The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars
|1788||Estates General meet for the fi rst time since 1614; Tennis Court Oath|
14 July People of Paris storm the Bastille
August Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is written
|1793||Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette executed|
|1804||Napoleon declares himself emperor of the French|
|1812||Russians defeat French; French retreat from Moscow|
|1814||Napoleon abdicates and is exiled to Elba|
|1815||Battle of Waterloo; fi nal defeat of Napoleon|
|1815||Congress of Vienna|
The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars
The French Revolution had a number of direct causes. First, the eighteenth- century Enlightenment gave birth to new ideas about the equality of man. Second, the Glorious Revolution in Britain proved that a limited monarchy was a workable system, and the American Revolution provided a unique example of a republican government founded on the idea, if not the practical reality, that its citizens were equal under the law. Third, unchecked spending by the French government caused rising prices, higher taxes, and food shortages, which led to popular demonstrations and demands for reform.
It was the combination of all these things that made the French Revolution happen when it did. When the government raised taxes to pay for war debts, the people might have grumbled and paid them—but the Enlightenment had created the new idea that if people were created equal to one another, the aristocrats should share the tax burden of the commoners.
Like all absolute monarchies, the French monarchy was inherently conservative. The king genuinely believed that he ruled by divine right and that in his person he represented all branches of the government; therefore, he did not even want advice from his ministers, much less any demands from the people.
The French Revolution was entirely unlike the English one that had taken place exactly a century before. The British Parliament had been a functioning legislative assembly for centuries; it was organized and powerful enough to sub- ordinate the monarch and take competent charge of the realm. The French, on the other hand, had no legislative assembly worthy of the name; their attempts to establish one failed repeatedly. Both nations found themselves under military dictatorship for a time, but Oliver Cromwell’s goals and ideas bore no resemblance to those of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Napoleonic era, named for its most prominent figure, was characterized by Bonaparte’s attempt to take over all of Europe—something that had not occurred since the days of the Roman Empire. Napoleon fell from power as swiftly and spectacularly as he rose to it, for a variety of reasons. First, France’s success in taking over other nations made it the common enemy of all Europe; as in previous historical situations, a nation that upset the balance of power would soon cause other nations to unite against it. Second, the new French nationalism that resulted from the Revolution inspired the people of other nations to the same emotion; national pride was a major motivating factor in military victories over Napoleon. Third, so many French soldiers had died in Napoleon’s early wars that the French army was largely made up of foreigners by the end of the era; German and Polish soldiers felt no particular personal loyalty to the emperor, and none at all to France. Fourth, Napoleon could not be both an emperor and a general at the same time; with his attention divided between leading the army and running the government, neither could be expected to operate efficiently or effectively.
The Congress of Vienna broke new ground in its attempt to establish an international peacekeeping organization of European states. This attempt succeeded in one way: the nineteenth century was almost without wars among the major powers of Europe. However, its leaders had a more conservative bent than the mass of Europeans, and some of the provisions of the Congress would lead directly to the national uprisings that characterized the 1800s.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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