The French Revolution (1789–1799)
Historians agree unanimously that the French Revolution was a watershed event that changed Europe irrevocably, following in the footsteps of the American Revolution, which had occurred just a decade earlier. The causes of the French Revolution, though, are difficult to pin down: based on the historical evidence that exists, a fairly compelling argument could be made regarding any number of factors. Internationally speaking, a number of major wars had taken place in the forty years leading up to the Revolution, and France had participated, to some degree, in most of them. The Seven Years’ War in Europe and the American Revolution across the ocean had a profound effect on the French psyche and made the Western world a volatile one. In addition to charging up the French public, this wartime environment took quite a toll on the French treasury. The costs of waging war, supporting allies, and maintaining the French army quickly depleted a French bank that was already weakened from royal extravagance. Finally, in a time of highly secularized Enlightenment, the idea that King Louis XVI had absolute power due to divine right—the idea that he had been handpicked by God—didn’t hold nearly as much water as in the past few decades.
Ultimately, these various problems within late-1700s France weren’t so much the immediate causes of the Revolution as they were the final catalyst. The strict French class system had long placed the clergy and nobility far above the rest of the French citizens, despite the fact that many of those citizens far exceeded nobles in wealth and reputation. Moreover, these exclusive titles—most of which had been purchased and passed down through families—essentially placed their bearers above the law and exempted them from taxes. In 1789, when France’s ancient legislative body, the Estates-General, reconvened and it became apparent that the higher-ranking classes refused to forfeit their privileges in the interest of saving the country, the frustration of the French bourgeoisie reached its boiling point. The French Revolution was thus a battle to achieve equality and remove oppression—concerns far more deep-seated and universal than the immediate economic turbulence France was experiencing at the time.
It may seem on the surface that the immediate results of the French Revolution were negligible, for the next leader after the Revolution was Napoleon, who imposed a dictatorship of sorts, voiding the sovereign democracy of the Revolution. Nonetheless, the Revolution won the public a number of other victories, both tangible and intangible. No French ruler after the Revolution dared to reverse the property and rights acquisitions gained during the Revolution, so citizens who had purchased church land were allowed to keep it. The new tax system remained devoid of the influence of privilege, so that every man paid his share according to personal wealth. Moreover, the breakdown of church and feudal contracts freed people from tithes and other incurred fees. That’s not to say that all was well: French industry struggled for years after the Revolution to regain a foothold in such a drastically different environment. On the whole, however, the French people had seen the impact they could have over their government, and that liberating, inspiring spirit was unlikely ever again to be suppressed.
Other European governments and rulers, however, were not too happy with the French after the Revolution. They knew that their own citizens had seen the power that the French public wielded, and as a result, those governments were never again able to feel secure in their rule after 1799. Though there had been other internal revolutions in European countries, few were as massive and convoluted as the French Revolution, which empowered citizens everywhere and resulted in a considerable leap toward the end of oppression throughout Europe.