Bastille Day: A History of the French Revolution

Rumours of an impending military coup rang around Paris on the morning of the 14th of July, 1789. What was already becoming an increasingly zealous and forceful protest for reformation now had, for all intents and purposes, been provided its ammunition (both figuratively and literally) to kickstart a revolution. Bastille prison was seized and the French Revolution began.

While the ensuing series of events might appear erratically spontaneous in their execution, their enactment required several inveterate prerequisites as it pertains to the nature of the French political system. As such, although today’s layman may look at the French Revolution as a designless, hysterical blip in European history, the groundwork so necessary for its occurrence was laid down long before, by virtue of an autocratic feudalist system. More pertinently, however, the impact of the French Revolution in regards to the extent to which it disturbed human life on a global scale, is perhaps unrivalled. Whether it be the birth of modern nationalism, the origination of the metric system or the provision of understructure for the Haitian slave revolt, the effects of the French Revolution continue to be felt to this day. 

A sense of restlessness and vexation lingered amongst the French people in the latter stages of the 18th century. The economic disparities were as acute as they were to be in any feudalist society. France imposed heavy taxes on the peasantry and the workers who were also required to give tithes to the Church, an eminently prominent institution in France. Participation in the American Revolution in 1776 left Louis XVI and his government on the brink of bankruptcy going into the 1780s. The actuality of subsequent widespread inflation decreased the value of any of the remaining earnings that the common people possessed. Conversely, the aristocracy was exempt from said taxes and usually in possession of substantive areas of land. Opulence, therefore, was only obtained by a select minority. In the 1780’s France fell victim to bitter winters, hailstorms and cattle disease that crippled its agriculture. The pauperisation of the countryside was as much disastrous for the peasants as it was for the industrial workers in diminishing the market for manufacturers. 

1789 marked the year when France could no longer mask its vested interests when disdaining the demands of its people

Social strife and public discontent were not irregular among European countries in the 18th century, however. What separated France from its feudalist counterparts was the stark extent to which the customs of the government’s ancien régime neglected the sentiment of both its economically and politically underrepresented classes. Attempted reforms preluding the revolution failed emphatically and instead spurred forwards more radical ideals. 1789 marked the year when France could no longer mask its vested interests when disdaining the demands of its people. 

It was the rancour of French aristocracy more so than the fervour of the lower classes that was imperative for revolution to occur. France’s political backwardness in the 18th century is highlighted most distinctly by the discrepancy between the privileges it granted its nobles and their comparative lack of political representation. Notwithstanding the nobles’ economic prerogatives, France’s absolute monarchy was such that any political institutions to represent the demands of the people were discouraged at best. Nobles, therefore, capitalised on their social freedoms that came by dint of Feudalism, to pre-empt further political isolation by assuming salient administrative positions. Suddenly, the feudalist political structure that had subsisted since the end of the ninth century was at risk of becoming redundant for those who reaped the benefits of the vested interests. 

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Feudalism in France granted the aristocracy considerable economic prerogatives. Despite this, their lack of political representation engendered the calling of a States-General — the first step needed for Revolution to occur

In 1786, three years before Bastille prison was stormed into, Louis XVI felt compelled to call for the formation of a States-General — in effect, France’s nominal legislative body — in order to quench the perceived risk of an aristocratic uprising. The situation was dubious; no governmental body had convened since 1614, and thus, the sudden assembly of apprehensive and discontented representatives was to escalate problems rather than defuse them. The States-General comprised of three Estates: the First Estate represented the clergy, the Second Estate the nobles and the Third Estate the remaining 95% of the French population. It quickly became apparent that the voices of the Third Estate were not going to be heard: the First and Second Estates’ ambitions did not mirror those of the Third. Unhappy with their proportional lack of deputation and a subsequent inability to proffer purposeful reformation policies, the Third Estate began to pull away, re-classifying itself as France’s National Assembly on the 17th of June 1786. The clamours of French aristocracy had coincided with a much deeper social crisis that had plagued the common people of France for years. The Third Estate now gave them the chance to fight for their rights. On the day of the National Assembly’s promulgation, in an indoor tennis court, its members vowed to agitate for reformation until action was taken by the government; this became known as the Tennis Court Oath.

The seizure of Bastille prison marked the initiation of the French Revolution as we know it. Parisiens stormed into the establishment, freeing several political prisoners and securing gunpowder and weaponry. However, it was not so much the obtainment of material phenomena that rendered this event relevant as much as it was the forfeiture of an institution that stood for authority and jurisdiction to the people. As EJ Hobsbawm put it: “in times of revolution, there is nothing more powerful than the fall of symbols”. In the months after, the period now known as La Grande Peur resulted, in which peasants burned the houses of tax collectors and landowners while the exodus of aristocrats ensued. On the 4th of August, upon the abolishment of Feudalism, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was pronounced by the National Assembly, laying bare the manifesto of the revolutionaries. The document opposed the unjust privileges of the nobles and affirmed the transcendental and universal rights of man, not to be infringed upon by another. In stark contrast to the ancien régime, each individual was to be given the ability to change the law by solitary or representative means. However, the concepts of egalitarianism and democracy were not stressed upon neither was the necessity to restructure an economy whose distribution and expenditure debilitated those at the bottom of France’s socioeconomic chain. Thus, the French Revolution is often looked at by historians as the emergence of a bourgeois class as feudalist France concluded. 

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen — a product very much of the values held by philosophers of the Enlightenment Period — facilitated the adoption of a new political structure amidst the demise of Feudalism. That is to say, although the dissipation of an outdated system was perhaps inexorable as a result of the pauperisation of the masses as well as the privation of aristocratic political representation, the espousal of a new regime that emphasised civil liberties may not have been possible were it not for figures such as Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. That being said, the transitional stage wherein the revolutionaries debated the appropriate system of government was often arduous; more progressive members of the National Assembly foresaw a system that approached a democratic republic, placing power in the hands of representatives, compared to others who believed that a constitutional monarchy would provide sufficient reform. A central degree of cohesion and harmony was necessary throughout to uphold the values set forth by the National Assembly’s Declaration. The emerging bourgeois class was able to base its ideals on the Enlightenment and introduce a philosophy of classical liberalism. This liberalism centred on constitutionalism and hierarchy while stressing the importance of man’s inborn liberties and freedom to innovate. Besides all, it accentuated the sovereignty of the nation and the obligation to prioritise its people above all else. 

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Published in 1791, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen laid out the liberal principles of the French Revolution

The period of radicalisation of the French Revolution occurred after the drafting of a constitution calling for a constitutional monarchy in 1791. France declared war on Prussia and Austria in 1792, aiming both to counteract the anti-revolutionary efforts of French emigrés as well as spread the ideological principles of the revolution across Europe. War was seen as a necessity both among the bourgeois middle class and the leaders of the emerging radicals for reasons that varied. The time in which France partook in the war led to the radicalisation of the revolution back on the home front. For the radicals, to supplant Louis XVI from the throne was to give power back to France’s masses and was, therefore, of primary importance. As such, the King was arrested in August of 1792 by the Jacobins, who emerged as the radical unmerciful political faction. By 1793, the Jacobins had claimed power with the help of the Sansculottes — a small group of militant partisans — sentencing Louis XVI to death for high treason and officially establishing the Reign of Terror.

The Reign of Terror served as a pre-emptive violent and bloody phase of the revolution that must be considered in conjunction with the Thermidorian Reaction of 1794. The goal of the Reign of Terror was, quite simply, to sift out the reactionaries from within in order to maintain the radical aspects of the revolution that had emanated during participation in the war. The same tactic can be identified in Mao’s Rectification Campaign of 1942 that saw the imprisonment of some one-thousand CCP members to avoid party revisionism. Led by Robespierre, a distinguished member of the Jacobins, the Reign of Terror was a tenth-month-long period in which close to forty-thousand civilians were killed for fear of being disloyal to the revolution. This barbaric and seemingly intemperate stage of the revolution was, however, a necessary precondition for the revolution to continue. The Jacobins, having claimed power from the Girondins, were faced with the choice of conducting a tyrannical and ruthless procedure of systematic extermination or risk losing the nation-state to foreign aggressors. Fourteen months on from the killings’ onset, France was in control of its land and had successfully resisted the attacks of Britain and Austria, despite undersupplies of weaponry and sustenance. Napoleon would go on to say that it was the Jacobins, ‘who went to sleep on mattresses and laid on the floor of their meeting halls’ drinking ‘bad beer’, that had saved France. A new constitution was also drafted, notably abolishing Catholic institutions (which prompted mass ecclesiastical emigration) and giving the French peasantry the right to reclaim land from landowners. The support of Robespierre was substantial only insofar as the economy was stable; as the financial burdens of the war effort began to catch up on the government, popular support plummeted and Robespierre was killed in July 1794. The Reign of Terror was no more.

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The Reign of Terror: almost 40,000 people were killed during the 10-month period, most by means of the infamous guillotine

The ascendancy of the moderate bourgeois within the revolutionary movement began in 1794. It became apparent to those who were spearheading the revolution that for classical liberalism to concretise a French political system, the acceptance of conservative measures was needed to curtail the radical sentiment of the French masses. The Thermidorian Reaction thus started: an effort to realise social cohesion by means of conforming to the liberal doctrine set forth in 1791. The deradicalisation of the revolution was complete and, in this fashion, the ruling of the Thermidorians was tolerated by the French people more so than celebrated. Their time in power saw them sway left and right to preserve political adherence — the army was deployed to repress subversives only at the worst of times. The French Revolution was an idiosyncrasy among revolutions due to its ability to extend itself in defiance of what would only seem to be ideological incongruities. The manifestation of the aristocrats’ liberal manifesto was contingent on the years of social inequality and the formation of a Third Estate. The revolution would go on to be radicalised by the Jacobins and Sansculottes before ultimately returning back to its bourgeois principles.

The French Revolution was brought to a close with the successful coup d’état of Napoleon Bonaparte. Upon first glance, the inception of a military ruling might appear almost anti-climactic in light of the antecedent ten years. The reality was that it was quintessential; it provided the French people with a mode of action and an adoptable narrative amid the militaristic ventures all the while rebuilding an economy that would go on to work via its own set of vested interests. It was both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary. Bonaparte would go on to magnificently conduct militaristic undertakings as France conquered sections of Europe in bursts. The extent to which France abided by the rudimentary principles of the revolution can be debated. After all, Napoleon would go on to sign the 1801 Concordat agreement that so deeply undermined the particular of secularism. Regardless, by the time the French Revolution had run its course, it had convincingly and irreversibly structured the groundwork for the enmities and contentions of the century that would follow. Whether it be the destruction of oligarchies, the rise of modern nationalism or the apparition of the secular state (which would eventually go on to produce itself), the effects of the French Revolution are quite truly inexhaustible. Despite being felt primitively in France, the revolution would prove itself to be a turning point in world history. 


Happy Bastille Day