The French Revolution was a period of political and social instabilities in France, which lasted between 1789 and 1799 (although some historians include Napoleon’s rule in the timeline), and was partially planned and carried out by Napoleon in the course of the French Empire expansion. The timeline of the Revolution can be divided into four stages. The first stage (1788-1792) was characterized by a relatively peaceful and constitutional struggle to achieve societal change (Cole et al. 427).
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The elites started articulating their dissatisfaction with the monarchy, which had enforced taxation without representation, despotism, and arbitrary authority. The French elites started developing an Enlightenment-inspired program for changing and rejuvenating French society. It is noteworthy that the king accepted some of the offered reforms while others were enforced without his agreement. However, the peaceful and constitutional period did not last long.
In 1792, the threat of dramatic changes occurring in European countries transformed into war, which consequently put an end to the Bourbon monarchy and laid a foundation for the beginning of the republic. The period between 1792 and 1794 was characterized by repressions and extreme societal and political crisis. The centralized government mobilized its powers and developed the policy of terror, which fought the foreign enemies as well as the French counter-revolutionaries.
Nevertheless, the policy exhausted itself and collapsed in 1794 (Cole et al. 428). In the third stage (1794-1799), the government drifted. France remained a republic and continued its fight with Europe. Weakened by division and corruption, France became prey for Napoleon Bonaparte, an ambitious military leader whose rule marked the end of the revolution. The last period of the French revolution was characterized by Napoleon’s victories and catastrophes.
The causes of the French Revolutions and the attempts to transform the society were vast. First, the society that was predominantly dominated by the elite social groups (aristocrats, officeholders, businessmen, etc.) was deeply inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment and wanted to overthrow the monarchy. However, it is notable to mention that the Enlightenment did not cause the Revolution, although it significantly changed the public debate (Cole et al. 428). Ideas formulated by Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire appealed to both nobles and the middle class. In the countryside, peasants felt the pressure from the landlords, the state, and the church that forced them to pay both direct and indirect taxes.
Overall, the social and economic environment of France significantly deteriorated before the revolution, so there was room for upper and middle classes to offer a new system of government that would allow the economy to grow without the enforcement of substantial limitations on the society. The inefficient system of taxation also contributed to the weakening of France’s financial position, which had an adverse impact on society’s perception of the French government. Issues with the financial position of the country showed weaknesses in the country’s administrative structures and reflected the ineffectiveness of the absolutist monarchy led by Louis XIV.
If to illustrate how the French society wanted to change the existing political, social, and economic structure, the example of the document “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” comes to mind. Inspired by the American Declaration of Independence, the document included 16 Articles that proclaimed the rights of French citizens. Among the main ideas were equality of rights, liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression, the law as an expression of the general will, and so on (Cole et al. 433).
Therefore, the main goal of the French Revolution was to transform the society to create a state and laws that will, first of all, exercise the power of the majority rather than the power of one. The ideas of equality and the right to resist oppression can be applied to any society that values people before governments and rulers. The Revolution managed to politicize the common people that began finding more and more disadvantages of living under the rule of a monarch. Moreover, Louis XVI was weak in his efforts and was considered as “little more than a prisoner of the assembly” (Cole et al. 434).
One of the most significant developments of the French Revolution was the creation of a popular movement characterized by political clubs representing individuals previously excluded from power, common people reading newspapers, and political leaders standing up for the lower classes. The Revolution challenged the moderate leadership and made an attempt to introduce more radical and democratic measures for shifting the orientation of society towards free-thinking and equal treatment.
Nevertheless, the debate about whether the impact of the Revolution exceeded the Napoleonic rule is still ongoing because the attempts of the French to free themselves from an authoritative ruler resulted in Napoleon’s military regime. Nevertheless, the French Revolution marks a period in history when the society wanted to make a shift in the direction of free-thinking and the establishment of equal treatment for all people regardless of their class (Cole et al. 436).
Cole, Joshua, et al. Western Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture. W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.