The Oxford History of the French Revolution, William Doyle

July 14th is not just the day this post was written. It marks a momentous event in the history of France: the storming of the Bastille. Known as “Bastille Day” in France, this event was in conjunction with perhaps the most important event (to some historians at least) in Western history: the French Revolution.

I took a class on the French Revolution that just finished and I had to read this book for the class. While most are familiar with the basic storyline of the French Revolution, it was actually a much more convoluted event then people realize. Here are some thoughts:

The introduction to the book must begin in the ancien regime (the monarchy and estate system of feudalism) and its construction. In France prior to 1789, the class system consisted of three different groups of people, or “estates.” The First Estate was the nobility. To be in this estate meant that you had a pedigree that allowed you to be there; meaning that you couldn’t become a nobel unless you had nobel blood flowing through your veins. The Second Estate was the clergy. Obviously, the clergy were a part of the Roman Catholic Church who played a dominant role in French society. The Third Estate was the peasantry. The thought behind social classes at this time was that God placed you in your class and the king on the throne. To break out of your lot in life was to defy God Himself.

The way things turned into calamity is complex. Essentially, the first two estates were the most wealthy, but were exempt from taxes. The peasantry bore the brunt of the taxation for the entire country (which really defies logic if you ask me). Further, the peasantry found itself in an awkward position when the middle class, or the “bourgeoisie”, arose from the lawyers and doctors. They were wealthy, paid very high taxes, but were excluded from the nobility.

Enter King Louis XVI. The King found himself embarrassed by his father’s failure in the Seven Years War. On top of that, the treasury was greatly diminished at the same time. To make up for the losses during the war, King Louis sent French troops to aid the American Revolution, also draining the treasury. King Louis also married the extremely unpopular Marie Antoinette. The palace at Versailles was an ornate system of pretension. When an unlucky (or providential depending on how you look at it) famine occurred, the people were up in arms against the fat king. There was a call for the Estates General which was a meeting of all three estates. In the meeting, the three estates would vote on various issues (this particular one was about taxation due to the dwindling treasury) but mostly the first two estates would team up to garner more votes than the peasantry. Since the peasantry consisted of about 93% of France at the time, they called for representation by numbers. Of course they were excluded for further negotiations. Relegated to a tennis court, the Third Estate and some from the Second gathered to proclaim the “Tennis Court Oath” where they ultimately would revolt against the nobility and the king.

Things got out of hand quickly and it culminated in the storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison and housed weapons and powder. By taking it, the people demonstrated they would not bow to a tyrannical government.

By establishing a temporary government, work soon began on a constitution. The product of these talks was a constitution with a preamble called “The Declaration of the Rights of Man.” In later years, the government never could establish itself firmly. Problem after problem arose, with the whole continent of Europe threatening war at one point. The revolutionists actually won against their European brothers in the brief war with France. The revolution sought to undermine every monarchy in Europe and was seen as a grave threat that needed to be dealt with.

There were a small number of pro-royalist peoples who wanted a parliamentary system with a King as the monarch as in England. A faction called the Jacobins who were anti-royalists called for the king to be put on trial instead. When he did go to trial, he was convicted and executed by the guillotine. Maximilien Robespierre ascended to a position of power and was paranoid of the various factions that sought to squash the revolution. In order to stop them, he organized the “Committee on Public Safety” and systematically began executing political enemies in the “Great Terror.” The bloodshed ended when Robespierre himself wanted to become dictator, and was sent to the guillotine himself; an ironic end to the man who instituted the Great Terror.

The Revolution ended only when Napoleon ascended to the throne in the early 19th century.

Here are some thoughts on the take-aways from the revolution:

1. France was highly influenced by the Enlightenment. Voltaire, Rousseau, and other Enlightenment thinkers really created the groundwork for revolution in France. The Enlightenment begins with the idea that man is essentially good, good enough to bestow upon him the ideals of liberty and equality. This blossomed into the ideals that closely aligned themselves with the revolution: that is, the natural order bestowed by God is actually not a natural order at all, if all men are equal and possess within themselves liberty.

2. The French Revolution began on the basis of the Enlightenment which was vastly different than other revolutions happening in Europe. In England, the English underwent what was called the “Bloodless Revolution.” But England’s revolution began on a basis that was influenced by the Reformation. One can understand the difference plainly when taking into consideration the “Great Terror” and political turmoil that surrounded France during the time of the revolution. Thousands lost their lives before the chaos ceased, and it only did when a dictator bent on subjugating all of Europe to the will of France ascended to the throne (Napoleon).

3. The revolution in France would go on to create a lasting legacy throughout the world. Indeed, every revolution since the French Revolution has been influenced by it. The upheaval of tyrannical governments where people are not content on letting themselves be ruled by that tyranny is somewhat of a mainstay in history post 1789. Thinking of all the revolutions that happened in the early 19th century in both Europe and Latin America and extending into the present with the Islamic coups (such as in Egypt some years ago), one can see what impact the French Revolution presented to many cultures since.

The French Revolution was a defining moment in history and deserves to be studied. Unfortunately, it’s really complicated. This book has all these names and political parties that are very hard to understand if you’re not French or speak the language. The Girodans, the Jacobins, the Sans Culottes.. Try keeping them all separate from each other. Nonetheless, a good textbook for a worthy subject.

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