Notes from Palmer, A History of the Modern World, (pp. 337-420)


The Liberal Revolution (1789-92)

  • The French Government in 1788 was unable to balance its budget because of the tax exemptions and tax evasions of the privileged classes, especially the nobles.
  • The Estates-General were called for the first time in a century and a half so that the King could get legislation passed which would reorganize the tax system.
  • The Third Estate, representing the bourgeoisie (the middle class), demanded that the three estates meet as one. On June 20, 1789 the Third Estate declared itself a National Assembly and swore an oath (on a local tennis court) that they would not disband until a new constitution had been adopted.
  •  The King initially refused to recognize the National Assembly as legitimate.
  • July 14, 1789: An angry crowd of common workers in the city of Paris approached the Bastille, demanding weapons. When the warden of the prison fired on the demonstrators, the crowd stormed the citadel, murdered the warden and paraded his head on a pike in the streets.
  • (The Great Fear) In the countryside, peasants armed themselves and in many cases attacked the manor houses, killing the noblemen who had tyrannized them for centuries.
  • On the night of August 4th, a few liberal noblemen rose in the National Assembly and surrendered their aristocratic privileges, inspiring the Assembly to ban all aspects of feudalism.
  • August 26th: The National Assembly affirmed “The Declaration of the Rights of Man” which declared that every person possesses the natural rights to life, liberty and property. It also declared that every citizen owns equal rights before the law.
  • On October 4th a mob of poor market women marched from Paris to Versailles complaining of the high price of bread and calling for social reforms. They were accompanied by fighters who attacked the palace and forced the King to return with them to Paris. From then on, the Parisian workers played an important and on-going role influencing the decisions of the government.
  • The Constitution of 1791 was ratified by the National Assembly. It gave all power to the legislative assembly itself. The Executive branch was only awarded a ‘suspensive veto’ which could postpone but not eliminate legislation. Only property owners were given the right to vote.
  • June 1791: The King and his family disguised themselves and attempted to flee by stagecoach to Austria to join with forces there rallying to form an army to overthrow the revolution. The King was captured at Varrenes, returned to Paris and forced to accept the new constitutional monarchy.
  • To cope with the fiscal crisis left to them by the King, the National Assembly confiscated the property of the Church and sold bonds, called assignats, which were regarded as currency. These lands were sold to the highest bidders, so poor peasants did not get to participate in this land reform. This decision led to constant quarrels with the Catholic Church. In the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1791, the Assembly put the church under the administrative control of the state.
  • August 1791: In the Declaration of Pillnitz, the Kings of Austria and Prussia declared war against the French revolutionary government. The Liberals in power responded by declaring their goal of spreading the revolution throughout Europe.


The Radical Revolution (1792-94)

  • April 20, 1792: The National Assembly declares war on Prussia and Austria.
  • Summer 1792: The Jacobins, led by Marat, Danton, and Desmoulins, whip up nationalist passion against foreign enemies and rally workers and peasants with promises of a republic (a government without a king). "The Marseillaise" becomes the new national Anthem: a call to war against tyranny. The Girondists (Condorcet, Brissot, Roland, Thomas Paine) argue that the revolution must be exported to the rest of Europe if it is to survive: “universal liberty”
  • August 10, 1792: Storming of the Tuileries Palace: a violent demonstration by Parisian workers organized by Danton results in the imprisonment of Louis XVI and his family.
  • The “Commune of Paris” sets new elections for a National Convention with universal male suffrage.
  • The National Convention meets and creates a new calendar with 1792 as Year One. The first order of business of the new republic is the trial of the King, Louis XVI. 
  • September Massacres: Jacobins led by Danton organize assaults on aristocrats and priests held in Paris prisons.
  • September: the French army scores a military  victory at Valmy. 
  • In the National Convention radical memebers of the Jacobins, the Montagnards (led by Marat, Robespierre and Danton), emerge as  leaders.
  •  December 1792: the trial of Louis XVI ends with a unanimous guilty verdict, but the vote to execute the King carries by only one vote The Girondist leaders of the Jacobins had argued for clemency.
  • January 1793: Louis XVI executed.
  • Spring 1793: The war against the Austrians and the Prussians is going badly. The ultra-radical working class enragees clamor for a true social revolution (i.e. land reform and income re-distribution) The Jacobins drive the Girondists from the Convention aided by threats from the sans-cullotes, members of the Parisian working class. 
  • Counter Revolution: a peasant revolt breaks out in the Vendee province and resistance to Parisian control emerges in Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseilles. Many counter- revolutionaries are also motivated by loyalty to the Catholic Church. 
  • The Convention, despite its republican constitution, arrogates its powers to an emergency government: The Committee of Public Safety, led by Marat, Robespierre and Danton. To repress counter-revolution and revitalize the war effort, they form a police administration with extra-legal authority and order the levee en masse: a universal draft. They set wage and price controls and nationalize the economy.
  •  July 1793: Marat is assassinated (in his bath tub) by the Girondist Charlotte Corday.
  • The Hebertists organize the ultra-radicals (sans-cullottes and enragees) to issue demands that the revolution become a true social revolution: wage and price controls, end to property rights, De-Christianization, new Republican calendar (with its ten day work week), cult of Reason,
  • Robespierre blocks the Hebertist socialist revolution, and in March 1794 they are executed.
  • To pacify the left, Robespierre also moves against the Dantonists, and in April 1794 they are executed.
  • After military victories during the early summer of 1794, Robespierre is overthrown and executed on July 27, 1794.


The Thermidorean Reaction and The Directory (1794-1799)


  •  22 August 1795: Constitution of the Year III establishes a new government led by The Directory, a five member executive branch, with a bi-cameral republican legislature: the Council of 500 and the Council of Elders. Suffrage is based on property rights. Voters elect  a body  of ‘electors’ who then choose representatives.
  • In 1795 street protests against the Directory were put down with artillery fire by a young general who had happened to be in Paris: Napoleon Bonaparte. (He gave them a 'whiff of grapeshot.')
  • The Directory was opposed by monarchists from the right who sought to restore the Old Regime and punish the revolutionaries. The Directory was also opposed on the left by survivors of the Hebertist working class movement: Gracchus Babeuf sought the abolishment of private property and parliamentary government. (He was guillotined in 1797.)
  • 1796: Napoleon’s army drives the Austrians from Northern Italy, and he establishes his own country, The Cisalpine Republic, which is independent of France. From that moment forward,  he was able to supply his armies independent of Paris.
  • March 1797: The first really free election in French history. Unfortunately, the constitutional monarchs and royalists won.
  • September 1797: The Coup d’état of Fructidor: The Directory annuls the free elections with Napoleon’s support, and the Directory assumes complete control of the government. But problems continue: guerilla activity continues in the Vendee as well as the repression of the refractory clergy, amid complaints from left and right.
  • 1798: Napoleon invades Egypt, alarming the British who depend on supply routes from the Red Sea, and the Russians who have their own designs on the Middle East.


The Consulate (1799-1804)


  • November 1799: One of the Directors, Abbe Seiyes, invites Napoleon to form a government, and in the Coup d’état of Brumaire, Napoleon closes the Council of 500 and declares a ‘Consulate’. Napoleon holds a general referendum on his move, and, surprise, he wins by 3,010,007 to 1,562. The new Parliament is elected by universal male suffrage, but electors can only choose representatives from a list of notables supplied by…. Napoleon. Even these handpicked legislators have no power of their own. They can only enact or reject laws formulated by the Tribunate. In reality, the first consul, Napoleon, is making all the decisions.
  • Napoleon picks ministers from across the political spectrum who serve him loyally. He puts down any dissent with violence. He even concocts ‘traitors’ to punish in order to demonstrate his power.
  •  To put an end to religious rebellion, Napoleon signs a concordat with the Vatican which enables the refractory clergy, which had led the counter revolution in many provinces, to return to their parishes.
  • Napoleon consolidates his power by naming agents of government to lead the state bureaucracy. All military and civil appointments are made based on merit. Taxes are collected by professionals employed by the central government. No one gets tax exemptions. The government’s rationalization of the state bureaucracy enables Napoleon to stabilize the economy and secure the national debt.
  • Napoleon codifies national law in the Code Napoleon. The codes made France legally and judicially uniform. The codes are based on reason not precedent. The right to property is strengthened. Labor unions are banned.
  • 1802: Napoleon makes peace with Great Britain.
  • 1802: Napoleon is made consul for life in a new plebiscite.
  • 1804: Napoleon names himself Emperor. (hereditary)


Napoleon had created an incomparably formidable state. The most populous, the most wealthy country in Europe had eliminated all of the barriers of privilege, tax exemption, localism, and caste. The new France could tap the wealth of its people and put able men into positions of responsibility. This principal of civic equality proved to have a powerful ideological appeal…. when Napoleon decided to liberate the rest of Europe.


Napoleon’s Impact on Europe:


  •  Liberal Reforms of Napoleonic Code
  • Resistance against French influence leads to nationalist movements, particularly in Germany.


The Empire (1804-15)


Unlike during WWII, the great powers of Europe (Great Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia) did not take the field together against Napoleon until 1813 (after the disastrous French invasion of Russia). Why? They all had their own ambitions: Austria wanted to expand into the Balkans, as did Russia.  Prussia sought the unification of Germany. England wished to avoid being drawn into infantry clashes on the Continent and sought instead to consolidate its mastery at sea.

  • 1803: The English refuse to vacate Malta and declare war on France.
  • 1803: Napoleon sells Louisiana to the Americans.
  • 1805: Great Britain and Russia form the Third Coalition.
  • 1805: Fear of French invasion of England
  • October 1805: Lord Nelson destroys the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar.
  • December 1805: Napoleon defeats the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz. Napoleon dissolves the Holy Roman Empire and creates the Confederation of the Rhine.
  • 1806: Napoleon smashes the Prussians at Jena.
  • 1807: Napoleon defeats the Russians at Friedland.
  • Tsar Alexander I makes peace with Napoleon during a meeting on a raft on the Nieman River. Napoleon promises Russia an empire in the East if they will tolerate a French empire in the West.
  • 1806: Napoleon engages economic warfare with England by creating the Continental System (The Berlin Decree), an embargo on all British goods,.
  •  Portugal refuses to go along with the Continental System, and France invades the Iberian Peninsula. (The Peninsular War becomes Europe’s first guerilla war and drags on until 1813. France lost.)
  • 1808: Napoleon names his brother Joseph the King of Spain.
  • 1809: Austria declares war against France and is defeated at Wagram. Napoleon takes control of vast central European territories.
  • 1809: Napoleon divorces his wife Josephine, who has not borne him a son.
  • 1810: Napoleon marries Princess Marie Louise of Austria, the eighteen year old niece of Marie Antoinette. (Technically, that made the dead Louis XVI Napoleon's  uncle.)
  • 1810-11: Furthest extent of French Empire




In 1810-11 France controls the entire European mainland except for the Balkan peninsula. The Empire was divided into three parts:

  • The French Empire included Belgium and Holland, the left bank of the Rhine, the coastline from Germany in the North to Rome in the South. These territories were governed directly by departamental prefects reporting directly to Paris.
  • The Grand Empire included the Swiss Confederation and the Illyrian Provinces on the Dalmatian Coast, Poland had become the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The German states had been organized into the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon made his brother Jerome the King of Westphalia, his brother Louis the King of Holland, and his sister Caroline the Queen of Naples.
  • Austria, Prussia and Russia became “Allied States” whom Napoleon required to obey the Continental economic system centered in France.


The Spread of the French Revolution:


Napoleon considered himself a reformer and a man of the Enlightenment. He said that he was a liberal who believed in constitutions, but the legislative assemblies in the empire held no power. For Napoleon, liberalism meant ‘constituting’ a state rationally.

  • He asserted that the rule of law (the Code Napoleon) be applied universally. The idea that a country might have its own set of unique laws was foreign to his thinking.
  • Napoleon believed that his code of laws was politically expedient: the people would welcome the new freedoms offered all citizens and be grateful to France.


Features of the Code Napoleon:

  • The old aristocratic privileges were ended, including tax breaks, hereditary offices, and military commands. Manorial fees and tithes were abolished, but peasants still had to pay the nobility compensation for their freedom, so basically, they exchanged lords for landlords.
  • Society was thereafter composed of legally equal individuals. All government jobs were ‘opened to talent’.
  • Church courts were abolished and the Inquisition outlawed. Church property was confiscated.
  • Religious toleration became the law. (For the first time in European history, Jews received civil rights.)
  • The state was wholly secular.


Repression came with the new order, but unlike during WWII, there were no vast concentration camps. The dependent states were required to supply Napoleon with money and soldiers. These monies defrayed the expense of maintaining Napoleon’s military machine, so taxes in France itself were kept low.


Trade War with England: The Continental System


The British who had won out in the 18th century struggle for overseas wealth and empire were disliked in most of Europe. British war vessels held it to be their right to stop neutral vessels anywhere on the high seas, inspect their cargoes and confiscate ‘contraband’. England was denounced as a ruthless mercantile power exploiting a monopoly on exported shipments into Europe. Napoleon called England a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ and sought to starve the British economy by embargoing all import of British goods into Europe. To accomplish this goal, Europe would need to develop a self-sufficient economy. (Mercantilist economists argued that a country which produces all of its necessary goods would be the strongest. Adam Smith argued the opposite: he believed that a free market without restrictions on any trade should be allowed to determine prices.)


The British navy sought to prevent the import of any goods of military value into Europe, but they were eager to export products from the Americas into Europe: sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate, drugs, spices and dye stuffs. They also sought a market for the cotton cloth that had begun to spill from their new factories equipped with steam engines.


Napoleon’s Continental System proved to be very unpopular throughout Europe and ultimately proved impossible to enforce. Without railroads, which would not come along for another twenty to thirty years, Europe did not possess the infrastructure to maintain a blockade against all British goods. The British empire enabled their merchants to make up for the losses they experienced during the blockade by increasing trade with Latin America and the US.


The Invasion of Russia (1812)

  • December 1810: Russia formally withdraws from the Continental System, and Napoleon resolves to crush the tsar. He concentrates a Grand Army of more than 700,000 soldiers, the largest army ever assembled for a single military operation.
  • June 1812: Napoleon leads the Grand Army into Russia. The Russians under General Kutuzov refuse to meet Napoleon’s armies head on, instead engaging in hit and run tactics while retreating towards Moscow. They burn everything in their path leaving the invading army nothing with which to live off the land.
  • Napoleon finally engages the Russian Army at Borodino, and the Russians fight him to a stalemate before retreating. General Kutuzov chooses not to defend Moscow.
  • September 1812: Napoleon enters the city, and a week later the Russians burn it to the ground.
  • October 1812: Napoleon orders a retreat. The Russian winter sets in early, and the Grand Army is decimated by starvation, cold and harassment as they retreat to Europe. Of the 700,000 soldiers who entered Russia, 400,000 die and 100,00 were taken prisoner.
  • October 1813: After raising a new army, Napoleon is defeated again at Leipzig.
  • November 1813: Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister, offers Napoleon the chance to remain emperor and retain France’s original boundaries. Napoleon refuses.
  • March 1814: Russia, Prussia, England and Austria sign Treaty of Chaumont forming a quadruple alliance against France.
  • April 1814: Napoleon abdicates and is exiled to the island of Elba.
  • September 1814: The Great Powers meet at the Congress of Vienna to carve up the French empire and determine a way to prevent one country from ever dominating Europe again.
  • March 1, 1815: The 100 Days: Napoleon escapes from Elba, raises a new army and marches on Belgium. His army is defeated by Wellington in command of the allied armies at Waterloo.