The French Revolution and Napoleon



The French Revolution was the most important event in modern history. It destroyed the old order of society and government and brought about modern changes in the world. It swept away the last remnants of feudalism and made the middle class the dominant class of modern society.



In 1789 France was the most populated nation in Europe and had been growing in wealth and prestige since the time of Louis XIV.Despite this economic growth, it was far behind many peopleís ideas of what a society and government should be.Socially, it was divided into three unequal classes of people.And politically it was still ruled by an absolute monarch.


The Causes of the French Revolution

The Revolution was the result of three related crises that fell upon France at the same time: a social crisis, a political crisis, and an economic crisis.


The Social Crisis

Feudal France was neatly divided into three social classes, or Estates, with different jobs and privileges.The clergy was the First Estate, the nobles were the Second Estate, and the peasants were the Third Estate.The Third Estate was the largest but had few rights at all.


One of the major problems of French society was the growth of a large middle class.These people did not fit into the neat divisions of the three estates, so they were considered equal with the lowest, the Third Estate.What had happened over the years is that the middle class grew in size and in wealth but never gained rights or respect that their wealth deserved.Because they worked for their money instead of inheriting it, they were looked down upon.This caused a great deal of anger and tension in French Society as peasants and middle class French people began to hate the nobles and aristocrats.


The Political Crisis

The political crisis centered on king Louis XVI (16th).Unlike Louis XIV (14th) he was not very popular.He lived in Versailles and cost the people millions of dollars and kept spending lavishly on himself even as France was going through a financial crisis.He was humiliated when his armies were defeated by the Prussians in 1787.But his worst problem was that people no longer believed in the divine right of kings.That is, most people no longer believed that you obeyed the king because God gave him his authority.Rather, people were coming to believe the philosophers of the Enlightenment who said that a leader is only legitimate if he has his peopleís consent.And Louis XVI had his people consent less and less.


The Economic Crisis

By 1786 the French government was broke.They had spent millions helping out the American colonies in their revolution against England.And France was still trying to pay off the expense of the palace of Versailles and Louis XIVís other extravagant expenses.Then France was hit by a drought; crops failed and people died.As the people began to protest, the king and nobles still lived their expensive lifestyles.In desperation Louis XVI decided to call on the Estates General, the representative body that had not met for over 150 years.This body met and the Third Estate proclaimed that their representatives were the real government of France.The Revolution began and 10 years of bloody revenge was poured out on the nobles, aristocrats and clergy.The king himself was beheaded.


The Results

Although a violent and bloody time, the French Revolution had important permanent results.Absolute Monarchy was ended.The Revolution ended the feudal privileges of the nobles.Serfs were freed.Mandatory offerings to the Church were ended and the government changed from a religious (divine right of kings) to a secular (consent of the people) foundation.The Revolution also paved the way for one of the most important leaders in all of French history: Napoleon Bonaparte.




Napoleon was born in Corsica and soon went to study at a military school in France at the age of 9.He studied great leaders like Hannibal and Alexander the Great, but also studied the use of firepower.He became an officer at the age of 16.


During the Revolution, Napoleon favored the Republicans who opposed the monarchy.France was at war during the Revolution and Napoleon became famous because of some brilliant victories.At the end of the Revolution he was named one of the 5 leaders of France.He soon abolished the other 4 and became the Emperor of France.Instead of letting the pope crown him emperor, Napoleon took the crown from the popeís hands and crowned himself.This showed that he believed his power was not from God but from himself.Many saw this as a move from hero of the common man to royalty.Despite his popularity, his thirst for power would be his downfall.


Napoleon invaded Egypt to disrupt Englandís trade routes to the Middle East and India.While in Egypt, Napoleon and his men discovered the Rosetta Stone.


Britain was the one nation that consistently defied Napoleon.This was because Britain ruled the seas with its navy.To control them, Napoleon introduced the Continental System.This prohibited other nations from trading with Britain.Not only did this paralyze Britainís economy, but it hurt the economies of the other nations of Europe who depended upon trade with Britain.Several nations of Europe formed an alliance against Napoleon.


Napoleonís biggest military mistake was his invasion of Russia.Most of his army died in the Russian winter.


After several severe losses, Napoleon tried to commit suicide by poison, but the drink was not strong enough.He was exiled on the island of Elbe.


While in exile, the French people were becoming inpatient with their new king, Louis XVIII.Napoleon took the opportunity to return to power in France.†† Immediately, the alliance of European nations rose up again against Napoleon.Napoleon marched into Belgium where the British and Prussians were preparing to invade France.After a night of heavy rainfall, they met at Waterloo.This is where Napoleon met his final defeat.


The Congress of Vienna

After Napoleonís final defeat at Waterloo the leaders of Europe had to decide how to set Europe back up again.Napoleon had taken over much land and done much damage.To restore order in Europe, many leaders met at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.This meeting would shape Europe for the next 100 years.


Most of the leaders at the Congress of Vienna were conservative and did not want the type of government the French had tried to set up during their Revolution.As a result, they restored old monarchies again.Kings were restored to their thrones.The ideas of the French Revolution may have seemed good at the time to some people, but they had only brought about 10 years of bloody revolution and the 10 more years of Napoleonís wars.At least when there were kings, some argued, things were not that bad.


Another important goal of the Congress of Vienna was to prevent another nation from taking over Europe.One Napoleon was enough.In order to prevent this from happening again, they set up a system called a ďbalance of powerThis meant that they would divide up power among the kings in such a way as to prevent France from rising to power again.National boundaries were redrawn to make it difficult for any nation to become too powerful.What these people did not understand was the new force of nationalism.