Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

The French Revolution introduced democratic ideals to France

(1789 to 1799)

The American Revolution began in 1775 and officially ended in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Benjamin Franklin had traveled to the neutral site of France to sign the provincial articles of peace in 1782 and remained to sign the definitive treaty the following year. He went on to negotiate trade compacts with other nations and returned to Philadelphia in September, 1785.

As early as September 1776, Thomas Jefferson had been appointed Commissioner with Franklin to go to France and negotiate treaties of alliance and commerce with that government but he had declined the appointment. Franklin accepted and spent the war years in France. Jefferson declined a similar offer in 1781. In 1782 Jefferson's wife died and later that year he again was appointed Minister to France with the object of negotiating peace with Britain. That he accepted but was delayed in Baltimore by severe weather and upon learning that provincial articles of peace had already been signed with Franklin he returned home.

In January, 1784, Jefferson was instrumental with the Senate for ratification of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and finally, on August 6, of that year he arrived in Paris as Minister Plenipotentiary for negotiating treaties of commerce with foreign nations. John Adams was stationed in the Hague when Jefferson arrived but traveled to Paris to meet with Jefferson and Franklin. The three men exchanged information about America and Europe and decided on strategies for the conduct of foreign affairs.

Franklin returned to America in September, 1785, after Adams had transferred his office to London in June. In February, 1786, Adams sent a message from London asking Jefferson to come there as he believed the English were showing signs of a more tolerant attitude toward America. Upon Jefferson's arrival he was treated rudely at his presentation to the King and believed Adams too, was not shown the proper respect. Adams did not share Jefferson's impressions but nevertheless, Jefferson returned to France and later lamented in his autobiography,

"it was impossible for anything to be more ungracious than their notice of Mr. Adams & myself. I saw at once that the ulcerations in the narrow mind of that mulish being [King George III] left nothing to be expected on the subject of my attendance..."

Diverging attitudes and perceptions toward Britain and France grew among the principle founders which determined the course the U.S. would follow toward the two countries for many years. France was viewed with favor by Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison while Britain was viewed more favorably by Adams and Hamilton. Washington maintained a more neutral stance. France was clearly the winner of favorable attention when Jefferson became Secretary of State in 1889. The conduct of affairs with the two nations was a major source of animosity between Jefferson and Secretary of Treasury Hamilton during their tenure in Washington's first cabinet (1789-1793).

From 1886 to 1889 Jefferson remained in France, was treated with the greatest of respect and cultivated good will throughout continental Europe. The French eyed the American situation with wonder, a sense of camaraderie and feeling of kinship with America's victory over Britain. This was only natural considering France's aid to America during the Revolutionary War.

Jefferson later wrote:

"Celebrated writers of France and England had already sketched good principles on the subject of government. Yet the American Revolution seems first to have awakened the thinking part of the French nation in general from the sleep of despotism in which they were sunk. The officers too who had been to America, were mostly young men, less shackled by habit and prejudice, and more ready to assent to the suggestions of common sense, and feeling of common rights. They came back with new ideas & impressions. The press, notwithstanding it's shackles, began to disseminate them. Conversation assumed new freedoms. Politics became the theme of all societies, male and female, and a very extensive & zealous party was formed which acquired the appellation of the Patriotic party, who, sensible of the abusive government under which they lived, sighed for occasions of reforming it."

Jefferson did nothing to dissuade an emerging desire for reform in France and the French under-classes moved steadily toward rebellion. He received a copy of the new, proposed U.S. Constitution in November 1787, and while he did not agree with many of its provisions, he discussed the document in the most positive way with the many Frenchmen with whom he regularly associated. However, he could not overlook the fact that if the Constitution were ratified the new emerging nation would require money. With that in mind he and Adams traveled to Amsterdam and pledged their good word for a line of credit which secured the U.S. financially through the year 1790.

Returning to France he found that sporadic armed conflicts were occurring throughout the country but there was no all out rebellion. The country was fractionalized along the usual social-class lines with both labor and Commons (middle) against the status quo. The nobility and monarchy were at a loss to fully address the rising problems and consequently attempted many hit-and-miss solutions to assuage the peeves of labor and the mounting political concerns of the Commons. However, the on-again, off-again nature of attempted solutions only exacerbated the problem. During 1788 there was a constant flow of concerned politicians, philosophers, professors, writers, and others seeking Jefferson's views on a future for France. Jefferson wisely abstained from providing direct advice on the French questions but did not hold back in discussions of political, government, and social philosophies. He was clearly re-enacting his earlier roll in America prior to that revolution -- staying in the background -- writing, conferring, teaching, but letting others make the speeches and carry the ball.

By 1788 the King realized the need for fundamental change, especially to force the nobility and clergy to pay taxes. He ended Absolutism by ordering the election of an Estates-General, the first since 1614. An Estates-General was elected in 1789 and it soon became clear that the nobility and clergy -- the First and Second Estates -- would dominate the council and resist any change. The Third Estate -- the middle class -- became increasingly angry. The King, nervous at the growing radicalism, attempted to lock them out of a meeting hall in Versailles, but they met outside and declared themselves the National Assembly.

While the King vacillated, rioting erupted throughout Paris. To maintain order the middle class organized a National Guard under Marquis de la Lafayette, a veteran of the American Revolution, but the King reacted by firing ["Prime Minister"] Neckar, which in turn led to the storming of the Bastille on July 14th. Unwilling to use force, the King recognized the National Assembly and on August 5th signed a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. A limited monarchy was instituted. Panic spread across France as peasants seized land and thousands of nobles fled into exile. In October, the people of Paris forced the King and his family to take up residence in Paris and abandon Versailles.

The French Revolution gradually grew more radical -- that is, more open to extreme and violent change. Radical leaders came into prominence. In the Convention, they were known as the Mountain because they sat on the high benches at the rear of the hall. Their bitter opponents were known as the Gironde because several came from a department of that name. The majority of the deputies in the Convention, known as the Plain, sat between the two rival groups. The Mountain dominated a powerful political club called the Jacobin Club.

The newly elected government acted in 1790 to resolve a serious financial situation by seizing Church property and selling it. This raised much needed money but pitted the middle class against the peasants who had traditionally farmed the Church lands. By late 1790 French exiles in Austria were trying to convince Leopold II, the brother of the King's wife Marie Antoinette, to invade France and reverse the Revolution. With Imperial troops massing in Germany, Louis XVI was persuaded by his wife to flee France and lead the invasion. However, the King and his family were recognized and arrested at Varennes. Under pressure from the Assembly, Louis signed a declaration of war against Leopold. The war began with French defeats and an Imperial invasion.

In August 1792, the people of Paris took custody of Louis XVI and his family on suspicion of treason and imprisoned them. The king's removal led to a new stage in the revolution. The first stage had been a liberal middle-class reform movement based on a constitutional monarchy. The second stage was organized around principles of democracy. The National Convention opened on Sept. 21, 1792, and declared France a republic.

Louis was prosecuted by a distant cousin, Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who had joined the revolution and renamed himself Louis-Philippe Egalité. The trial was a foregone conclusion, with Louis condemned to death. The British government had warned that if Louis were executed, it would mean war. King George III offered sanctuary to Louis, but the National Convention refused. In January 1793 Louis XVI was executed by guillotine and Great Britain declared war. In June 1793, a group of Jacobins led by Maximilien Robespierre gained control of the French government and in October Marie Antoinette was also beheaded. Thousands of others met the same fate in a period called the Reign of Terror.

Several French cities revolted against Robespierre's regime. At Toulon, the rebels were aided by a British naval fleet. When the French artillery commander at Toulon was wounded, a young French officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, was sent to take his place. Napoleon positioned the artillery on high ground overlooking the harbor at Toulon and fired down on the British ships. The fleet withdrew and French troops gained control of Toulon. For his role in the victory, Napoleon, at the age of 24, was named brigadier general and in 1799 the revolution ended when he took over the government.

Napoleon was born 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica, as Napoleone Buonaparte, the son of a poor Corsican lawyer, Charles Marie Buonaparte. He later adopted August 15 as his birthday, to coincide with the Catholic Feast of the Assumption. At age nine he was sent to Collège militaire royal de Brienne in Paris and there distinguished himself in mathematics and geography. In 1784-85 he attended l'Ecole militaire royale de Paris and at 16 became a second lieutenant in the French Army. He was promoted to captain in 1792 at the age of 23.

On September 21, 1792, the new National Convention met for the first time, abolished the monarchy, established a republic, and convicted King Louis XVI for treason by one vote. Louis was beheaded on the guillotine in January, 1793, and as a result, Britain declared war on France. In June a group of Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre, gained control of the French government and in October Queen Marie Antoinette was also beheaded. Thousands of others met the same fate in a period known as the Reign of Terror.

Several French cities revolted against Robespierre's regime. At Toulon, the rebels were aided by a British naval fleet. When the French artillery commander at Toulon was wounded, Napoleon was sent to take his place. He positioned the artillery on high ground overlooking the harbor at Toulon and fired down on the British ships. The fleet withdrew and French troops gained control of Toulon on September 16, 1793. For his role in the victory he was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24.

Many Frenchmen wished to end the Reign of Terror, the Jacobin dictatorship, and the democratic revolution. Robespierre's enemies in the Convention finally attacked him as a tyrant on July 27, 1794, and he was executed the next day ending The Reign of Terror. Conservatives gained control of the Convention and drove the Jacobins from power. Most of the democratic reforms of the previous two years were abolished in what became known as the Thermidorian Reaction.

In 1795 the Convention replaced the democratic constitution it had adopted in 1793. The government formed under the new constitution was called the Directory, referring to the five-man executive directory that ruled along with a two-house legislature. France was still a republic, but once again only citizens who paid certain taxes could vote.

The Directory began meeting in October 1795 but it was troubled by war, economic problems, and opposition from supporters of monarchy and former Jacobins. On October 5, 1795, Napoleon, charged with protecting the Directory, circled the Tuileries with cannon and as a mob approached he ordered the guns discharged into the crowd killing dozens and causing the protestors to disband. Ten days later he was named a division commander and, on October 26, promoted to général en chef de l'armée de l'Interieur, or General in Chief, Army of the Interior. He was 26 years old.

In March, 1796 he was placed in charge of the Army of Italy and a few days later he wed Rose de Beauharnais, the future Empress Joséphine. In May he defeated the Austrian army at Lodi.

In 1797 Napoleon was victorious at Rivoli and captured Mantua. Later in the year, without authorization from the Directory, he signed the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria. However, the Directory ignored this transgression and suggested that he lead an army to invade Britain. Instead, Napoleon offered a plan to invade Egypt.

The Directory approved and, in 1798, he led a French expeditionary force of 38,000 into Egypt defeating the Mamelukes, Egypt's military rulers, at the Battle of the Pyramids. But, for the first time in his brief career, Napoleon failed to completely subdue his enemy. On August 1, the French fleet anchored in Abu Qir Bay was destroyed in the Battle of the Nile by a British fleet commanded by Lord Horatio Nelson. As a result, Napoleon's army was stranded in Egypt but, through his leadership and sheer will-power, they fought on. However, Turkey then formed an alliance with Great Britain and Russia and declared war on France.

In 1799, Napoleon's troops invaded Turkish Syria from Egypt and advanced as far as the fortress Acre (now Akko, Israel), which Napoleon also failed to capture. Meanwhile, he learned that a Turkish army was preparing to invade Egypt. He retreated to Egypt, where he met and defeated the Turks at Abu Qir, near Abu Qir Bay. About this time, he learned that Austria, Britain, and Russia had formed a coalition against France and had defeated the French army in Italy. He left his army in Egypt under the command of General Jean Kleber and sailed for France. Many historians say that Napoleon quit a lost cause in Egypt and abandoned his army. If that is so, he performed a magnificent sales job on the French people because he returned home a hero. Most of the 38,000 French soldiers never returned to France as the force was left on its own and was either gradually defeated or dwindled away.

News of Napoleon's victory at Abu Qir arrived with him in Paris. The French people, who had lost confidence in the Directory, cheered the return of the young hero. Napoleon formed key political alliances and seized control of the French government on Nov. 9, 1799, in a bold move known as the Coup d'Etat of Eighteenth Brumaire. A new constitution overwhelmingly approved by the French people replaced the Directory with a three-member Consulate. Napoleon became First Consul while the other two consuls served merely as advisers to him. After 10 years of revolution and civil disorder, the French wanted a strong leader. Napoleon could now rule France as a dictator. He was 30 years old.

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