Between 1789-99, France experienced more turmoil than at any other time in its history, save perhaps the stunning catastrophe of the German conquest of 1940.
The Revolution which erupted in 1789 began fairly benignly as an honest attempt by Louis XVI to find a way out of France’s economic crisis of governmental bankruptcy. It rapidly became apparent that the original arrangements closed the door to any meaningful reform with the representatives of the Three Estates meeting separately and each Estate holding a single vote in determining which, if any measures, would be passed.
The collusion between the clergy of the First Estate, dominated by scions of the aristocracy, and the almost completely self-serving Second Estate, composed of the aristocracy in its own right, frustrated every attempt by the Third Estate, the commoners, dominated by the Bourgeoisie, or Middle Class, to put forward meaningful measures to more fairly distribute the tax burden and hold the Royal administration to real account for its expenditures.
Having been threatened with dismissal by the King and locked out of its own meeting hall, in June the Third Estate locked itself in the Royal Tennis Court of Versailles and refused to disburse or go home. Instead, they took an oath (the “Tennis Court Oath”) to continue sitting until they gave France a constitution limiting the King’s powers and holding the other Estates liable for all the ensuing consequences. They then declared themselves “the National Assembly” and the only body entitled to claim to represent the people of France.
We will not rehearse all the peregrinations of France’s tumultuous evolution into the First Republic in 1793, with the execution of its King, and the Queen months later. By that point France was at war with Prussia (the most powerful German state before the unification of Germany in 1871) and Austria (an Empire then encompassing large territory now found on the map of Europe as numerous smaller nations such as Austria, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics, Croatia, Slovenia, and part of Romania) the two European monarchies most directly affected by its overthrow. Great Britain joined France’s enemies later in 1793 and would remain at war with France for almost the entirety of the following 22 years.
In 1799, the wars and semi-chaos of the French Revolution in European affairs gave way to the advent of a military tyrant and phenomenon named Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon insisted he was a true son of the Revolution, and in some ways he was. He could never have gained power without the Revolution opening the door for him to rise to greatness as a military commander. Once in power as a stabilizing force he ended France’s internal turmoil, then, following each of his successive military triumphs, he set about exporting many of the major characteristics of the new French model of the state.
Several very important consequences of France’ transformation and European hegemony for the better part of two decades took deep root and eventually overthrew the ancien régime all across Europe. From Europe these effects have gone into the wide world:
- The emergence of nationalism as a potent defining force in geopolitics;
- The creation of a centralized bureaucratic form of government to administer the affairs of the much-expanded role and reach of government in society and the economy;
- The beginning of the merit system as the best method of directing most political and social functions;
- The direct intervention of the state in education, in determining its form, its role in society, and much of its content;
- The displacement of religion as the primary ruler of basic personal loyalties and allegiance;
- The politicization of almost all aspects of public life.
This list could be much longer, but we will leave it there.
It is not that such things had never been seen or suggested before, but nowhere else before had they been purposely and systematically instituted on a nationwide basis. The new French bureaucracy was ruthless, often arbitrary, and efficient – far more than any other nation or empire’s had been before. It also gave the Emperor (Napoleon assumed the title of Emperor of the French in 1804) the resources to overrun Europe and maintain his hegemony for almost fifteen years.
The links from the United States and France were close and multiple, including inspiration at the beginning and ongoing sympathy, as the USA hoped to see a sister republic emerge as a great power in Europe, and thus challenge the British so that Britain would not consider attempting to restore its old empire. The War of 1812-14 between the United States and Britain was a direct offshoot of the long struggle between Britain and France in Europe.
Perhaps far more momentous were the consequences of France’s explosive exportation of its newfound ideology of liberté, fraternité, égalité across Europe in the wake of its victorious armies. The establishment of French puppet regimes inculcated many of the new values in the subjected territories – not least, if nevertheless unintended, was the sleeping giant of nationalism.
If the French people could arise and sweep away the remnants of feudalism and the old order of duties and God-ordained “place”, it became clearer as time went on and the French example awakened other peoples, that the ancien regime of any state could be as justly challenged as that which had been torn down in France, Europe’s primary trend-setter and military power.
It would take decades for the full force of such things to take root and produce fruit. But by the 1830s and 1840s, Europe was experiencing the definite tremors of an oncoming earthquake.
Farther down that road lay the complete shattering of the old order which would merge into World War One and the Russian Revolution.
One thought on “The Uses of History, 3 – The French Revolution, 1789-99, 2”
I am enjoying rehearing the story of Western civilization. Thanks, Vince.
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