they announced a
rather vague willingness to intervene militarily on behalf of the French monarchy. Unclear
as it was, the declaration provoked fears of an invasion.

It was under these threatening circumstances that the new constitution took effect and the
Legislative Assembly first met on October 1, 1791. At first, the assembly got along
remarkably well with the king, but this situation changed when the assembly proposed
retaliatory actions against the ¨¦migr¨¦s and the refractory clergy. On November 9 it
passed legislation requiring that the ¨¦migr¨¦s return to France or face death and the
loss of their estates. On November 29 it required the refractory clergy to take the oath
to the constitution or fall under state surveillance and lose their pension rights.

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The ¨¦migr¨¦s and their efforts to mobilize foreign powers against France created the
pretext for France¡¯s entry into war in April 1792. In reality, Austria and Prussia had
shown little interest in intervention on behalf of the French king. However, radical
political figures, most notably Jacques Pierre Brissot, persistently exaggerated the
threat of an Austrian invasion of France and the subversion of the revolutionary
government by a conspiracy of Austrian sympathizers called the Austrian Committee.
Expecting that a conflict with Austria would weaken the king to their political advantage,
Brissot and his colleagues pressed for a declaration of war. Many of the king¡¯s
advisors, though at first not the king himself, also advocated the war option. They
believed a victory would strengthen royal power and a defeat would crush the Revolution.
Persuaded, the king appointed a ministry dominated by Brissot¡¯s associates on March 10,
1792, and on April 20 the assembly declared war on Austria, which was soon joined by
Prussia. Thus began the series of conflicts known as the French Revolutionary Wars.

A End of the Monarchy
The wars profoundly altered the course of the Revolution, leading to the end of the
monarchy and raising fears of reprisals against the revolutionaries in the event of a
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