One Attack Sparks World-Wide Change
To most Europeans, the attack by French citizens on the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, was regarded as an isolated incident with little national or international consequences. However, this event set in motion forces that changed the world.
The elements unleashed by the Revolution have dominated the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, the struggle to achieve the ideals of the Revolutionliberty, equality, and fraternityis still being carried on today in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The foundation of the French Revolution can be found in the works of the French philosophers. Led by Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, critics of the established order emphasized the importance of individual rights and attacked bigotry, intolerance, and inequalities in society. Their ideas spread far and wide. They had a profound impact on the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. In France, their criticism of the monarchy and society, coupled with serious economic and political problems, became major factors in bringing on the Revolution.
Power Shifts to the People
After the fall of the Bastille, a new National Assembly abolished feudal rights. They drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. That document transformed the political, social, economic, and religious structure of French society. By 1791, the principles of the Revolutionliberty, equality, and fraternitywere made part of a bourgeoisie constitution. It
• established a constitutional monarchy;
• guaranteed individual rights;
• restricted the powers of the monarch;
• curtailed the influence of the aristocracy; and
• created a new, elected Legislative Assembly that reflected the power of the people.
The French Move to Change All of Europe
The French nation, although claiming to be peaceful, worked aggressively to export the Revolution to Europe. In 1792, war erupted as the monarchies began to unite to contain this movement that threatened their very existence. Because most of the noble officers had fled France, the French went to war with an army of inexperienced officers and ill-trained troops. Despite initial defeats, volunteers filled the ranks to defend their homeland. Motivated by an intense patriotic fervor, they were able to invade the territory of their European enemies.
In their effort to mobilize the country, various political factions in the Legislative Assembly struggled bitterly for control. Ultimately King Louis XVI was overthrown, and the First French Republic was established. Amid the struggle for power in the new National Convention, the king went to the guillotine in January 1793. Spurred on by the radical acts, the enemies of France threatened its frontiers from Spain to Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries as well as from the sea. To survive this struggle against all of Europe as well as a vicious civil war that broke out, a Committee of Public Safety was organized to repel the invaders and crush the internal counterrevolution. The Committee passed laws to mobilize the country. Every man, woman, and child was to perform their duty to liberty by taking part in the war effort. The success was spectacular. In addition to the highly motivated citizen army, officers were chosen on the basis of merit. This made it possible for men such as Napoléon Bonaparte to rise through the ranks.
The Guillotine Becomes a Tool of Terrorism
Over time, the policies of the Committee of Public Safety became more radical as it struggled to defend the frontiers and contain counterrevolutionary activity as it spread across France. By September 1793, the Committee started a policy of Terror to combat its enemies. In all, some 30,000 French who wanted to restore the monarchy were sent to the guillotine. This strategy, although brutal and divisive, proved highly successful. By 1794, most formal resistance of the counterrevolutionaries had been ruthlessly suppressed.
Later that year, the National Convention began to dismantle the Terror. Moderation set in and soon a middle class government, the Directory, was established.
Napoléon Takes Control
The war continued on all fronts, but with the continuing success of the French armies, several nations withdrew from the struggle. But as France continued an aggressive foreign policy, most of Europe formed a massive new alliance dedicated to destroying France and its Revolution. Upon learning of the critical situation in Europe, Napoléon joined a rebellious faction of government and overthrew the Directory. The Consulate government was established, and Napoléon, as First Consul, dominated every major facet of this government. Through his extraordinary activity and abilities, he established order and regularity in every segment of French society, and above all, he guaranteed the survival of many of the Revolutionary reforms in a hostile world. (For details, see “Napoléon’s Contributions” on page 5 and “Legacies of the French Revolution” on page 6.)
Napoléon Defeats All of France’s Enemies
Regarding foreign policy, Napoléon turned against France’s enemies with a vengeance. He defeated the Austrians, regaining northern Italy for France. The following year, Great Britain signed a peace treaty, but this would prove to be only a thirteen-month truce. When war broke out again, another alliance was formed against Napoléon, who had been crowned Emperor of France in 1804.
Napoléon’s new Grande Armée struck across the Rhine in a lightning quick offensive. In a matter of two months, he had destroyed the Austrian and Russian armies and dissolved their alliance. Through his brilliant leadership, each of France’s enemies had been overwhelmed and humiliated in defeat. Central Europe was now at his mercy.
However, with the arrival of Napoléon’s troops came the reforms of the Revolution. For the most part, the peoples of the German and Italian states welcomed the reforms that led to the abolition of feudalism, the introduction of the Civil Code and equality before the law, religious toleration, and representative government. Indeed, the reforms of the Revolution came to Central Europe on the bayonets of Napoléon’s soldiers.
Europe Unites One Last Time to Defeat Napoléon
Then a series of ill-conceived efforts led to Napoléon’s downfall.
• He devised an unsuccessful embargo to destroy the British economy.
• Intervention in the Iberian Peninsula resulted in enormous casualties.
• Imprisonment of the Pope turned many Catholic countries against him.
• Invasion of Russia led to the loss of an army of almost a half-million men.
This was followed by a final coalition in which almost every nation in Europe opposed France. His enemies invaded France. Despite brilliant tactics, inspired leadership, and loyalty from his dwindling army, Napoléon’s forces were hopelessly outnumbered. Within four months, Napoléon’s enemies were in Paris. He was forced to abdicate and accept exile.
With Napoléon’s defeat, many of the reforms of the Revolution were repressed. But in 1830, the French people again rose in revolt, restoring many of the reforms of the Revolution. Several other European revolutions occurred at the same time, but they were brutally repressed by the rulers of Europe. Again in 1848, most of Europe exploded in revolt. The revolutionaries demanded many of the reforms that had been initiated during the French Revolution.
The Ideals of the French Revolution Spread World Wide
With the exception of the French Revolution of 1848, the revolts in central Europe and Italy were crushed under the repressive policies of the established order. However, during the following decades, either through violent revolution or the ballot box, change came to all but the most backward nations in Europe. Hence, by the beginning of the twentieth century, most Europeans enjoyed some of the basic rights proclaimed by the Revolution. Following World War I and again after the Second World War, these same principles were espoused in Africa, Asia, and South America. Indeed, even in our contemporary world of today, there are those who struggle for those principles and ideals born amid the turmoil of the Great French Revolution and defended by untold millions during the past 200 years.
Adapted from “The French Revolution, Napoléon, and the Transformation of Europe” by Dr.
Donald D. Horward, Department of History, Florida State University; Director of the Institute on
Napoléon and the French Revolution
It Began at the Bastille
During Napoléon’s youth, ideas of liberty and self-rule filled people’s minds. Corsicans were struggling for independence from France. Americans were winning their battle against British rulewith French help. Frenchmen were dreaming of democracy.
In 1789, King Louis XVI of France called together a group of nobles, clergy, and common people to help solve a financial crisis. The latter seized the chance to make their voices heard. Claiming to be “the true representatives of the national will,” they declared themselves the National Assembly.
Louis sent for soldiers to oust them, but angry Parisians formed a militia for their protection. On July 14, they stormed the Bastille, a fort in Paris, to get weapons. The French Revolution had begun.
From CALLIOPE’s April 2004 issue: Napoleon: A.D. 17691821. © 2004, Carus Publishing Company, published by Cobblestone Publishing. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Why We Celebrate Bastille Day
France’s Bastille Day and our American Independence Day have much in common. They both mark the start of revolutions that led to more freedoms for more people. Instead of being ruled by kings and queens, the people ruled themselves. In France, and in French communities around the world, people celebrate freedom on July 14 with Bastille Day parades, concerts, games, speeches and picnics.
Learn more at french.about.com/library/weekly/aa071400.htm.