The French Revolution — The Power of the Commons

When on July 14, 1789, Frenchmen stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons, many considered this the start of the French revolution. The day is celebrated today as a national holiday in many countries and is called Bastille day. It all started when France’s costly involvement in the American revolution and the monarchy’s extravagant lifestyle brought France to the brink of bankruptcy. The royal coffers were empty and so were the citizen’s stomachs. An extravagant life, funded by the people, had brought with it an acute sense of unrest and dissatisfaction among the villagers and the urban poor.

In those days the French aristocrats had the right to call for a corvée. A corvée, was the right of the French nobility to command the peasants from all the neighboring villages to work for them without pay, whenever they wanted roads or additions to their château. The peasants were forced to leave their fields while their harvest rot and they slaved for the nobility.However, the French population had changed considerably since 1614. The non-aristocrats now consisted of about 98% of the entire population, but still could be outvoted by the other two bodies(the clergy and the aristocrats).

In short, the life of the common people was filled with discontent and a daily struggle not to starve. The two decades of drought , cattle diseases and skyrocketing bread prices had left the peasants bristling with anger. To add salt to the wound, the aristocracy and the clergy didn’t pay taxes. Seeing the general state of unrest, Charles Alexander De Calonne, the controller general of the king, proposed a financial reform. This reform was to encompass the entire French population, divided as it was in three estates. The first estate was the nobility, the second was the clergy and the third estate was the French people who made 98% of the France and who actually did the real work. Now here is the catch, the small percentage of the populace which made up the nobility and who really didn’t add anything beneficial to the French economy, was given noble veto. Not surprisingly the third estate revolted .

This led to the May 5 meeting, the third estate started mobilizing support in order to demand equal representation. The meeting with the Estates-General didn’t have desired results and the third estate on June 17 met in secret and declared themselves the National Assembly. The National Assembly continued to work on the new constitution during even when fear and violence consumed the nation. There were rumors of an impending military coup circulating across the country. Before the two estates could do anything, the third estate took matters into their own hand and stormed the Bastille prison, in order to secure gunpowder and weapons. The French revolution had begun. This was the reason that the French celebrate the Bastille day, it commemorates this rather violent event. Notably, Thanksgiving in the US is also a holiday which commemorates a very violent event in the US history.

On August 4, 1789, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens. It served as a preamble to the Constitution of 1791. The basic framework of the declaration was that of freedom, equality and liberty along with ideals of secularism and equal opportunities. It was a statement of democratic principles and a big win for 98% of the French population.

However, the French revolution was far from over, the newly elected legislative assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia, it also hoped to spread its revolutionary ideals across Europe through warfare. On the domestic front, there was utter political turmoil which reached an epic ending. On January 21, 1793, the extremist Jacobins stormed the palace and arrested King Louis XVI and condemned him to death for high treason and crimes against the state. Even his wife was doomed to suffer the same fate nine months later. Thus began a reign of terror. The Reign of Terror was a 10-month period in which suspected enemies of the revolution were guillotined by the thousands. Many of the killings were carried out under orders from Robespierre, who dominated the draconian Committee of Public Safety until his own execution on July 28, 1794. The French people subsequently overthrew the reign of terror. A moderate phase began in the country which lead to the subsequent rise of the era of Napoleon Bonaparte, thus marking the official end of the French Revolution.

The entire French Revolution tells us how when the patience of the common folk is tested to a limit, they also lose it. Mistreatment of the common man will never be tolerated. Sooner or later, people will take to the streets to demand justice.

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