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French Revolution Revisited
No moment in history stands alone, but each builds surely from the moments before it. The French Revolution and its aftermath was no exception. In many ways it sprang from the undeniable and unswayable forces of modernization, toppling a system which was dying under its own weight and intrinsically unable to adapt and survive in the new economic and philosophical reality. One could argue that this violent overthrow of the old aristocracy was the inevitable outcome of modernization and the arrival of the bourgeoisie class. The war was caused by the financial and social collapse of the old regime and the disappointed hopes of a people who had been inspired by the enlightenment; its effects were far reaching and terrible in their bloody implications, and its overall effect upon the world is hopelessly drawn between the good and ill.
Three main issues may be pointed at as causing the revolution, or perhaps more precisely as having given opportunity for it to take place. The first was the financial collapse of the monarchy and the increasing degree to which feudalism was economically untenable. This second was the widespread starvation among the poor and oppression among the middle class which sprang from the degree to which the aristocracy leaned its aging weight downward against the people. The final cause may seem slightly odder -- the revolution could be argued to happen because the people had been given cause to hope for change, and when that hope was disappointed they were more angry and upset with their lot than before such change had been imagined.
At the risk of being simplistic, one might also list three main results of the French Revolution. The first is the terror and the rise of Napoleon. The second then would be restructuring of the world subsequent to the Napoleonic wars, and the changes in economic and legal/social structure that actually remained after a return to normalcy. The final result was the bloody birth of a sort of revolutionary spirit that would afterwards wander restlessly about Europe, visiting France on many more occasions, and likewise infecting her fellow European nations from time ti time.
Whether or not the revolution can be considered good, in the final analysis, depends on one's understanding of the greater good. On the one hand, the struggling nation did not receive all the freedoms it had fought for, and yet on the other it did create a legacy of freedom for its children. On the one hand, the Napoleonic wars shed more blood than many other wars before or since, and left much of Europe in ruins -- on the other hand, in many small ways it created things in the modern world which we approve, such as the common measuring system and the Louisiana Purchase. On the one hand, the revolutions sparked off by this revolution have always resulted in great bloodshed and mayhem, and in some cases in worldwide wars of one sort or another -- on the other hand, revolution may be necessary to the evolution of human society, and in the long run this is a great benefit.
The Causes of the Revolution
The financial crises that truly precipitated the revolution began at the level of the monarchy. The French crown, and subsequently the French State, had a very significant amount of debt. The rising capitalist and banker class was loaning a great deal of money to the crown, who consistently failed to pay it back. Loans totaled about "one thousand six hundred and forty-six millions... and... there was an annual deficit... Of a hundred and forty millions." (Mignet) Despite the fact that the king was essentially bankrupt, the court continued with the most lavish spending. Rather than cut spending, the king proceeded to attempt to raise taxes, something in which he was opposed generally by the nobility. The limits of the king's "absolute power" were quickly becoming apparent. So the king convened the Estates, which was a body made up of three equal forces: the aristocracy, the clergy, and the common folk (which included his main creditors, the capitalists). His plan was to present them with his plan for taxing the nobility, in the hopes of raising funds. The Third Estate of commoners, at least, had other plans and it was in this assembly that, in many ways, the revolution began. Had the king been able to balance his budget or find ways of raising money without pressing down on the aristocracy (and in turn causing them to put increased pressure on the serfs and commoners), then the revolution would not doubt have been postponed, if not canceled. His policy of milking the finances of the nation as much as possible to support his excessive lifestyle, however, enraged both the capitalist from whom he borrowed without repaying, the serfs and other laborers whose noble landlords demanded increased payment for rents and from crops, and even incensed the nobility. His subsequent refusal to compromise on financial issues only made matters worse.
The economic pressure put on nobility led to pressure placed on the common workers. "Taxes were paid entirely by the agricultural population. But the peasants living in dreary hovels, no longer in intimate contact with their former landlords, but victims of cruel and incompetent land agents, were going from bad to worse.... Increased returns upon their land merely meant more taxes and nothing for themselves and therefore they neglected their fields as much as they dared." (Loon) So grain production was, during this time, not increasing. What was increasing was the population of the city, where escaped serfs and capitalists mingled in a pre-industrial stew. However, Paris was becoming difficult to feed, "a disaster situation...In the 1780s a series of poor harvests in the area led to soaring bread prices, provoking food riots. Coastal cities could import supplies, but in Paris, a worker's daily bread took 97% of his income... In July 1789, with bread prices at record levels, hungry mobs attacked the gates of Paris where customs collected taxes on incoming grain convoys." (Invicta) This was the same riot which began the Revolution and freed the Bastille -- so one can easily see the link between hunger and the war. The oppression of starving workers was not the only oppression driving the Revolution. In many ways these mobs, though fighting for their own causes, were "at the instigation and under the leadership of those middle-class professional men who used the hungry multitude as an efficient ally in their warfare upon the king and his court." (Loon) These professionals of the bourgeoisie were fighting because of economic oppression and also because of spiritual and political oppression. The ideals of the enlightenment and the example of America had suggested to the intellectuals of the era that having an absolute king was a sign of oppression and tyranny, and this philosophy was part of what drove the war.
The final issue with the war was that of the raised hopes of the people which had been dashed. As mentioned before, the king called together the Estates to make decisions on taxes. Traditionally the commoners were outvoted by the clergy and the aristocracy, being only one estate out of three. However, the king had granted double representation to the Third Estate this time, and it was believed this would allow commoners to guide debate in such a way as to resolve some of their issues with the governance of the country. However, it turned out this was a polite fiction, and though the estate was bigger it would still receive only one vote. This infuriated the representatives, who called their own assembly and voted to allow themselves equal votes! Through a series of meetings, the Third Estate essentially paved the way for the revolution which continued in the streets every time the king and nobles attempted to shut down the rule of this elected body. Had the Third Estate never been granted double representation, or allowed to vote by poll rather than by orders to begin with, then this sense of disappointment would never have occurred, and again the revolution might have been avoided.
The Effects of the Revolution
The first and perhaps most terrible effect of the Revolution was war -- two decades of terrible, destructive war that covered all of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia as well. Many people even speak of (what later became known as) the Napoleonic wars as being the first true World War. In truth, the term "Napoleonic War" is something of a misnomer. These wars began when the surrounding monarchal countries of Europe attacked revolutionary France in response to the Revolution itself. This was before the time of Napoleon. "The armies of Austria and Prussia continued their advance and the panic changed into hysteria and turned men and women into wild beasts." (Loon) The invasion of this fledgling system by powerful outside forces was in many ways what inspired the famous Reign of Terror in which the most…[continue]
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