The French Revolution, 1789 – 1799
Episode #3 of the course “Revolutions that changed the world”
When the French helped America gain independence, they ran into some financial troubles of their own. Coupled with King Louis XVI’s excessive spending, France was on the brink of poverty. Decades of poor harvests, drought, and disease also took a serious toll on the price of food. The peasants and urban poor were fighting for food but still had to pay heavy taxes. Eventually, they responded by rioting, looting, and striking.
The French government was organized in such a way that although the Third Estate (the non-aristocratic members) made up 98 percent of population, they could still be outvoted in the government by the aristocrats. So when the Third Estate proposed a tax from the privileged class, it was met with a less than enthusiastic response from the noblemen (who were previously completely exempt from taxation). Nonetheless, it seemed like progress was being made.
Regardless of the gains, there was still a lot of work to be done. However, violence broke out on June 12 in what many consider the official start of the French Revolution. Rioters stormed the Bastille to acquire gunpowder and weapons. The rioting and panic spread quickly. Peasants burned tax collector and elite homes. Nobles fled the country for fear of their lives. On August 4, 1789, an order was signed that abolished the feudal system that had been in place for hundreds of years. They also drafted a modernized constitution, but there were still those who wanted a more republican form of government than what the new constitution offered.
Meanwhile, a group of insurgents captured the king and his wife (Marie-Antoinette) and basically replaced the legislative body. They executed hundreds of people who were “enemies of the revolution,” including the king and his wife, in what became known as the Reign of Terror. Finally, a new constitution that established a bicameral legislature was drafted. However, peace only came after the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who used military force to keep order.
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