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Manual A Short, Easy History of the French Revolution

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Shortly thereafter, the assembly released the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen , which established a proper judicial code and the autonomy of the French people. Though the National Assembly did succeed in drafting a constitution , the relative peace of the moment was short-lived.

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A rift slowly grew between the radical and moderate assembly members, while the common laborers and workers began to feel overlooked. When Louis XVI was caught in a foiled escape plot, the assembly became especially divided. The moderate Girondins took a stance in favor of retaining the constitutional monarchy, while the radical Jacobins wanted the king completely out of the picture.

French leaders interpreted the declaration as hostile, so the Girondin-led assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia. Despite the creation of the Committee of Public Safety , the war with Austria and Prussia went poorly for France, and foreign forces pressed on into French territory.


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Enraged citizens overthrew the Girondin-led National Convention, and the Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre , took control. Backed by the newly approved Constitution of , Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety began conscripting French soldiers and implementing laws to stabilize the economy. But Robespierre, growing increasingly paranoid about counterrevolutionary influences, embarked upon a Reign of Terror in late —, during which he had more than 15, people executed at the guillotine.

When the French army successfully removed foreign invaders and the economy finally stabilized, however, Robespierre no longer had any justification for his extreme actions, and he himself was arrested in July and executed.


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The era following the ousting of Robespierre was known as the Thermidorian Reaction , and a period of governmental restructuring began, leading to the new Constitution of and a significantly more conservative National Convention. To control executive responsibilities and appointments, a group known as the Directory was formed. French armies, especially those led by young general Napoleon Bonaparte , were making progress in nearly every direction.

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In the face of this rout, and having received word of political upheavals in France, Napoleon returned to Paris. With Napoleon at the helm, the Revolution ended, and France entered a fifteen-year period of military rule.

Summary Brief Overview. The Estates-General In a final act of desperation, Louis XVI decided in to convene the Estates-General , an ancient assembly consisting of three different estates that each represented a portion of the French population. The Bastille and the Great Fear Shortly after the National Assembly formed, its members took the Tennis Court Oath , swearing that they would not relent in their efforts until a new constitution had been agreed upon. Rifts in the Assembly Though the National Assembly did succeed in drafting a constitution , the relative peace of the moment was short-lived.

Whether the French Revolution was essentially political, not social, no one can deny that witnessed an explosion of political activity at all levels and of all kinds. People got involved, whether by going to Versailles as a delegate, drafting a cahier, attacking seigneurial dues, joining a club, rioting against grain prices, or storming the Bastille.

This is an important lesson for our "ordinary" students at a time of great political disillusionment. Most people who do not vote in American elections abstain because of their conviction that their vote would not make a difference, that indeed very little is possible for the ordinary citizen in the American political system. But if common artisans could go to their section meetings, night after night, convinced of their ability to make a difference, then surely we should be able to rekindle that spirit among would-be yuppies in late-twentieth-century America. As Henry Giroux suggests, the best way for students to learn is to participate, rather than simply hearing us tell them that there was a lot of political activism in revolutionary France.

This is something our students can experience. Give them a sample of the grievance lists, which are readily available in translation. Have them prepare their own grievance lists, and then divide them into "estates" and let them struggle to come up with a common list. This exercise can have the salutary effect of loosening their tongues for subsequent discussions and allowing them to sense how politics began during the French Revolution. The theme of revolutionary ideas and ideology presents a wide range of options to the professor, and I shall not try to catalog them here.

The argument that Enlightenment thought triggered the revolutionary outburst of has long ago been laid to rest, but there can be little doubt that Enlightenment writers—from Voltaire and Montesquieu to Rousseau and Mably to Diderot and the Grub Street hacks—shaped the intellectual and political world view of the revolutionaries. The question is, how do we help our students to get at the Enlightenment in a meaningful way and in an economical fashion?

The answer, a standard one in general education courses, is to oversimplify, to be arbitrary, and to focus on a central issue. The issue I would propose is kingship. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, the backstreet scandalmongers of Paris, and of course the revolutionary deputies themselves were all concerned with the nature of kingship, the limitations upon kingly power, and ultimately the abolition of monarchy.

In this topic, too, lies a wonderful opportunity to get students involved in the history of the Revolution.

About the Book

The trial of Louis XVI can still be great drama, and speeches from the trial are readily available. Have students read a few of those speeches and then let them try the king themselves in class. It will force them to confront the complicated circumstances and perilous consequences of each possible verdict, and it will impress upon them the gravity with which the deputies approached their task.

Revolutionary symbolism is the third theme I have suggested for inclusion in an introductory course, both for what it reveals about revolutionary ideals and their application and because of the ability of symbols to engage students in the material, just as they engaged the French in the s. The recent work of Lynn Hunt, Maurice Agulhon, Mona Ozouf, and James Leith has made clear to us the importance of revolutionary symbols and their power to express, mold, and manipulate revolutionary values Lynn A.

These symbols are accessible to our students in the classroom. The words "liberty, equality, and fraternity" were certainly symbols, and a discussion of their meaning, or meanings, will draw students back to the realm of ideas and ideology. Symbols can be tangible, too—pass around revolutionary playing cards or the new calendar as examples of the ways in which the radical republic tried to remake every facet of ordinary life.

The phrygian cap can suggest to students the degree to which the French, even commoners, had a sense of history. Have students compare an assignat from the Year Two to a one dollar bill, or the "Marseillaise" to the "Star-Spangled Banner. Ask if they can remember the last time they attended a civic festival! Let me return for a moment to the issue of historical interpretation. Much is said these days about the fact that the "classical interpretation" has been debunked and that nothing has yet merged to take its place.

I suggested earlier that we make a virtue out of this, not by overwhelming our students with the historiographical debate in all of its glory and confusion, but simply by introducing it.

Brief Overview

There are many events, and many accounts, from which to choose. The exercise will scarcely be exhaustive, or definitive, but it will show some students that history is not truth, that there are different ways of seeing history and writing it. These are the themes I try to stress with my students. As for reading, in addition to a brief secondary text, we require a number of primary texts and documents, two of them substantial and the rest quite short.

The first is Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro , which presents an amusing picture of Old Regime corporate society and has a few things to say about kingship as well. Our second substantial text is Rousseau's Second Discourse , despite its contribution to infantile liberalism! It is a difficult text, but it raises some crucial issues: the origins of inequality, of course; the right to private property; the nature of civil society; the legitimacy of monarchy; and it concludes with Rousseau's biting indictment of eighteenth-century French hypocrisy.

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French Revolution

There is much here into which students can sink their teeth. It translates the social utility emphasized in Diderot's Encyclopedia into a political program, and it turns on its head the corporate hierarchy so ably described, and lampooned, by Beaumarchais. We also require the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," an obvious selection where one again finds echoes of Rousseau, and excerpts from the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" and from Olympe de Gouges' "Declaration of the Rights of Woman," each of which raises issues I have not dwelled upon in this essay.

We then turn to excerpts from a few of the speeches at the trial of the king, to which I have already alluded, and two very brief pieces I particularly enjoy: "Definition of a Moderate" and "What is a Sans-culotte? We conclude our unit on the Revolution with excerpts from two of Robespierre's most famous speeches. Here again, particularly in his speech "On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy," students will find clear parallels to the ideas in Rousseau's Second Discourse.

Obviously I think there is a good deal to celebrate in the French Revolution, in particular the political vitality that it unleashed, even though it did bring violence in its wake.

A Beginner's Guide to the French Revolution

It is an illusion to think our own revolution was somehow peaceful and harmonious, but it is similarly foolish to believe other more violent revolutions produced nothing of enduring value. Good things are often born out of contention and conflict. If taught well, the history of the Revolution still offers important lessons: that civic courage is a virtue, that ideas do make a difference, and that, as for the men, and women, of , all things can be possible in the lives, and education, of our students today.

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