Changes were accompanied by violent turmoil, including executions and repression during the Reign of Terror, and warfare involving every other major European power. Subsequent events that can be traced to the Revolution include the Napoleonic Wars, the restoration of the monarchy, and two additional revolutions as modern France took shape.
In the following century, France would be governed variously as a republic, dictatorship, constitutional monarchy, and two different empires.
Historians disagree about the political and socioeconomic nature of the Revolution. Traditional Marxist interpretations, such as that presented by Georges Lefebvre, described the revolution as the result of the clash between a feudalistic noble class and the capitalist bourgeois class. Some historians argue that the old aristocratic order of the Ancien Régime succumbed to an alliance of the rising bourgeoisie, aggrieved peasants, and urban wage-earners.
Yet another interpretation asserts that the revolution resulted when various aristocratic and bourgeois reform movements spun out of control. According to this model, these movements coincided with popular movements of the new wage-earning classes and the provincial peasantry, but any alliance between classes was contingent and incidental.
But adherents of most historical models identify many of the same features of the Ancien Régime as being among the causes of the Revolution. Economic factors included:
* Louis XV fought many wars, bringing France to the verge of bankruptcy, and Louis XVI supported the colonists during the American Revolution, exacerbating the precarious financial condition of the government. The national debt amounted to almost 2 billion livres. The social burdens caused by war included the huge war debt, made worse by the monarchy's military failures and ineptitude, and the lack of social services for war veterans.
* An inefficient and antiquated financial system unable to manage the national debt, both caused and exacerbated by the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation.
* The Roman Catholic Church, the largest landowner in the country, which levied a tax on crops known as the dîme. While the dîme lessened the severity of the monarchy's tax increases, it worsened the plight of the poorest who faced a daily struggle with malnutrition.
* The continued conspicuous consumption of the noble class, especially the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, despite the financial burden on the populace.
* High unemployment and high bread prices, causing more money to be spent on food and less in other areas of the economy.
* Widespread famine and malnutrition, which increased the likelihood of disease and death, and intentional starvation in the most destitute segments of the population in the months immediately before the Revolution. The famine extended even to other parts of Europe, and was not helped by a poor transportation infrastructure for bulk foods. (Some researchers have also attributed the widespread famine to an El Niño effect, or colder climate of the little ice age combined with France's failure to adopt the potato as a staple crop)
The Ideals: Declaration of Human Rights.
The Ideals: Declaration of Human Rights.
* No internal trade and too many customs barriers
There were also social and political factors, many of which involved resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals:
* Resentment of royal absolutism.
* Resentment by the ambitious professional and mercantile classes towards noble privileges and dominance in public life, many of whom were familiar with the lives of their peers in commercial cities in The Netherlands and Great Britain.
* Resentment by peasants, wage-earners, and the bourgeoisie toward the traditional seigneurial privileges possessed by nobles.
* Resentment of clerical privilege (anti-clericalism) and aspirations for freedom of religion, and resentment of aristocratic bishops by the poorer rural clergy.
* Continued hatred for Catholic control and influence on institutions of all kinds, by the large Protestant minorities.
* Aspirations for liberty and (especially as the Revolution progressed) republicanism.
* Anger toward the King for firing Jacques Necker and A.R.J. Turgot (among other financial advisors), who were popularly seen as representatives of the people.
Finally, perhaps above all, was the almost total failure of Louis XVI and his advisors to deal effectively with any of these problems.
By early 1795 France had defeated the allies on every front and had pushed to Amsterdam, the Rhine, and the Pyrenees; more importantly, Prussia had been forced out of the coalition and had signed a separate peace that held until 1806. In May 1795 the United Provinces of the Netherlands became the French-influenced Batavian Republic. In northern Italy, a strongly positioned French army threatened Austrian-Sardinian positions, but its commander proved reluctant to move. In March 1796 he was replaced by a more dynamic general, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon executed a brilliant campaign of maneuver against Austrian and Sardinian forces in Italy and in the resultant treaty of Campo Formio forced Austria to cede the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium and Luxembourg), which became the first territorial additions to the French Republic, and to recognize the Cisalpine and Ligurian republics established by French power in northern Italy.
In 1806, in an attempt to use French control of continental ports to blockade Britain indirectly, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree, by which ships passing to French-controlled ports after calling at British ports were liable to seizure. The Continental System, as this policy was called, was not successful. The general inhibition of European trade that ensued (for Britain responded with a like policy of detaining ships bound for French ports) and the perceived favouritism in the French government’s granting of licenses to French merchants for trade with Britain cost Napoleon considerable political support. Meanwhile, though pressed at home, the British were able to expand their colonial markets so as to emerge from the trade war more prosperous than before.
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