History Of The French Revolution

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On the eve on the 14th July 1789, Parisians stormed the Bastille Prison, symbol of the power, control and repression of the Bourbon monarchy in the French capital. This date marked a turning point as it was the first time ever that the French people challenged absolutist monarchical rules unleashing the “Révolution Française”, a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France in 1789. This movement did not only change France for ever it also impacted the rest of Europe and the world for ever threatening the very foundations of the traditional European order, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, both internally in France as well as internally in other European countries, the idea of equality before the law aimed at putting an end to the legal privileges of the nobility and the clergy and to substitute the previously exiting society based on birth right and privilege with one based on social class, formal (as opposed to real, as I shall discuss) equality before the law, and power based on the ownership of the means of production, rather on rule by the people, as we shall also see. Certainly, most revolutionaries had no intention of abolishing private property, rather the opposite, and of giving power to the people as opposed to the property-owning classes. Internationally, the traditional European order was also threatened with old alliances based on dynastical considerations being undermined to be substituted by others based on ideological affinities. In this essay, to stay within the context of the question, I shall have to concentrate on the threat posed by the French Revolution to the traditional European order rather than on the actual effects thereon

The first and most immediate threat to the traditional European order came from the idea of national sovereignty. It was based in part on the idea of a ‘social contract’ between individuals and their government, a concept advanced by writers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A corollary of national sovereignty is that if a government fails or mistreats its people, the nation has the right to replace it. National sovereignty underpinned Emmanuel Sieyès‘ What is the Third Estate? Because the Third Estate formed the vast majority of the nation, Sieyès argued, it was entitled to representation in the national government. A distinction must be made here between national versus popular sovereignty. Indeed, the first, most immediate threat posed by the Revolution was on the Monarchy itself and the Bourbon Dynasty, both key in French history and to existing traditional domestic internal order. Indeed, the French Monarchy had existed at least since the Treaty of Verdun 843. Focusing on the then ruling dynasty, the Bourbons had intensively shaped French history as they built castle and palaces, protected France from Protestantism, establishing religious uniformity after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and expanded the country conquering cities such as Strasbourg, Lille and Perpignan.

Clearly, the monarchy and all it represented stood in the way of the revolutionaries and had to be destroyed. Not surprisingly, on 21st September 1792 the Convention abolished the Monarchy and proclaimed the 1st French Republic, thus removing the Monarchy as a legal obstacle, followed on 21st January 1793 by the physical execution of the King and Queen. The legal and physical removal of possible Europe’s oldest Monarchy and certainly its richest and most powerful was clearly a threat to the remaining continental monarchies. More importantly, the French Revolution not only threatened the Monarchy in France and abroad as a form a government but also threatened absolutism, as a system of government that prevailed throughout Europe, with a few noticeable exceptions like Great Britain. Absolutism was certainly a rather novel development. In Spain it can be dated back to the reign of Phillip II (1556-1598) whilst in France to the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610) or perhaps even Louis XIII (1610-1643) In fact, by the time of the French Revolution, almost country that had a monarchy had an absolutism regime, which meant that the King had the ultimate say in all decisions based on the “divine rights of kings” and were answerable to no one, God excepted. With the exception of Great Britain which, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was effectively an oligarchy with power shared between the Monarch and Parliament, but with Parliament having the final say, in Europe the political evolution has been different with its century old Parliaments such as the Estates Generals in France or the Cortes in Spain withering away into oblivion as power concentrated in the hands of the Monarch to the point that or became difficult to distinguish between the King and the State itself as distinct legal person, as Luis XIV used to say “L’Etat, c’est moi”, implying that his power was unlimited and absolute. Clearly, the French revolutionaries would have none of this. Crucially, the intention was to change the way decisions were taken and to have a say, the decisive say, in decision making.

Whilst the Resolution could live with a Monarch (hence the Bourbon restoration after 1815, not to mention Napoleon) it could not live with absolutism. The response to absolutism was constitutionalism. Certainly there was a widespread desire in France for a constitution – a written framework defining the structures and powers of government. Frustrated with the failures and broken promises of kings and ministers, most revolutionaries wanted a government underpinned by a constitutional document. They believed a constitutional government would spell the end of absolutism and arbitrary decision making. It would prevent abuses of power and create a government that worked to the general benefit. The example of the United States Constitution, which was drafted in 1787 and enacted the following year, was obvious. This Constitution created a public, with the branches of government and their powers clearly articulated. It also embodied Enlightenment political concepts like national sovereignty, natural rights and the separation of powers. Which brings us to the revolutionary slogan “liberté, legalité, fraternité” and to what extent it really implied a threat to traditional European order. The fact that it is the motto the current French Republic already suggests that was far less revolutionary amd threatening than would appear at first sight. Firstly, as to the “liberte” the historical truth is that Louis XVI’s France was far from being an oppressive, dictatorial State.

Symbolically, when the Bastille was stormed by the Revolutionaries it housed only seven prisoners:four forgers; a “lunatic” imprisoned at the request of his family; Auguste-Claude Tavernier, who had tried to assassinate Louis XV thirty years before, and ‘deviant’ aristocrat, the Comte de Solages, imprisoned by his father using a lettre de cachet (while the Marquis de Sade had been transferred out ten days earlier). Scarcely, the top prison of a typical dictatorial regime. If the most visible instrument of oppression in the Ancien Régime were “lettres de cachet”, which authorised to detain and imprison individuals without trial were in reality scarcely an instrument of oppression.Indeed, arrest within a Royal prison conferred immunity against the ordinary judicial system, hence the case of the Marquis de Sade imprisoned in the Bastille to avoid being tried and sentenced to death for rape. Perhaps more importantly there was censorship of publications containing criticisms of the King or the Church although the effectiveness of such censorship is more than doubtful. Finally, torture did exist but had declined enormously in the late 1700s and was formally abolished in May 1788, i.e. before the Revolution. Thus, it can safely be concluded that the freedom advocated by the Revolutionaries was little of a threat to the Ancien Regime or to the traditional European order: France was really an authoritarian and absolutist monarchy but not a dictatorial, totalitarian regime and certainly the rich and powerful (nobility, high clergy, higher bourgeoisie enjoyed a degree of personal freedom to which the Revolution was to contribute little. The same can be said, albeit to a lesser degree, for “égalité”.

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The Revolutionaries intended to secure formal equality before the law but, of course, not real equality which would have required the abolition of personal property and the establishment of a truly meritocratic regime. Following the American slogan they demanded “no taxation without representation” – and hence the abolition of the fiscal exemption of the nobility and clergy- but equally “no representation without taxation” and hence the poor and even the working classes should have no or little say in the running of the country. Certainly, universal manhood suffrage was not to be defended. The citizens of the Third Estate wanted equality, but to recall George Orwell’s Animal Farm “some are more equal than others”.. The rising bourgeoisie wanted political and social equality with the nobility of the Second Estate, not with the agricultural labourers or the urban proletariat. They did not support universal voting rights, believing voting to be a privilege of the propertied classes. As an aside, even formal equality before the law was limited to men, of course. If aristocratic women had enjoyed de facto equality with men in the Ancien Regime, the Revolutionaries and the Code Napoléon put an end to all this.

To sum up,, the principle of equality was a threat to the traditional European order in so far the latter had been based on quite opposing principles but this threat was relative. Indeed, once formal equality before the law had been secured the bourgeoisie collided with the nobility to defend the established social order. Finally, “fraternité” deserves little mention. Fraternity was the most abstract, idealistic and unachievable of all revolutionary ideals and the most difficult to define. By its very nature it was scarcely a threat to the traditional European order. Equally, not particularly threatening to the traditional European order was the idea of lso emerging from the Enlightenment, particularly in the writings of John Locke, was the concept of natural rights. As the name suggests, natural rights are rights and freedoms bestowed on all people, regardless of whatever laws or governments they live under. The American writer Thomas Jefferson described natural rights as “inalienable rights” because they cannot be taken away. According to John Locke, there were three natural rights: life, liberty and property. All individuals were entitled to live in safety, to be free from oppression, to acquire property and have it safe from theft or seizure. It is the responsibility and the duty of government, Locke wrote, to uphold and protect the natural rights of individuals. The first phase of the French Revolution was dominated by the liberal bourgeoisie, who were keen on protecting natural rights. The culmination of this was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, passed by the National Constituent Assembly in August 1789. Another major threat to the traditional European order came from the attack of the Revolutionaries on the Catholic Church and, indeed, even on Christianity, on which that order was partially based. The role of the Catholic church in society and government was a divisive issue of the French Revolution. Many philosophes and French revolutionaries were vocal critics of the Catholic clergy. They condemned the wealth and profiteering of the Catholic Church, its exemption from taxation, its political influence, its suppression of new ideas and its neglect of the French people. This dissatisfaction could also be found among the lower clergy, men like Emmanuel Sieyès, who were frustrated by corruption, venality and lack of accountability within the Church. Most of those who criticised the Church and its higher clergy were not atheists, nor were they opposed to religion.

They were anti-clericalists who wanted to reform the clergy and limit its social and political power. Anti-clericalism shaped several revolutionary policies including the seizure of church lands, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790) and attempts to create a state religion. Moving on to the international front, Moreover, another way in which the French revolution threatened the traditional European order was by destroying the long lasting alliance between France and Spain, called “Le Pacte de Famille”. Indeed, by dethroning the king and later killing him the revolutionaries put an end to the long lasting alliance between the two countries that could be considered the most powerful countries at the time. Indeed, this alliance had exited since the end of the Spanish succession war in which the Spanish Hapsburgs were replaced by the French bourbon as the new King of Spain, Philipp V, uncle of Luis XV, was made king of Spain by the treaty of Utrecht of 1715 and after wining the Spanish succession war. This alliance was of course dismantle when the bourbon king of France was guillotined and made Spain to automatically declare war to Franc, meaning that the traditional European order was threatened as a long lasting alliance was completely destroyed and that now France has a new enemy to face in the future wars: Spain. In addition, another way in which the French revolution and the later Napoleonic wars threatened the traditional European order was by hindering the place of the Spanish superpower in the war. In fact, before the war Spain was considered a superpower with an empire and possessions around the world. In contrast after the Napoleonic wars that weakened Spain as it was invaded, the destruction of its navy in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and thanks to the liberal ideas of the French revolution, and thanks according to historians Chambers and Chasteen the French revolution which caused a clash in support as the colonies still supported the bourbons while Spain was invaded by Napoleon.

This caused an independence Revolution which saw by 1820 the almost complete wipe out of the Spanish empire completely altering the traditional European order as an old superpower which had an empire and which during the “golden era” was the strongest planet in the world due to the French Revolution now became a secondary power which would never ever recover from this loss. Moreover, another way that which shows that the French Revolution threatened a lot the European order is the dissolution of the the long lasting alliance with Austria. Indeed, the two catholic countries signed the first treaty of Versailles in 1756 when they both joined forces to defeat Prussia in the Seven-year war. This alliance was strengthening by their common desire to destroy the ambitions of Prussia and Great Britain and to secure a definitive peace between their respective countries. This alliance was later reinforced when Maria Antonia of Austria married “Le Dauphine” which will later become King Louis XVI. When the French Revolution took place despite appeals by the National Assembly to honour the alliance, Austria started to invade France. Later, when Austrians were defeated at the battle of Valmy, Luis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed worsening even more the relations. Austria later did not only join the coalition against the revolutionaries but Vienna also became one of the centres of anti-revolutionary activity, giving shelter to many French royalist refugees. This clearly threatened the traditional European order as France and Austria went from being allies to being enemies that will fight one against the other and defeating on and another in the next long Napoleonic wars.

In addition, it can also be said that the French Revolution threatened the traditional European order a lot as it was the 1st time in history that a coalition between countries was built to indeed maintain the traditional European order that the revolution was questioning. In fact, between 1793 and 1797 the First Coalition between Spain, Holland, Austria, Prussia, England and Sardinia was established in an attempt to defeat the forces of the French following the French Revolution of 1789 and restore back the order in not only France but indeed to restore in the whole continent as the feared the widespread of French revolutionary ideas. The fact that all these countries who were enemies before and who had fought against each other allied themselves to crash the revolutions shows how much the revolution was threatening the traditional European order as even though they failed to crush the rebellion they did their almost. Moreover, the fact that that the Revolutionary Forces were able to not only withstand the attack of the first coalition but indeed to crush it in the battle of Rivoli of 1797, shows that they French Revolution threatened the traditional European order. In fact, Napoleon, the newly French emperor by crushing and conquering its enemies in the later Napoleonic wars is probably one of the biggest testimony of how threatening the French revolution was to the traditional European order as his armies advanced and conquered they spreadeed the French revolution and ideas thought Europe. This was only stopped in the battles of Dresden and Leipzig in 1813, but most importantly in the battle of Waterloo in 1815.


The whole idea behind the Revolution, from a Marxist perspective. was at the end of the day was that it as the bourgeoisie and not an absolutist Monarch or even a Monarch in alliance with the nobility and clergy as before that had to have the final say in the running on the country. In other words, what was required was that economic power, acquired through the ownership of the means of production, was duly translated into political power. The threat to the traditional European order was thus fundamental: the intention was to overhaul it completely the traditional European order and to set it on new foundations. The fact that this threatened to the traditional European order of absolutism came from the country where absolutism was the strongest and the most established clearly meant that the French Revolution was an enormous threat as it could extend to any other country in the European continent. Certainly, through revolutionary ideology and institutional change, the bourgeoisie gained a political authority not known before in any European country. In this sense, the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. The abolition of aristocratic privileges, the confiscation of church and aristocratic lands and their purchase by the bourgeoisie, and the removal of internal obstacles to trade and commerce allowed the middle class greater economic and social mobility.

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