Because of the cost of the Seven Years’ War, the British government raised taxes… which prompted a tax revolt by their colonists in North America… which led to a Revolutionary War. Eventually, the British government decided that suppressing the revolution of the thirteen colonies was not cost-effective, and so they granted independence to the United States. Meanwhile, France lost the Seven Years’ War, and then provided assistance to the revolting colonists in America, thus creating a budget crisis of its own.
France did not have an agreement as powerful as Britain’s Magna Carta, but it was agreed that the King could not raise taxes in France without permission from the Estates General. Regional parlements allowed short-term taxes, but as the government debt grew, King Louis XVI realized he would have to summon the Estates General, which had not met since 1614. This national body consisted of three groups, or Estates. The First Estate represented roughly 100,000 church workers living in France. The Second Estate represented roughly 400,000 members of the nobility, major land-owners in the country. The Third Estate represented everyone else in France. Out of a population of 26 million, the Third Estate was not exactly the “ninety-nine percent,” but they were clearly underrepresented in this gathering. Since each Estate received one vote, the minority of church workers and nobles could block the will of the rest of the nation on any issue. Even some deputies elected by the First and Second Estates recognized the fundamental injustice of the situation and began calling for change. From this call came formation of a new collection of representative French rulers calling themselves the General Assembly.
Accounts differ explaining why the doors were locked when the General Assembly tried to meet. Many historians insist that the problem was an oversight—the person responsible for unlocking the doors slept late that morning. Others say that King Louis reserved the room for a speech he planned to deliver. Either way, the members of the General Assembly took the locked doors as an insult and met across the street on a tennis court. (Yes, they had tennis in France in the eighteenth century.) In that meeting, on June 20, 1789, the deputies vowed to let nothing stop them until they had reformed the government of France, making it more just for all the people.
A second misunderstanding enflamed France into revolution. A street protest, initially intended to protect the General Assembly from royal interference, was somehow redirected to storm the Bastille, a castle in the heart of Paris. Protesters believed that the Bastille held political prisoners and also contained a cache of weapons that could be used against them (or could be captured and used in their defense). The protesters were wrong on both counts, but their ability to overpower guards at a government facility opened their eyes to the power of the people. To this day, the French nation celebrates its independence on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.
Leaders of the new government drew inspiration from the Enlightenment philosophy that had already been used to start a new government in North America. They failed, though, to achieve the stability provided by the Constitution of the United States. Arresting the king and queen for attempting to leave Paris, they eventually executed both monarchs. The queen, Marie Antoinette, had been the victim of propaganda which said that, when she heard that the French peasants were starving because they had no bread, responded, “Let them eat cake.” While this may be history’s first blonde joke, it had been around longer than the queen had even been alive, already appearing in print in the writings of Jean Jacque Rousseau. On many other occasions, the French people were guided by emotion and propaganda rather than by reason and facts. At one point, a Reign of Terror led to the arrest and execution of thousands of French citizens, all accused of opposing the government of France and the will of the people.
Along the way, the new government tried to change everything in France. Not only did they execute the king and queen and declare a Republic; they also outlawed Christianity—both Roman Catholic and Protestant versions—and attempted to declare a religion based on reason. They change the calendar, renaming months and days of the week and starting year one with the dawn of the revolution. They invented a new machine for executions, the guillotine. (It was designed by a Doctor Guillot, who was personally opposed to execution of criminals, but who also insisted that if such executions were to be done, they should be mercifully swift.) The French Revolution even designed a new system of measuring length and volume and weight. This new system worked with multiples of ten, making some calculations easier but abandoning older systems of measuring that provided for quick determinations of thirds and quarters. This metric system is an enduring result of the French Revolution.
In their aspiration for creating a new, revolutionary nation that recognized human rights of all people and ended all oppression and injustice, the French people moved from chaos into chaos. Eventually, they turned to an army hero to pull order out of the chaos. Napoleon Bonaparte had been born in Corsica, an island that became part of France the same year Napoleon was born. His greatest military success to date had been in a war with Austria; at the time he was called to lead France, he was actually losing a battle in Egypt, a fact not yet known in France. Napoleon began as First Citizen but gradually acquired authority until he became Emperor. Like Charlemagne a thousand years earlier, Napoleon involved the Pope in his coronation. Unlike Charlemagne, Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and placed it own his own head, showing that the Pope and the Church had no power over the Emperor. During his brief years of power, Napoleon ruled much of Europe. He expanded the borders of France while making Spain, the Italian peninsula, and the German-speaking lands satellite countries under French control. Eventually, Napoleon repeated the mistake of King Charles of Sweden, invading Russia. His massive army, drawing soldiers from many European nations, marched into Russia with little opposition as the Russian army retreated. Napoleon even captured Moscow, but his victory was hollow. Overcome by winter weather and by failure of his supply routes, Napoleon had to return to Paris; on the way, he lost most of his soldiers to disease, frostbite and hypothermia, and guerilla attacks from the Russians. After that catastrophe, Napoleon was overthrown. He briefly returned to power the next year, but once again he was defeated, this time conclusively at the Battle of Waterloo.
In the aftermath of Napoleon’s Empire, Europe was redrawn by the Congress of Vienna. The Holy Roman Empire vanished, replaced by a confederation of German-speaking governments, led by those of Austria and Prussia. The United Kingdom, France, and Russia were also recognized as Great Powers. Those five governments maintained a balance of power for roughly a century, avoiding wars among themselves (with a brief exception around the year 1870, as Prussia became Germany). But the impact of Enlightenment philosophy expressed in France during the Revolution and continued under the reign of Napoleon was shared with the rest of Europe. Human rights were recognized. Justice was seen as a right for all people. Freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, and even of religion were largely affirmed across Europe. Governments that represented the people and heard the voice of the people became the goal.
Not that they always achieved this goal. Governments rose and fell in France every few years—monarchies, republics, even a second Empire under another Napoleon. Enlightened rulers tolerated human rights when it suited them and violated those rights when it suited them. Masses of citizens often resorted to street protests, sometimes to violence, to force their governments to recognize and defend their rights. These political changes, coming in the wake of industrialization, changed life in Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century and were also exported to the rest of the world through European presence in Asia, Africa, and the western hemisphere. J.