The French Revolution was one of the most influential events in modern human history. Today, let’s talk about the causes, events, and consequences of the revolution, while learning some useful English vocabulary!
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Revolution (n) – a change is the way a country is governed, usually to a different political system and often using violence or war
The country seems to be heading towards revolution
Republic (n) – a country without a king or queen, usually governed by elected representatives and a president
San Marino in Europe is considered the oldest republic in the world
Noble (adj) – belonging to a high social rank in a society, especially by birth
He was born into a famous noble family
To culminate (v) – if an event or series of events culminates in something, it ends with it, having developed until it reaches this point
Their many years of research have finally culminated in a cure for the disease
The Enlightenment (n) – the period in the 18th century in Europe when many people began to emphasize the importance of science and reason
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers
Treason (n) – (crime of) showing no loyalty to your country
In 1606 Guy Fawkes was executed for treason
Feudalism (n) – the social and land-owning system of western Europe in the Middle Ages in which people served noble families and in exchange were supported and given land
Capitalism replaced feudalism in western Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries
Fraternity (n) – a feeling of friendship and support
The Olympics have become a way to promote fraternity between nations
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Influential Moments in History…
I often think back to when I was an 18-yearm old undergraduate student, taking history and politics classes at the University of Nottingham. Higher education introduced me to a whole new world of topics – I studied nuclear weapons in my international security class, the Norman kings of England in my Medieval history classes, and the ideas of Foucault, Marx, and Hannah Arendt in political philosophy lectures.
Throughout the years I have studied history and politics, it has become clear that a few special events in history have had incredible, widespread, and transformative effects. For example, Constantine the Great’s conversion to Christianity – the first Roman emperor to do so; the invention of the printing press which allowed books to be printed relatively quickly; the Russian Revolution of 1917. Events like this influenced and changed the course of history – they changed the way people live, act, and think.
The French Revolution was arguably the most important event in modern history. In fact, at my university modern history was considered to start at the French Revolution. It is hard to express the true importance of French Revolution – within France it transformed the country into a republic and introduced new rights. And around the world, the French Revolution triggered the beginnings of liberal democracy, reduced the importance of religion, developed ideas of nationalism, inspired revolutions, and much more.
Today, I want to talk about this significant event. Let’s discuss the causes of the French Revolution, the main events of Revolution, and some of the major consequences around the world!
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Causes of the French Revolution
As with most European countries in the 18th century, France was a monarchy controlled by a King. -Louis XVI (16th). King Louis XVI became king of France in 1774 at the age of 20 and was part of the Bourbon dynasty of rulers which spread from France, to Spain, Naples, Sicily, and Luxembourg.
While Louis was said to be a bright but shy child, he was immature and unprepared for the throne. In fact, his advisors and tutors taught him that being “austere” was a great character for a king… and as a result Louis was often indecisive.
France was struggling economically. They had spent a lot supporting the Americans in their war of independence from Britain – rather than raising taxes, King Louis decided to take out international loans to support the Americans and fund other policies. France’s national debt was incredibly high, and years of drought, poor harvests, and high bread prices spread discontent throughout the country.
In 1786 the King and his advisors finally decided on a series of financial reforms – including a new tax that would apply to all citizens including the aristocracy and noble families. To get support for these policies, King Louis summoned the Estates General for the first time since 1614. The Estates General was an assembly representing the three estates of France – the clergy (religious leaders), the nobility, and the middle classes. The meeting was set for May 5th 1789 and representatives were sent to gather the opinions of each group.
However, France had changed a lot since the previous meeting of the Estates General in 1614. The middle-classes were now 98% of the population… but they would only get 33% of votes during the meeting. And the noble families would be able to veto any policy they didn’t like.
Known as the Third Estate, this middle-class group wanted to reform the entire voting system and introduce financial and political reforms. By the time of the Estates General meeting, the three groups were openly hostile to each other, and the Third Estate had given themselves the title “National Assembly.” The Third Estate also made the Tennis Court Oath (so-called because they were meeting on a tennis court) and promised they would not leave the meetings until they had achieved their goals of a new constitution.
What Happened During the French Revolution?
Storming of the Bastille
On June 12th, violence broke out in Paris. Parisians were happy that the royal families influence was being challenged, but there were rumours that the military was planning a coup. The violence culminated on July 14 when the Bastille fortress was stormed by protestors trying to get weapons and gunpowder.
The revolutionary feeling was now being experienced across the whole country. French peasants looted and burned the houses of local nobles and landlords. The Great Fear, as it came to be known, pushed the French nobles to flee the country – they were terrified of attacks by the French peasantry. On August 4th, 1789, Feudalism was officially abolished in France – feudalism was the old economic system which tied peasants to landowners.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
In August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted in France. This document was full of democratic notions, and ideas inspired by great enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
France’s old system of aristocracy was to be replaced with a new system. This new system would be based on ideas including freedom of speech, representative government, and the right to vote. It took two years to write the formal constitution of France. The National Assembly struggled with difficult problems – what would the new government look like? What to do about the Catholic Church? What role would be given to the King?
A moderate constitution was adopted on September 3, 1791. This was France’s first ever written constitution and turned France into a Constitutional Monarchy. However, the fact that the king would still be able to appoint government officials and veto decisions frustrated more radical French people such as Maximilien de Robespierre.
Robespierre founded an extremist group known as the Jacobins – who arrested the King on August 10, 1792. Hundreds of people assumed to be counterrevolutionary were killed by protestors, and the movement openly advocated for France to become a republic and the monarchy to be abolished.
On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was sentenced to death for high treason. He was executed by guillotine and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, was executed by the same method later in the year.
After the execution of the king, France entered what was known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre and the Jacobins created a new calendar, abolished Christianity, and killed thousands of their enemies. Over 17,000 were executed during the Reign of Terror. Robespierre was himself executed in 1794, and a more moderate group came to lead France. After a few years of financial crises and inefficiency, the French Revolution ended with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte – a military leader who ushered in France’s Napoleonic era.
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The Consequences of the French Revolution?
The French Revolution was a violent and erratic attempt to create a new society. Although it ended with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Revolution has had major consequences that continue to influence society today.
Impact on France
One of the most obvious consequences is that the revolution ended France’s centuries of monarchy. The House of Bourbon had ruled France for 400 years but was replaced with a republican form of government. The royal guard was also replaced with a national guard. Although the Bourbon family did take control of France again for a few years in the 19th century, the revolution established the idea of republicanism in France!
France’s economic system was also radically changed. Under the system of feudalism, French peasants were basically tied to and dependent on the noble family who owned their land. They had to pay large taxes to landowners and churches, but the French Revolution removed these. France became a land of small and independent farms after feudalism was abolished and the land was redistributed.
For centuries, the Catholic Church had had a very powerful role in France. It was the national religion, owned 10% of land, and received 10% of people’s income as a form of tax known as a tithe. The French Revolution almost destroyed the Church – priests and nuns were executed, the Church’s land taken over by the government, and the taxes abolished. While Napoleon did reintroduce the Church in the early 19th century, the power and land of the Church was never returned.
Outside of France, the Revolution also had consequences. Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and parts of modern-day Germany were invaded by the army of the French Revolution. The French were frustrated that these countries were protecting the old French aristocracy who had fled the country years earlier.
The parts of Europe that were taken over by the French actually went on the experience higher levels of growth and development. The Revolution had destroyed the old systems that protected nobility and religious officials – the groups that often oppose change and innovation. In the places touched by the Revolution, the barriers to innovation decreased allowing for economic change!
The French Revolution also inspired revolutions in other places. Once of the most famous examples was the Haitian Revolution. News of the Revolution inspired the slaves of Haiti, at the time a French colony, to revolt and take over the island. After years of war, the Haitian revolution ended in Haiti’s independence in 1804. In fact, the revolution was the only instance of slaves revolting and founding a country ruled by the former captives.
Other revolutions were also indirectly inspired by the French Revolution. The problems that faced France were not unique and effected other countries around the world. The Irish Rebellion of 1798; the Sicilian revolution of 1848; the First Italian War of Independence; the independence movements in Latin America, and the 1848 Revolution in Italy all had connection to the French Revolution.
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Influence on Ideas
Perhaps the most important consequence of the French Revolution was its consequences on the history of ideas. In fact, the term ideology was first used during the Revolution. Ideologies are a set of ideas and perspectives on the way to organise social and political life – and they were born out of the French Revolution.
Monarchy was no longer accepted as the only form of government. And people had different ideas of how to organise their societies. Even within France’s revolutionaries there was a great deal of different opinions and ideas.
I’ve talked about nationalism before in earlier episodes – but did you know that modern nationalism developed from the ideas of the French Revolution? Nationalism is an ideology that promotes loyalty and love of one’s country. The French Revolution turned France into one of the first modern nation-states in Europe – a country where the people were loyal to the nation instead of the king. This ideology was spread around Europe, and nationalism has become a major political theme even today.
The French Revolution had the slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity” – the aristocracy was overthrown, and all men were given the democratic right to vote. This is the base of the ideology of liberalism. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which I mentioned earlier, is considered one of the foundational documents of liberalism.
And while the ideologies of Communism and Socialism became prominent around a century after the French Revolution, these ideologies were developed in the intellectual environment created by the French Revolution.
French revolution is one of the most important events in modern history. It ended the reign of France’s royal family; it changed France’s economic system; it inspired revolutions around the world; and it gave birth to some of the most influential ideas and ideologies of the 20th century.
Considering the important of this event, I thought it would be useful to introduce and discuss the history of the French Revolution.
What do you think? What do you think is the most important consequence of the French Revolution? What are some other incredibly influential historical events?
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