The French Revolution was a watershed event in modern European history that began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. The revolution precipitated a series of European wars, forcing the United States to articulate a clear position regarding the event.
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The French Revolution
The French Revolution began in 1789 and lasted for 10 years. It was a time of great political and social upheaval. The Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire. It also had a profound effect on politics in the United States.
The Causes of the French Revolution
There were many causes of the French Revolution, but the most important were the constant financial problems of the kingdom, the intellectual ferment caused by the ideas of the Enlightenment, and the unhappy experience of other European countries with absolute monarchy.
The financial condition of France was miserable. The country had spent a great deal of money on useless foreign wars, such as the war in North America (the Seven Years’ War) and on grandiose projects, such as Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. At the same time, France suffered from several natural disasters, such as a poor harvest in 1788. These conditions led to high taxes and increased hunger and poverty among the people.
The ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity that swept through Europe in the late 1700s also reached France. These ideas were first put forward by philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. They found an eager audience among urban workers and peasants who were struggling to make a living. The writings of these philosophers helped to inspire the French Revolution.
Finally, France was not alone in its experience with absolute monarchy. In England, for example, Parliament had forced King Charles I to give up some of his power in 1649. And during the 1700s, several countries in Eastern Europe had successful revolutions against their monarchs. These events encouraged those who wanted change in France.
The Course of the French Revolution
The French Revolution was a watershed event in modern European history that began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. In many ways, it marked the end of the Traditional Order—the way things had been before the rise of modernity—and it continues to shape much of our world today.
The Revolution erupted out of a long-running debate about how France should be governed. For centuries, France had been ruled by an absolute monarchy, in which one person—the king—held all political power. But starting in the early 1700s, some French philosophers began advocating for a new form of government based on reason and natural rights. This led to a series of political crises in France—including the storming of the Bastille fortress-prison in 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1791—that ultimately overthrew the monarchy and established a republic.
Over the next few years, internal divisions among republican leaders led to a series of chaotic changes in government, culminating in Napoleon’s seizure of power in 1799. Although Napoleon ultimately fell from power, his legacy lived on: The ideas of liberty, equality, and national sovereignty that he championed helped to spread republicanism across Europe and eventually to America.
The Aftermath of the French Revolution
Although the French Revolution ended with the beheading of King Louis XVI in 1793, its effects on France and other countries continued. In France, a new government, known as the Directory, was established. It lasted until 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte led a coup d’état and became first consul of France.
The French Revolution failed to achieve its goals of liberty and equality for all citizens, but it did achieve its goal of weaken the power of the monarchy. It also inspired people in other countries to demand similar reforms. For example, in the United States, the Constitution was amended in 1791 to guarantee certain rights for citizens. The French Revolution also contributed to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who would become one of the most famous military leaders in history.
The Impact of the French Revolution on the USA
The French Revolution was a turning point in history that had far-reaching consequences, especially for the United States of America. The Revolution helped to bring about the end of absolutism in France and other parts of Europe, which paved the way for more democratic governments. It also hastened the decline of the feudal system and ushered in the age of nationalism. The ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity that wereespoused by the Revolutionaries inspired the people of America to fight for their own independence from Britain.
The Political Impact
The American Revolution was fought for independence from British rule and for self-government. The wars that ensued—first against the British and later against the Native Americans—were motivated by a desire to maintain this independence and expand the newly formed country’s territory. However, the French Revolution, which began in 1789, would have a profound and lasting impact on American politics.
The most immediate effect of the French Revolution was the spread of republicanism—the belief that government should be based on the consent of the people rather than on any notion of divine right. This was a direct challenge to both Britain’s monarchy and America’s own Articles of Confederation, which had vested ultimate authority in Congress. In 1788, James Madison had argued that a strong central government was needed to prevent anarchy; now he began to fear that such a government could become tyrannical. These fears were shared by many Americans, who saw in France a warning of what could happen if their own government became too powerful.
In 1791, Madison and Thomas Jefferson wrote The Bill of Rights, which guaranteed certain rights for all Americans. This document was inspired in part by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which had been drawn up two years earlier. The Bill of Rights would prove to be an important check on government power in both America and France.
The French Revolution also had an economic impact on America. The Revolutionary War had left America deeply in debt, and American creditors now looked to France for payment. When France defaulted on its debts in 1793, American investors were badly hurt. This helped to create an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility toward France that would last for many years.
The Economic Impact
While the political and social aspects of the revolution had some impact on the early United States, it was the economic effects that were most keenly felt. The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) disrupted maritime trade and caused widespread inflation and unemployment. In addition, France’s policies towards its colonies in the Caribbean and North America cost the young United States dearly. The Sugar Act (1764), which placed a tax on sugar imported from the West Indies, and the Stamp Act (1765), which taxed all printed materials, provoked outrage among American colonists and helped to spark the American Revolution.
The Social Impact
The French Revolution also had a big impact on social classes in America. Americans had always thought of themselves as being free and equal, but some groups were still treated unfairly. After the French Revolution, Americans began to demand more equality for everyone.
African Americans were especially inspired by the French Revolution. They saw that the first step to equality was to get rid of slavery. In 1791, a group of free black men in Haiti (an island in the Caribbean) revolted against their French masters. This was the first time that slaves had fought for their freedom and won! news of the Haitian Revolution spread to America, and many African Americans began to think that they could win their own freedom too.
The Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution also inspired women to fight for their rights. In America, women did not have the same rights as men. They could not vote, own property, or hold office. After the French Revolution, American women began to demand equality with men. In 1848, a group of women met in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss their rights. They wrote a document called the “Declaration of Sentiments” which stated that all men and women are created equal. This document was inspired by the Declaration of Independence!