French Revolution

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The French Revolution (1789-1799), was the revolutionary episode in France that deposed the king and the aristocracy, created a republic, and included a period of terror, in which thousands were killed or driven into exile. The republic took on the mission of using its armies to spread republicanism, the rights of man, and modernity to Europe, but its opponents, led by Britain, declared war in 1793. In 1799 Napoleon, a hero and product of the Revolution, became dictator, bringing the first stage of the revolution to a close. Debates on the values and meaning of the Revolution have shaped French politics and political thought.



see Louis XVI






The "Directory" was the government between November 1795 and November 1799.[1] It consisted of a Directory of five men, one of whom was replaced annually, and two representative assemblies, the Five Hundred and the Ancients. The assemblies were elected nationwide by property owners. The assemblies wielded legislative power, and the Directory executive power, but there was no device to resolve deadlocks between them.[2]

The Directory gave power to the more conservative forces remaining in France;[3] they had taken advantage of the enormous changes 1789-95, including the breakup or religious and aristocratic estates. The Directory continued the "Thermidorian reaction," which followed the fall of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins in July 1794. The moderate middle-class republicans, mostly from the upper middle class favored the Directory because it ended the power of the royalists on the right and the Jacobin on the left. The Directory repeatedly used armed force and intimidation to stay in power, and thus depended on its generals, who gained popularity.

In foreign affairs the wars against Britain, Austria, Prussia, and for a time Russia were undertaken to protect France, expand its ideals, and acquire cash to pay army, which became more and more powerful in internal affairs. Conquests created a screen of six satellite republics set up in Holland, Switzerland, and Italy, and Bonaparte's seizure of Egypt. Prussia and Spain made peace, but Britain remained hostile and plans were drawn for an invasion. Instead Napoleon invaded Egypt.

In domestic affairs the era of the Directory was characterized by large-scale corruption. The revolution had demoralized public life, especially in Paris and the major cities. Profiteering in business, graft in politics and bureaucracy, extravagance in luxuries, and vulgarity in morals and manners, were the marks of the new regime. Public finances remained disorganized, as the nation could not raise enough taxes to pay its expenses. Inflation was rampant. In the private sector prosperity was returning, especially in the rural areas where most Frenchmen lived. One Director, Paul de Barras (1755-1829), who clung to power throughout the period, was a flamboyant, ruthlessly self-seeking man of immense greed and licentiousness. In total contrast was Lazare Carnot (1753-1823), the patriotic "organizer of victory," who served as a Director from 1795 until September 1797, and was largely responsible for the successes of the French army and of the Italian campaign in 1796-1797. Senior officials included the highly talented Joseph Fouché, minister of police, and the Comte de Talleyrand, minister of foreign affairs. The election as director of abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès in May 1799 brought in a powerful intellectual who realized the system was doomed and resolved to overthrow it.

The Directory lost legitimacy by the series of coups it engineered to control elections. The coup of Fructidor (September 1797) against the royalists was followed by the coup of Floréal (May 1798) against the Jacobins, and then by that of Prairial (June 1799) against both. Repeated use of armed intimidation dismayed republicans, particularly army officers who believed in republican ideas. The coups paved the way for the overthrow of the regime by Napoleon in 1799.

The 18th Brumaire and the end of Revolution

Despite his military failures in Egypt, General Napoleon Bonaparte returned to a hero's welcome in 1799. In alliance with the director Sieyès and his brother, Lucien Bonaparte, president of the council of five hundred, he overthrew the Directory by a coup d'etat on November 9, 1799 ("the 18th Brumaire" according to the revolutionary calendar), and closed down the council of five hundred. Napoleon became "first consul" for ten years, with two consuls appointed by him who had consultative voices only. His power was confirmed by the new constitution ("Constitution of the year VIII"), originally devised by Sieyès to give Napoleon a minor role, but rewritten by Napoleon, and accepted by direct popular vote (3,000,000 in favor, 1,567 opposed). The constitution preserved the appearance of a republic but in reality established a military dictatorship. Historians usually date the end of the Revolution with the days of Brumaire, as it sounded the end of the short-lived French republic: there was no more representative government, assemblies, a collegial executive, or liberty.[4]

Impact on France

The soldiers of the 1790s became the heroes for future republicans, who admired the equality of all before the draft, the requirement to serve in person, the human qualities of flair, enthusiasm, generosity of spirit, and patriotism, as well as the upward mobility that could turn peasants into officers. The soldier was spared the denunciation heaped on one political faction or the other.[5]

Impact on World


The Republican or "radical" interpretation of the Revolution, typified by politician François Guizot (1787–1874) and research scholar François Aulard (1849-1928), hailed it for the destruction of a reactionary nobility, which was replaced by men of the Enlightenment who introduced the rights of man, proclaimed equality, guaranteed liberty, strengthened the nation state, redefined citizenship, and modernized every aspect of France's political, social, cultural, religious, economic and diplomatic roles. He saw the duty of his own generation to continue and perfect the goals of the Revolution. The defeat of the reactionary Catholic Church was seen as a signal achievement, and bolstered the Radicals in French politics who attacked continuing roles of the Church in the late 19th and early 20th century.[6]

The arch-conservative Legitimist or "Bourbon" interpretation, typified by Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) portrayed the French Revolution as an illegitimate, bloodthirsty usurpation of legitimate rulers. The Right in France rejected the Revolution and all its works. However, recent conservative historiography has argued that the Revolution accomplished only what was was already underway, and added little new except needless violence and hatreds. The Roman Catholic variation stressed the attacks on religion and the established church, and the horrors of the Terror, thereby bolstering the political conservatism of the Catholics, whose schools were under attack by Radicals for much of the 19th century.

Marxist historiography, which was dominant from the 1930s into the 1970s, argued that material economic factors made a revolution inevitable, gave it force, and made it a model for the 20th century socialists to emulate. Marxists, led by Albert Mathiez (1874–1932), Georges Lefebvre (1874-1959)[7] , and Albert Soboul (1914-1982)[8], identify two stages, a liberal bourgeois revolution (1789) against the feudal landed aristocracy, followed by a second and more radical democratic revolution against the bourgeoisie led by the the sans-culottes (the urban poor)[9]. That is, the wealthy town dwellers and businessmen (the "bourgeoisie") were angry that the nobility governed France. They found a voice (in Marxist language, they realized their identity as a class) and first sought power against the upper class (in 1789) and then (1791-99) against the proletariat (poor people) of the cities and peasants from below who suddenly emerged and demanded power themselves. The conflict permanently radicalized France and was the foundation of the Left in French political history. Marxists lament the counterrevolution of Thermidor and the coming to power of Napoleon.

The Marxist approach was a simple model that claimed to simultaneously explain the Revolution's origins, its internal dynamics and its long-term consequences. The dominance of the Left in French intellectual life ensured the theory was dominant for decades, but it had serious flaws. As English scholar Alfred Cobban explained, feudalism as a system had withered away long before the Revolution abolished its last vestiges in the form of seigniorial rights. Furthermore where Marxists saw a self-conscious, capitalist bourgeois class, Cobban revealed only a loose collection of disparate social groups that did not include the industrialists and businessmen but rather the officeholders and lawyers. These men led the revolution not as spokesmen for the forces of capitalism; rather they were state-builders. Other scholars showed the nobility was not parasitic obstructionist and reactionary caste of Republican or Marxist writing, but rather a diverse and open group whose leaders actively promoted political and economic modernization.[10]

To replace Marxist interpretations was the goal of François Furet (1927-97)), the head of the history section of the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes. He argued instead that the Revolution is best understood as the victory of the Enlightenment--particularly the Rousseauian version--over social interests. Intellectual forces were dominant, not class conflict or materialistic forces. Furet's influential American ally was Keith Baker, of the University of Chicago. Baker, influenced by the linguistic turn pioneered by J. G. A. Pocock identified three competing discourses that shaped how people thought in the second half of the eighteenth century. The "language of will" promised rights to the majority while the "language of justice" and the "language of equality" also shaped political values. Justice emphasized history and the desire to maintain contracts; proponents of equality wanted reason to prevail in governmental decision making. According to Baker, in the summer of 1789 the revolutionaries suddenly embraced the language of will. Once embarked on this course, the Terror followed from their insistence that the majority should realize its ambitions. Political and social factors were not unnecessary to arrive at this unfortunate result, said Baker; instead it was the embrace of the three political discourses of will, justice and equality that drove the revolution.[11]

Since the 1980s historiographical perspectives have emphasized the global context of disturbances, riots, and revolts in Europe and the Americas--in the Atlantic world--in the late 18th century, with attention to similarities and differences.

Thanks to the postmodern emphasis on the specific rather than the general, instead of the old emphasis on Paris there has been much greater emphasis on regional and local conditions. Postmodern historians tend to see the French Revolution as a haphazard event with random and largely unforeseen consequences, to the dismay of old Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm (1917- ).[12]

Multiple cultural and intellectual themes have displaced monocausal economic interpretations. Thus in dealing with the middle class, the Marxist inevitable-class-conflict model has given way. On the one hand there are cultural studies that emphasize the ways in which the middle class functions as a political and moral claim rather than a sociological entity. On the other hand microscopic ethnographic studies examine the middle class in terms of daily cultural practices, focusing on the formation of class identity through family structure, consumer behavior, sociability, and sexuality.[13]


  1. The Directory is also called the Constitution of the Year III because it was instituted in the third year of the First French Republic.
  2. Jones, Great Nation (2002) ch 11
  3. Not including the royalists and aristocrats who had fled into exile.
  4. Furet (1996) p 212
  5. Alan Forrest, "L'armee De l'an II: La Levee en Masse et la Creation d'un Mythe Republicain." Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française 2004 (335): 111-130. Issn: 0003-4436
  6. See Furet and Ozouf, eds. Critical Dictionary (1989), 881-1032 and Doyle Origins of the French Revolution (1999) ch 1-3, for a review of the major historians.
  7. See LeFebvre, The French Revolution: From its Origins to 1793 (2001 edition) excerpts and online search from
  8. Soboul, The Sans-Culottes (1981 edition) excerpts and online search from
  9. "1789: The Fact and Fiction of the Sans-Culottes Movement" (2007) online at [1]
  10. Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1962); Doyle (1999) ch 2; John Dunne, "Fifty Years of Rewriting the French Revolution: Signposts Main Landmarks and Current Directions in the Historiographical Debate," History Review. (1998) pp 8+ online edition
  11. Censer, "Amalgamating the Social in the French Revolution" (2003)
  12. E. J. Hobsbawm, "The Making of a 'Bourgeois Revolution'" Social Research 2004 71(3): 455-480. Issn: 0037-783x Fulltext: []Ebsco]]
  13. Carol E. Harrison, "The Bourgeois after the Bourgeois Revolution: Recent Approaches to the Middle Class in European Cities." Journal of Urban History 2005 31(3): 382-392. Issn: 0096-1442 Fulltext: in Ebsco