French Society of 18th Century

We are aware of the condition of the France in the 17th and 18th century. There was acute financial and administrative crisis as we have seen in the previous post. Now we will understand somewhat about the structure of the French Society of the 18th century.

French Society: Economic Crisis
French Society: Economic Crisis

French Society

The natural outcome of the economic and administrative crisis in a nation is the social crisis. French society in the eighteenth century was divided into three estates:

  1. Clergy
  2. Nobles
  3. Peasants

The society of estates was part of the feudal system. The term Old Regime is usually used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789. Peasants made up about 90 percent of the population. However, only a small number of them owned the land they cultivated. About 60 percent of the land was owned by nobles, the Church and other richer members of the third estate.

The members of the first two estates, the clergy and the nobility, enjoyed certain privileges by birth. The most important of these was the exemption from paying taxes to the state. The nobles further enjoyed feudal privileges whereas common people or peasants had all responsibilities to pay taxes but had no privileges.

Estate Generals
Estate Generals


The Church took its share of taxes called tithes from the peasantry class. finally, all members of the third estate had to pay taxes to the state. These included a direct tax, called taille, and a number of indirect taxes which were levied on articles of everyday consumption like salt or tobacco.

The burden of taxes was borne by the third estate alone. This was the pain for the peasantry class as they were unprivileged ones though they were paying taxes for the state.

Role of Louis-XVI

This pain was at its peak when the Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette by their actions and follies made the republic inevitable. There is a famous Latin saying which just fits them:

quem deus perdere vult, prius dementat, whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad. There is an almost exact equivalent in Sanskrit- Vinash Kale Viparit buddhi.

The Seven Years’ War had meant defeat for the France and was thus a blow to the monarchy. Bankruptcy came nearer and nearer. The French participation in American Civil war and the maintenance of extravagance of the court at Versailles meant more expenditure.

In this situation, the privileged class was still not in the mood of paying taxes. They were not in the mood to kerb their illogical expenditure. Yet money had to be raised not only to pay debts but also interest on debts. This whole burden was supposed to be borne by the common masses or third estate.

Louis-XVI and Marie Antoinette at Palace of Versailles
Louis-XVI and Marie Antoinette at Palace of Versailles

Versailles in 1789

An English writer Carlyle describes the situation of France in his peculiar style and writes:

With the working people again, it is not well. Unlucky! For there are from twenty to twenty-five millions of them. Whom, however, we lump together into a kind of dim compendious unity, monstrous but dim, far off, as the canaille; or, more humanely, as ‘the masses.’ Masses indeed; and yet singular to say, if, with an effort of imagination, thou follow them, over broad France, into their clay hovels, into their garrets and churches, the masses consist all of the units. Every unit of whom has his own heart and sorrow; stands covered there with his own skin and if you pinch him he will bleed.

In these whole circumstances, the increased population led to increasing demand of foodgrains. Things became worse whenever drought or hail reduced the harvest. This led to the subsistence crisis (An extreme situation where the basic means of livelihood are endangered).

Now the enlightened and well educated middle class played their role very precisely and mould the people anger into a holistic revolution.

French Society: Enlightened Middle Class

French Society: Enlightenment Class
French Society: Enlightenment Class

In the France eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of social groups, termed the middle class, who earned their wealth through an expanding overseas trade. From the manufacture of goods that were either exported or bought by the richer members of society.

As we know circumstances gives the modification to the phenotype of people. So this was the period of high suppression and exploitation which gave birth to the rationalist ideology. All of these rationalists were educated. They believed that no group in society should be privileged by birth. A person’s social position must depend on his merit.


The most famous writer of the time on rationalistic and other subjects was Voltaire, a Frenchman. He was imprisoned and banished, and who ultimately lived at Ferney near Geneva. Voltaire hated injustice and bigotry and he waged war against them. His famous cry was Ecrasez I’infâme.

According to the Voltaire, creativity is the great force in this world which leads to growth and development. He emphasised on Freedom of Expressions. He stated:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

He lived to a great old age (1694-1778) and wrote an enormous number of books. In one of his books, he says that:

A man who accepts his religion without examining it is like an ox which allows itself to be harnessed.

Voltaire’s writings had great influence in making people incline towards rationalism and new ideas.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

He was contemporary but younger than Voltaire. Rousseau’s writings on religion and politics raised quite an outcry.  In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke sought to refute the doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarch. His best-known book is the Social ContractDu Contract Social. And this begins with a famous sentence:

The Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.

He also said that Kingship is not a gift of God to the individual rather it is the outcome of the contract between ruler and ruled. So it is the duty of rulers to respect the wishes of people. For this, he coined terms equality, fraternity and liberty.

His political theories played an important part in preparing the people of France for the great revolution. His books and ideas certainly sowed the seed in men’s minds which blossomed out in the revolution.


According to Montesquieu, Monarchy was based on absolute despotism. So, it was generally not in the favour of people’s interest. So in his book The Spirit of the Laws- Esprit des Lois he proposed a division of power within the government between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. He stated:

There is no nation so powerful, as the one that obeys its laws not from principals of fear or reason, but from passion.

The United States of America was following this method of division of power after the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain. The American constitution and its guarantee of individual rights were an important example for political thinkers in France.


An encyclopaedia also came out in Paris about this time. This was full of articles by Diderot on political and social subjects. He stated:

Disturbances in society are never more fearful than when those who are stirring up the trouble can use the pretext of religion to mask their true designs.

France of the 17th and 18th century was seemed to be full of philosophers and thinkers. They were read and succeeded in making a large number of ordinary people think their thoughts and discuss their theories. The government had no money to spend and debts grew.

“Madame Deficit” became the nickname of Marie Antoinette. There was no way of raising more money. In such situation, the news that Louis XVI planned to impose further taxes generated anger and protest against the system of privileges. So, the deadlocked condition formed the background of French Revolution.

French Society versus India under British Raj
French Society versus India under British Raj

We will discuss the different phases of the French revolution in coming post. 🙂

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French Revolution: Political Deadlock to Estates General

It is said,

Revolutions or volcanoes do not break out suddenly without reason or long evolution. We only see the sudden burst and are surprised. But underneath the surface of the earth, many forces play against each other for long ages and this friction between these various forces led to the sudden eruption of lava. They burst forth in mighty flames shooting up to the sky, and molten lava rolls down the mountainside.

Volcanic Eruption
Volcanic Eruption

Same is true in the case of revolutions. The stratification of society in which majority section suffers because of powerful minorities generally leads to some friction among the sections.This friction force increases in magnitude when some intellectuals demand equality, fraternity and liberty for all. The magnitude of friction force reaches its peak when there is a wide economic gap in society. One section is starving to death and another one is enjoying a luxurious life. In a complete scenario, there can not be a sudden reason for the outbreak of the revolution. There are both long term and short term causes for this. But it is true that eruption of the revolution is sudden.

Foolish people in authority, blind to everything that does not fit in with their ideas, imagine that revolutions are caused by agitators. Agitators are people who are discontented with the existing condition and desire a change and work for it. Every revolutionary period has its full supply of them. They are themselves the outcome of the ferment and dissatisfaction that exist.

Common people, in general, do not want to go for the extreme solutions. They always try to have a simple and adaptable solution for their problems. But when bureaucracy is not in the mood to listen to their causes and when economic conditions are such that their day to day suffering grows and life becomes almost an intolerable burden, then even the weak are prepared to take risks and go for a way out of their misery.

French Revolution
French Revolution

We have already seen the distress and discontentment among the masses during the seventeenth and eighteenth century of France. These all were the signals for the coming of the revolution in the France.

Political deadlock

We have seen the circumstances that build the ground for an inevitable revolution. People were starving to death and though the Louis-XVI was not in his senses and to handle the financial crisis he was going to impose new taxes. Louis-XVI committed a mistake of sending military aid in America (1781) under commander Lafayette, which led to financial bankruptcy in France. To overcome this situation he appointed a capable finance minister Turgot. Turgot gave very simple and genuine solution to overcome financial bankruptcy. Like:

  1. Economic reforms: – Reforms in the agricultural sector, which would empower primary sector of the country and would definitely strengthen the secondary and tertiary sector.
  2. Taxes on nobility.
  3. To reduce the unnecessary expenditure of Royal Palace.

The proposals given by Turgot were very genuine but King outrightly refused all these proposals and dismissed Turgot. After the dismissal of Turgot, Louis-XVI planned to impose new taxes. In France of the Old Regime, the monarch did not have the power to impose taxes according to his will alone. Rather he had to call a meeting of the Estates General which would then pass his proposals for new taxes.

Estates General

The Estates General was a political body. However, the monarch alone could decide when to call a meeting of this body. Louis-XVI finally summoned the Estates-General in May 1789. This body consisted of the representatives of the three estates of the realm as they were called: clergy, nobles, commons or peasants.

In composition, it was thus not unlike to British Parliament. But there were many differences between two. The British Parliament had been meeting more or less regularly for some hundreds of years and had got well established with traditions and rules and methods of doing work. The Estate General on the other hand seldom met and had no traditions.

The British Parliament had been meeting more or less regularly for some hundreds of years and had got well established with traditions and rules and methods of doing work. The Estate General on the other hand seldom met and had no traditions. The last time it was done was in 1614Voting in the Estates General in the past had been conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote.

France: Constitute of Estates General
France: Constitute of Estates General

General Assembly

On 5 May 1789, the Estates-General was opened by the Louis-XVI at Versailles. A magnificent hall in Versailles was prepared to host the delegates. The first and second estates sent 300 representatives each, while the 600 members came to represent the third estate. The prosperous and educated members of the third estate represented themselves in Estates General. However, their grievances and demands were listed in some 40,000 letters which the representatives had brought with them.

The king invited Estates General with his own hidden agenda that, he thought that the clergy and nobility section would unite and would vote in the favour of the imposing of new taxes. But this calling of Estates General backfired upon him because people of the third estate came with some demands:

  1. Common people in a large number started marching towards Paris to attend General Assembly.
  2. The voting pattern was based on the one estate one vote but the commons or the middle classes began to take the bit between their teeth and insist that no taxation could be levied without changing the existing voting pattern of Estate General.
  3. So the members of the third estate demanded that voting now is conducted by the assembly as a whole, where each member would have one vote.
France: Estates General
France: Estates General

Oath of Tennis-Court

When the king rejected this proposal, members of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest. The representatives of the third estate viewed themselves as leader of the whole French nation. On 20 June they assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in the grounds of Versailles. This is known as the Oath of the Tennis-Court.

They declared themselves a National Assembly and decided not to disperse till they had established a constitution to check the powers of the monarch. They were led by Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyés. Though Mirabeau belonged to a noble family but still gave leadership to the national assembly. He asked people to do away with a society of feudal privilege.

France: The Tennis Court Oath
Estates General: The Tennis Court Oath

While the National Assembly was drafting a constitution at Versailles, the rest of France was facing a turmoil. A severe winter was followed by a bad harvest. The price of bread rose, people were starving from hunger. After spending hours in long queues to take pieces of bread, crowds of angry women stormed into the shops. Louis-XVI once again faced intellectual bankruptcy and took very harsh steps, which consequently irritated the common mass. Like:

  1. Necker came with the idea to change the existing voting pattern but Louis-XVI imprisoned Necker.
  2. The King called his forces but his own soldiers denied to obey his orders. Frightened Louis-XVI in his usual foolishness, intrigued to get foreign regiments to shoot down his own people.

The common people finally rose in Paris and led to the attack on Bastille on 14th of July, 1789 with two major objectives:

  1. To release political prisoners.
  2. To collect arms and ammunitions to give strong resistance to the foreign army.

The Fall of Bastille

The fall of Bastille is a great event in history. It began the French Revolution. This was a signal for popular risings all over the country. It meant the end of the old order in France, of feudalism and grand monarchy and privilege. It was a terrible and terrifying portent for all the kings then present in Europe. France, which earlier set the fashion of grand monarchs, was now waiting for its new order to come and take over the grievances of the people. Some looked at the event with fear and trembling, but many saw hope in the new order.

France: Fall of Bastille
France: Fall of Bastille

All these events led to recognition of National Assembly by the King, which we will discuss in next coming post 🙂

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France: Fall of Bastille to New Constitution

The 14th July 1789 saw the fall of Bastille. It is interesting to know that one day before this incident there was a Royal feast at Versailles. King and Queen were celebrating their coming victory over rebellious Paris, which was not in their fate actually.

Party on 13th July 1789
Party on 13th July 1789

Fall of Bastille to National Assembly

The news of fall of Bastille was the message to the commons that revolution started and this incident also inspired the people to take direct action against the existing political order. In the countryside rumours spread from village to village that the manor (An estate consisting of the lord’s lands and his mansion) had hired brigands who were on their way to destroy the ripe crops.

Caught in fear, peasants in several districts seized hoes and pitchforks. They attacked chateaux (Castle or stately residence belonging to a king or a nobleman). Peasants burnt down documents containing records of manorial dues. A number of nobles fled away from their homes, many of them migrating to neighbouring countries.

France: Fall of Bastille to National Assembly
France: Fall of Bastille to National Assembly

During this time Paris was the shelter and centre for the people came from other parts of the country and the political authority was not concerned with these rival camps. So people established Municipal Corporation of Paris. The main objective was to accommodate and manage the huge people came from different parts of the country to fought for the same cause. This was the beginning of modern administration in France.

Fall of Bastille
Fall of Bastille

Revolt by Military

Approximately 7000 men and women formed volunteer cops to give resistance to the foreign army. The critical moment when the King tried to force and his own soldiers refused to obey his orders. The French army allied with the rival camps. This was National Guard which proved to be an important development in French history. In which the army came under the command of National Assembly. Lafayette became the commander of this army.

Army revolted against King
Army revolted against King

Twenty days after the fall of the Bastille, on August 4, 1789, there was a dramatic scene in the Assembly. The subject before the Assembly was the abolition of feudal rights and privileges. Great nobles and leaders of the Church got up in the Assembly Chamber and vied with each other in giving up their feudal rights and special privileges.

Abbé Sieyès, as a representative of priestly class and Mirabeau as a representative of nobility voluntarily, surrendered their power and privileges this was the victory of common people in France.

It was an honest and generous gesture, though it did not have much effect for some years. National Assembly aspired for the new constitution, so this led to the coming of Constitution of 1791.

Provisions of Constitution of 1791

1. Constitutional Monarchy

Constitution of 1791 opted for constitutional monarchy which had following features:

  • The King became nominal head of state only having the right to appoint and transfer his officials.
  • Birth of legislature having 745 members all the crucial decision of state was to be taken by this legislature.
  • Voting system i.e. election of the member of the legislature it was the indirect election and citizen of France were divided into two groups: 1. Active citizens (entitled to vote. About 4 million of a population of 28 million), 2. Passive citizens (no voting rights. About 3 million men, women, children and youth below 25).
Voting System: Active and Passive citizens
Voting System: Active and Passive citizens

2. Law of Clergy

Under the law of clergy, religion was subordinated to the state. Following developments:

  • Priests were to be appointed and paid by the state.
  • Priests were expected to take the oath to the state.

3. Human and Civil Rights Declaration

The most important aspect of the constitution was to pass a Declaration of the Rights of Man. Rights such as the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, equality before the law, were established as natural and inalienable rights, that is, they belonged to each human being by birth and could not be taken away. It was the duty of the state to protect each citizen’s natural rights.

Very brave and daring seemed this declaration of Rights of Man at that time. This declaration, indeed, protected private property. The estates of the big nobles and the Church were confiscated for other reasons relating to feudal rights and special privileges.

4. Declaration of Rights of Woman

The constitution of 1791 came with very revolutionary ideas. Many women right activists came into the scene this time. Journalist Olympé dé Gouges argued and declared that the rights of women are equal as the men. She said that all the citizens should benefit from governmental reforms.

Madame Jeanne Roland also served as a leader in the women’s rights movement and was able to heavily influence her husband, who was a government official. Though women did gain some rights during the french revolution. But these were designed for certain very specific purposes rather liberating women. The purposes were:

  1. Women could inherit property, but only because doing so weakened feudalism and reduced wealth among the upper classes.
  2. Divorce became easier but only to weaken the church authority.

5. Economic Reforms

The new constitution under economic reforms adopted mixed economy. The state introduced a new currency called assignats. The state also started nationalisation of land by snatching it away from feudal lords and the church.

People actually do not easily give up their old privileges. It takes time, patience and important the will of people to adopt the drastic changes. Same was very true in the case of the then France and Europe.

The constitution of 1791, was very progressive and advance in its flavour. But it was not suitable for the then French society. The constitution of 1791 annoyed privileged section of the society. Example:

  1. This immediate loss of power disturbed the Monarchy and nobility.
  2. Subordination of religion to the state was set back to the orthodox population of France.
  3. In spite of human and civil rights declaration, equality did not prevail as the specific section of masses were having voting rights.
  4. Nationalisation of land took away land from the feudal lords but labours were still without land.
Changes in societies
Changes in societies

Therefore constitution of 1791 instead of providing peace and stability to France created tension and trouble in France. In this scenario on June 21, 1791, an event took place which decided the fate of the revolution in the France.

King and Queen’s unsuccessful escape

On June 21, 1791, King Louis-XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette tried to escape from the France. They almost managed to reach the frontier. But some peasants recognised them at Varennes, near Verdun. They were stopped and brought back to Paris.

This act of the King and Queen completely destroyed the fate of the people in the monarchy. King was a signatory or signing authority of constitution that time. But this one more foolish act of the King and Queen sealed their fate so far as the people of Paris were concerned. This idea of Republic now grew rapidly. Political parties, representing different interests, emerged: Girondists(Liberals) and Jacobins(Extremists).

France: Escape of Royal Family at Varennes
France: Escape of Royal Family at Varennes

This event and Pillnitz Declaration were the incidents which gave impetus to the french revolution and old order was in big trouble when this new order was at its peak.

We will discuss the Pillnitz Declaration and subsequent events in next coming post.

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France: Pillnitz Declaration to Reign of Terror

France: Pillnitz Declaration

Kingdoms of Europe

The Monarchs of Europe were aware of the rising of new order in the France which was in the mood to overthrown the old order. The powers of Europe were watching these strange happenings with alarm. Louis XVI was a signatory of the Constitution. But he entered into secret negotiations with the King of Prussia.

Rulers of other neighbouring countries too were worried by the developments in France. So they made plans to send troops to put down the events that had been taking place there since the summer of 1789.

Pillnitz Declaration

Emperor Leopold II was the King of Austria that time. As we know that the Marie-Antoinette was the princess from the Hapsburg Dynasty of Austria. So, Leopold’s concern for the safety of his sister Marie-Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI of France was natural.

This led him to promise for a positive action when he heard that they were about to escape from their critical position. On August 27 he and the king of Prussia issued the Pillnitz Declaration, appealing to the European sovereigns to use force to strengthen Louis XVI’s position.

Declaration of War Against Prussia and Austria

Before Pillnitz Declaration would come into sight, the National Assembly voted in April 1792 to declare war against Prussia and Austria. The people of France became agiler and saw spies and traitors everywhere. The Revolutionary Commune of Paris took the lead at this crisis. Danton led the Commune, a member of the Jacobin political party.

They hoisted Red Flag to signify that the people had proclaimed martial law against the rebellion of the court. The Red Flag was the symbol of Martial law against the people. Now it is the symbol of socialism and communism everywhere. On August 10, 1792, the order was given to attack the King’s palace. Finally, King was deposed and imprisoned.

Pillnitz Declaration

War to National Convention

The revolutionary wars brought losses and economic difficulties to the masses. Large sections of the population convinced that the revolution had to be carried further. Because the Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to the richer sections of society.

The French national assembly as we know had been divided into two extremely opposite sections:

  1. Girondins- Liberals.
  2.  Jacobins- Extremists.

Political clubs became an important rallying point for people who wished to discuss government policies and plan their own forms of action. The Jacobins were the group of lower-middle-class people. Because of this, they were not having voting rights as they were passive citizens. Women formed their own clubs.

National Convention made an army of Frenchmen to defeat the foreign coalition. General Carnot led the troops. The people supported military expeditions because they did not want the country back under hands of the Old Regime. Rouget de Lisle wrote the “Marseillaise”French national anthemOn September 21, 1792, the National Convention met. This meeting was succeeded by the coming of the constitution of 1792.

France: Features of the Constitution of 1792

Comparison between Constitution of 1791 and 1792

1. The Constitutional Republic

As monarchy lost moral status to be the head of the state, so now France adopted Republic form of government, with features:

  • Directory became the head of the state. It had five members and every member had a tenure of one year. Every member also got the chance to be the first consul of the state i.e. President for three months.
  • This constitution adopted Bicameralism system. Provision of two houses upper house and lower house. In which upper house made the proposals and lower house was supposed to pass the proposals. (something which can not be so simple to pass any proposal).
Comparison between Indian and France Constitution

2. Religion of state

France became a secular state. Secularism here meant separation of Church from the state. Religion lost patronage from the state.

3. Human and Civil Rights

Human and civil rights maintained same as they were in the constitution of 1791. The only new development was that state started interference in the personal life of the people. Example: Dress code for the citizens.

4. Emphasis on Communism

This constitution emphasised CommunismThe state fixed the prices of commodities.

France: Fate of Royal Family

National Assembly decided the fate of royal family and the Assembly voted to imprison the royal family. The constitution abolished the monarchy. Still, there was suspicion among the people that as long as the royal family lived, the monarchy could be restored. So royal family put on trial for treason (betrayal of one’s country or government).

Reign of Terror: Guillotine

This following was the conclusion:

  • Louis XVI guillotined publicly at the Place de la Concorde on January 21, 1793.
  • National Assembly guillotined Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793.
  • Daughter Marie-Thérèse went to Vienna in 1795. As she could not become queen because of Salic law, which did not allow females to succeed to the throne.
  • Son Louis-Charles, Louis XVII (lived 1785-1795) beaten and mistreated until he died in prison.

France: Reign of Terror

In the National Convention, there was a struggle for power between the two sections, Girondins and Jacobins. The Jacobins won. After coming into the power Jacobins excluded many of Girondins Deputies from the Convention. After the victory Jacobins appointed two committees:

  1. The committee on Public Welfare
  2. The committee on Public Safety

The three most memorable Jacobins were Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Jean Paul Marat.

Robespierre followed a policy of severe control and punishment. All those whom he saw as being enemies of the republic he arrested imprisoned and then tried them under a revolutionary tribunal. If the court found them guilty they have to face the guillotine.

This was the reign of terror in France. Daily there were journeys to the guillotine of those who condemned. Therefore, to speak even in the Convention against the ruling power was dangerous, for that led to suspicion, and suspicion led to the trial and the guillotine.


National Razor “Guillotine”

Guillotine became known as the “National Razor”. Eventually, even Georges Danton wanted to end the executions. Danton also tried and executed for treason.

So to resort this situation the extremists Jacobins saw no other way of saving itself than to intensify the Terror.

The Law of the 22nd Prairial passed on June 1794, which made it a crime, punishable by death, to spread false news to divide or stir up the people, to undermine morality and corrupt the public conscience. Everyone who had the different opinion from Robespierre and his henchmen was under the trial of this law. Approximately 15,000 people died on the guillotine(Including innovative thinkers like Olympe de Gouges and Madame Jeanne Roland).

For approximately forty-six days this new terror lasted. At last, on July 27, 1794, the worm turned. The Convention suddenly turned against Robespierre and his followers. With the cries of “Down with the tyrant”, they arrested them.

Finally, Robespierre guillotined. Thus ended the French Revolution of 1789. 🙂

Out of the French Revolution, a very important personality in the world emerged and the next phase in French history is the emergence of Napoleon. We will meet this person in our next post. 🙂

Thank you so much. 🙂 Stay Connected. 🙂


Son of Revolution: Napoleon and His Italian Expedition

The reign of terror ended after the guillotine of Jacobin leader Robespierre. After his guillotine, France again became a victim of the internal crisis.

A French poet, Barbier has compared France to a wild animal, a proud and free mare, with head high and shining skin; a beautiful vagabond, fiercely intolerant of saddle and harness and rein, stamping on the ground and frightening the world with the noise of her neighing.

In 1794 France was once again in internal crisis. People of all classes had grown weary of the reign of terror. They were also tired of the skyrocketing prices of bread, salt, and other necessities of life after the terror.

In such circumstance in 1795 moderate leaders (Girondins), drafted a new plan of government. The new constitution gave power in the hands of the upper middle class and called for a two-house legislature and an executive body of five men, known as the Directory same as the constitution of 1792.

The five directors were moderates. Some of them freely enriched themselves at the public’s expense. Despite their corruption, however, they gave their troubled country a period of the order. This entire relentless order in France gave the birth to the leader Napoleon Bonaparte. In a real sense, he was the son of revolution.

Journey of Napoleon Bonaparte

Journey of Napoleon: Corsica to Military General
Journey of Napoleon: Corsica to Military General

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769 on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which was under France. He had mixed French- Corsican and Italian blood. He was just nine years old when his parents sent him to a military school in northern France. In 1785, at the tender age of 16, he completed his schooling and became a lieutenant in the artillery. When the Revolution broke out, Napoleon joined the army of the new government.

In 1793 he won his first victory at Toulon, commercial port of France. The rich people of this place were afraid of losing their property during the revolutionary period. They invited the English and handed over the remains of the French navy to them.

Napoleon crushed the rebels and defeated the English force at Toulon. This was a charismatic victory for him and his star began to shine brightly after this victory as he became the general at the tender age of twenty-four.

Characteristics of Napoleon

All of the humans are curious mixtures of the good and the bad, the great and the little. Napoleon was a short man (five feet three inches tall) who was an important character of the history of modern times. He would come to be recognised as one of the world’s greatest military geniuses, along with Alexander the Great of Macedonia, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome. Napoleon Bonaparte had a magnetism that attracted the admiration of his men. He inspired his troops through his speeches. In one speech, he told soldiers,

If the victory is for a moment uncertain, you shall see your Emperor place himself on the front line.

Bonaparte was generous in his rewards to the troops. Many of his soldiers received the Legion of Honor—a medal for bravery. Sometimes Napoleon would take the medal from his own chest to present it to a soldier. A cavalry commander, Auguste de Colbert, wrote,

He awakened in my soul the desire for glory.

But he was selfish, self-centred and the dominating impulse of his life was not the pursuit of an ideal, but the quest for personal power. He once said,

Power is my mistress! The conquest of that mistress has cost me so much that I will allow no one to rob me of her, or to share her with me!

Child of the revolution he was and yet he dreamt of a vast empire and the conquests of Alexander filled his mind.

Heroic Attempt as Young Officer

In October 1795, fate handed the young officer a chance for glory. When royalist rebels marched on the National Convention, a government official asked Napoleon to defend the delegates. Napoleon and his gunners greeted the thousands of royalists with a bombardment. Within minutes, the attackers fled in panic and confusion.

Napoleon Bonaparte became the hero of the hour and hailed throughout Paris as the saviour of the French republic. Here his meeting and marriage with Josephine elevated his status. He became commander of the French army and got an assignment of Italian Expedition.

Napoleon: France versus Austria
Napoleon: France versus Austria

Italian Expedition

German and Italy states were the bone of contention between Austria and France. Austria taking the advantage of internal crisis in France dominated both the areas. This was an attack on French interest in these regions.

In 1796, the Directory appointed Napoleon to lead a French army against the forces of Austria and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The French army had still something of the fire of revolution. But they were in rags. They had neither proper clothes nor shoes nor food nor money.

Napoleon: Italian Expedition
Napoleon: Italian Expedition

Napoleon Bonaparte led this time-worn and footsore band across the Alps, promising army food and all good things when they reached the rich Italian plain. To the people of Italy, he promised freedom that he was coming to liberate them from the oppressors. He played wisely with the feelings of both Italians and his soldiers. Napoleon converted his promises into truth. He defeated Austria and compelled it for the treaty of Campoformio. The important provisions of this treaty were:

  • Rhine land (reservoir of coal and iron) valley was given to the France and became the natural frontier of France.
  • Italian states accepted Napoleon as their Guardian.
  • Netherlands and Lombardy also came under the control of France.
  • Venice was given to Austria to satisfy the sentiments of Austria.

After the Treaty of Campoformio

By this treaty, he gifted the area of resources to French people that too free of cost. For the first time in the history of France, war burden was not imposed on the people of France. The defeated forces bore the burden of war.

To his soldiers, he was like a father– a very young father- known affectionately as the “Petit Caporal”. These achievements by the treaty of Campoformio turned him the Hero of France.

Next, in an attempt to protect French trade interests and to disrupt British trade with India, Napoleon led an expedition to Egypt. We will learn about this Egyptian Expedition in our next coming post.

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Napoleon: Egyptian Expedition and Refroms

Italian expedition turned Napoleon Hero of the France while Egyptian expedition prepared the ground for Napoleon to be the leader of France.

Egyptian Expedition

Egyptian Expedition

Egypt was then part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. But this empire had declined. Then the Mamelukes ruled Egypt nominally under the Sultan of Turkey. Napoleon led this expedition to protect the French trade interests and to disrupt British trade with India. From the map geopolitical importance of Egypt is clear. It was located at the heart of the east to west trade. He was fond of dramatic poses. Riding in front of his troops before the Pyramids he addressed them:

Soldiers, forty centuries are looking down upon you!

Napoleon was master of war on land. But at the sea, he seemed to be helpless. He underestimated the naval power of the England which was the best in the world at that point in time. Unfortunately, Napoleon’s luck did not hold.

British admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the naval forces of Napoleon. Nelson came, rather audaciously, right into harbour one day and destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of Nile. Napoleon managed to escape secretly and reached France.

Egypt Expedition of Napoleon
Egypt Expedition of Napoleon

Coup d’État

After Italian expedition, in which British were victorious.  Napoleon came to France people of France were shouting only one name- Napoleon. Actually, France was in trouble when Napoleon came back. By 1799, the Directory was discredited, unpopular and so everybody turned to him. He was willing enough to assume power.

The Abbé Sieyès urged him to seize political power. He organised Sainklu Convention. In November 1799, with the help of his brother Lucien, he forcibly dispersed the Assembly and thus put an end to the constitution as it then existed, under which the Directory had governed. This coup d’état, as such forcible State actions are called, made Napoleon the master of the situation.

At first, he pretended to be the constitutionally chosen leader of a free republic. Later in 1800, in a plebiscite people voted for the new constitution (the fourth in eight years; 1st in 1791, 2nd in 1792, 3rd in 1795). He almost unanimously won by over 3,000,000 votes. Thus the people of France themselves presented all power to Napoleon. With the wish of people, he became the First Consul of France for nest coming 10 years.

Reforms of Napoleon

Peace with Europe

For past 10 years 1789 to 1799 French polity and economy was in trouble the immediate requirement was peace and stability. In this scenario, Napoleon wrote letters to address King George-III of England and Leopold of Austria.

In these letters, he emphasised the importance of peace in that situation. He said what is the utility of war in the era of growth and development. This lead to the treaty of Amiens between England and France. England gave acceptance to Napoleon’s rule and also returned back French colonies taken away during the revolution.

Economic Reforms

Napoleon came into power when the France was suffering from the remnants of revolution. The huge mass supported him to become the First Consul because they were having big aspirations from him. His immediate priority was to give some relax to his people as they all were in very weary condition. To pacify the French people he opted for superficial reforms such as,

  • Primary sector: -He emphasised on agriculture on improving the fertility of soil bringing barren land under cultivation. His officials opted liberal attitude towards farmers in collecting land revenue. His objective was to increase agricultural production to fulfil food requirement of people and to improve the revenue of the state.
  • Public works: -He gave promotion to the public works like infrastructural developments to provide employment to the people.
  • Established Central bank of France to regulate and strengthen currency system with the objective to promote trade and commerce in France.

These steps gave relief to the people of France for some time but in overall structure, French economy remained weak and backwards because he neglected basic land reforms and industrialisation.

Political Reforms

In 1799 Napoleon was political head of the state. But he wanted to be the Emperor of France and was facing a legal trouble i.e. Royalty of Blood. In these circumstances, he organised plebiscite in France in which he got approximately 34 lakhs vote in favour. On this ground respecting the wish of people he became emperor of France in 1804.

On December 2, 1804, dressed in a splendid robe of purple velvet, Napoleon walked down the long aisle of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The pope waited for him with a glittering crown. As thousands watched, the new emperor took the crown from the pope and placed it on his own head. This was an arrogant gesture, Napoleon signalled that he was more powerful than the church, which had traditionally crowned the rulers of France.

Structure of French Parliament

Now Napoleon established four houses in France. Council of State, Senate, Tribunate and Legislative. He came with Law of 10 percent. Under the 10% law, people of 30 years of age was given voting rights and there was the provision of three lists:

  • District List
  • State List
  • Central List

From the central list, he nominated members of all the four houses. The legislature was basically the court of Napoleon. Bureaucracy in France revived and bureaucrats called as prefects. Appointment and transfer of these officials were at the hand of Napoleon.

These officials were only responsible to the Napoleon. In this way, the political structure of France was like a mirage (illusion) from outside it reflected the picture of democracy and from inside it was autocratic in nature. The entire power was at the hand of Napoleon.

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Napoleon: Reforms and His Aspirations

In our last post, we have read about economic and political reforms of Napoleon. Now we will continue with some other reforms of Napoleon.

Reforms of Napoleon

Educational Reforms of Napoleon

In the pre-modern age education and laws were the monopoly of religion. National Assembly took a revolutionary step when they snatched away education from religion and established National Education Council. Before assembly would take any important step to improvise the education system, France became the victim of the internal crisis. In this situation when Napoleon came into the power he took a lead and founded the structure of modern education system. Example:

  • Primary Education
  • Secondary Education
  • Centres of Higher Education
Basic Building of Religion

Though he made a good contribution in educational field but here also he created some troubles. Example:

  • In primary and secondary level apart from military and discipline faculty training, Napoleonism made the part of the syllabus.
  • Established normal schools to train teachers of higher education and here teachers were taught devotion and dedication towards state religion and Napoleon.

Napoleon had an extraordinary memory and perfectly ordered mind. He said himself:

When I wish to put away any matter out of my mind, I close its drawer and open the drawer belonging to another. The contents of the drawers never get mixed up and they never worry me or weary me. Do I want to sleep? I close all the drawers and then I am asleep.

Religious Reforms of Napoleon

Napoleon signed an agreement with Pope Pius VII, creating a new relationship between church and state. The government recognised the influence of the church but rejected church control in state affairs. Specifically the French government was going to bishops, but the bishops would appoint parish priests. The concordat gained Napoleon the support of the organised church as well as the majority of the French people.

Though Napoleon was thoroughly irreligious and yet he encouraged religion. He looked upon religion as a prop to the existing social order. “Religion”, he said,

Associates with heaven an idea of equality, which prevents the poor from massacring the rich. Religion has the same sort of value as vaccination. It gratifies our taste for the miraculous and protects us from quacks… Society can not exist without inequality of property, but this latter can not exist without religion. One who is dying of hunger when the man next to him is feasting on dainties can only be sustained by a belief in a higher power i.e. god and by the conviction that in another world there will be a different distribution of goods.

In the pride of his strength, he is reported to have said:

Should the heavens fall down on us we shall hold them off with the points of our lances.

Code Napoleon in France

Napoleon thought that his greatest work was his comprehensive system of laws, known as the Napoleonic Code. This code was adopted in 1804. Although the code gave the country a uniform set of laws and eliminated many injustices but it actually limited liberty and promoted order. He interfered in everything with his amazing energy and vitality. He exhausted all his co-workers and secretaries. One of his co-worker writes about him during this period:

The ruling, administering, negotiating with that orderly intelligence of his (Napoleon), he gets through eighteen hours’ work a day. In three years he has ruled more than the kings ruled in a century.

Napoleon gets the credit of codifying modern laws like the code of criminal procedure, code of civil procedure, commercial code etc. He used to say that,

I will not be remembered in history for my forty wars but will be remembered for my contribution to the modern legal system.

The reforms of Napoleon were progressive in nature but the problem was he wanted to fulfil two opposite objectives at the same time. He wanted to strengthen the nation and also his position in France and he actually made his all the reforms contradictory which annoyed the progressive section of French society.

Reforms of Napoleon

Evaluation of the Personality of Napoleon

Napoleon had the magnetism of the great and he won devoted friendship from many. He once said,

I won my battles with my eyes, not with my weapons. Force was no remedy and that the spirit of man was greater than the sword. There are only two powers in the world: the spirit and the sword. In the long run, the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.

He was in a hurry and right at the beginning of his career he had chosen the way of the sword by the sword he triumphed and by the sword he fell. In his personal life, he was very simple and never indulged in any excesses, except excess of work. According to him,

However little a man may eat he always eats too much. One can get ill from over-eating, but never from under- eating.

It was this simple life which gave him splendid health and vast energy. He could sleep when he liked and as little as he liked. To ride 100 miles in the course of the morning and afternoon was not an extraordinary thing for him.

Aspirations of Napoleon

Napoleon was not content simply to be master of France. He wanted to control the rest of Europe and to reassert French power in the New World. Napoleon envisioned his western empire to include many Latin American states like Louisiana, Florida, French Guiana, and the French West Indies. He knew that the key to this area was the sugar producing French colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola.

For ten years he was Emperor and during these years he rushed about all over the Continent of Europe and carried on striking military campaigns and won memorable battles. All Europe trembled at his name and was dominated by him as it has never been dominated by anyone else before or since.

Napoleonic Reforms
Napoleonic Reforms

New World Territories Expedition of Napoleon

In 1789, when the ideas of the Revolution had reached the planters in Saint-Domingue, they had demanded the same privileges as the people of France. Eventually, the slaves in the colony had demanded their freedom. A civil war had erupted. The slaves under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture seized control of the sugar producing colony.

In 1801, Napoleon decided to regain French control of the war-torn island. He then restored its productive sugar industry. Although he sent 23,000 soldiers to accomplish the task, the slaves proved to be difficult to defeat. His thousands of soldiers died of yellow fever.

The expedition to Saint-Domingue was unsuccessful. The U.S. government showed interest in buying the port of New Orleans. Napoleon recognised an opportunity to make some money and cut his losses in the Americas.

He also offered to sell all of the Louisiana Territory to the United States. In 1803 President Jefferson agreed to purchase the land for $15 million. Napoleon was delighted. He saw a twofold benefit to the sale: he would gain money to finance operations in Europe, and he would further punish his British enemies. He said,

The sale assures forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a rival who, sooner or later, will humble her pride. 


Though he was a great leader and provided the period of peace to the France but his superficial approach to deal with the immensely important subjects decided some other fate for the France. Once again economic, political and social crisis started to take their place in the France. In such internal turmoil, the blunders of Napoleon proved harmful for him and ended his story in France and Europe.

We will discuss the blunders of Napoleon in next coming post. 🙂

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Blunders of Emperor Napoleon

Impossible is a word that can be found in the dictionary of fools. -Napoleon.

Napoleon over Europe
Napoleon over Europe

War with Europe

Napoleon went for the superficial reforms as we have seen in the last post. Though these reforms gave relief to the people of France for a period of time but then trouble once again started in France. In this background, the war was the easiest option for Napoleon to divert the mind of his people. So he converted wars as the national profession. 😉 Employed many soldiers to fought wars with entire Europe.

He annexed the Austrian Holland and parts of Italy to France. Also set up a puppet government in Switzerland. Now he looked to expand his influence further. Fearful of his ambitions, Britain persuaded Russia, Austria, and Sweden to make a tripartite coalition against France. Napoleon met this challenge with his usual boldness. He rallied the troops and rode out to defeat the Coalition, exclaiming,

My army is formidable. . . . Once we had an Army of the Rhine, an Army of Italy, an Army of Holland; there has never been a French Army—but now it exists, and we shall soon see it in action.

Napoleon: Wars with Europe
Wars With Europe

Results of forty battles

In continuous brilliant battles, Napoleon crushed the opposition. He fought approximately forty wars. Napoleon issued a proclamation expressing his pride in his troops:

Soldiers! I am pleased with you. On the day of Austerlitz, you justified everything that I was expecting of your intrepidity. . . In less than four hours, an army of 100,000 men, commanded by the emperors of Russia and Austria, was cut up and dispersed. . . 120 pieces of artillery, 20 generals, and more than 30,000 men taken prisoner—such are the results of this day which will forever be famous. . . My nation will be overjoyed to see you again. And it will be enough for you to say, “I was at Austerlitz,” to hear the reply: “There is a brave man!” -NAPOLEON, quoted in Napoleon by André Castelot

Eventually, the rulers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia all signed peace treaties with Napoleon, whose brave and extraordinary army had enabled him to build the largest European empire.

Of the major European Powers, Britain alone escaped disaster. The sea, which was ever a mystery to Napoleon, saved England. And because of vicinity to the sea, England became the greatest and most relentless of his enemies.

Eventually, these wars helped to maintain Napoleon’s position. But in long run, it proved harmful for Napoleon and France. These continuous wars caused extreme unrest in entire Europe and this led to the formation of United Front in Europe. This Unite Front was against Napoleon’s aggressive policy.

Trouble with Spain

Spain and Portugal were neighbours but rivals. On the basis of formula Enemy’s Enemy is the Friend, when Portugal allied with Britain, Spain also allied with France. But some actions were taken by Napoleon in Spain without consulting the authority of Spain, turned Spain into the enemy of France. These actions were:

Napoleon: Trouble with Spain
Napoleon: Trouble with Spain

1. Sovereignty of Spain

Whenever Napoleon usually led the expedition to Portugal and African colonies of France, he used to enter into Spanish territory without asking or informing the King of Spain. This was the cause of irritation for the common masses and King of the Spain.

2. Ferdinand Episode

King Charles of Spain was facing mass protest, so he left the throne in favour of his son Ferdinand. There was a personal rivalry between the Ferdinand and Napoleon. Napoleon removed Ferdinand from the throne and placed his brother Joseph on the throne. This was a direct attack on the King’s authority in Spain. This event turned Napoleon as the conqueror of Spain.

3. Reforms of Joseph

Joseph started land reforms in Spain under which land was taken away from feudal lords and was given to the landless farmers. Though it was a good step but it backfired because this reform provided ground for unity to the feudal lords in Spain. The feudal lords raised the slogan of Spanish Nationalism.

In this background, Napoleon committed blunder to fight with the people of Spain. As there was no ruling authority in Spain that time. This war with the common masses not only brought down the status of Napoleon but also drained away resources of France. Because in the absence of the King his soldiers were not able to take compensation from the defeated country.

Battle of Trafalgar

In his wars against the tripartite coalition, Napoleon lost only one major battle, the Battle of Trafalgar. The battle took place in 1805 off the southern coast of Spain. The commander of the British fleet, Horatio Nelson—the admiral who had defeated Napoleon’s fleet near Egypt in 1798— outmanoeuvred the larger French-Spanish fleet, showing as much brilliance in warfare at sea as Napoleon had in warfare on land. During the furious battle, Nelson was mortally wounded by a French sharpshooter. As he lay dying aboard his flagship, Nelson heard the welcome news of British victory.

Now I am satisfied,” murmured the admiral. “Thank God, I have done my duty.

The destruction of the French fleet had two major results.

  • First, it assured the supremacy of the British Royal Navy for the next hundred years.
  • Second, it forced Napoleon to give up his plans of invading Britain.

He had to look for another way to control his powerful enemy across the English Channel.

Continental Policy

One of the biggest dreams of Napoleon was to defeat Britain and turn himself and France as a Superpower. But after the humiliating and disastrous defeat in the Battle of Trafalgar, he was totally shattered. To defeat Britain with military power was not so easy. So he opted for indirect war i.e. Continental Policy. In this he and his allies like Spain, Austria, Russia ended their trading relations with Britain.

In November 1806, he signed a decree ordering a blockade—a forcible closing of ports—to prevent all trade and communication between Great Britain and other European nations. It was to destroy Britain’s commercial and industrial economy.

Unfortunately, his blockade was not tight enough. Aided by the British, smugglers managed to bring ships from Britain into Europe. Now, Napoleon’s allies disregarded his order—in fact, Napoleon’s own brother Louis, whom Napoleon had made the king of Holland, defied the policy.

Napoleon: Continental Policy
Continental Policy


Britain had a less impact of this continental policy because it had a personal market of India. The French economy was weak and backwards. So France started facing economic trouble. In effect, the Continental System hurt him more than it hurt his enemies. Gradually, it weakened the economies of France and its allies under Napoleon’s control more than it damaged Britain.

This continental policy also disturbed the relationship between Napoleon and Russia when Russia decided to leave France on the issue of Continental Policy. This led to war between Russia and France which Proved disastrous for him.

In the coming next post, we will discuss some other blunders of Napoleon and his demise. 🙂

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