All You Need to Know About the French Revolution

Paul V. Hartman

      In popular legend, the French Revolution was the overthrow of a corrupt monarchy by a destitute French population of commoners.

      In reality, Louis XVI was weak and indecisive: it was not necessary to snatch the scepter from his hand - he dropped it willingly. Nor was the populace poor: this was a time of unprecedented French wealth, provided the harvests were adequate.

      The problem was that France, after aiding the American revolution in order to humiliate the English, was now bankrupt, and Louis needed to replenish national coffers, frustrated by the reluctance of two arms of the Estates General (nobility, clergy) to relinquish their exemptions from taxation, leaving the burden to the Third Estate - the rising middle class of business and professional people who also represented the working class.

      The winter of 1789 was particularly harsh, the grain crop poor, the price of bread high, enough to provoke some riots. So when called to discuss national finances, the Third Estate had other complaints to air. In essence, the monarchy was to be blamed for harsh weather.

      One of the riots took on great symbolism: the storming of the Bastille, where it was believed the King retained all people who complained about the King's policy. That the Bastille contained a total of 7 prisoners, one of whom was a noble, was irrelevant. What was relevant was that the storming was neither repulsed nor punished. A mob needs only to see the weakness of the adversary to be emboldened. The next mob was bolder and larger, and stormed Versailles. The King capitulated even as Lafayette with 20,000 of the French army arrived. Louis and his court were brought to Paris where for the next 4 years they were house prisoners of the revolutionaries led by discontented nobles, during the course of which a Constitution was created which abolished the monarchy and the perks of the clergy. The Reign of Terror followed along with the complete disruption of the social fabric of France, and the physical destruction of 12 centuries of architectural wonders.

      While it is true that the American revolution was fresh in the minds of the French, a king with backbone would have stopped it in its tracks. France lacked such a king, but a short man with backbone lived on an island newly acquired from Italy. When the French revolution began, Napoleon Bonaparte was a Captain of Artillery in the Corsican National Guard.

Notice to High School students: if you try to pass off my essay as your own in a high school course, you are doomed. This essay is the most popular short essay on the French Revolution on the entire internet, and if your teacher doesn't know it, he/she WILL know it when the second copy of it arrives!

For rich detail on this event, the historical period, events preceding and those following, read Will & Ariel Durant's "The Story of Civilization", Volume 10, entitled "Rousseau and Revolution".

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