The French Revolution for AP European History
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Between 1789 and 1799, the Kingdom of France underwent a political revolution that unfolded in three phases:
- a moderate phase (1789–1791), in which the politically active portions of the bourgeoisie or merchant class attempted to curb the power and privilege of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the clergy, and create a limited constitutional monarchy similar to that which existed in Britain
- a radical phase (1791–1794), in which the politicized urban working class of Paris seized control and attempted to create a democratic republic and a more materially and socially egalitarian society
- an end phase known as Thermidor (1794–1799), in which the moderate bourgeois faction reasserted itself and concentrated simply on restoring order
By 1799, the Thermidorian government, known as the Directory, was totally dependent on the military for its ability to govern. In November of that year, a military general, Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d'état, and embarked on an ambitious campaign to create a French Empire that spanned most of Europe. Upon his defeat in 1815 by a coalition of European powers, the French monarchy was restored and the kingdom of France was returned to its traditional boundaries.
The Ancien Régime in Crisis
The phrase Ancien Régime, or Old Regime, refers to the traditional social and political hierarchy of eighteenth-century France. It was composed of three "Estates":
- the First Estate, made up of the clergy, which included all ordained members of the Catholic Church in France
- the Second Estate, made up of the nobility, which included all titled aristocrats
- the Third Estate, made up of the citizenry, which included everyone who was neither clergy nor nobility and whose membership accounted for 96 percent of the population of France
Together, the clergy and the nobility wielded enormous power and enjoyed tremendous privilege, while the various groups that made up the Third Estate bore the tax burden.
The Catholic Church in France functioned as a branch of the government bureaucracy. It registered births, marriages, and deaths; collected certain kinds of agricultural taxes; and oversaw both education and poor relief. The Church owned approximately 10 percent of land in France but paid no taxes to the government; instead, it made an annual gift to the crown in an amount of its own choosing. The clergy who populated the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church in France ranged from poor, simple parish priests to the powerful cardinals who were connected to the pope in Rome, and who often served as chief advisors in the government of the French king.
The nobility were the traditional land-owning elite of France, though by this period they often supplemented their fortunes through banking and commerce. They owned somewhere between 25 and 33 percent of the land in France, but were exempt from most taxes, despite the fact that they still collected various types of manorial dues from peasant farmers. Members of the nobility held most of the high offices in the French government and army, and the Church.
The citizenry can be roughly divided into three social groups:
- the bourgeoisie, including merchants, manufacturers, bankers, lawyers, and master craftsmen
- the peasantry, including all agricultural laborers ranging from very prosperous land owners to poor sharecroppers and migrant workers
- urban laborers, including journeymen craftsmen, mill and other small-scale manufacturing workers, and all wage laborers that populated the cities and towns of France
By 1787, the government of King Louis XVI was in financial crisis. When he took the throne in 1774, Louis XVI had inherited a huge and ever-increasing national debt, most of it incurred by borrowing money to finance wars and to maintain an army. With interest on the debt mounting and bankers refusing to lend the government more money, Louis and his ministers attempted to reform the tax system of France and to pry some of the vast wealth out of the hands of the nobility. When the nobility resisted, he was forced to do something that had not been done since 1614; he called into session the Estates General. The Estates General was the closest thing to a legislative assembly that existed in eighteenth-century France. Members representing each of the three Estates met to hear the problems of the realm and to hear pleas for new taxes. In return, they were allowed to present a list of their own concerns and proposals, called cahiers, to the Crown. When the representatives arrived in Versailles, the palace of Louis XVI, in April of 1789, the representatives of the Third Estate presented a series of proposals that were revolutionary in nature.
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