The Age of George III

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An outline of events in the French Revolution

There was not one, but five separate revolutions during the period 1789-1815. These are shown on the chart below.

For a larger view - which takes some time to download - click on the diagram

In 1789, France had an absolute monarchy under the Bourbon, Louis XVI. In that year, Britain was celebrating the centenary of the Glorious Revolution in various clubs set up for the purpose. It appeared that now the French were having their own version of the Glorious Revolution and many British people were encouraging and helping the French to bring the events to fruition. There was much travel between England and France and ideas were shared. However, there were different reactions in Britain to the events in France.

William Wordsworth rejoiced at

France standing on the top of golden hours
And human nature seeming born again

and thought

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!

After the fall of the Bastille, Charles James Fox said

How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world! and how much the best!

Those who supported events in France began to dress in the style of the Jacobins. William Blake wore the red cap of Liberty; Robert Burns sent guns to the Convention in Paris; Charles James Fox began to dress as a Jacobin. Thomas Paine went to Paris between September 1789 and March 1790. He was elected as Calais' representative to the National Assembly. He returned to France in September 1792 and was arrested as a Royalist in December 1793. He was not released until November 1794.

Between 1789 and 1792, France had a Constitutional Monarchy. The French middle classes (the bourgeoisie) wanted political rights that reflected their education and wealth. Rousseau had written his Social Contract in 1769: this book begins:

Man was born free, yet everywhere he is in chains'

Rousseau preached pure democracy such as was supposed to have existed in the Greek city states in ancient times.

At this time, French intellectualism was renowned: the philosophes and Encyclopedists were busy on new ideas of social development and the collection of knowledge. Ideas of democracy also permeated French society, coming from the effects of the American War of Independence. French troops had been sent to help the American colonists in their struggle against Britain and these men had brought back to France new ideas about government and systems of rule. Louis XVI was an autocrat and the political expertise of the French people was very limited because they had never had any political rights or experience. The king could see no good reason to change this. However, the bourgeoisie wanted power and neither side would compromise.

The bourgeoisie became impatient, especially after the failure of the Revolt of the Notables and the Revolt of the Parlements to tax themselves in 1787. The king was taken aback by demands for democracy but had to agree to an Estates-General to obtain money. The National Assembly, set up in June 1789 after the Tennis Court Oath, was forced on Louis XVI, who saw it as a temporary measure until he could regain total control.

The intellectuals became impatient and roused the mob, especially in Paris, to add weight to their arguments. The mob got out of hand, for example on 14 July 1789 when they stormed the Bastille in Paris and on 5 October 1789 when the women of Paris marched on Versailles.

By 1792 the Jacobins had emerged as the dominant group in French political life. They held their meetings in the Convent of the Jacobins in Paris and were extreme republican in nature. They were led by Robespierre, Marat and St Just among others. They conducted a violent campaign against all moderates, constitutionalists and monarchists. They wanted to abolish monarchy and set up a people's republic. The Jacobins overwhelmed the moderate, provincial Girondins and got their way, with the help of the Paris mob.

In April 1792 France declared war on Austria

In November 1792 they issued the Edict of Fraternity which said: 'All governments are our enemies, all people our friends'.

On 21 January 1793 Louis XVI was executed and a People's Republic was declared. The royal family, aristocrat and clergy were guillotined with the full support of the Committee of Public Safety: twelve men who effectively ruled France as a Junta. The revolts in the Vendée and in southern France were suppressed ruthlessly.

In November 1793 Christianity was replaced by the worship of the goddess of Reason and the calendar was reorganised into decimals; the months were renamed. The dates in France were re-arranged to start from 22 September 1792. This became the start of Year 1 of Liberty.

By February 1793 the new French Republic was at war with most of Europe: France was fighting Britain, Spain, Holland, the German states (349 of these), the Italian states (11 of these) and the Austro-Hungarian empire simultaneously.

From the start of the war against France, the British attitude towards France changed, although Charles James Fox and Tom Paine continued to support the attempts at democracy in France. Pitt felt that he was unable to continue with domestic reform in the face of events in France. In Britain, anyone and everyone who advocated reform of any sort was labelled 'Jacobin'.

The Edict of Fraternity called on European peoples to rise against their rulers, both secular and spiritual, and overthrow them. The French offered to help because they thought that they had the answer to all social, political and economic ills: liberty, equality and fraternity. There were few reforms carried out in France for the benefit of society at large because the leaders of the country were too occupied in attempting to spread republicanism and trying to stay alive themselves. The leaders were afraid of domestic reform although it was needed desperately.

The French Revolution was built on the philosophies of

The Edict of Fraternity effectively caused the Revolutionary Wars because it was virtually a declaration of war on every crowned head of Europe. Between 1793 and 1799, not only was France fighting the countries of Europe but also was fighting a civil war against royalists, moderates and Catholics who wanted a moderate constitution and a return to law and order.

On 9 November 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in the Coup d'état de Brumaire and made himself First Consul. In 1804 he was crowned Emperor and from then until June 1815, France was governed as a military dictatorship under what effectively was an absolutist régime with Napoleon pursuing the quest for empire. The wheel had gone full circle.

Between 1804 and 1815 British opinion was almost totally against France and Napoleon as the 'imperial giant'. There was little reform in Britain despite much hardship. There was a great deal of patriotic zeal in Britain, however.

In 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo, the Allies gave France what the people had wanted in 1789: a constitutional monarchy. The Bourbons returned to power in the shape of Louis XVIII. However, the fear of revolution lived on in Britain and there continued to be little domestic reform for the next fifteen years.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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