Although interpretive differences remain important, one can summarize the national history of the origins of the French Revolution with a chronology of several central events. On August 8, 1788, Louis XVI and his advisers decided to give in to pressures and summon the old medieval legislative body of the realm, the Estates General, which had not met since 1614. After a complicated and controversial procedure to select delegates, the Estates General opened at Versailles on May 5, 1789. To prepare for the meeting, men and women throughout the countryside drew up cahiers de doléances or lists of grievances they wanted their delegates to discuss. After considerable controversy, the Estates General included a double representation of the Third Estate of commoners so that it consisted of 300 First Estate or clerical representatives, 300 Second Estate or noble representatives, and 600 commoners. On June 17, 1789, after a conflict over whether or not deliberations should take place by Estate or as one common body and over whether or not votes should be cast by Estate or by each member individually, the Third Estate separated itself from the other two, declared itself the National Assembly, and invited members from the other estates to join it. Enough delegates did so to force the king to reluctantly declare the National Assembly a reality.
A month later, on July 14, suspicious Parisians, mostly artisans, stormed and destroyed the Bastille, ostensibly to prevent the king from dissolving the new National Assembly. After destroying the old prison, revolutionaries identified the storming and destruction of the Bastille with their triumph over liberty, although there were only a few prisoners in it, including the pornographer, the Marquis de Sade. Eventually, the destruction of the Bastille became one of the most important symbols of the revolution. Revolutionaries commemorated the first anniversary of the revolution in the Festival of the Federation, held on July 14, 1790. Bastille Day did not become a holiday, however, until the end of the nineteenth century, and, even then, it was not always celebrated with regularity, as many men and women in France remained unsure if the fall of the Bastille represented the triumph of liberty or the lethal consequences of a mob of people out of control..
The destruction of the Bastille touched off rural unrest throughout France. The sporadic rebellion that followed the destruction of the Bastille, generally described as the Great Fear, has almost universally been treated as an attack on feudalism, which it was in many parts of France. Within days, it culminated in the Night of August 4, 1789, when nobles voluntarily surrendered all feudal rights and privileges, but only gradually over a period of years and with compensation for owners. It also contributed to the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a bill of rights modeled on English and American examples, which guaranteed that "men are born and remain free and equal in rights." It also guaranteed that "property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one may be deprived of it except for an obvious requirement of public necessity, certified by law . . . ."
Somewhat later, Olympe de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen as a "wake-up" call to women. Declaring that "woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights," her document is an early statement that women ought to share the same political rights that men possessed. Though men were reluctant to share their political rights with women, many women activists and anonymous women shaped the course of the revolution during its earliest years. Among the most dramatic events of the revolution occurred on October 5 and 6, 1789, when women of the Parisian lower classes forced many women from all social classes to march with them to Versailles to seize the King. They succeeded in bringing the King and his family back to Paris, where he agreed to accept his position as an executive in a constitutional monarchy. Immediately, women as revolutionaries became a potent symbol of the power of the Revolution. Eventually, the new French Republic was personified as a woman, "Marianne," the name of an old secret society. As Maurice Agulhon has shown, once the image was invented, it could be reconfigured as it proliferated, but eventually it coalesced into an ideal type. Marianne was a powerful woman in 1789, was stylized in the 1880s, and was commercialized in the late Twentieth Century, when she became identified with the actress Brigitte Bardot. Still, as considerable historiography has shown, one should not assume that because a woman could becomes a powerful symbol of revolution that women obtained any significant political, social, or economic advantages during the French Revolution. As Joan Landes has argued, "Marianne" was nothing more than a picture; the new Republic was a discursive republic based on laws and texts, which emptied the symbol of any real political significance.
On June 20, 1791, after revolutionaries had turned parish priests into civil servants who had to swear allegiance to a secular, national, state, Louis Capet, King of France, fled Paris with his family, hoping to meet up with Austrian forces, which would help him restore the traditional monarchy. He was recognized and captured at Varennes, brought back to Paris, then executed after a trial on January 21, 1793. In the midst of war abroad and severe economic crises at home, the French Revolution moved into a second phase after the King's death, which emphasized social equality and fraternity whereas the earliest years of the revolution accentuated liberty. Men and women from the working class, believing that they had received few benefits from the revolution, began to demand universal suffrage and participatory democracy. Eventually, Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer from Arras, emerged as the head of the Jacobin Club when it gained control of the National Convention. When the National Convention conveyed power to the twelve member Committee of Public Safety, of which Robespierre was a member, he gradually assumed dictatorial control of the country. Often thought to have been a disciple of the philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau because of his early defense of the principles of direct democracy, Robespierre later defended some forms of representation and then rhetorically identified the interests of the people with those of the Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. As head of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre attempted to rule "in the name of the people" by regulating the economy through the use of price controls and by allowing revolutionary tribunals to execute many individuals identified as traitors. His year of rule has consequently been called "the Reign of Terror," although Robespierre, himself, was personally opposed to the death penalty.
Altogether, around 50,000 were killed, many of whom lost their heads to the guillotine, a powerful symbol of the violence of the revolution. Among the revolution's victims was Olympe de Gouges. Other women activists were also arrested, and the Jacobins outlawed their clubs, believing that women belonged in the private sphere of the home, not in the public sphere of men.
In this phase of the revolution, women became identified with extreme violence, either furiously knitting while heads fell or--as in this image--as terrible mothers, who would recklessly fire their guns near their own children.
After a year of executions, many of Robespierre's former political allies decided that they needed to turn Robespierre into a traitor to end the bloodshed and spare their own lives. Thus, Robespierre eventually lost his head to the guillotine after the Thermidorian Revolution of 1794. After his execution, no one officially proclaimed the end of the Terror, but the killing gradually subsided.
While many politicians and historians are now troubled about celebrating the French Revolution because of the violence of 1793 and 1794, Robespierre's Constitution of the Year III attempted to guarantee men and women the right to work, the right to eat and the right to public assistance if they could not work or eat. Robespierre's government reaffirmed the right of Protestants and Jews to citizenship in France and abolished slavery in 1794.
Though obviously in response to a slave revolt in Saint Domingue, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743-1803), the decision to abolish slavery was not uncontroversial. Many colonial interests opposed ending slavery, and Napoleon's armies lost many lives trying to reestablish it in the 1800s. Napoleon finally reestablished slavery in the French colonies in 1802, but Toussaint L'Ouverture and his slaves successfully achieved independence and formed the second republic in the Western Hemisphere in 1804 when they created modern-day Haiti and freed all slaves on the island. Several images portrayed revolutionaries extending the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to freed slaves as one of the greatest promises of the revolution.
There is also no question that much of the violence associated with the Reign of Terror resulted from the government's attempt to stop counter-revolutionary threats, especially in the city of Lyon and in the West of France, in a region called the Vendée. In these places and in other places throughout France, men and women armed themselves to overthrow the republic and restore the monarchy. Some counter-revolutionaries were peasants, others sharecroppers, still others, textile workers. Counter-revolutionaries in the Vendée seemed particularly upset that Robespierre had launched a movement of dechristianization and had seemingly gone on a witchhunt against priests. Consequently, many historians have portrayed them as religious fanatics. Other historians have attributed the counter-revolution to various socio-economic factors, but in all cases, historians have recognized that many were killed in what amounted to a civil war in France in 1793 over whether or not the future of France lay in a monarchy or in a republic.
The Revolution limped along after Robespierre's execution and was revived with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), France's great military leader, who launched a coup d'état in 1799, became an Emperor in 1802, and ruled over much of the European continent until he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on June 15, 1815. From the perspective of Latin America, one of Napoleon's most significant military accomplishments was the invasion of Spain and Portugal in 1808. With the help of the British, the Portuguese Monarchy moved the seat of the Portuguese Empire to Brazil, setting the stage for Brazil's political independence from Portugal and its long-term economic dependence on Great Britain.
At the end of the French Revolution in 1815, the Bourbon dynasty was restored under Louis XVIII. Although Louis attempted to bring back the France that had existed in 1789, the revolution had created a powerful political culture which held that "the people" were the source of sovereignty. It took almost another century before men forged a working democracy based on universal manhood suffrage. Women in France only received the right to vote in France in 1945 and remain significantly underrepresented in political institutions.
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